BILL JAMES ONLINE

Infra Dig

January 7, 2019

Reading through old "Hey Bill"s, I found one from 2015 that sparked an issue both in the dead-and-buried past and front-and-center in my life right now: on 11/4/2015, Bill answered a question from "ZachSmith" about declining attendance in part by observing that, in the 1950s-1960s era,

 

…a lot of teams were in areas that were originally designed to be accessed by public transportation, but the public had moved to the suburbs, public transportation was in disarray and in many cases no longer existed, and the infrastructure to get people TO the game was inadequate. Walter O'Malley appears to have been the only person in New York City in 1955 who understood the problem and intended to get ahead of it--and he was crucified for it. O'Malley told the New York City fathers that he HAD TO HAVE better parking and public access to his park, and they told him he was crazy and selfish and there was nothing he could do about it anyway so quit ya bitchin'. So you had two things: new teams without a mature fan base, and old teams playing in 50-year-old parks in areas in need of renovation.  

 

I don’t want to re-open the broader issue of whether O’Malley was more fiendishly evil than Hitler and Stalin or merely comparable to them, because there are already plenty of websites devoted to measuring O’Malley’s precise degree of evil, down to the last micron, websites which also conveniently calibrate the level of hell suitable for O’Malley’s counterpart, Robert Moses, and other New York City fathers, mothers, bastard children, miscreants, and visionaries. Of course, there are also fierce advocates complaining how each of these evil creatures is actually a terribly maligned champion of righteousness—websites, books, loads of newsprint, entire lives have been devoted to each argument, which I don’t wish to revisit. But Bill lumped together two topics—O’Malley’s demand for "better parking" and his demand for better "public access" to his ballpark--  that are separate and almost contradictory. Building better parking near Ebbets Field would have been like smearing salve on a torn ACL. But "public access" is the issue that, if O’Malley had really made a case for it and the city would have actually heeded his pleas, would have addressed the fundamental problem in a visionary way.

 

First off, a recap of the geography involved, for those unfamiliar with Brooklyn in general, and the Ebbets Field area in particular. O’Malley’s thinking, as far as we understand it at this point, is fundamentally muddled on his projected new ballpark’s location: he insisted that the Dodgers MUST stay in Brooklyn, physically, which is why O’Malley flatly rejected the suggestion that they might play a few miles into Queens, Brooklyn’s contiguous neighboring borough, at a site somewhere around the present Citifield, but he also resisted moving the ballpark into the parts of Brooklyn, further from Manhattan, that had sites suitable for large-scale construction. (When I was maybe 8 years old, making this 1961, I would hike all around Brooklyn and I remember coming across entire blocks of vacant lots, on one of which my eventual Junior High school would be built. It looked like a wilderness to me.) The parts of Brooklyn that O’Malley deemed acceptable, in other words, were already densely developed, and the undeveloped parts were unacceptable to him. By 1955, parking and traffic were already issues that weren’t going to get much better, then or ever. It’s always possible, of course, to build some parking lots, but not enough to solve O’Malley’s problems. There’s a low practical limit to the number of cars that can be driven through and parked in an urban area. The primary geographic problem wasn’t that the area around Ebbets Field was already highly developed, but what it was highly developed WITH.

 

As a small boy, I would go on long walks with my dad on Saturdays, and one of the places I loved going to with him was the Prospect Park Zoo, located across Flatbush Avenue from Ebbets Field.  It was, naturally, located within Prospect Park itself, the main park of Brooklyn, and obviously unsuitable to build parking lots on. Between Ebbets Field and the Park was Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, another hands-off site, and all the way at the end of the block was the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and Grand Army Plaza, a gigantic arch commemorating the end of the Civil War, both magnificent structures of historical importance, while just down Eastern Parkway from Grand Army Plaza was (and is—I don’t know why I’m describing all these still-standing edifices in the past tense) the Brooklyn Museum. Ebbets Field, in other words, was located in a neighborhood that was not only highly developed but developed with permanent cultural institutions that meant almost as much to Brooklynites as the Dodgers did, which is saying something both hyperbolic and true.

 

Now, I’m describing the parts of Brooklyn on the northern and western side of Ebbets Field. What about the southern and eastern direction, particularly the neighborhood known as Crown Heights, a residential area? The blocks surrounding Ebbets Field were largely occupied by apartment buildings, with lower-middle-class residents in them in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m sure the city could have condemned or otherwise claimed a block or two in Crown Heights and built a multi-level parking garage on the site. There would have been a stink, but it could have been done.

 

In fact, since what O’Malley wanted (or claimed he wanted) was a brand-new ballpark, I’m sure he could have arranged for the city to condemn a couple of blocks in Crown Heights and build a ballpark on it, and then knock down Ebbets Field to build parking on that site. That’s what was done with Shea and Yankee stadiums in the 21st century, and it could have been done in Brooklyn. (This is postponing the question of who would pay for the new structures, the city or O’Malley, another disputatious subject I’m sidestepping for the moment.)  So, say you’ve got a spanking-new ballpark along Empire Boulevard with ample parking right behind it by, oh say, 1959 or so. Problem solved, right? Disaster averted?

 

I don’t think so.

 

The real problem is that Ebbets Field sits in a densely populated area (on two sides) with major cultural, recreational and tourist attractions (the Park and the Zoo and the Botanic Gardens and the Library and the Museum) on the other two sides. There isn’t a major highway within miles of the area, and it’s very hard to imagine how there could ever be. There are basically hundreds of streets—some wide, like Flatbush Avenue or Empire Boulevard or Eastern Parkway, but mostly one-way streets in residential areas. Street parking is a nightmare, as it is throughout New York City (a little less nightmarish as you get to the extreme outer boroughs), and the traffic patterns range from "heavily congested" to "moving nowhere" on an average day. On a game day, every street would be completely clogged with cars, so even if you somehow constructed adequate parking for several thousand cars, they’d still have to inch through intolerable traffic to get there and to get out after the game.

 

There’s just no way for O’Malley to have his new ballpark constructed on or near the Ebbets Field site—or anywhere closer to Manhattan—and still have access to it by car. So the true killer problem is New York City’s public transportation system, the subways.

 

There is a subway stop near Ebbets Field—the Prospect Park stop on the old D line, I believe, a small local subway station—but even if a new site were found to build a ballpark on, the problem with the subways themselves would remain..

 

(Interlude—I wrote a novel once, about the Dodgers returning to Brooklyn, set in the summer of 1968, where I posited a new ballpark being built at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, precisely where the Barclay Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, sits now, a logical site, since directly underneath the Barclay Center is a huge hub of several subway lines all coming together plus the Long Island Rail Road, which extend the full length of Long Island, a few hundred miles. I got that idea from O’Malley supposedly considering that as a site for his dreamy domed new Stadium at the city’s expense.  But even if O’Malley were to accept, and the city agree to build, a new ballpark in the late 1950s at that site, we’d still have the issue I’m saying remains a fatal barrier: the condition of the subways themselves.)

 

What O’Malley didn’t realize he was really complaining about was the city’s entire infrastructure. For those unacquainted with the history of NYC’s subways, I’ll encapsulate it for you:  shortly after the turn of the century, three companies (two private, abbreviated as the IRT and BMT, and one city-owned, the IND) competed by building elevated and underground railroads for commuters throughout the city. Before World War II these competitors had all merged under the aegis of the city (and the state, which I’ll get into in a bit) and become a public utility. By the time they merged, the city’s growth had precluded building or extending most subway lines. At least, building more subways had become difficult because the subterranean parts of the city had become crowded with sewer systems, gas mains, electrical wiring, extensive basements and foundations, etc.  It wasn’t a matter anymore of just saying "We’d like a new subway line to run THERE!" because "THERE" was already fully occupied. (And building new elevated lines had gone the way of the Stegosaurus—the noise, the shading, the weather issues, the lower property values had all spoken very loudly against elevated lines, almost from the moment they were built. Various elevated lines were torn down, by popular demand, mere decades after they were constructed: the Sixth Avenue El, the Ninth Avenue El.)  So we got stuck with a subway system built to accommodate the city of 1910, when there were still horse-drawn carriages on the streets of Brooklyn. (As a small child, when I would get underfoot in my mom’s kitchen, she would sometimes snap at me "Yer like horseshit, yer everywhere!" which I found puzzling, in part because I wasn’t used to my mom comparing me to a pile of horseshit, but in larger part because by the mid-1950s, horseshit was hardly anywhere in Brooklyn’s streets. My mom was born in 1916. Maybe my earliest memory.)

 

In the second half of the twentieth century, which is where O’Malley and Dodgers had come into  (and gone from) the picture, NYC went through several financial crises, particularly in the 1970s ("FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD"), but more generally, even routine maintenance, upgrading, repairs, etc. got badly neglected for decade after decade. It didn’t help that the merged subways were  now run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which was created as a NY State- and NY City-run entity, meaning that the funding issues were in large part under the control of people from upstate New York and Long Island, who naturally placed a very low priority on funding a subway system that they never used themselves. In short, we got stuck with an obsolete subway system that wasn’t close to being maintained adequately.

 

Being New Yorkers, we put up with it, and we bitched about it. But nothing happened. The subways got worse, and the complaining got louder, and the MTA said, "Man, them city folks sure like to hear the sound of their own obnoxious voices, don’t they?"

 

One of the more radical, yet in retrospect very sensible, ideas came from a fellow running for NYC’s mayor in 1969, who made his name in the arts rather than politics: Norman Mailer, who proposed that the subways become free. The MTA was hellbent on raising fares, which were 15 cents when I first used them as a child in the 1950s and had risen, I think, at least ten-fold by the early 1970s. (By next year, they’ll be around twenty-fold. Rather than food, shelter, and clothing, the three basic commodities of my early years were subway fare, pizza slices, and comic books, which have tracked each other’s price rather closely over my lifetime.)  I doubt that Mailer, in the very unlikely event he’d gotten himself elected in 1969, would have had a lot of success in convincing the MTA to embrace his plan, but it is a radical idea in the true sense of the word: it gets to the root of the issue. What are the subways FOR?  They’re to compensate for the simple fact that in a highly urbanized environment, with people densely packed into small apartments piled on top of each other, twenty or forty stories up and stretching for blocks in every direction, they need a way to navigate their city.

 

Manhattanites, living in the most densely packed part of NYC, simply abandoned the idea of owning private cars. I actually owned one when I lived on the Upper West Side on two separate occasions, in the late 1970s (Volvo) and again in the 1990s (Toyota), but it was a comically time-consuming job to find parking for my car on the city streets, which on both occasions I resolved finally by moving out of Manhattan. My latest girlfriend, on the other hand, owns her own brownstone in the West Village and is easily able to afford a private garage for her car, which costs about as much per month as some of us pay in rent or mortgage. Well-off New Yorkers have been able all along to join in upstate’s neglect for the subway system, since they mostly rely on cabs or their conveniently garaged cars to get around. Middle-class New Yorkers like me, or people much less well-off than a college professor, need a working subway system to get to and from our jobs, run errands, and simply get from Point A to Point B—the city’s a big place, and we need to get around in it. That’s what the subway is for.

 

But New Yorkers put up with all sorts of indignities that most normal people consider unacceptable. I won’t go into all the reasons I think we do (some are quite irrational) but we do: noise, crowding, mistrust of our neighbors, petty theft, insane rents, rudeness, ubiquitous cockroaches and other vermin, long lines, filth, no public restrooms—I could go on and on with all the things New Yorkers tolerate routinely that no sane person in large parts of the country would put up with for two seconds.  In fact, another 2015 exchange from "Hey Bill" illustrates exactly what I mean: Dave Fleming asked Bill what he saw as the big distinctions between Boston and Lawrence, and Bill answered (on 11/19/2015)

 

Well, you know. . . I love Boston; Boston's great. The biggest thing is the loss of your time to get anywhere. Other things that you notice quickly are noise pollution, and a sense of being unclean. If your cat gets sick, it's 100% more difficult to get into and out of the vet's office in Boston than it is out here. There's more paperwork, it's more expensive, harder to schedule, and you usually have to listen to some insipid lecture about how you are getting world-class service. Everything is harder in Boston; shopping for groceries is harder. But Boston has a lot to offer, obviously, and it's a lot easier to get into and out of the airport. I used to have a letterhead that said "Come to Kansas You Can Park Anywhere."

 

Without, I hope, sounding too obnoxiously like a New York braggart here, Boston ain’t shit compared to NYC. (Notice how I’m bragging about NYC’s excellence in something terrible that Bostonians tolerate.) I used to live in Boston (in grad school), made some close friends to this day, and my youngest daughter lives there now, so I’ve spent plenty of time there starting in the late 1970s. Boston is a small, almost quaint, town compared to NYC—everything Bill says about it is true, but the SAT-type of analogy I’d draw in terms of noise, inconvenience, parking difficulties, etc. is "NYC: Boston::Boston: Lawrence." The things Bill complains about are absolutely true, but they’re exponentially worse in NYC. I kept a car in Boston (Brighton, a Boston neighborhood) and I never gave a thought to finding convenient street parking. I just parked right in front of the house I was renting.

 

For one thing, in terms of sheer size and sheer population, Boston is so much smaller than NYC. I could walk from my apartment in Brighton into BU, if I wanted to or if I was hard up for bus fare. It was a long walk, but very doable. I’ve never even considered walking from my place in the middle of Queens to my job in lower Manhattan, and I think the two distances I’m talking about here are roughly analogous, given the relative sizes of NYC and Boston. Brighton was about two miles, I’d say, to BU, so it wasn’t a bad walk, but the distance from Queens to my job is probably longer than the entire city of Boston. I can’t tell you exactly how far it is, or how long it is exactly, because I’ve never, even for a crazy second, thought about doing that walk. Probably take me three to five hours.

 

Actually, Fenway is pretty analogous to Ebbets Field—they were built about the same time, each on an already existing city block, and the surrounding inner-city neighborhood very soon became far too congested to allow easy driving, or easy parking--and even public transit soon became iffy. (Fenway is a few blocks from the Kenmore Square Green Line stop, about as far as Ebbets was from the nearest subway stop.) The chief difference, I think, lies in Boston’s walkability. I studied and taught at BU, which is a few blocks away from Fenway, but if I had to get in to Fenway from Brighton on a game day, and didn’t want to travel on the bus or on the T, I could have driven halfway, parked my car on the street, and walked the remaining mile, or just walked the entire way. No biggie. So could most Boston fans, very few of whom drive up to the scant (and pricey) parking around Fenway. But Brooklyn by itself is much larger than the entire city of Boston.  I grew up near Coney Island, all the way at Brooklyn’s southern shore, and walking to or near Ebbets was OOTFQ—out of the question. Even taking the subway there was difficult, in part because the subway wasn’t designed as a system, but rather as three separate, competitive businesses—the B train that ran near my house didn’t go anywhere near the Ebbets Field D stop, and it didn’t connect easily to any line that did, so getting there by subway was complicated and, depending on where you lived in Brooklyn, close to impossible. If you lived outside of Brooklyn, it could be literally impossible in less than two hours, and O’Malley was complaining about how Ebbets Field did not allow him to serve his fan base, which had largely left Brooklyn.

 

Let’s review the fan-base issue, for a moment, in stark terms: the underlying problem with Ebbets Field was racism. The area around Ebbets Field, populated by white working class folks before World War II was beginning to turn into a black neighborhood. I had friends—members of the first rock and roll band I played in—who all lived on Empire Boulevard, a few blocks down from the Ebbets Field apartments, and my parents forbade me to travel to such a dangerous neighborhood when I was about 14 or 15 (making this 1967 and 1968). That, of course, became the basis for my teenaged defiance of their ban—Forbid me to see my friends? Forbid me to play rock music? No way—but I was still aware that my parents weren’t entirely wrong about something: the neighborhood was a little run down, its streets were a little scary, and my (white) friends, whose families had lived in Crown Heights for a few generations, were given to making racist remarks about the black folks they lived in close proximity with, which didn’t fit with their otherwise enlightened views about music, politics, lifestyles, drugs, sex, etc., nor with my other friends from whiter neighborhoods. In mixed neighborhoods like Crown Heights that were changing from mostly white to mostly black, there was a lot of racial tension and that tension was what O’Malley was really concerned about. His desired fan base was expanding to the suburbs, or to other parts of NYC that resembled suburbs in their whiteness, in their lesser density, in their available parking. (Crown Heights was mostly apartment buildings, Bensonhurst, where I lived, was mostly private, or two-family, houses with detached garages.) O’Malley’s problem was that he wanted a new state-of-the-art ballpark (and wanted the City to pay for it—shades of Donald Trump and Mexico!) located roughly where Ebbets Field stood, but he also wanted the dispersing (white) fans of the Dodgers to be able to attend the games.

 

His problem was irresolvable. Something had to give: O’Malley had to market to black folks, or he had to find a way to allow thousands of cars to flood (for a few hours) into an area already jammed with cars, or he had to find a way for the subway to bring people into and out of the area quickly, safely, and comfortably.

 

The first two were practicable on a small scale: I’m sure he could have found a way to make baseball more attractive to black fans living in the neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown Brooklyn, but there was a limit to what most people living in that nabe could afford  (seasons tickets were obviously OOTFQ), and there were always ways to construct a few small parking lots in the downtown blocks, but both of these solutions still left O’Malley with the nut of his problem. He needed a much more efficient transit system than he had. Not just fixing up the local station—the entire subway system stretching all across NYC.

 

Looking back, it seems that New York City was in a position in those days to recognize its problem: its infrastructure was already badly outdated, and would grow critically more so over the decades to come, which is basically my lifetime. The problem could not, and cannot, be solved by cars, but O’Malley (and most Americans of the 1950s) felt that cars were the wave of the future, would only grow more ubiquitous with time, and would need therefore to be the major part of any long-term solution.

 

As far as NYC goes, this is totally wrong. In the 1910s, when Ebbets Field, Fenway Park, Wrigley and a bunch of other urban ballparks were constructed, this seemed totally right. Cars were the big new thing, they were a life-changing invention, they were literally the shiniest new objects around. Kids born around the turn of the century, like John O’Hara (1905) or my dad (1909), or F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896) were completely car-crazy, but even as cars improved technologically throughout the century, they developed serious downsides, and by this point, a century later, we are starting to see that privately owned cars are no longer necessities of life. Certainly we can envision how life can go on, and probably will, with a whole new model of car ownership: even if most of us won’t live to see it, it’s easy to imagine a country where most urban dwellers, and some suburban dwellers, will rely instead on self-driving vehicles that we summon electronically, that appear at our doors by the time we’ve got our shoes on and have locked the door behind us, with no worries about car repairs, keeping the gas tank filled, storing the car, paying for insurance, etc. The vision of a country with infinitely improved cars and infinitely expanded use of them, more and bigger roads, more private ownership is seriously outdated, certainly as relates to urban areas, and some suburban areas and, if we look far enough into the future, even some rural areas. Cars are a thing of the past; we just happen right now to be living in the final stages of the past.

 

I’ve heard it said recently that the next car you buy, and maybe the last car you bought, will be the last car you ever buy. I’m on the fence myself—my current car (in Florida) will have its lease expire next summer. I’ll probably buy something to replace it, maybe the last car I’ll ever buy or lease, but I’m considering alternatives. The best alternative, for Walter O’Malley and the City of New York, would have been (from a Brooklyn Dodgers’ fan’s point of view) for the city (and the state) to grasp this concept very early on, and decide to rebuild the existing subways and modernize everything they could about them, creating new stations, making whatever new connections between IRT and IND and BMT lines that were possible (and some that they felt were totally impossible at first—you can do a lot of things you think are simply not possible if you also see that the alternative to not doing them is even worse. I don’t have a lot to say in praise of Andrew Cuomo, but this week the Governor announced that an alternative to shutting down an entire line of the subway system—the "L", not to be confused with the "El"—will be employed, after years of us hearing that there was no technological alternative to closing down the "L" line for years). You probably know that the name "Dodgers" itself is short for Trolley Dodgers, meaning that early 20th century Brooklyn was a mess of trolley lines running everywhere. I can still remember, personally, the last trolleys that ran in Brooklyn, past my dad’s candy store, not too far from Ebbets Field (other side of Prospect Park) in 1958. I was fascinated by the trolley cars, almost as fascinated as I was by the circular stool-seats that I could spin around dizzily in the candy store. The trolleys closely resembled, btw, those Green line cars that still go into the Kenmore Square station near Fenway; in a real sense, Boston’s "T" is partly a trolley line, partly a subway.  But they tore those tracks down, and by the early 1960s the only trace they left was in the ruts along the streets they used to run on. If instead of tearing down the trolley lines, Brooklyn would have found ways to bring them up to date, closing down some main roads entirely (and providing automobile cross-traffic ways to cross the trolley lines, either overhead or underneath them, allowing cars to get around), that would have kept the Dodgers in Brooklyn, and at the least destroyed one of O’Malley’s complaints about Ebbets Field.

 

I don’t believe that O’Malley actually wanted to remain in Brooklyn at all, and all his reasons were a batch of hooey, setting up impossible conditions for the city to meet. I also don’t believe that baseball expanding to the West Coast and elsewhere was a bad thing—on the contrary, it was beneficial and culturally necessary, so please don’t mistake this as some romantic call for the Dodgers never to have left my home borough. (The protagonist of my novel was, in my mind, a dreamy idealist trying to create a world that had already disappeared. I thought of him as embodying the more foolish, reactionary side of Jay Gatsby—"Can’t change the past? Of course you can" was his guiding principle and may have even been a line of Gatsby dialogue I tried attributing to him.) But if the city and the state could have seen far enough into the future, into 2018, they would have grasped that a commitment to massive infrastructure building was in their own self-interest, and that making that commitment (including building a Buckminster Fuller stadium of the future, complete with dome, on top of the LIRR, which was a negligible cost in the larger scheme of things)  would have made the city habitable for its residents. As a team-owner, O’Malley was a gigantic liar, arguing that he would stay in Brooklyn if the city gave him heaven and earth and gave him a few million dollars for his troubles besides, but as a visionary city planner, which O’Malley wasn’t for five minutes, he was proposing a plan that, if acted upon, would have made the city into a much higher quality place for people to live in.

 

As it stands, I’m leaving the city I have lived in for over 50 years (my first 26, then 14 years moving around the country, then the past 26 back in NYC) and if I must explain why in a sentence, I usually answer "The subways." (If I have two sentences, or feel talkative, I’ll add "the winters.") The real answer is that New York City’s appeal, for the last few decades, mostly involved my job being located there, but I must add that I’d be much more torn about leaving my hometown if the subways were a technological wonder, in a good sense. They are a technological wonder only in the sense that it’s a wonder that they operate at all, which in 2019 they barely do.

 

Breakdowns are routine, rerouted trains (to accommodate breakdowns or emergency repairs of an entire subway line) are common, major delays occur more than not. I can’t tell if my subway ride into work will take me 45 minutes (which is what it takes if things go smoothly) or 2 hours and 45 minutes, so the past few years I’ve tended to arrive a couple of hours early for most appointments because New Yorkers’ responses to the excuse of "The trains were delayed" is to roll their eyes and say "Welcome to New York." Even the people who don’t ride the subways themselves, like my girlfriend, get exasperated because other people (such as her employees) are frequently hours late to work—it’s just a part of life in the big city, and New York has always prided itself on promptness. Now, not so much.

 

Take a look at an app, "Subway Status," from the past 45 minutes as I write this, showing typical delays, reroutings. etc., on the NYC subway system at any given point in time:

 

Subway Status Delays Verified account  @SubwayStats

 2m2 minutes ago

Planned work reported on #Atrain #Ctrain and #Etrain [C] Service between W 4 St in Manhattan and Euclid Av in Brooklyn is replaced by [A] [E] [F] trains #MTA https://subwaystats.com

 

Subway Status Delays Verified account @SubwayStats

 27m27 minutes ago

#Btrain #Dtrain #Ftrain #Mtrain have planned work [F] Service between Bergen St and Stillwell Av in Brooklyn is replaced by [G] trains #NYCsubway https://subwaystats.com

 

Subway Status Delays Verified account @SubwayStats

 27m27 minutes ago

#Atrain #Ctrain and #Etrain have planned work [E] Trains run via the [F] in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge in Queens and W 4 St in Manhattan #NYC https://subwaystats.com

 

Subway Status Delays Verified account @SubwayStats

 42m42 minutes ago

#1train #2train and #3train have delays  #NYC https://subwaystats.com

 

Direct message

 

 

"Planned work" means anything from "the train you’re waiting for will never come" to "the train you’re waiting for will be seriously delayed."  Notices like "[E] trains run via the [F] in both directions" translate into "If you’re trying to get to 9th Avenue with a suitcase, now you’ll have to walk three long blocks from 6th Avenue instead of the one block from 8th you were planning on."  It’s great that now at least there’s an app to warn you in advance, of course, but there’s no effort being made to, you know, prevent such delays and rerouting, and it really doesn’t help you to plan if between the time you leave your house, having checked the app, and the time you arrive in the subway station, you discover "The trip you had been planning is no longer possible." I mean, this ongoing updated information just keeps announcing new delays, and it’s not as if they ever post notices like "[F] trains are back on route and schedule," so maybe something posted three hours ago is no longer true, or maybe it still is true.

 

The point here is that mass transit in NYC is highly unreliable and has been so for decades. And will be so for decades to come—current long-range planning is, as far as I can tell, to keep maintaining the system with spit and baling wire (almost literally) and stave off a total collapse for a few more years. (If you’re someone who visits NYC every few years, btw, and stays in a midtown Manhattan hotel, you’re probably ok. You can walk to many tourist attractions, a short cab-ride won’t break you, and for short trips with a family in tow, cabs are actually comparable in price to subway rides. Midtown subway stops are clustered pretty closely together, so if one line isn’t working, an alternate route is probably accessible. In the outer boroughs, where most of us live, these ameliorations don’t apply.) But at just about the point that the Dodgers and the Giants left the area, the one decision—to invest heavily in a modern transit system, and reduce, or eliminate, the cost—that would have solved the ballclubs’ issues also would have solved many of the city’s problems.

 

At this point, it may be too late to fix, or it may not. The one thing I’m absolutely sure is that the most clear-headed, far-seeing, imaginative, long-range solution, if it were funded tomorrow morning, won’t make the slightest difference any time during the rest of my lifetime. Indeed, any solution that will work almost certainly entails the system getting worse in the short term (as tunnels are widened, entire subway lines such as the "L" are shut down for years to install new signals, etc.)  So I’ve spent the past few winters mostly in Florida (I’ll have to tell you sometime how I’ve managed that trick while continuing to teach full-time in Manhattan) and I’m putting my NYC apartment up for sale later this year.  I’ll be getting out for good, in both senses of "good": at last and beneficially. I’ll miss it, but maybe when NYC gets its infrastructure together in a century or two, I’ll move back.

 

I thought the title to this piece, "Infra Dig," could be pretty punny, playing on "infra’’structure and the digging of new subway tunnels, though I didn’t really understand the phrase’s meaning. When I looked it up, I found it was more appropriate than I knew:

 

in·fra dig

adjective INFORMAL

beneath one; demeaning.

Infra dig is a shortened version of the Latin phrase infra dignitatem, meaning "beneath dignity."

 

"Beneath dignity" is a complaint about the subway system in New York that I implied at points above, but didn’t elaborate on. There is something unseemly about commuting to one’s work for over an hour twice each day while standing up amid one’s neighbors’ bodies pressed tightly together, in proximity that most people would find uncomfortable, unpleasant and intolerable for three or four minutes. Like I said, New Yorkers get accustomed to all sorts of indignities, just another price of living in the big city, but the gradual deterioration of the subways over decades has much worsened the problem of ridiculously crowded subway cars. For one thing, with the far more frequent breakdowns of the cars themselves, one boards trains that are filled with two or three missed subway trains’ worth of passengers. For another, the crowding used to be limited to rush hours—roughly 7 to 9 AM and 5 to 7 PM—but those became extended as well. In 2019, one sometimes gets on a train at 10 PM, or 5 AM, and finds that the anticipated pleasure of finding a subway seat has been denied. A subway car at any hour of the day or night at this point could well be packed to standing room and beyond. Not always, but often enough.

 

I’ve been lucky in this regard, or maybe just canny: I’ve been able to arrange flexible work hours, so I usually avoid the peak of rush hour subways, and, even better (because avoiding those peak times is no guarantee of a seat), I board my train at the starting point of each route I take. So I get on the "E" train going home from work underneath the World Trade Center, where it starts and where I can find a seat, and I go into work at the "R" train’s starting point, so I’m often sitting (and reading or working on my laptop) while all around me are hundreds of people trying to keep their balance as the train jerks to a sudden stop between stations, or speeds up suddenly, stepping on each others’ toes as people make their way through the crowd trying to push its way to the exit before the car doors close. I’ve written pieces that I won’t attempt to summarize about  the number of religious nuts screaming about salvation and would-be entertainers who compensate for their lack of talent by the volume of their attempts at singing (generally one of each per subway ride), all while their fellow passengers are just trying to stay standing by reaching for a piece of the nearest subway pole.

 

Contrast this with the commuting I’ve done when I lived outside of New York. I commuted by car, for example, to SUNY-Albany, where I taught before coming to Pace, and it was a half-hour on the New York State Thruway, sometimes jammed with cars, but at least I was seated, with the radio playing, and not subjected to raving lunatics screaming in my ear, or a homeless person stinking of encrusted vomit stretched out on the seat next to me. This is what I mean by "dignity," that most working stiffs across the U.S. enjoy to one degree or another, a fairly civilized commute with a modicum of control over their creature comforts, not a form of mild torture which New Yorkers endure daily because—well, I’m not quite sure. Because everyone else on the subway is no better than I am? Because it’s been like this for a long time? Because living in New York is a privilege that we must pay for, somehow? I’m not really sure.

 

What I am sure of, though, is that my future riding on the NYC subway is limited, perhaps to another two or three dozen rides, and then I’m done living in New York. Like Walter O’Malley, I don’t expect to regret leaving the city of my birth and of my upbringing, but the big picture here is both sad and serious. New York City has kicked the can of its infrastructure problem down a road that has long ago become a path and then a thin overgrown trail. Now the can is sitting at the base of a big cliff, with no place to kick it anymore.

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (28 Comments, most recent shown first)

steve161
The link works, by the way, but requires me to log in to Facebook. I will live in New York or Los Angeles before I become a member of Facebook.
4:18 PM Jan 11th
 
steve161
A million a year wouldn't do it. I'm very happy in Munich on a fraction of that. I don't even manage to spend all of my pension. Why would I need more?
4:16 PM Jan 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10214902800538464&set=a.1166652441419&type=3&eid=ARArJ_Ekxgc​OVUDRj-JhmhnlUAxtjxL8mFYKVWIYvF4oNlmNEUR16UICX0xcvahzyLXWCUX82nO9p4tk

If this works, this is a photo someone posted on FB today of a trolley car in Crown Heights in 1949. If it doesn't work, that's still what this is a photo of.
2:55 PM Jan 9th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, I think I could. Or if not me, someone could bribe you enough to live in NYC. How does a million per year, tax free, sound? That's my opening bid.

12:24 PM Jan 9th
 
steve161
The semantic problem is evidently less so than it was in the fifties. I can't imagine Brooklynites accepting a team in Queens. Or do you believe the Brooklyn Mets would not have been laughed out of the room? (The football teams are not really a counterexample. There are only eight home games a year and most people see them on TV.)

The same thing has happened in my (former) neck of the woods, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been generally greeted with ridicule. The Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles initially overreacted, until they realized that it ain't a threat if everybody's laughing at it. And now you will look in vain for a name or a city logo anywhere on an Angel uniform.

But maybe New Yorkers see things differently. My initial reaction, when I saw Citi Field with its Ebbets-like facade for the first time, was that they were trying to live in the past. (Los Angeles doesn't have a past, at least not that anybody remembers.) But I discovered that it's a very nice ballpark, once you get inside. And the fans seem to like the cheap nostalgia.

Having spent the last 40 years of my life in a city of 1.4 million that has all the cultural opportunities I could ask for, I now understand the perspective Bruce is talking about. And you couldn't pay me to ever live in New York or Los Angeles.
6:38 AM Jan 9th
 
evanecurb
I also liked your post about O'Malley's duplicity. Well stated and possibly right. We'll never know if O'Malley's efforts to stay in NYC were sincere. Just as Dr. Sullivan made the case that they were sincere, you make a strong case as to why they may not have been.
6:21 PM Jan 8th
 
evanecurb
Steven:

This was a wonderful article. I learned a lot about NYC that I never knew before. Like many people in the US, I've been to Manhattan a whole lot of times, but I've never been to Brooklyn at all. Not even once. I've always been interested in the subject of how things got the way they are, and your discussion of the subways in particular and transportation in general was very enlightening.

I found your discussion of New York vs. Boston to be both true (at least as far as I can tell) and enlightening. Those of us who live in medium (or small, depending on your frame of reference) cities tend to think of all big cities as big. But New York is much bigger, much more densely populated, than any other city I've been to.
6:16 PM Jan 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The problem with your analysis, Steve, is that Shea Stadium (and now Citifield) is accessible to cars (major highways all around, though there's still terrible traffic going to and coming from Mets games, as you well know) but it is on an LIRR line and a subway stop. I was going to mention how crowded that subway stop gets, but it's actually more capacious than the Prospect Park stop my article refers to. It's far from ideal, but much better than Ebbets field in almost any regard, and it does address the issues O'Malley was complaining about: the city paid for Shea's construction, I believe, it built a huge parking lot adjacent to it, it was located on major highways, it had access by subway line and LIRR--the only thing that was wrong with it from O'Malley's perspective that makes any sense is that it's in Queens, so how could the Brooklyn Dodgers possibly play there, a semantic problem that the New York Giants and the New York Jets have coped with just fine, despite having played in New Jersey for many decades now. It was also much more convenient for that fan base living on Long Island that O'Malley was supposedly desperate to attract to his ballpark. He was full of shit, is my conclusion, about trying to remain in NYC.
5:53 PM Jan 8th
 
steve161
So you're saying that John Rocker was right.

My reading, like Bruce's, suggests that O'Malley would have stayed in Brooklyn and built his own stadium if the city had provided the land, but Robert Moses wanted a stadium that was more easily accessible by car than by subway. Of course what LA gave O'Malley was s combination of both: they condemned the land on which he built his ballpark--which is only accessible by car.

The last time I was in New York, I discovered that the north-south avenues all have bus lines, which are much more pleasant than the subways. They're often a great deal slower, of course--but only if the subway line in question is actually running.

Great piece, Steven. I hope you like Florida. Me, I'd never live in anywhere that doesn't have an opera house and a symphony orchestra.
11:46 AM Jan 8th
 
KaiserD2
I too enjoyed the article, and particulary the statement, with which I totally agree, that O'Malley had no intention of remaining in NY. I do think, though, that this issue nearly always takes place in the absence of a truly critical issue that no one mentions.

Obviously the expansion to the West Coast, and particularly to the LA area, was a necessary, good idea. (San Francisco didn't really catch on to the same extent, of course, partly because of the disastrous construction of Candlestick, but that's another story.) But to expand to the west coast at the price of taking 2/3 of MLB's presence out of New York and the New York era was absolute lunacy. At that time this was still the single biggest market in the US and the media capital of the nation. The National League never should have allowed these moves. Those teams did need new ball parks, and with the proper will, they could have gotten them. The move of the Giants and Dodgers, in my opinion, was a huge factor in the decline of national interest in baseball for the next 12 years or so. The great pennant races between those teams (1962, 1965-6) would have gotten much more attention nationwide had they taken place in New York. LA and San Francisco should have either gotten expansion teams, or weaker existing franchises.

Even now I think it's a shame the New York area doesn't have three teams instead of two. But it will never happen now.

David Kaiser
Who has never lived in New York
7:48 AM Jan 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I’m both sympathetic and hostile to O’Malley. He certainly had every legal right to move the team to L.A., and he got a better deal from the fathers running LA than the mothers of NYC would have given him, so I don’t sympathize with Brooklyn Dodgers fans condemning O’Malley on a moral level. He was a businessman, and he did the right thing for his business. If he’s given option #1 which looks to make him $500,000 profit per year and option #2 which looks to net him $10 million per year, and option #2 is neither illegal or immoral, he simply must choose option #2. He went from struggling to keep the Dodgers profitable in Brooklyn, to making money (while winning pennants) in LA easily and plentifully.

Where I do condemn him is for his duplicity. I don’t think he was ever, not for a second, negotiating with the City of New York in good faith, and I don’t think the City was smart enough in its dealings with him. If they had said to O’Malley at the very start of his expressing discontent with Ebbets Field, “Look, we’ll commit to a huge, long-term investment in the subway system, and to building you a ballpark, with adjoining parking, that will mostly be paid for by public funding,” I don’t actually believe that O’Malley would ever have agreed.

But if he had agreed, it would have been because he saw it as option #3: to make a lot more money than option #1 (probably not quite as much as option #2) and be acclaimed a great hero, the man who kept the Dodgers in Brooklyn and forced the city to upgrade its deteriorating public transport system. It would have required great vision, great foresight, great patience, and a great attachment to the welfare of Brooklyn specifically, none of which a businessman should be required to have. But Moses (and Wagner, and others) were even more shortsighted than he was, so this discussion, as my former mother-in-law liked to say to close off discussions, is mute.

Anyone interested in Robert Moses simply must read Robert Caro’s biography of him, which he wrote before embarking on the massive LBJ biography still in progress that we discussed extensively on BJOL last year. Like LBJ, Moses was a willful genius whose accomplishments were great, and whose character was flawed almost to the point of inhumanity. Fascinating read.

7:14 AM Jan 8th
 
DavidTodd
one of my favourite articles
never been to New York, much of this detail is brand new to me
2:11 AM Jan 8th
 
MarisFan61
sorry, some jumbled prose there -- moved some stuff around and didn't do it well....
The beginning of that 2nd pgph is supposed to be:
One aspect that I thought I saw differently from what you're saying, although the time frame is a little different (you: mid to late '50's; me, circa early '60's) -- about the common thought on how the future of transportation was seen....
12:49 AM Jan 8th
 
MarisFan61
Love the article. It helps that I know all the places you're talking about, have spent a lot of time there too, but also that you've got a lot here about the NYC subways that I never knew, like about the history of the IRT, BMT, and IND, and much else about New York City.

One aspect that I thought I saw differently from what you're saying was the common thought, although the time frame is a little different (you: mid to late '50's; me, circa early '60's) -- re how the future of transportation was seen, and maybe this was just a very niche notion rather than anything widespread, but I did think it was the cognoscenti presumption: I didn't think cars were seen as the wave of the future. I thought cars were seen sort of how black-and-white TV's were perhaps seen -- a thing of the moment that was soon going to be superseded by something very different.

I read and heard all kinds of stuff about how within a couple of decades, we'd all have helicopter-like gizmos and we'd be landing them on roofs.

(I'm serious.)

I thought it was pretty much a given that that's where we were headed. Regarding O'Malley and baseball, I don't mean that this would have made for less of a problem in urban areas, just that I wouldn't have thought those people would have been basing any projections or concerns on "the car." Whether or not we were headed toward having own own helicopters, I would have figured they'd be thinking that just as so much else about our routines was in flux, transportation would be as well. I know that it hasn't turned out that way. Cars and traffic considerations (and subways and buses) are amazing similar to what they were 60 years ago.
12:46 AM Jan 8th
 
wdr1946
There were other factors: Robert Moses was the dictator of public building projects in NYC. He was an appointee of NY State, not NY City, and could not be dislodged or told what to do. He took an instantaneous dislike for O'Malley when they met, for reasons that are unclear, and wouldn't lift a finger to help. Secondly, Brooklyn is a borough, not a city, unlike every other place that had a major league team at the time. It has no Mayor or City Council, or a local elite of business and civic leaders who could get a new ball park- the big shots all lived in Manhattan. NYC's Mayor at the time, Robert Wagner, had been Borough President of Manhattan. Thirdly, unlike anywhere else, there is no unbuilt upon "edge of town" in Brooklyn, where a new stadium could be built on cheap land- every square inch had been built upon, except for some remote areas near Jamaica Bay beyond the subway. Finally, despite how we look at the historic "Boys of Summer" team, attendance at the Dodgers was, by our standards, woeful and falling- the Dodgers had an attendance of only 1,033,000 in 1955 when they won their only World Series. That is with a team with 5 or 6 Hall of Famers. O'Malley wondered what their attendance would be in 3 or 4 years when their players got old and they finished in seventh place- he had no other source of income and thought he would go bankrupt. The main villain, however, was Robert Moses, as historians have found- he appears to have been insane, on this and other matters, yet all-powerful.
12:43 AM Jan 8th
 
mallevsdei
I am a life-long Texan, long-time Bill James acolyte, and enthusiastic Steven Goldleaf-reader. This piece is certainly up to or even exceeds your usual high standard. There must be many others on this site who appreciate your pieces even if we are not New Yorkers or Bostonians.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on PBS which would seem to have been based on the Sullivan book (it was strongly anti-Moses and relatively easy on O'Malley as I recall.). And didn't O'Malley pay for Dodger Stadium even if LA gave him the land in Chavez Ravine?
2:39 PM Jan 7th
 
Jack
Steven, you're right on about Boston's walkability -- when I lived in Inman Square in Cambridge, I'd regularly walk home from Red Sox games, which took about an hour. Or I'd bicycle -- about ten minutes. (Boston is also extremely bikeable, in a way New York City probably will never be, at least for me -- its cow-path-based streets keep Boston drivers' speeds reasonable.)
1:42 PM Jan 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'd argue that it could support five or more teams, bearbyz. That was never the problem.

OwenH, thank you. When I write pieces like this, I often need to ask if my digressions onto non-baseball-related topics are causing waves of eyerolls across the site. I'm working on a long (600+ pp) book of memoirs, some of which have been published as discrete chapters, that touches on baseball in places, so I ask myself, "Hmmm, maybe this can be published on BJOL?" Glad to learn that some readers at least are open to that sort of thing: it's really been the bulk of my writing for the past few years.
11:39 AM Jan 7th
 
bearbyz
The problem with New York was it had three MLB teams and could only support two. Something had to give and it certainly wasn't the Yankees.
11:28 AM Jan 7th
 
OwenH
Wonderful, wonderful article Steven. I truly enjoyed reading it. Great to hear the historical perspective of a real New Yorker. And, like many of my favorite pieces of writing out there, it beautifully blended the history of the game I love with the larger history of society around it.
10:56 AM Jan 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
No, actually, evanecurb, you were correct: ONE terminus of the LIRR is underneath the Barclay center. The LIRR has numerous routes, most of which go into Manhattan, but some of them terminate in Brooklyn. I agree (and said so in the article) that the Dodgers and Giants going west was probably a good thing for baseball and the country, though I can imagine a fairer form of the expansion team system (which gave us a terrible Mets team and Colts .45 team) that could have worked as well with much less drama and trauma. If each NL team were able to protect, say, its 8 best players (rather than the 20 or so it was allowed to protect), you'd have had some pretty damned competitive teams in LA and SF.​
10:32 AM Jan 7th
 
evanecurb
Regarding the site mentioned in Sullivan's book: it must have been the site you talk about in the article (and, apparently, in your novel), at the current site of the Barclays' Center. That fits with what I remember about the book. It also fits with this "Wikipedia" article about a domed stadium proposed by O'Malley, to be designed by Buckminster Fuller. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposed_domed_Brooklyn_Dodgers_stadium​
10:21 AM Jan 7th
 
evanecurb
There's a new book out, published in November, by Lincoln Mitchell. It is titled "Baseball Goes West." I haven't read it yet. I heard Mitchell interviewed on a podcast. (can't remember which one; it was probably either "the Infinite Inning" or "this Week in Baseball History," as those are the two that I listen to most frequently). He came across as very credible but was very much in the camp that believed the Dodgers' move to LA was a good thing for baseball precisely because they were such a strong franchise.
10:08 AM Jan 7th
 
evanecurb
The book is still available on Amazon.com I think I bought it about ten years ago; it was still available in bookstores at that time.
10:01 AM Jan 7th
 
evanecurb
Correction: What I said about the "terminus of the LIRR" makes no sense. The LIRR goes from the Long Island suburbs to Manhattan. So the terminus isn't in Brooklyn. So I assume (I haven't read that book in years; this is from memory) that Mr. Sullivan said the site had easy access to the NYC subways and to the LIRR. I honestly don't recall. I do recall that Sullivan was firmly in the anti-Moses camp.
10:00 AM Jan 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, evancurb. I haven't read that book (it came out right after I finished writing my novel,and I was sick to death of researching the whole O'Malley saga).

Here's some interesting stuff about the whole Cuomo-L Line saga: secondavenuesagas.com/2019/01/07/cuomos-l-train-maneuvers-create-a-crisis-of-credibility/


9:30 AM Jan 7th
 
evanecurb
"The Dodgers Move West," published in 1987, was written by Neil J. Sullivan, a Professor of Public Administration at Baruch College. In that book, Mr. Sullivan asserts that O'Malley wanted to build a new ballpark with his own money, to be located in Brooklyn, within walking distance of the terminus of the Long Island RR. In order to accomplish this, he needed the City to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the various properties that were then located at the site. Moses refused to do so. He wanted the stadium to be located in Flushing, Queens.

The Dodgers and Giants move to the west coast was a huge success for the teams, the cities, and for baseball in general. If lesser teams had moved (e.g. expansion teams or losing teams), would they have experienced the same degree of success? I doubt it. And baseball would be the worse for it.


https://www.amazon.com/Dodgers-Move-West-Neil-Sullivan/dp/0195059220?SubscriptionId=AK​IAJ2F6RDUSIYCWQMFQ&tag=sa-sym-new-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0195059220<​/a>
9:25 AM Jan 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Rather than include this point in an article that is already way too long, I should note (briefly) that I find O'Malley's duplicity to lie (!) in his timetable. To be considered a reasonable negotiator, O'Malley would have to have been arguing that this large-scale improvement in subway facilities would have to take place over decades of hard, determined work on the city's part (and the MTA's and the governor's office, etc.) and that he would be determined, too, while being patient. A quick solution would have taken until the 1970s to get underway in a serious way, and O'Malley was never even considering that kind of long-term framework. He wanted a ballpark, with modern parking facilities, etc. and he wanted it NOW (by the early 1960s at the latest, probably underway by the mid to late 1950s), and that's just not the speed of government. O'Malley knew this perfectly well, which is where I find his "argument" disingenuous.
7:25 AM Jan 7th
 
 
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