Most construction projects don't attract spectators. Not many
people like to spend their free hours watching the slow movement of
bulldozers, cranes, earthmovers, and cement mixers working on a
building that is years away from completion. But that's not true at
River Avenue and 162nd Street in the Bronx, where spectators dawdle
to observe the work in progress morning, noon, and night.
It's not every day that New York City gets a new ballpark, and the
diamond emerging from this empty lot won't be just any sports
arena. It will be the new Yankee Stadium, replacing its next-door
neighbor, a sports shrine built in 1923 that has been the showcase
for the unforgettable exploits of men named Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio,
Mantle, Jackson, and Jeter.
It is hard to overestimate what the new construction means for the
Bronx, a down-and-out borough for decades but which has in recent
years showed marked signs of resurgence. The decision of Yankees
owner George Steinbrenner to stay in the Bronx rather than move to
a newer, greener pasture in Manhattan or New Jersey means the Bronx
Bombers will stay put for another half century or more. City
officials and local residents believe the gargantuan investment -
estimated at $1.2 billion - will spur housing redevelopments and
the creation of jobs and retail businesses.
"Ten years from now, it's going to be beautiful here," says Lon
Wilson, a lifelong resident and racewalking coach who likes to
spend some of his free time watching the construction teams and
taking pictures of the progress. "They say in the plans that we're
going to get a new stadium, a 10-story hotel, new stores, a Target,
a new train station. We're going to have concerts again in the
neighborhood, like in the old days when I saw James Brown and the
Isley Brothers at the stadium. The whole area will be rejuvenated.
I'm a homeowner; I should reap the benefits. If the Yankees were to
leave, the whole area would depreciate."
This scene is being repeated across town, where the New York Mets
are building a newer, better ballpark to replace Shea Stadium, a
generally unloved park that opened in 1964 next to the New York
World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. The new stadium - now
called Citi Field - is being more closely integrated into the
cityscape than was Shea, which is isolated from city streets and
surrounded by acres of parking lots.
It has been almost 50 years since New York City got a new
major-league ballpark, and during that time, it lost both Ebbets
Field and the Polo Grounds. Now it is getting two brand-new
stadiums, both set to open in 2009 as potent symbols of the city's
impressive recovery from the economic shocks that began in 2001.
The huge construction projects, funded largely by the teams, not
the public coffers, offer city planners a rare opportunity to use
private investment to improve needy neighborhoods in the Bronx and
in Queens, boroughs that are often out of the limelight because of
the intense focus on Manhattan.