It’s said you can tell what a society values by ts skylines. Through much of history, the steeple of the local church pricked the sky high above any other edifice, giving testament to the role of faith in the lives of the people. So, too, did the imposing castles of kings and their feudal lords speak power to the peasants who toiled in their service. Then, with the arrival of the American experiment in self-rule we began to see the majestic state capitals rising as cathedrals of civic pride. And with the coming of the industrial age and its vast commercial fortunes, towers of brick, then glass and steel sprang up in urban centers, bearing witness to the rank that commerce now held in modern society. To witness the order in one place, visit Salt Lake City, Utah where the sacred, the secular, and the governmental stand in close ordered ranks beside one another.
Today, it’s cathedrals of sport that burst with devotion, even as the teams are comprised of free agents selling their talents to the highest bidder.
While the Coliseum in Rome still stands some 2000 years after its erection, modern-day stadia seem to come and go like castles of sand. Remember the Astrodome in Houston, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world? Construction began in 1962, and it officially opened in 1965, home to the Houston Astros until 1999, and to the NFL Houston Oilers from 1968 until 1996. But by the 1990s, the Astrodome was considered past its prime. Today, NRG Stadium is the major stadium in Houston while the Astrodome was mothballed onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. The same out with the relatively old, in with the brand spanking new can be seen with ballparks in Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis, San Francisco, and San Diego among others.
These days up to $2 billion is spent to erect houses for games, even as the infrastructure of our cities – roads, bridges, schools, tunnels, and airports – continues to crumble because of lack of funding. We have indeed become a society with its priorities turned upside down.
In Eugene, Oregon, the debate over the future of historic Hayward Field has been completed, and it’s out with the old, in with the new. While there was a compelling argument to be made for a new stadium – not to mention private funding – there remained a measure of how and why that still lingered, most notably by a group of concerned local citizens hoping to preserve a renovated Hayward Field for future generations.
The argument for a new construction centered on the requirement for a larger venue to host the 2021 IAAF World Track & Field Championships. But just as there was a movement that sought to bring the Olympic Games to Boston for 2024, which ultimately fell apart because, please, Boston can’t even get a normal day’s business travel in and out of town easily, how the eff were they ever going to dump an Olympics into that twisting maze of a 300 year-old city?
So does Eugene have a small, college town feel to it exemplified by its unique little bandbox of a track stadium. Over many NCAA, USATF Championships and six Olympic Trials, the place has taken on its patina, fit serenely within the confines of the U. of O. campus.
When the Boston Red Sox went up for sale in the early 2000s, there was a move afoot to replace historic Fenway Park with a new stadium that had luxury boxes, brand new clubhouses, and the amenities that are state-of-the-art all over Major League Baseball. But what those sparkling new facilities don’t have is the power of imagination that animates every visit to Fenway and Hayward Field. And Boston’s new TD Garden, home of the NBA Celtics and NHL Bruins, is a wonderful facility, but it doesn’t bring people into communion with history like the old Boston Garden did, regardless of its obstructed sight-lines and ratty old facilities. Fortunately, the men who took control of the Red Sox decided against building a new park and instead renovated Fenway as best they could.
The plan in Eugene is to disassemble the historic lumberyard and erect a modern stadium in its place, one large enough to hold 30,000 spectators for the World Championships. But there are those who wonder if the tradeoff is worth the price. Like Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, like Bislett Stadium in Oslo and the 1912 Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, there are venues that transcend the comforts of modernity, that hold history close, and bridge generations in a way that something new never can.
It’s been said that only fools and fabulists fail to understand that time marches on. But you can’t design tradition into blueprints. Eugene has something very rare right now, something that took nearly a century to create, something that a modern facility for all its upgrades can’t duplicate, regardless of the price or the prize that a new construction will bring with it.