The Ballpark as The Catalyst

Photo Credit: Marjorie Childress

April 4, 2012, Washington, DC: I love this photo my friend Marjorie took at what was then Pac Bell Park during a San Francisco Giants game back in 2003. I love how the light hits the grass, casting long shadows onto the field. I love how just out of frame, kayakers paddled behind our seats in the outfield, hoping to pluck a home run ball out of McCovey Cove. In that moment, as the sign there says, there was no place else I could imagine I’d rather be.

But can ballparks evoke that feeling from enough people to help jumpstart a neighborhood? With the Wrigleys and the Fenways wedged tightly into well-established neighborhoods now the rarity, can newer, bigger ballparks in different areas of their cities help revitalize their surroundings? Last night after work, I biked down to Nationals Park, a mile from home, to take a look.

By the time I arrived at the ballpark, an afternoon exhibition game between the Nationals and the Red Sox was well underway and all tied up heading into the 9th inning. The streets of this neighborhood called Navy Yard were more crowded than I’d seen them all winter. Bicycle taxis pedaled down Half St. offering rides.

In the massive vacant lot across the street, at the heart of this neighborhood still under construction, I wandered through an area newly dubbed the Fairgrounds, where food trucks and beer vendors and musicians on stage had sprung up surrounded by shipping containers. The shipping containers will house pop-up shops here as the regular season gets underway next Thursday. Using shipping containers as the solution for temporary retail here by the waterfront strikes me as a perfect solution.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a front page feature on the promise of this team and the promise of this neighborhood. It’s taken some time, but could this be the year? Could the vitality of this neighborhood, at least in part, revolve around home plate? Did a ballpark serve as a successful catalyst in San Francisco? In San Diego? What about Baltimore’s Camden Yards?

A winning team would certainly help. Three months after the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series, I drove by the new Busch Stadium on a visit to my former hometown. On a winter morning, the area was quiet, but the energy of a winning team was pervasive. When the Cardinals play their first home game here next Friday, they’ll appear before fans still buoyed by their October win, expecting the best of their hometown team.

Around Nationals Park, there is no place to go but up. I look forward to being here for the rise.

Do you think places like ballparks have the ability to anchor and jumpstart an area of town? Are there places it has worked and others where it hasn’t? Do you live in a neighborhood that’s been transformed by a ballpark? What’s been the experience in your city?

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