News & Politics » Neighborhood News

The stadium game: who loses if the White Sox win?

by

comment

If all goes well, the planners say, in a year, maybe two, the bulldozers will come and level the old neighborhood.

By that time the residents, mostly working-class blacks, will have been "relocated." And then--hooray--the White Sox will stay in Chicago, playing baseball in a brand new $120 million stadium built at the public's expense on the land once known as South Armour Square.

That's the plan, anyway. Or at least that's what city and state officials--as well as, presumably, Sox general partners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn-- hope will happen. South Armour Square residents have a predictably different point of view. They don't want to lose their homes even if they give the Sox an excuse to ditch Chicago.

"This stadium deal is a land grab, that is all it is," says George Marshall, president of the South Armour Square Neighborhood Coalition. "And we aren't leaving easy. We're committed to this struggle to the end."

That's tough talk, but it's backed up by the coalition the residents have formed, the demands they've made (they want a percentage of any profits the White Sox make from the leasing of sky boxes), and the downtown lawyer they've hired to press their case.

But few observers believe the people in power are listening. For one thing, the White Sox pack a powerful punch of their own. We want a new stadium, they declare; renovating 78-year-old Comiskey Park won't do. We want somebody else to pay for it. We don't particularly care where it goes. It's not our problem if little people with their little homes get in the way. And, yes, one last thing: give us what we want, or we leave town--maybe as early as next year.

"The name of the game for the White Sox is to cut their stadium costs," says a real estate analyst for a local magazine who prefers to remain anonymous. "They do this by shopping their team around to other markets--Denver, Saint Petersburg, or any other wasteland that has no baseball team. They're trying to force a better deal from the city and state. It's brinkmanship; it happens all the time in real estate."

With all the power-play posturing, it's not surprising that the residents of South Armour Square get lost in the shuffle. But they're there, all right--a few hundred of them, at least--in a community tucked between a train viaduct on the west, the Dan Ryan expressway on the east, Comiskey Park on the north, and 39th Street on the south.

They live in two-flats and bungalows that are weather-beaten but generally well tended. (South Armour Square is by no means a slum.) Down the street is their church; across the way, their public school. This is where they raised their children and their grandchildren; some folks have lived here for more than 40 years.

"Our community is what's left over from when they built the Dan Ryan," says Gus Zimmerman, who is 80. "On the other side of that viaduct is Bridgeport. We don't have much to do with the people over there. We just live here, peacefully, never bothering nobody."

Just south of 39th Street is Wentworth Gardens, a 420-unit low-rise CHA complex. The city has assured tenants they will not be displaced, so the main struggle belongs to the homeowners, whose property the city wants to buy. Going strictly by the book, the appraisals should start at about $50,000.

"Whatever they [appraisers] say, I won't believe them," says Zimmerman. "You can't put a value on my home. You just don't take away a man's home and give him a check."

"I, personally, feel the concerns of the residents are valid," says Tim Romani, deputy director of the Illinois Sports Facility Authority, the seven-member panel appointed by the late Mayor Harold Washington and Governor James Thompson to oversee construction of the new stadium. "We have placed a high priority on an avoidance of the disruption of their lives. If a stadium is built, we will do everything we can to find them new housing."

But similar remarks, uttered by Peter Bynoe, the authority's executive director, sparked derisive jeers from residents attending a recent meeting. Apparently few, if any, residents believe the authority.

"Everyone's so worried about the White Sox leaving Chicago," says Susie Myers, another longtime resident. "But no one cares nothing about us."

Sure enough, no powerful institution, newspaper, or bloc of politicians champions the residents' cause. Their own lawyer, Mary Milano, admits that at the moment they're up against the wall.

"As I understand it, the stadium authority has 'quick take' powers," says Milano. "That means that the authority can condemn the property, take it over, and settle on a payment sometime later in court. I guess they're going to find a solution to the problem and then tell the people what it is. Someone referred to it as the township solution: like in South Africa, they take blacks and just put them somewhere."

There is one group that openly sympathizes with the residents. Called Save Our Sox, they are a loosely knit band of about 40 Comiskey Park loyalists. Their main hope is that the Sox will remain in a renovated Comiskey Park,

"I have this fear that we're losing things," says John Aranza, a Bridgeport native, who helped found the group. "We're losing landmarks, we're just letting things go. It sounds schmaltzy, but I think we're moving too fast. Can't we just hold on to something we have? Do we just have to knock things over?"

The whole struggle boils down to one tough decision for city and state politicians: are the residents of South Armour Square or the White Sox more important to the city as a whole? This is not, of course, the first time that the interests of local residents have collided with what politicians and planners call the larger needs of the city. The classic case occurred in the 1960s, when city officials turned a deaf ear to the howls of west-side residents and demolished much of Little Italy to make way for the University of Illinois' Chicago campus.

At least in that case, Mayor Richard Daley effectively argued that the city needed a major university for its students who could not afford out-of-town tuition and expenses. But so far no one has offered a clear, unbiased, and objective explanation as to how a new stadium would benefit the city or even the White Sox.

"Sometimes I think we just can't win," says Newton Suwe, a member of Save Our Sox. "I love Comiskey Park, and I want it to stay there. But the one thing worse than the Sox without Comiskey would be Chicago without the White Sox. And I get the feeling that Saint Petersburg really wants them."

He's not kidding. So desperately does Saint Petersburg--a city of about 240,000 in southern Florida--want to lure the White Sox (or any big-league franchise, for that matter) that they are building a brand-new stadium. They have, reportedly, offered the Sox a rent-free lease, which guarantees the team will share the rapidly expanding market with no other ball club.

However, the offer may not really smell so sweet. The new stadium in Saint Petersburg will be domed. And fans, history proves, disdain indoor baseball. Look at the attendance records of any city with a domed stadium--Seattle, Houston, Montreal, or even Minneapolis--and the facts are the same. Turnout is dismal unless the team is red-hot (an unlikely event given the history of the Sox).

Maybe at first, Saint Petersburgers (or whatever they call themselves) will buy tickets to watch the Sox. But once the novelty diminishes, why would they bother? What allegiance do they have to players in Sox uniforms? What connection will they have to the exciting Sox teams of the past? Most important, who in his or her right mind would pay good money to sit inside a stuffy stadium and watch a lousy team flounder?

On the other hand, the White Sox have a large following of loyalists right here in Chicago. Win or lose (and mostly lose), over the past few years, the Sox have averaged about 1.3 million fans a season. On top of it all, Chicago is the country's third biggest media market. It seems like madness to chuck this all away because some yahoos in Florida are building a domed stadium.

"You come to Comiskey because you like tradition. You come to Comiskey because your father did, and his father did," says Aranza. "I think back to all the times I've been there. I remember my favorite teams. Every fan has his favorite team. If you go to the game and the Sox are losing, you can still get into a great discussion about whether the Dick Allen team was better than the Hit Men Wonders of '77. In the day, you can enjoy the sun; at night, you got the breeze. Comiskey Park has got so much class--it's got great tradition."

Apparently, the Sox have decided that they need newness and novelty, not tradition, to remain a vibrant force in Chicago. In short, they need a modern stadium (like Kansas City's, if we're really lucky) with a huge parking lot close by, so no fan walks more than five or ten minutes from car to seat, and without pillars that block the view.

Of course, no one knows exactly what the White Sox are thinking because at the moment their official response to questions about the stadium is, as club spokesman Howard Pizer puts it: "No comment." (Although every now and then, a whine from Reinsdorf emerges in the Chicago Sun-Times--he wants to stay, but "politics" may force him to leave.)

One fact is certain: the move for a new stadium goes back at least two years to when Reinsdorf announced that Comiskey Park was beyond renovation. Quite simply, he said, the park was failing--according to an engineering study he has never produced. Think of Comiskey as an old car, Sox officials said: fix one part today, and you'll only have to replace another one tomorrow.

What the Sox needed, Reinsdorf concluded, was a new stadium built by some governmental entity, probably in the western suburbs, where market studies tell us most Sox fans reside. Thus was born the team's short-lived romance with suburbia--a relationship aborted in November 1986 after voters in suburban Addison rejected a referendum on welcoming the White Sox.

A few weeks later came the word, trumpeted in triumphant headlines, that Washington and Thompson had struck the deal needed to keep the White Sox. The two would appoint the Sports Facility Authority and charge it with the duty of building a stadium in South Armour Square.

"If you remember, this was just befre the mayoral election of 1987," says one former Washington aide. "We had it on good word that Jane Byrne was about to launch a commercial calling Washington the mayor who let the White Sox leave Chicago. There was no way anyone wanted that to happen."

The plan to level Comiskey Park and the South Armour Square homes drew immediate protest. "If they're going to tear down such an important landmark, we deserve an explanation," adds Mary O'Connell, another original member of Save Our Sox. "They should say: 'Here are the numbers and the facts. This is the situation.' But we never got anything.

"Sure, I know there are problems with renovation, but they can be satisfied--if anyone tries. I'm sure they could remove some of the pillars. You could do most of the construction in the off-season, so the season would not be disrupted. If necessary, the Sox could temporarily play in Soldier Field or Wrigley Field, while they were waiting to build the stadium. Look, we had Lake Shore Drive torn up for a couple of years, and we got around it. So far, we're living with the reconstruction of the Dan Ryan. But with renovating Comiskey, we always return to one essential fact: the owners don't want it."

To soothe the protesters, the Sports Facility Authority commissioned a renovation feasibility study, even though White Sox officials have vowed that renovation will not keep them from moving.

"We need to prove to residents once and for all that the stadium can or cannot be renovated," says authority deputy director Romani. "We are a governmental body. We don't just represent the White Sox; we represent the people as well."

Nevertheless, city officials continue to emphasize the jobs and revenues that would be lost if the Sox left Chicago. Think of the stadium, its boosters say, as an investment the city's economic future. The price tag is an estimated $120 million, to be raised by the authority through tax-free bonds. The bonds would be repaid, in part, from revenues generated by an increase in the city's hotel-motel tax.

"We've got people homeless in the streets already, and they want to spend all that money kicking us out of our homes," says Myers. "Does that make sense?"

"In my opinion, this issue has less to do with dollars than with status, says a planning department official. "The White Sox have a great value, but it may be primarily psychological. I don't know if anyone can put a price tag on it. It would be embarrassing to lose them. And I think Mayor Washington was ready to face the consequences."

Most likely, the issue would not have severely eroded the late mayor's support. South Armour Square, isolated by the Dan Ryan from the larger black wards to the east, is part of the 11th Ward, whose residents are mostly white and never showed much support for Washington to begin with.

Of course, acting mayor Eugene Sawyer is less popular than Washington among blacks. And the residents may find Sawyer's black political rivals eager to use the issue to bash him. Using that strategy, the residents have linked their cause to what they call "Harold Washington's legacy" (presumably, a reference to his commitment to affordable housing, not new ballparks).

In the meantime, the authority presses on, hiring architects, engineers, and lawyers. In a few weeks appraisers will look over the property in South Armour Square and determine its "worth." Progress is so rapid, Bynoe proclaimed at a recent hearing, that the authority may soon find permanent quarters for itself somewhere in the Loop.

"Isn't that something," one resident cracked. "They're getting nice offices, and were getting kicked out of our homes."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

Find out how you can help

Add a comment