City, Planning

Soon the Islanders will roll up their banners and hang them elsewhere. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It rained very hard before the Islanders lost Game 6 of the playoffs. The parking lots streamed and rainwater darkened the long modernist columns and the early die-hard crowd hustled from their cars for the doors of Nassau Coliseum with their collars turned up and their umbrellas blown out. The narrow concourse inside smelled of cinnamon churros and wet denim.

When the New York Islanders move to the rusted picnic basket of the Barclays Center, those out-county hockey fans might be stepping off the A train from Ozone Park or Howard Beach, or riding the Long Island Railroad from Jamaica or St. Albans instead -- if they follow the team into the city. Nassau County voters refused to pay for a new arena, so the Islanders will depart for Brooklyn. The team won't belong to the suburbs any more. And one of the first suburban expansion teams in one of the first runaway sports arenas will be among the first to relocate themselves downtown.

Whether you were Don Draper or Jane Jacobs, even in its own time and on its own terms, the Coliseum was an architectural misfire, a Brutalist oblong rising from the center of an immense parking lot in the middle of what felt like nowhere in particular. It was a gigantic pillbox, a charmless concrete shrine to commuters and the automobile and to white flight and affordable postwar housing. Inside, even when Dr. J played here, it was a pole barn with a dance floor. Outside, gas was 40 cents a gallon and eight lanes of prosperity led in every direction.

Four Stanley Cup wins in 4 years kept most of us from asking what more productive, attractive use -- factory, school, hospital, office park, potato farm -- that same empty field might have been put to without the Coliseum taking up those acres. Even farther back, say 60 years ago, the smartest adaptation of all that old Mitchel airfield land might have been a giant commercial airport with a high-speed rail connection to Penn Station. Instead, New York City today has three undersized and unreachable airports, each more terrible than the other.

But four Stanley Cups. You can't put a price on glory.

Or maybe you can. Two miles up the road from the Coliseum on the Hempstead plain was once Roosevelt Field, from the mud of which Charles Lindbergh departed for Paris in 1927. Those historic ruts and tracks have long since been paved over and made into a mall.

In any case, 41 years after opening, the Nassau Coliseum attracts nothing else to the site, not even the eye. What happens next remains a mystery.

Over in Newark, New Jersey, they're still hoping the Prudential Center can lure people and jobs back to the core of the city. So far it has not. Maybe because the Devils' fan base is suburban.

From Marlins Park to Madison Square Garden, every big league owner maneuvers for more leverage, a better deal. Often by playing on the civic insecurities of the local fan base. Charlotte, North Carolina, 2002, is a great example. The NBA Hornets demand the city help pay for a new arena. City refuses. Hornets leave city. City panics. City has low self-esteem. City doesn't want to be thought of as "minor league." City builds new arena for new NBA Bobcats. Whole thing plays out across two years like something from Gilbert and Sullivan.

In the late age of money, cynicism and American mobility, what does it mean to be the "home" team?

Even famous franchises aren't immune to their own worst impulses. Neither Yankee Stadium, with its badly proportioned atrium and funereal self-seriousness, nor Citi Field, with its postmodern mashup of styles, influences and younger brother inferiority complex, are architecturally satisfying. Two thousand years later, we're still trying and failing to improve upon the symmetry and unity of the Colosseum. No team is safe from itself.

But the question almost never asked and answered when arguing over these civic boondoggles is why the taxpayer gets stuck with the bill. No theater owner expects the city to pay for a movie palace, even if it brings folks and their money back downtown. (Your opera house and your philharmonic and your museum were all paid for by the nouveau riche looking to buy respectability. Old money, the real money, hasn't paid for anything since they drove the final spike of the transcontinental railroad.)

Even as sports coverage becomes more rational, our political coverage becomes less so. And out in Sacramento, a perfect storm: the lies and promises of every politician and sports commissioner and owner and lobbyist have all come true at once, as the Kings try and fail to light out for the territories. Any story this stupid and confusing means we're all being played for suckers. That the NBA owners refer to themselves as a "Board of Governors" is all we need to know about who's doing the suckering.

More than half a billion dollars for a team no one wants to watch in a building no one wants to sit in. This seems an awful price to pay for a few dozen part-time jobs and the venial sin of civic pride. Still, in America, you can't be a big league city without a big league team. Can not.

So Sacramento needs a new arena. Call it another half-billion, tops. Promise. Nothing the taxpayers of California can't handle in these flush economic times. Maybe something neoclassical.

In fact, build it as a perfect replica of the state Capitol, from the dome to the columns to the porticoes, alike in every detail right down to the ground. Fill it with acres of polished Belgian marble and French damask and art-glass renderings of the state seal, of Minerva with her owl and her spear, symbols of wisdom, forbearance and commerce. And out front, in a formal garden of heirloom California roses, at the top of a short rise of stairs cut from Folsom granite, the great statue -- 26 feet high in bronze, square-jawed and broad-shouldered, pioneering eyes to the horizon and the main chance, there he stands, another big league owner with his hand out.