South Bronx neighborhood taking hit from new stadium

It's called "The House that Ruth Built." But that's not quite right.

Yankee Stadium, with the largest capacity in baseball, a venue too grand to call a ballpark, needed fans to fill all those seats. And in the era of borough-based teams, the Yankees found many customers in the South Bronx neighborhoods surrounding the stadium that was built in 1923. These were the first and second generations of New Yorkers to have fallen in love with the game on city playgrounds, most of which didn't exist until the turn of the 20th century. They grew into eager teens and hardened adults who could appreciate and marvel at the moon shots of Babe Ruth because they, too, had put stick on ball and dreamed of such ridiculous outcomes.

Professional sports in the United States is by no small measure built on the foundation of the playground movement, a national effort by social reformers to give children places to play in large cities made dense by the Second Industrial Revolution with population, pollution and juvenile crime. By 1917, there were 4,000 such parks around the country, up from just a few dozen a couple of decades earlier. These urban oases were so popular that often several games would be held on a patch of carved-out dirt, with home plates at different corners and line drives rolling balls into the playing area of an adjacent contest.

Macombs Dam Park, located in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, was one of the forerunners. It opened in 1899 and immediately pulled neighborhood children off the streets and into sports such as baseball, basketball and tennis. In the ensuing decades, hundreds of thousands of kids used its extensive recreational facilities. The nation's first interracial track team trained there. Hall of Famer Rod Carew played on its fields, as did former All-Star Ken Singleton and current Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Willie Colon. The Yankees even used to hold tryouts there, signing city prospects such as Joe Pepitone.

Now, that green space is gone, a casualty of the new $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium.

"Memories, only pictures, now long gone," says Sean Sullivan, principal at nearby All Hallows High School, whose athletic program relied heavily on the park.

At his office desk a couple of blocks from where the costliest stadium in baseball history rises, Sullivan thumbs through decades of photos. The images highlight the importance Macombs Dam Park held for the community his Catholic school serves. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the U.S., with high rates of obesity and asthma to boot. People here needed that well-worn park. For exercise. For escape. For the fresh air provided by hundreds of mature trees that would be cut down.

Their absence begs the question: While America says goodbye to the old Yankee Stadium this weekend, could it be that something else just as significant has been lost? Members of the neighborhood ask as much, while the club prepares to move into its new home in the spring.

"If I had a chance to sit down with the hierarchy of the Yankees, I would tell them, 'Why did you take away the park and hurt my kids?'" Sullivan says. "You're going to build a stadium and move it 1,000 feet to the other side of 161st Street, to charge the price of tickets that my kids and the people of this community won't have a hope of paying for. Shame on you."

But the fact is, the club hardly needs the neighborhood anymore. The Yankees are a worldwide brand now, pulling revenue and talent from many points on the globe. They draw ticket buyers from places well beyond the Bronx, with the wealthiest driving in from Manhattan or the northern suburbs -- they're the customers most responsible for subsidizing the salaries of A-Rod and Derek Jeter. The new stadium is tailored for them, with its martini bar and abundance of luxury boxes. There actually are fewer seats in the new Yankee Stadium than in the old one.

The clout of the rich and powerful was on full display in June 2005 when Michael Bloomberg, New York City mayor, announced that an agreement had been reached with the club to build the stadium on what was protected park land. The community had little time to organize a protest, and eight days later, a bill sailed through the state legislature alienating 22 acres of Macombs Dam Park and part of adjacent John Mullaly Park (named after the founder of the Bronx parks system). The bill was submitted in the final days of a busy session, after years of intense lobbying by the Yankees of key politicians and officials.

"I did not see that bill or read that bill before it came up for a vote that day," says Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat representing Manhattan. "Most of my colleagues did not really understand what they were voting for or against when that bill came up for a vote."

It was a vote, unanimous in the Senate, that Krueger came to regret.

But at first blush, the project looked so promising. At the news conference, Bloomberg enthused that the Yankees were going to pick up the entire cost of construction for the new stadium. That up to 1,000 new, permanent jobs would be created. And that the neighborhood would get recreational facilities that would be a "dramatic improvement" over the existing facilities, in exchange for giving up the land.

The city's plan then, as now, called for the creation of new play spaces on smaller parcels elsewhere in the borough. An artificial turf football and soccer field on top of a 1,600-car garage built for the stadium. Baseball fields where the current Yankee Stadium sits, after it's demolished. A tennis facility in what is now an industrial area along the Harlem River.

"This neighborhood, when it's done, will have a state-of-the-art sports and recreation complex," says Adrian Benepe, the city's commissioner of parks and recreation.

But some of those replacement parks won't be finished until 2011, due to delays. And members of the neighborhood say some of these spaces are too far away, particularly for children. The tennis courts, once right across the street from a row of apartment buildings, now will be a 20-minute walk away, through busy streets and an overpass that spans the Major Deegan Expressway.

Bloomberg says such obstacles are worth the trouble -- while conceding that the taking of land never would have happened to a place like Manhattan's Central Park.

"You don't have progress unless you inconvenience a few people," he says. "It isn't that you care less about them. If we stopped and said that if we can't inconvenience anybody, we wouldn't have anything."

The city certainly has spent money to meet its legal obligation to replace the seized land. At the ground breaking, the city announced it would drop $160 million on the stadium project, mostly on replacement parks. Now, that figure has risen to $217 million, according to New York City's Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded watchdog agency. IBO director George Sweeting told "E:60" that with the state chipping in for garages and the federal government allowing the aggressive use of tax-free construction bonds, the total public subsidy has grown to $656 million. Few, if any, stadiums in U.S. history have received more help from taxpayers.

The flip side is that all that investment is unlikely to generate much new employment, says Neil DeMause, a New York-based sports economist who tracks stadium projects.

"It's not like they're bringing a new stadium here or a new team," he says. "They're moving across the street."

Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York, a non-profit organization that monitors public subsidies to corporations, says that more than anything, jobs that once existed outside the stadium will move inside the facility, as the Yankees attempt to capture as much of fans' game-day expenditures as possible.

"It's really all about the Yankees' bottom line at the expense of New Yorkers and Bronx residents," she says.

Still, Bloomberg stands firmly by the project, with its total costs escalating to about $1.9 billion. The Yankees are covering most of that record outlay by agreeing to pay off construction bonds on the stadium. Indeed, Bloomberg suggests that neighborhood should thank the Yankees for what he considers their investment in the South Bronx. The team also has agreed to donate $800,000 a year to Bronx charities (although critics say that so far, the dispersion of funds has been slow) and provide some free tickets and merchandise to local kids.

"You gotta start getting a life and looking at what's great for this city," Bloomberg says.

But that's a hard one to reconcile for people in the neighborhood who are struggling to carve out any quality of life. One of them is Doreen James, who takes care of mentally ill patients for low wages while raising three children in a rental building across from what was Macombs Dam Park. For two years now, she's listened to noise from construction and breathed dust that billows into her apartment. Her 15-year-old son, Timothy, has put on weight sitting around the apartment, as his youth football team has struggled to field a team since losing its field. Forced to play at an interim patch of artificial turf too short to hold games, few players have been coming out to practice.

Soon, she'll be moving her family to Brooklyn. She is fed up and doesn't feel she can wait any longer for public officials to deliver on the promise of a better neighborhood.

"Tell them to call me when that happens," she says, packing books into a box.

She's out of here, like one of Ruth's dingers.

Tom Farrey is an "E:60" correspondent and the author of the new ESPN book, "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children," which includes a history of the relationship between youth and professional sports. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com. Bert Rudman, chief investigative producer for E:60, contributed to this report.