The Yankees and the South Bronx have always co-existed rather uneasily with each other.
When the Yanks first arrived in the Bronx, the demographics of the area were far different from what they become in the 1960s and 1970s and what they are today. In fact, as the borough changes, so too did Yankee Stadium. While the renovations in the 1970s were ostensibly about modernizing the stadium, the Yankees sealed off the inside of the park from the outside. Gone were the views of the tenement houses across the street. Instead those residents saw a drab gray wall backing up along River Ave.
This stark contrast between the rich and powerful Yankees and a very poor and struggling neighborhood came to head in 1977 when the South Bronx erupted in riots. As the Yankees played at night, smoke from the fires in the area wafted over that high outfield wall. While the Yanks try to make fans forget they’re in the Bronx, the Bronx would not allow the fans to forget where they were.
Today, the stories of class conflict in the city have fallen by the wayside. The areas around Yankee Stadium are still among the poorest and least safe neighborhoods in the city, but as the team grew wildly popular and successful throughout the 1990s, friend of the Yankees Rudy Giuliani made sure that no place in the city had more cops than Yankee Stadium at game time. Now, no one thinks twice about trekking up to the South Bronx to see a Yankee game.
But what about the people on the other side of this story? What about the hundreds of thousands of people who live around Yankee Stadium? For them, the impending destruction of the old stadium and the arrival of the new stadium tells a different story.
David Gonzalez, writing in The Times this weekend, delves into that story of a neighborhood defined, often reluctantly, by a stadium in which most residents could never afford to set foot:
It’s just that too often, no one much respected the neighborhood outside its walls, including Yankee executives. That’s what makes for my melancholy heart.
Over the years there was griping about how the area was unsafe — this despite scores of police officers assigned to games and the presence of two pretty well-fortified courthouses and a transit police station a couple of blocks away. And there were arguments about whether the Yankees could develop a fan base in the Bronx — a borough that is home to legions of baseball-mad Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
On one level, you could dismiss it as just posturing, a bargaining ploy over the years meant to wrest something new from the city — tax breaks or a stadium. But for a track man at Cardinal Hayes High School who ran past the stadium every day, it could feel like an entire community’s recent history had been reduced to a negotiating tactic.
The Yankees exist in Yankeeland, as much a part of the Boogie Down Bronx as the tony Riverdale neighborhood is. The rest of the South Bronx neighborhood along the Grand Concourse, near 161st St., exists in a separate world. It is one in which neighborhood — and, in particular, the now-gone Macombs Dam Park — matters to those who live there. It is a neighborhood defined by adversity and a neighborhood much better off than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
When the Yanks move across the street and open a new ballpark in seven months, the views we’ll change. The center field backdrop will now be 1020 Grand Concourse instead of the familiar court house. The stadium will be more insular than ever before with restaurants and martini bars and a mini Yankee City within the walls. But the neighborhood will be the same, defined not by an 85-year-old Baseball Cathedral but by a stadium that stole a park. We celebrate — or bemoan — the Yanks every day, but as an era draws to a close today, we can’t forget the countless people who have grown up and have lived in the shadows of the Yankees, for better or for worse.