As a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts living outside my home country Philippines for the first time, attending Boston Red Sox games at Fenway Park marked the beginning of my initiation into American life — and that most American of pastimes: baseball. Fenway Park (the country’s oldest ballpark) turned 100 years old last Friday (April 27, 2012). It is a wonderful icon of the enduring nature and magnetic power of cities.
Fenway Park (like the city of Boston) is small, expensive, and still has infrastructure from 1912. The bathrooms, parking, and other amenities don't always work (again, like many great cities). But overall, this urban gem is the best place to watch a baseball game — despite the 86-year drought in World Series championships.
At times, in spite of Boston’s status as a great sports town, there were major doubts that Fenway Park would live to see its 100th anniversary. Many thought that a new, larger park would need to be built to keep up with a society that is quick to tear down buildings and replace them with bigger, shinier ones. But Fenway Park is a classic, and the Red Sox spent $285 million on renovations to make the stadium a sustainable facility for at least the next 40 years. Since May 2003, the park has had a record 718 consecutive sellout games — proof that reverence for history tempered with an eye to the future is the way to sell tickets and bring people back.
Like Fenway Park, Boston is an old, charming, and jam-packed city whose core developed in the pre-car era. As it grew, its borders were prevented from sprawling by the smaller cities and towns around it, in the same way that the ballpark could never expand its footprint because it is in the heart of Boston. As a result, this and other older cities in the United States — New York, San Francisco, Washington DC and others — have the most extensive and widely-used public transit systems and are the most walkable in the country as well. Because these cities sprang up around major ports they were, and continue to be, hubs of international commerce and immigration. This led to dense development and a hard-earned reputation for diversity and tolerance. Having been industrial cities that later became service- and knowledge-oriented, they also bred social mobility (and attracted those pesky graduate students).
As a student with little disposable income (baseball tickets were a luxury), being able to hop on the US’ oldest subway system — the ‘T’ — for less than $1/day was a godsend. My friends and I would go from one city square to the other, searching for tiny bookstores, museums, and deliciously cheap Thai, Indian, Mexican, Ethiopian food…you name it. This democratization of accessibility is what gives transit-oriented, walkable cities their unmistakable buzz. Public transport, when used by students, professionals, families, and everyone in between, does not just bring people from point A to point B — it gives cities like Boston their unique flavor.
Would a Red Sox game still be the same if the experience didn’t begin at the T’s Kenmore Station with a crush of rowdy fans emerging from Boston’s belly and making the trek to the hallowed park’s gates? Commiserating on the walk home with the loyal pilgrims after every gut-wrenching loss is part of why we love Fenway and the city of Boston. Thank goodness they never added parking lots! Just as purposeful renovations gave Fenway Park a new lease on life, well-planned interventions that leverage inherent urban strengths can enhance the sustainability of old, dense American cities and draw back the crowds who long for the compactness, vibrancy and diversity of urban living — and the occasional baseball game.