Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Case of O'Malley vs. Murray

If worse eventually comes to worst, and the Islanders do leave Long Island, many will undoubtedly draw comparisons between Kate Murray and former Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley. O'Malley, for those that don't know, is the man vilified as being responsible for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles, changing the future of the borough forever. He was/is so hated in Brooklyn, writers Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield once included him in their "triumvirate of evil" along with Hitler and Stalin. Given Kate Murray's perceived role in the Lighthouse approval process by most LH supporters, she will clearly become public enemy #1 should the team ever find it's home elsewhere.

The truth is, with all due respect to those still seething over the Dodgers after all these years, O'Malley's true contemporary is Charles Wang. To compare O'Malley to Murray is an insult to good ol' Walter. In fact, the similarities between the situation facing O'Malley in the early 1950s and Wang over the past decade are eerily similar.

By the early '50s, despite the on-field success of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field was in bad shape. The physical structure was deteriorating, seating had been added which made the stands overcrowded, and attendance was on the decline. In 1955 the Dodgers won the championship and averaged only 13,400 fans per game (their lowest level in a decade). Many believe racial tension was a factor in the attendance drop as well. While the signing of Jackie Robinson was revolutionary for the game, it escalated racial tensions and kept many families away from the ballpark.

However, over in the South Bronx racial tensions were undoubtedly higher, yet the Yankees were drawing great crowds. The real issue was access. Yankee Stadium was easily accessible by subway or highway. Ebbets field was less convenient to get to and parking was limited.

Now here's where the similarities begin. In 1952, O'Malley reached the point where he knew a new stadium was necessary to survive. He commissioned designer Norman bel Geddes to design a new stadium, for which the plans were ultimately described by the New York Times as "a grandiose order". The project was derisively referred to as "O'Malley's Pleasure Dome". It was too big, too much. A criticism Charles Wang knows all too well, I might add. He had the money for the stadium, but needed a suitable location on which to build. He targeted a site on the corner of Atlantic Ave and Flatbush Ave, but securing that land required the help of the one-and-only Robert Moses.

That proposed land was being eyed for redevelopment. At the time, it was occupied by a LIRR depot, Fort Greene market, and a number of small businesses. O'Malley needed Moses, who was granted condemnation power from the government under Title 1 of the Federal Housing Act (FHA), to essentially condemn the land and sell it for the purpose of building a new stadium. The purpose of the FHA was to eliminate urban slums by giving local agency funds to purchase property and sell it to conform to a larger "public purpose". This certainly seemed to fit the bill.

Moses rejected the request, however, indicating that the stadium did not serve this larger public purpose. The truth, or at least what many believe to be the truth, is that O'Malley simply didn't care about Brooklyn or spectator sports, and felt he had bigger fish to fry in terms of developing parks, roads, and public housing. Also, it is believed that Moses' vision was to have the team play at a city-owned stadium in Flushing Meadow, Queens.

In January 1957, O'Malley issued an ultimatum: Unless something is done in six months, I will have to make other arrangements. There is still a short time left before we could be forced to take an irrevocable step to commit the Dodgers elsewhere". Does this sound familiar to anyone?

For 4+ years O'Malley tried to work with Moses to work things out in Brooklyn, but was continually left frustrated. Again, does this ring a bell with anyone? Finally, after the 1957 season, O'Malley followed through on his ultimatum and moved the team to Los Angeles, forever altering the course of Brooklyn's future. The worst part of all? That piece of land eyed by O'Malley remains undeveloped to this day (someone please correct me if I'm wrong...if I am I can safely say the land was only developed in the last 5 years or so**).

So in this case, Kate Murray is playing the Robert Moses role. Ironic, considering many (rightfully) point to Moses as a visionary largely responsible for a lot of the progressive, smart development on Long Island. In the case of the Dodgers, he did not serve Brooklyn as kindly.

I've made no secret I am pro-Lighthouse. But the truth is, I recognize that there are legitimate concerns about the project. Is it a bit too ambitious? Possibly. Are there serious traffic and environmental issues that need to be addressed? Undoubtedly. But will Long Island benefit from such a development? Unquestionably. And will a similar opportunity ever come to have this land developed using almost exclusively private funding? Unlikely.

On an emotional level, I would get behind almost anything to enable the Islanders to stay in their rightful home. But on an intellectual level, I am able to evaluate this proposal on it's true merits. Long Island is on the decline. Businesses are leaving, our young people are being priced out of the housing market and leaving the Island, taking their intellectual capital with them. We need a stimulus. Where else is it going to come from? This is our one, unique opportunity to reverse the course of the Island over the last 20+ years. Put and end to the strip-mall sprawl that somehow fits in with our vision of suburbia. Spark a new way of thinking on this Island. The Lighthouse in and of itself is not the only answer, but it's a step towards reversing the course of an Island on the Decline.

I have a nightmare of seeing the Islanders, in their new city with their new team name, hoisting the Cup in a few years. Like those poor Whalers fans who felt so much pain watching the Hurricanes win it all. But the real nightmare will be, in 50 years from now, looking at the former site of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and seeing a vacant lot of cracked concrete.

** Update Oct 7 - Thanks to my dad for pointing out that the land in question is what Bruce Ratner is currently seeking to develop as part of his deal to bring the Nets to Brooklyn. I was not aware that these were one and the same.

MC

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