Do justice to Memorial Stadium grounds

April 29, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

IT IS high tragedy when the places that embody the character and history of a people are destroyed by natural disasters or war. It is shortsighted stupidity when they are eradicated merely because they are deemed obsolete.

The twin sports palaces at Camden Yards, along with changing times and economics, clearly ended the usefulness of Memorial Stadium as a professional sports venue. What did not end, however, is its place in the soul of a people. The preemptory demolition of the stadium and redevelopment of the site, without any meaningful effort to formulate a creative and respectful reuse, betrays a sad lack of comprehension that the site of this great municipal gathering place speaks as much to our future as to our past.

Cities are both infrastructure and intangibles. They are known and often defined by a skyline and landmarks, as well as dialect, cuisine and attitude. In their public places, the architecture and the people come together in the public discourse and shared experience that creates a community.

Throughout civilization, the energy of human exchange has played out in marketplaces, forums, houses of worship, theaters and coliseums. They have been the meeting places of ideas and the catalyst to kinship. The reverence shown to such places acknowledges their role as a cultural adhesive, and their preservation joins generations in a commonality of memories and values.

Memorial Stadium has earned an entitlement to homage for three compelling reasons: It was dedicated as a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the battle against tyranny and oppression; it provided a home for the professional sports teams that represented us and embodied what we valued and hoped to be in the eyes of the world; and it served as our largest meeting place and home to the shared moments of our collective memory.

Anyone who ever took time to read the words emblazoned on the stadium's facade should understand the rightful depth of feeling that went into the dedication of our most prominent public facility to our war veterans. We should not be so distanced in time to the horrors of World War II that we are no longer mindful of how instantly peace can be obliterated. Nor should time diminish our appreciation for what others did to preserve the possibility of the life we enjoy today.

That demolition commenced without any final plan as to how or where to even preserve the moving words of the front facade is an indictment of the process. More important, the mere preservation of the facade ignores the fundamental significance of the site itself. It was consecrated in honor of our veterans. No change in use should annihilate such a noble expression of our public sentiment. A reuse that does not pay proper respect to that pronouncement is a desecration.

As for sports, the stadium made possible the arrival of the Colts and Orioles. These were not simply events in the insular world of athletics. After decades of self-doubt as a branch office bypass between Philadelphia and Washington, those teams announced our inclusion among major league cities.

The championship seasons that followed would fuel our ambitions and help realize dreams of a redeveloped downtown and a revitalized inner harbor. This phenomenon repeated itself when the Ravens, who were born in Memorial Stadium, galvanized the region with their dramatic Super Bowl run.

Sports are a forum for the public display of the human spirit in both players and fans, from which bonds emerge that help forge a community identity to be passed along to future generations. This was evident in the love affair with the character of the Colts that earned the stadium the title of "largest outdoor insane asylum."

It was present as we grew up together with the Orioles' Kiddy Corps that went from youthful exuberance to perennial excellence. That we so appreciated the unflappable Unitas and the ever-modest Brooks Robinson tells us much about ourselves, and our memories of them give continuity to values we hold dear.

This was the place where we came together like no other. At the stadium we were all races, all backgrounds and all income levels, sharing hope, sorrow and jubilation. We genially passed hot dogs and change down rows of people we would not otherwise meet, and we freely opened our emotions and found something in common with neighbors who would otherwise be strangers.

Thirty-acre sites in a city are something special in and of themselves, but Memorial Stadium is more than just real estate. Surely it must be redeveloped. But a redevelopment that fails to honor and do justice to its past tears a hole in the fabric of our community and subtracts a part of us that no new construction can replace.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler.

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