I recall being shocked the first time I heard someone call Shea Stadium a shithole. He was a stranger, a gray-haired man in a mesh Mets cap, missing several bicuspids and an incisor. I was a wee boy walking across the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge, on my way to Shea from College Point Boulevard, where my father had parked our car. Above us rumbled the elevated no. 7 Redbird subway cars. Below us the pea-green creek smelled like a backed-up toilet. And for as far as I could see, automobiles were piled in junkyards that seemed to go on forever along Willets Point. To me, a kid growing up in a benign town outside the city, this was urban decay witnessed firsthand. It was truly foreign, something raw and not sanitized in every way. But in no way did I judge it ugly or worthless. It was what it was. I wasn’t exactly sure then what shithole meant, though I had an idea, but I was certain Shea Stadium wasn’t one. This was the very late 1970s.
May 13, 2008: I attend a game with my two brothers and my nephew. The lowly Washington Nationals are in town. I bring along my digital camera. Who knows if I’ll get back to Shea this year. Might as well take some photos of the broken-down place before it’s gone. My brothers and nephew drive in from the suburbs. I take the no. 7 from Manhattan and get to Shea early. Almost there, I have an excellent view of a middle-aged Big-League ballpark lit up by a setting New York sun on a pleasant spring evening. I wish I’d been ready to take a photo from the subway car.
Before the game I walk around Shea alone. Comparing it to the new stadium under construction next door, I rediscover just how huge Shea is. In recent years my interest in baseball and spectator sports in general has waned considerably and I’ve visited Flushing less and less. I’d forgotten the sheer immensity of the structure. Shea’s a giant that dwarfs its replacement, the almost-finished Citi Field. I walk to the back of the parking lot — to an outer fence — in order to get a full shot of royal-blue Shea, which is still surrounded on one side by those car-repair shops and junkyards. For the time being anyhow.
Plans are in the works, I understand, to raze buildings, evict owners, revitalize the area for the greater good; a lot of people seem okay with the idea. No one powerful puts up too big a fuss about this dusty corner of the city. People in the city seem less capable of making a big fuss these days but there is resistance. Things change. Things always change. And so I take pictures of what’s here while I still can. Maybe I’ll get back to Shea one more time this season; maybe I won’t.
August 8, 2008: I’m going to the game tonight with my father (in his seventies now), a few siblings, and a friend. Circumstances dictate that I’m near my hometown on game day, and I’ve made plans to drive to the game with my father. My parents still live in the house I grew up in; driving in with him will be the ultimate in personal nostalgia.
My father tells me Shea Stadium parking will be a mess – with all that construction going on; we’ll park in a municipal lot in Flushing. He knows where it is and how to get there. From there we’ll walk to the game. I don’t protest. In fact, I welcome it. It’ll be like old times – a bonus. We race in and my father finds his muni lot like a pro. It’s east of Main Street; we start walking toward College Point Boulevard.
I hadn’t been in Flushing proper in years. I’ve yet to visit an Asian city but Flushing feels like one – not merely an Asian section of New York. There was a time when it would have been quite dangerous to walk these streets at night, which we’ll do later this evening. But the transformation, well, it’s amazin’ – to use a popular Met adjective, in its correct abbreviated form. I’d heard about what’s been going on in Flushing but I hadn’t paid close attention. The Korean and Chinese communities have transformed it. Flushing is vibrant now – more so than it was the last time I was here, half a dozen or so years ago. The streets are full of energy and life tonight. How did I miss the story of this place and what its people have done with it? It’s quite different from what might happen to Willets Point and also to Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. I think to myself: it wouldn’t be all that bad to live here, on an upper floor, a foreigner in an Asian city, with a full view of Citi Field — opening spring 2009.
We walk down College Point Boulevard and make a right on Roosevelt Avenue. I recall that there was a dingy gas station on this corner once. It’s gone. Something will replace it soon enough; preparations are under way – heavy equipment in place. There is a lot of construction going on in Flushing at the moment. There will be something built on this spot soon enough.
I immediately recognize the path to the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge but everything around it seems different. Everything behind us in Flushing has changed or is changing. I see the no. 7 line ahead of us. Above it is yet another multi-story building under construction.
What in the world is being built here — in this improving but still grim part of Flushing?
There is a temporary banner affixed to the building but I cannot read it. In a matter of minutes, I’ll see that many of the junkyards on Willets Point are already gone; reeds have been allowed to grow very high and very thick and take over naturally. But now I’m reading a sign on a very tall building under construction next to the noisy no. 7 subway line above Roosevelt Avenue.
It reads: LUXURY CONDOS FOR SALE.
Summer’s end: Labor Day weekend is coming fast, and it’s very unlikely I’ll get back to Shea this season. So I guess I’ve said my goodbye to the not-so-old park and days spent there. Goodbye to loud planes overhead. Goodbye to mostly mediocre baseball. Goodbye to a garish blue exterior and bright orange seats. Goodbye to awful food and DiamondVision and the Magic Top Hat with the Big Apple that pops out with every Met home run. Goodbye to Loge seating and goodbye to Mezzanine and Upper Level. Goodbye to an era.
Kevin Nolan is a writer living in New York City.