If you don’t understand Oriole Park at Camden Yards, then you can’t understand why Baltimore exploded this week. If you don’t understand Oriole Park at Camden Yards then you can’t understand why what happened in Baltimore can replicate itself in other cities around the United States.
There was a moment at Saturday’s protests—two weeks after the police severed the spine of Freddie Gray—when Baltimore PD revealed themselves. I was there and can tell you that for most of the day it was stunning how light the police presence appeared to be. They made the choice to turn the West Baltimore police station, whose officers arrested Freddie Gray, into an armed encampment, while giving the streets over to the march. Yes, helicopters and surveillance drones flew overhead, but police were largely absent. For me, this was not comforting. The only other times I have seen these kinds of security tactics at a demonstration was in Latin America and South Africa, where the appearance of no police would be given, but then you would turn a corner and they would explosively appear, sometimes out of a cloud of tear gas.
This is what happened as the march left the confines of West Baltimore and approached Camden Yards where the Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox. As Jelani Cobb reported in The New Yorker,
There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters’ most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, ‘They only care about the Orioles!’
Camden Yards has for twenty-five years been praised not only as the heart of Baltimore’s “urban renewal” but also as a template for every city like Baltimore that had seen their manufacturing base disappear and with it, decent paying union jobs. That’s why we have seen similar ballparks, big on charm and big on public subsidies, built over the last generation in—to name just a sampling—Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago’s South Side, and Pittsburgh. All of these cities were at one time synonymous with industry and multiracial labor power. Now they have boarded up factories—or factories that have been transformed into coffee shops or bars—and sports stadiums. These stadiums were all built with the promise of an attendant service economy that could provide jobs and thriving city centers, with restaurants mushrooming around the fun and games. If we didn’t know it before, the scene at Camden Yards should carve it permanently into the tablets of history: this sports-centric urban planning has been a failure. It’s been an exercise in corporate welfare and false political promises. What the stadiums have become instead are strategic hamlets of gentrification and displacement. They have morphed into cathedrals to economic and racial apartheid, dividing cities between haves and have-nots, between those who go to the game to watch and those who go to the game looking for low-income work.