Welcome to the Superdome, home of the often unsuper New Orleans Saints–a team on the rise that once inspired its own fans to wear brown paper bags on their heads. The Superdome was built for crowds of 72,000 people and boasts “9,000 tons of air conditioning” and “102 restrooms.”
It was also the emotional site of the first post-9/11 Super Bowl in 2002, won by the Cinderella New England Patriots. As Steve Serby of the New York Post wrote at the time, “Inside a red, white and blue fortress called the Superdome, they let freedom ring last night, and they let freedom sing, and then they played a football game that stands today as tall as the Twin Towers once did, as a defiant statue of liberty. On the night they wrapped a star-spangled banner around the neck of terror and squeezed tight, they played a football game that will be remembered as Patriots’ Day.”
But when Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast, the “terror” was homegrown. The Superdome morphed into a homeless shelter from hell, inhabited yet uninhabitable for 25,000 of New Orleans’s poorest residents. They scraped, suffered and for the most part survived, in conditions that Jesse Jackson likened to “the hold of a slave ship.” It took Katrina for them to actually see the inside of a stadium whose ticket prices make entry restrictive. At the time of the hurricane, game tickets cost $90, season seats went for $1,300 and luxury boxes for eight home games ran more than $100,000 a year. But the Katrina refugees’ tickets were comped, courtesy of the federal and local governments’ malignant neglect. It was only fitting, since these 25,000 people helped pay for the stadium in the first place. The Superdome was built entirely on the public dime in 1975, a part of efforts to create a “New New Orleans” business district. City officials decided that building the largest domed stadium on the planet was in everyone’s best interest. New Orleans leaders have a history of elevating political graft to a finely honed art, and in this case they did not disappoint. Much of Louis Armstrong’s historic old neighborhood was ripped up for extra stadium parking, and, in an instance of brutal foreshadowing that would shame Wes Craven, an old, aboveground cemetery was eradicated to make space for the end zones.
In many ways, the makers of the Superdome were ahead of their time. Stadium swindles have since become common, substituting for anything resembling urban policy in the United States. They come gift-wrapped as an instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay and suburban flight, SportsWorld shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. Over the last ten years, more than $16 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep in cities across the United States. Unfortunately, these costly public projects end up being little more than monuments to corporate greed: $500 million welfare hotels for America’s billionaires built with funds that should have been spent on clinics, schools, libraries–and levees.