Sam Smith

One of the most common – and costly – myths is that urban economies are improved by things like stadiums – especially for the Olympics. For example, I watched my own home town,. Washington, spend several billions for stadiums, convention centers, faux urban renewal and a a new subway system, and still end up with fewer jobs for local residents.

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist estimated the benefits of a new sports franchise to be roughly the same as opening a branch of Macy’s. Potential benefits are often dissipated by wrong location, excessive city subsidy, cost overruns, faulty projections and just plain corruption.

Sadly, iconic liberals – those who think a tall building or a black president is the answer to all our problems – are among the biggest boosters of edifice economics, so it was not surprising to find Rachel Maddow joining the Olympic funeral choir. Cartoonist Mike Flugennock reacted this way in a note he sent me:

[] It wasn’t just the bare-assed naked sense of entitlement on display on Maddow’s program this evening that burnt my toast, it was the thinly-veiled suggestion that not only rooting against Chicago in the Olympic voting was somehow unpatriotic, but that somehow only the Teabaggers and other right wingnuts were glad to see Chicago lose out.

Her seeming willful ignorance of the fact that there were substantial numbers of people on the left — workers’ rights advocates, anti-gentrification activists and others — who, for the right reasons, were also cheering Chicago’s losing out on the chance to host the gentrifiers’ land grab, the corporatization of public space and the financial debacle known as the Olympic Games.

I can still remember that day here in DC, back in ’02, when I was in the meeting room at the District Building, covering the Olympic host-city voting announcement for the DC Indymedia Center, photographing with barely concealed glee the cheers and applause erupting from a contingent of housing activists in the room when it was announced that Washington, DC’s bid to host the 2012 Games had gone down in flames.

Thinking back on that day here in DC reminds me what really made me feel slapped in the face tonight — that Rachel Maddow would play that shopworn old vast right-wing conspiracy card, and totally ignore the widespread anti-Olympic-hosting sentiment on the left in Chicago. []

But that’s where we are and it’s not a new phenomenon. As Tom Frank wrote in the Chicago Reader more than a decade ago: “The time is not far distant when indoor stadiums will be filled entirely with millionaires not watching as other millionaires cavort on the artificial turf below.” In fact by the beginning of this decade over 300 cities had built convention centers to compete with other cities that had built convention centers. And every one of them world class.

The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This notion was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of “altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”

Eventually this idea would produce waves of urban renewal, freeways, convention centers, stadiums, subways, pedestrian malls, aquariums, waterfront developments, casinos and riverboat gambling — all in the name of urban progress and a happier tax base. But as one city’s weekly paper asked of a planned aquarium, “How many big fish can the American public be expected to look at?” Few of these schemes would ever come close to realizing the claims made on their behalf. Few were little more than a false front on a city’s declining core and fraying soul.

So don’t shed any tears for Chicago. It came out ahead as a city and, if it has the soul, it can use some of the money it saved for all those of its citizens who can’t afford buy a ticket to a baseball game, let alone the Olympics.

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