x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Before the fall

Cover story New York City has been battered and bruised by the economic crisis, but now the Yankees are headed to the World Series. In a season at the team's new ballpark, built for $1.5 billion at the height of the city's real estate boom, David Samuels watches the effects of the collapse from the cheap seats in the right field.


New York City has been battered and bruised by the economic crisis, but now the Yankees are headed to the World Series. In a season at the team's new ballpark, built for $1.5 billion at the height of the city's real estate boom, David Samuels watches the effects of the collapse from the cheap seats in the right field. "It's going to get worse," said the man sitting next to me at an afternoon baseball game in May at the new Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were playing the Texas Rangers, and my seat-mate was an ex-New Yorker named Ken O'Sullivan who had moved to Las Vegas, where he worked for the casinos until the bottom fell out of the economy. Now he was out of a job. The true proportions of the disaster, he continued, could be measured by the fate of the properties adjacent to his house. A few days before he left Vegas, he had helped his next-door neighbour move out after the bank foreclosed. His other neighbour, an officer in the California Highway Police, shot himself in the head with his service revolver after the value of his home dropped by $200,000, a sum too large for him to imagine being able to repay it. Neither home had found a new buyer, O'Sullivan said, which meant he would have a hard time selling his own house. It was a funny kind of crisis, we agreed. Major sectors of industry and finance, including the country's auto manufacturers, banks, insurance companies, builders and the publishing industry, teetered on the verge of a Great Depression-style failure that could only be halted by massive infusions of government cash, without which millions of people would lose their jobs and real estate prices would crash. At first, the payouts needed to stop the bleeding were reported to be in the tens of billions, and then the hundreds of billions, as experts warned that trillions would eventually be required. The President of the United States endorsed a recovery plan designed by his advisers, who turned out on closer examination to be the same people who engineered the system that had collapsed. On the field below us, Alex Rodriguez, the handsome Yankees third baseman who is ritually hated by New York fans for wilting under pressure, and gets paid $28 million a year - the highest salary in baseball - smacks a line drive to left field to drive in Nick Swisher, an everyday guy. In the stands, an old coot named Frying Pan Freddie bangs on his a steel pan with an old metal spoon to celebrate. Disco Stu, a stout middle aged haired relic who shows his chest hair in a sleeveless wife-beater and wears his silver hair slicked back in an old-fashioned pompadour, is dancing nearby in the hopes of being featured on the Jumbotron. What drives Disco Stu is only a mildly exaggerated version of the same hope for reassurance and a sense of belonging that brings the rest of us out to the ballpark to watch grown men play a child's game.

Built alongside a high rusted subway track in a poor corner of the Bronx with $1.5 billion in taxpayer money between 2006 and 2008, as housing prices in New York City shot through the moon, the new Yankee Stadium is a model of the social structure of a city that seems like the polar opposite of the place where I was born. The creamy white layer-cake of the stadium's architecture grants the rich exclusive access to the playing field and to new restaurants, while the poor have been raised closer to God. The field-level seats are intended for the pinstriped bankers who live in million-dollar apartments with oversized suburban bathrooms, and who can pay $1,250 for a ticket to a single game. The section where upper-middle-class professionals once sat, formerly located in the lower deck, immediately behind the good seats, has been lifted up by an invisible hand, transformed into a separate tier of its own, and pushed back from the field, as if to emphasise the separation between the Wall Street bonus babies and the salaried help. The steep upper deck has undergone a similar bifurcation in line with the realities of the city's new class structure. Overlooking the field from on high is the Terrace, home to electricians, plumbing contractors, police, firemen and other members of the city's unionised elite. At the very top of the stadium is the Grandstand, where senior citizens and high school students can enjoy afternoon baseball games beneath an old-fashioned colonnade. The outfield bleachers are for diehard fans who drink and curse the way Yankees fans did during the bad old days when junkies left used syringes in the playground across the street from my family's apartment in a lower-middle-income housing project by the entrance ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Only a year ago, it seemed like the bad old days were gone for good. Now, I am no longer sure. Evidence of the financial crisis is all around us, in the rows of empty blue luxury seats at field level, and in the upper galleries of the stadium, which are packed during the day with men in their thirties and forties wearing sunglasses and carrying Bear Stearns tote bags and other detritus of the crash. By the middle of the summer, half the people I know, myself included, have been laid off or are simply working less. "I definitely have a lot less money than I had before it happened. I absolutely get fewer Starbucks Coffee things," says my friend Jon, a former head writer for David Letterman, as we sit in the stands eating sandwiches that we brought from home and watching the Yankees defeat the Blue Jays by the score of 4 to 3. He recently bought his own espresso machine, which by itself isn't much of a sacrifice. Nobody we know has lost their home. Still, everyone is worried that things could get worse, and that we could wake up one morning and find that the world that appeared to welcome us with open arms and bright smiles had been replaced by a sour old hag who is not persuaded by our attempts at reform. I tell Jon about a game I attended in June at Citifield, the home of the hapless Mets, which also opened this year, at the bargain price of only $850 million. In the sixth inning I went to the bathroom, where I tried to balance myself to avoid a pool of stagnant water by the toilet while a speaker overhead broadcast offers for two-bedroom condominiums in Rockaway Beach, which could be mine for a $10,000 down payment. It was a reminder, I thought, of the link between the loose public economy that pumped money into two baseball stadiums the city didn't need and the loose private lending that inflated real estate prices to the point where ordinary New Yorkers could no longer afford to live here. Between innings, the groundskeepers jog out onto the field and swap in new bases. The old ones will go to feed the booming baseball memorabilia market which has monetised every square inch of the nostalgia-laden playing field and made the actual third base at Yankee Stadium magically transferable with a swipe of the family credit card to the lawns where fathers and sons play catch. Alex Rodriguez drifts over to catch a pop-up, and the crowd reacts in an anticipation of the play, which is routine. As the ball settles in his glove, you can hear a faint exhalation of breath, which carries with it an edge of disappointment that the Yankees star hasn't goofed. Rodriguez is an exquisitely sensitive player, with the visible emotions of a talented, brooding teenager to go along with his rangy athletic grace, powerful hips and shoulders, and a cannon of an arm. He senses how the crowd yearns for him to fail, the same way that it forgives their favourite, the shortstop Derek Jeter, his daily trespasses. Where Rodriguez is pouty, with talent to burn, Jeter is professional and controlled - bankerly virtues that play especially well in the new New York. By playing the two men off each other - Jeter good, A-Rod bad - New York fans perform the psychological work of neutralising the charges, made by the fans of every other team, that the Yankees' dominance is merely the product of the large sums of money they spend every winter buying the most talented players in the league. Jeter is a home-grown product of the Yankees farm system who plays the game right, is modest and humble in public appearances, and squires pretty actresses on Caribbean holidays in the off-season. Rodriguez is a fatherless interloper who dumped his wife and dated Madonna, and left the Texas Rangers to come play for the Yankees because they were the only team that could afford his enormous salary. The ritual adoration of Jeter and denigration of A-Rod is meant to prove that the hard-working shortstop is the true face of the Yankees.

The new Yankee Stadium was built directly across the street from its nearly identical predecessor, now being torn down brick by brick and sold piecemeal to nostalgic fans. As I sat in the new stadium for the first time, I wondered how the scene might have looked to astronomers on another planet, snapping pictures of the city through their alien equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope. In the final shot of the flip-book sequence, everything in this corner of the Bronx would look exactly the same as before, except for the fact that the enormous concrete bowl has raised itself up from its foundations and lumbered across the street. My favourite feature of the old stadium was a distinctive gap in the right field stands through which you could see the brightly lit compartments of the 4 Train rumbling past, offering frozen two-second-long tableaus of New Yorkers standing and reading the newspaper like figures in a William Carlos Williams poem. The gap is still here in the new stadium, but barely. By narrowing the open space the architects have replaced the backlit scenes of ordinary life with the abstract rush of subway cars that move too fast to see what is going on inside. To let in the outside world, it seems, would distract from the experience that the stadium planners have engineered, in which baseball fans gather together in a bowl-shaped living room around a carpet-like expanse of grass topped by the brilliant hi-definition Jumbotron screen, 16 meters high and 33 meters long, where rousing scenes from macho movies like Gladiator and 300 are intercut with grainy footage of Yankee saints like Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. The patriotic ritual that is woven throughout the game begins with the singing of the national anthem and reaches its climax during the seventh inning stretch - an intermission that, in my youth, often involved the hurling of size "D" alkaline batteries at opposing outfielders. Since September 11, this has become a solemn, almost religious observance, beginning with a request from the legendary Voice of the Yankees, Bob Sheppard, to "please rise and offer a moment of silent prayer as we remember the servicemen and women who are stationed around the globe," with special attention for "those who have lost their lives defending our freedom and our way of life". Sheppard's baritone is followed by the cartoonish anthem "God Bless America", delivered in a bellowing cow-pasture voice by the Irish singer Kate Smith, whose steamroller vowels and stony consonants are projected at an eardrum-denting volume that denies even the slightest possibility of dissent while stimulating the emotions of the faithful, who stand at solemn attention sneaking only occasional peeks at their Blackberrys. The fans who pack the upper deck are waiting to see whether the $450 million that the Yankees have spent on new players for the new $1.5 billion stadium can rejigger the polarity of our brains after a winter of reversals. More than any other team in the city, the Yankees have offered New Yorkers an image of themselves at key moments of transition in the city's history. The flamboyant, squabbling World Series-winning Yankees teams of the 1970s stood for the city's resilience in the face of chaos, just as the smooth-functioning Yankee dynasty of the 1990s flattered the city's sense of itself as a global financial capital under the firm-handed rule of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who could be seen most nights during the regular season in a field box at Yankee Stadium, cheering like a schoolboy for his favourite team. While it is unclear what this year's Yankees will tell us about ourselves, it is clear that the city is not in a forgiving mood. "I can throw farther than he can, the piece of s***," a fan next to us says about Yankees right fielder Johnny Damon, a heralded free agent acquired for tens of millions of dollars a few seasons ago. The physical construction of the new Yankee Stadium is probably about as good as can be expected, even though if you look closely you will notice that there is rubbish trapped between the fine wire mesh and the concrete rampways, which are starting to crack. Both Yankee Stadium and Citifield - the new Mets stadium, named for the failing global bank - were designed by Populous, a company headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri that has built 19 of the 30 major league baseball stadiums in America at an approximate cost of some $11 billion. Populous's stadium designs marry swollen nostalgia for old-time ballparks with innovative computer-generated seating plans skewed to maximise the number of premium corporate seats while pricing working families out of the game. The aesthetics of the Populous stadium-planners are obnoxious not only because they pamper a new class of ticket buyers willing to pay $300 and up per seat but because they do so under cover of nostalgia for the days when tickets cost $1.50 and hot dogs were 25 cents. Still, the fact that Yankee Stadium opened on time is an achievement not to be ignored, given the fact that the place where the World Trade Center used to stand in lower Manhattan is still a hole in the ground eight years after the September 11 attacks. By the end of June, I am coming to the stadium for nearly every game. I sit in my uniform of sunglasses, a plain navy T-shirt and jeans in the cheapest seats I can find, edit my articles, answer e-mail and read the newspaper. I buy $5 seats online, taking advantage of special offers on the Yankees website. When no $5 seats can be had I buy tickets from the men in white T-shirts who huddle in the shadows of the old stadium and whisper "need tickets?" with a desperation in their voices that they didn't have a year ago. I buy my four-year-old son a Yankees T-shirt with the team captain Derek Jeter's number 2 printed in white on the back, so that he can experience the confidence boost that comes from association with a proven winner. When he wears his new T-shirt on the subway, people smile. It is a risk that we are taking together. Maybe the Yankees will win the pennant this year and the psychic equilibrium of the city, which alternates between the all-too-familiar poles of fragility and arrogance, will be restored for long enough for us to figure out who we are this time around, now that the dust kicked up by our city's latest disaster has started to settle.

My friend Ray is from Nigeria and has never been to a baseball game. Having lost his job at one of the city zoos, he happily accepts my offer to come with me one afternoon in early August to see the Yankees play the Toronto Blue Jays. The sweating vendors, balancing coolers on their heads while barking out rhymes for the products they carry, remind him of the streets of Lagos. "Bottled beer. Miller Lite here," the beer vendor chants. The ice cream vendor has less time to spare. "Hey, ice cream. Hey, ice cream bars," he says, with a panicked edge to his voice. The clean-cut suburban-looking girls in the stands around us are wearing Yankees T-shirts to advertise the fact that they are team players, Ray suggests. He wonders why the players' uniforms are so baggy, and I explain that the aesthetics of baseball are a product of the late 19th century, when large numbers of Americans left the farms and went to work in cities. The baseball diamond was a place where the familiar routines and materials of farm labour were integrated with the requirements of industrial society. The pitcher stood on a slab of rubber at the precise distance of 60 feet 6 inches from home plate and threw a horsehide-covered ball past the hitter, who tried to hit it with a hand-turned wooden bat. Baggy uniforms resembled the clothes of country people, just as the manicured green fields must have reminded players and fans alike of the farms where they had played as boys. At a similar moment of economic transition, there was something soothing about watching the rule-bound performance of the social dislocations of the horse and buggy epoch.

On the main concourse, Ray, a collector of watches, is struck by the fine pieces he sees on the wrists of the fans. "That's $30,000, minimum," he says, licking his lips at the sight of a really nice Patek Phillipe. Twenty years ago, no one would have dared wear a $30,000 watch to the Bronx. Now there are hundreds of ticket-holders with expensive watches on their wrists. The really rich fans have their own restaurants in the Legends section, I tell Ray, who takes the news in stride. The strict separation of social classes is a matter of course in Lagos, London and other large cities where he has lived. What does surprise him, though, is how many people are buying baseball tickets during a recession. "These people are rich," Ray says, as we exit the stadium, pointing at the fans laden down with shopping bags filled with official Yankees merchandise. "Look around you."

Over the summer, I spend more time than I care to reveal gazing down at the rows of empty padded seats in the Legends section. The Legends section is the reason why the new Yankee Stadium was built, I explain to a friend from college who works in finance. I need to sit there, I tell him, because I am writing an article about the new stadium. Panicked investors have helped to ensure that my friend is enjoying a banner year. He says he will treat me to a pair of luxury seats if I promise not to use his name or reveal the company he works for in my article, as the threat of political interference from Washington is making it hard for him to enjoy his large profits in public. The Legends section is an optical illusion that creates value through the physical separation of the mega-rich from their fellow citizens while maintaining the mutually flattering appearance of shared public space, a trick borrowed from nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos. When you enter the stadium with your Legends tickets, you come in through a discreet set of glass doors, where a hostess motions the elect through a side entrance into a two-level restaurant with a free all-you-can-eat buffet and endless numbers of yummy extras like tiny Godiva chocolates that look like miniature ice cream cones. After the potlatch of the introductory Legends dining area, you go downstairs to a second dining area and proceed through a narrow tunnel like the ones that the players travel from the locker room to the dugout. As you make your way through the tunnel you are showered with popcorn, sodas, Snickers bars, M and Ms and other sweets, all of which are free for the taking, like a concentrated five-second-long version of one's best memories of a childhood Halloween, until you are born again at field level, with only a few rows of luxury seats between you and Derek Jeter in the on-deck circle. The seats themselves are plush padded high-backed chairs like those in the first-class section of an aeroplane. The creation of a separate section for high-rollers who are able to pay $1,250 a pop for their tickets means that regular fans can no longer even dream of slipping a $20 bill to a stone-faced usher in order to move into field-level seats near the end of a boring rainy-day game. When the seats in the Legends section are empty, they stay empty. The men and women in the thousand-dollar seats would look at home at a restaurant in Beverly Hills or a racetrack in Florida. The women wear jewelled watches and diamond rings, and the men wear Italian silk jackets. A wealthy mother and daughter nearby, wearing matching diamond necklaces, are here at the invitation of the daughter's husband, who is wearing a pinstriped Yankees team jersey. On the field, the boxer Mohammed Ali is presenting the Yankees with the "Six-Star Diamond Award" from the American Academy of hospitality science - for a "commitment to excellence in luxury". He furrows his brow, like an actor in a silent movie. He is joined by Hal Steinbrenner, the bright-eyed Yankees heir, and by Jeter, the team captain, who puts a Yankees cap on the boxer's head. Ali, who looks frail and shaky, takes off the cap, holds it at arms length and looks at the symbol, because it is polite to examine a gift from one's host, and also to let everyone know that he is not some kind of sacred animal to be led around on a rope. The rest of the Yankees gather around for a group photo as the stadium organist plays the theme from The Lion King. "That's Jay Sugarman," my host points out. Sugarman is one of the fallen idols of Wall Street: He took home $32 million in 2005 before going spectacularly bust. Wearing a pair of Lilly Pulitzer khakis, he is standing up in the middle of the aisle and talking on his cellphone to let everyone know that he is still doing business.

Closest to the field sits Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, who is sitting in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's seats. Actually, the seats belong to Cohn, though he loans them occasionally to Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman from Boston who loathes baseball. Lower-level Goldman Sachs employees were recently warned not to go to bars and use their corporate cards after the company repaid its $10 billion from the US government. Meanwhile, Cohn does business in his $1,250 seats every night while lesser traders guzzle free sushi and Turkey Hill sorbet while cracking jokes about the joint venture between Nigeria and Gazprom that was recently launched under the unfortunate moniker Nigaz. The seats are close enough to catch the weird, unfocused look in Alex Rodriguez's eyes before he steps up to the plate. "If you could afford it, you would always want to sit here," my friend says, correctly. Yankee catcher Jorge Posada hits a towering home run and the hi-def Jumbotron lights up like a pinball machine with every obnoxious sound effect you can imagine, at the climax of which an animated B-52 carpet-bombs the stadium with baseball-shaped projectiles. "Irving, I had a great time," the old guy in front of me says to his octogenarian host, who is wearing a cream coloured jacket and a tiny hearing aide tucked into his ear. We exit through the Legends tunnel, where everyone happily rakes up more Snickers bars, Chuckles Good and Plenty, peanuts, Twix bars, Cracker Jack, M and Ms, Twizzlers and exits happy in the sugar-fuelled hallucination that everything is free.

By the end of September, the Yankees have posted the best record in baseball and are headed for the playoffs, where the crowd will be made up of people willing to pay $400 or more for tickets. The last regular-season game of the year pits the Yankees against the lowly Royals on a raw night in late September. Fans like me will watch the playoffs on television. The city no longer seems as desolate as it did in May, even though none of my friends who lost their jobs have found new work. The scalpers underneath the subway tracks are excited about the prospect of a trip to the World Series, where turnover is high and profits can equal hundreds of dollars per ticket. What lies ahead of us is the job of making the best of what we have, which by global standards is plenty. New Yorkers may kvetch, but we don't complain. In the bottom of the fifth Nick Swisher smacks a two-run homer and the crowd makes a noise like a giant chainsaw. I look around to see their faces. New Yorkers look more beat up and sleepless than they did last year. There is less money and more worries. On the other hand, Derek Jeter and the Yankees have a very good year. I wander down to the concourse where I can buy a memento from the old Yankee Stadium. A blue plastic chair costs $744.99. A brick costs $120. A wizened piece of sod that resembles a dried bird's nest can be had for $100. When I return to my seat, I find that the stands have become a kind of free-form therapy session where everyone yells out whatever they want. "You're fired" someone yells from the stands. "I hate my ex-wife!" someone adds. "Don't we all!" a wise guy answers. By the bottom of the seventh inning, the Royals are leading 4 to 3, and the stadium has emptied out. Half the Yankees line-up has been replaced with scrubs. I turn to my copy of that day's New York Post, to read more about the 24-year-old former food vendor named Najibullah Zazi, who is now defending himself in Brooklyn Federal Court against the charge that he orchestrated a plot to set off bombs in the subways. In the bottom of the ninth, the replacement catcher Francisco Cervelli gets a hit with two outs and runs to first base, where he shivers in the cold while the loudspeakers blare Jimi Hendrix singing "Let me stand next to your fire." The occasional pinch-runner Freddy Guzmán, who doesn't have a single hit this season, steps up to bat and is greeted with loud cheers for an entirely hopeless situation. Miraculously he hits a high chopper to second base and beats the throw to first. For the last inning of the last game of the regular season at the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankees are underdogs. The 10,000 loyalists in the stands are delighted. The next batter is Ramiro Pena, who hit his only home run of the season against the Royals. With one ball and one strike, the guy next to me in the Mario's valet jacket is sitting on the edge of his seat. Pena pops out, and the game is over. "F*** you!" "A******!" The crowd crunches peanut shells underfoot and Frank Sinatra's anthem blares from speakers as it does after every game here, win or lose. "I want to be a part of it, New YORK, NEW-YOOOORRK!" Soon celebrities will fill the seats that are occupied by ordinary customers, and Park Avenue lawyers will wear cashmere knit Yankees hats to work and talk about last night's game with their doormen. The city will live and die on every pitch in a way that will suggest to me, as it has with increasing frequency over the past decade, that the winner-take-all ethic that the city cultivated as a response to the narrative of inevitable decline and chaos that spread in the 1960s and 1970s may be at the root of what now ails us. The solution to the problems the city suffered in my youth was to concentrate powers in the hands of the rich and let them take care of the rest of us. Now that times are tough, the idea of living in the democratic oligarchy whose class structure is embodied in the new Yankee Stadium no longer seems as attractive as it did only a few years ago. I wonder how I will explain to my son that it is not possible for people like us to sit near the field. Still, I am grateful that the Yankees are winners again.

David Samuels is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and a regular contributor to the New Yorker. His books The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart are now available in paperback from Counterpoint.