Commuter Riots

The Kansas City Royals’ Kauffman Stadium is in a suburban sports complex that is perfectly modernist, which is to say, perfectly designed to quash riots.

On game day, the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex could be described as the innermost suburb clinging to the outermost periphery of Kansas City, Missouri. Containing Kauffman Stadium and its neighbor, Arrowhead Stadium, the Complex exists in an eastern industrial buffer zone between the Kansas City metro and the suburb of Independence. But Kansas City sports used to have a decidedly less suburban home. From 1955 to 1971, Municipal Stadium, warmly situated in the birthplace of jazz, shoehorned fans of the Athletics (who decamped for Oakland in 1967), the Chiefs and the Royals into its wooden grandstands until Arrowhead and The K were christened.

For much longer, Municipal Stadium had been home to the Negro American League’s winningest team, the Kansas City Monarchs. They were so popular in the 1930-50s that church congregants would leave services to attend a Monarchs game, up to the point that many of the Black community churches altered sermon times to facilitate reverence to both God and game. Spectators would walk to the stadium dressed in their Sunday bests ready to baptize themselves each week in the hot summer sun. Bright metro buses parked along the first base line outside the stadium, shuttling people to and from games.

Kansas City Municipal Stadium is an old testament to what made baseball the national pastime. The fans felt a neighborly connection to the team, and with that came a sense of communal ownership of the stadium (rather than seeing it as an outside agitator encroaching on a space where it wasn’t invited).

Stadiums in densely populated neighborhoods can mean distended rents and razed homes each time team owners need room to stretch, so relocating two professional sports clubs to the outskirts staved off gentrification for decades in Kansas City’s historic downtown Jazz District. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is now located there, and single-occupancy working class homes still exist in the almost-pastoral neighborhood of Wendell Phillips, where Municipal Stadium once sat.

The same tree-lined blocks were a base of operations for the local chapter of the Black Panther Party, founded the same year cities burned for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The BPP of KC successfully operated two breakfast programs and a free clinic, defended community members against police harassment, interrupted political gatherings, rioted in solidarity with other cities across the country, and garnered financial support from neighboring white churches. In the riotous spring of 1968, fires spread from one abandoned building to the next across multiple neighborhoods while strategic rooftop shooters kept fire trucks and the National Guard at bay to insure the fires made their mark. Municipal Stadium remained intact.

The purpose of a riot, whether based in outrage and oppression or celebration and privilege, is to spread itself sufficiently to mark a new era in history. Nothing is the same as it was and all else may change with an iconoclastic outburst. The Truman Sports Complex is removed from the era of community engagement and the power of rioting that went along with it, and it is only accessible to those with the means of travel in the hope that riots don’t commute.

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The K and Arrowhead were modernist in design, schools of thought, stadium era, and location, challenging the ideas of the day on how the stadium form should function. Crafted to serve the specific ideal experience of their respective sport, the stadiums were molded individually to transfix their audience on the field dynamics. The signature of Arrowhead is the dueling slope amphitheater seating that helps create the loudest stadium in the NFL. The signature of Kauffman stadium was the almost symmetrical boomerang seating arrangement, making the field the focal point from every seat—even when the team was unfocused. But Kauffman’s signature has since become the world’s largest (and decidedly non-modernist) privately funded collection of fountains on display in the outfield: Spraying high into the air between innings and falling to a silent babble over the edges of black marble cubes during game play. The organic cantilevered approach barely dings the inside foul pole of Modernist design.

Game day access to either stadium first requires commuting to the expansive asphalt compound in the pocket of Interstates 70 and 435. The sweep of the paved-over prairie land is replicated by the ground level parking, which, after passing through the glass foyer, opens onto the mid-section of the stadium, where fans then ascend to the grandstand or descend to the subterranean field level. The wide and shallow coil of the spiral ramps resembles the nautilus shell design of the Guggenheim but operates more like cattle corrals stacked on pilotis.

The complex was built a dozen miles outside the urban core in the early days of white flight and was criticized for being neither a red brick classic nor a bigger utilitarian stadium. A 2009 remodel attempted a sort of penance to the more standard fan experiences of spectator and consumer, as elements from both of these retro styles were pulled into the redesign. Auxiliary attractions under the upper deck were pressed into a main concourse to capture attention while away from the field. Although the concourse between the seats and limestone façade concessions were widened and fortified with the consumer stimuli of the mega stadiums, in an ironic turn the seating capacity of Kauffman was actually reduced by twenty-five hundred, thereby gentrifying space within the already suburbanite stadium by restricting the ability to participate in the core activity: sitting.

Most noticeable of the renovations—the outfield concourse—opened up a 360 degree view of the field, creating uninterrupted surveillance feeds. By doing so, the high walls of the new concourse ended the unofficial parking lot seats, seats filled by those who couldn’t cover gas money to the stadium, the cost of parking and a ticket; fans who snuck behind the scoreboard overlooking right field to watch the game from the outside. Blocking the view from these pseudo-commons is a massive high definition screen capped with a golden crown, erected over a smattering of cheap seats, large fountains, a small amusement park and a miniature golf course.

Modernism is the perfect design choice for temporarily containing a large and potentially unruly sports crowd through the use of progressive behavior-shaping architecture rather than reactionary brute force. Napoleon III’s extreme makeover of medieval Paris infrastructure was just such an innovation. His chief architect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, widened avenues as a prohibitive measure against the erection of barricades and planned a more rigid rectangular intersection grid to rid the city of the jigsaw streets and blind alleys that, from a defensive view, could lend aid to a revolt by obscuring a full assessment of the crowd. A prominent designer of the Auschwitz concentration camps, Fritz Ertl, was Bauhaus trained. As a Modernist school of thought, the Bauhaus was as much associated with the liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic as the design goal of social destratification between craft laborer and artist by minimizing decorative flourishes. The Bauhaus, however, often goes uncredited for its equally prominent role in the genesis of efficient genocide.

The Eisenhower federal highway project was the largest Modernist development in the United States, but it was mainly a military development for the benefit of domestic mobilizations. Secondary advantages to connecting cities in a uniformed fashion was an increase of commerce and trade, and coupled with industrialized agricultural’s reduction of labor needs, sped up processes of rural proletarianization. But the federal highway system was a two-way street. Urban whites with any modicum of wealth soon saw the interstate system as a mode for mass exodus to carve out suburbs and regain control in widening the berth of segregation gaps.

It should come as no surprise that the Jackson County Sports Authority scouted land as early as 1965 alongside Eisenhower’s inaugural interstate highway, rather than rebuild in downtown. The prospect of the complex serving as a cradle to future city planning on the new superhighway couldn’t have been far from the developers’ minds. Not to mention leveraging regulatory segregation tactics like the refusal of home loans to non-whites, or the re-centering of tax bases away from urban expenses like public transportation, to create a “better”, wealthier, whiter fanbase. All the while still taxing metro residents for the privilege of hosting two professional sports teams on the periphery of the city. Locating stadiums outside a metro area deterritorializes how the national pastime relates to its spectators and who can include themselves as spectator, while the single-sport stadium design serves to reterritorialize the dynamics of the game.

This month, ersatz stadiums returned to downtown during the Royals astonishing sweep to the World Series as hundreds of suburbanites who couldn’t afford playoff tickets gathered under the neon lights of boutiques in the premier Kansas City nightlife district slightly northeast of the old Municipal Stadium location. Royals fans gathered together to reterritorialize the spirit of the old stadium. The scars of the 1968 riots are now invisible around the free open-air concert venue. Adrenaline-fueled action was piped in on big screens next to the H&R Block world headquarters.

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To the newly suburbanized, propertied class of white people, farmland is nothing more than undeveloped homes and future parking lots. Ever expanding, the Truman complex is currently 220 acres and the majority of acreage is paved surface parking for 20,000 vehicles. But because of various enforced lot assignments dependent on which team is playing, tailgaters often spill out of the parking lots and onto the grasslands surrounding the country’s largest asphalt bar (with a $30 gate fee.) On game days in the late 1980s, Chiefs founder and limestone cavern warehouse magnate, Lamar Hunt, personally encouraged fans to tailgate as a way to drum up attendance for his poorly performing franchise. To make the drive seem worthwhile, he judged barbeque and biggest group and best van contests, shook hands with the people, and probably turned down more offers of cold Budweiser than all other billionaires combined. Lamar Hunt was a big tent revivalist, and his congregation flocked from all across the Midwest as a pilgrimage to tailgate with him at the Truman Complex.

For perhaps a season or two, it wasn’t uncommon to see an urgent message on the monochrome LED scoreboard alerting one unlucky Chiefs fan their car was on fire after storing hot coals under it. Eventually, coal bins proliferated across the parking lots and the reckless grilling habits were modified. By the early 1990s, the Chiefs began winning and the NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, tried to replicate bucolic Sunday tailgate services at Arrowhead across the league, fueling a few fiery championship street riots in the process.

A couple years after Hunt’s death, large slabs of limestone and native tall prairie grasses were strategically reintroduced around the complex to reduce the need to mow and, in doing so, come into compliance with federal environmental emissions ordinances. The natural landscaping and stone barricades served to reduce pro tempore parking access and reel in the almost-lawless legacy of tailgate overflow that Lamar Hunt promoted during the era of flaming cars. Behavior was imperceptibly policed through landscape design changes.

Celebratory (rather than accidental) car fires haven’t yet happened at Truman Sports Complex, despite the near-precipice of sports riots approached when occasional winning streaks have met the thoroughly liquored tailgate communes. Is it possible the remote location in conjunction with the design features of Modernist containment restrict a riot from sparking? Even if a riot broke, the real estate development has yet to take hold around the forty year old anchor. Save for a gas station, a Taco Bell, the headquarters of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and three hotels, the complex stands alone. It is not the commuter outpost the developers envisioned with desires of suburban white flight convenience. A riot at the Truman Complex would have nothing from the old pre-game world to challenge and rather than a sharp marking of a new era, it would become a renovation of the old: stymied and clunky.

The outdoor enthusiast mecca Bass Pro Shop was considered as a possible neighbor to the Truman Complex early in the century. But it ended up hocking guns, crossbows, knives and ball bats about ten miles east on I-70 in Independence, to benefit from the foot traffic generated by the destination mall and brand name outlet stores at the Independence Center. This is the suburban somewhere in the middle of nowhere in which a new era could rightly register the writing on the walls of consumer desire. The prophetic voice Ray Kinsella hears in his field of dreams hasn’t held true for development at the Truman Complex any more than the prophetic words Joseph Smith heard in the 1830s telling him somewhere in Jackson county was the Garden of Eden and Second Coming of Christ.

For over 180 years nearly every grandiose intention to develop the land southeast of downtown KC has stalled. John Smith and disciples were not only run out of Jackson County before building a temple in this New Jerusalem, but the conflict sparked the Mormon War which violently expelled them from Missouri. Smith said, “although according to the prophets, this is to become like Eden or the garden of the Lord, yet, at present it is as it were: a wilderness and desert.” In 1994, the Independence Temple of the Community of Christ, a Christian variant of John Smith’s Latter Day Saints movement, was finally dedicated in Independence. The Temple is a stainless steel and stone nautilus spiral spire rising three hundred feet and was designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, the same architectural firm responsible for the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex five miles to the south. Like the complex’s stairwells, it too resembles the Guggenheim, but this time stretching to high Heaven.

In Genesis of the Christian bible, it is said that after Adam and Eve’s banishment for seeking the freedom to gain knowledge, the eastern entrance to the Garden of Eden is guarded by a cherub with a flaming sword to protect the Trees of Life and Knowledge. In the Book of Mormon, the earthly paradise of Eden will be reopened to the Latter Day Saints when Jesus returns. Less than thirteen miles to the east of the Truman Sports Complex is a NATO small munitions factory, a modern armed cherub.

Although there are specific constraints in place at Kauffman impeding the traditional riot of pedestrians destroying urban capital and overturned flaming cars barricading the street, perhaps the challenge to the current era, if the purpose of a riot is indeed to spread the riot as a way of marking the coming of a new one, is in seizing the cherub’s armaments and opening Eden up to the commons.

In locating the Truman Complex, Eden is restored. But only if the riot can commute.