Few things are worse than a white elephant, particularly when the elephant comes with a $6.3 million price on its backside.
That is the money that went into League Park, a historic ballpark in the heart of a Black neighborhood.
League Park spent almost 40 years in decline, and it might have collapsed altogether were it not for the singlemindedness of Fannie Lewis, the late councilwoman. Lewis refused to let the wrecker’s ball destroy what remained of the place the Cleveland Indians used to call their homefield.
A sign in her backyard used to tell people where she stood: “This project was part of the plan we had for the neighborhood. The Lord gave us the vision. Anybody protesting is working for Satan. Anybody who questions this sign can call Fannie M. Lewis.”
Lewis, who died in 2008, did not live long enough to see her effort bear fruit, but in 2014, the ballpark reopened to the kind of pomp and circumstance that should have invigorated a neighborhood. Lewis had hoped it would.
Yet a fetching, seven-figure facelift has proved just for show. The city never had a plan for what to do once the ballpark was saved. The reluctant leadership in the Public Works Department, which controls the site, has been as clueless as the mayor they work for. They have put the price for renting the ballpark beyond the ability of youth programs in the city to pay.
Teams from well-to-do white suburbs can, but you can sense their uneasiness about playing baseball in a neighborhood where few people look like their boys and where parking is nowhere to be found.
That is OK if League Park cannot draw suburban youth there. From what you hear, Lewis envisioned Black boys and girls in the Hough/Fairfax neighborhood, where League Park sits, using the facility. They would soak up the rich history of “Black baseball” and play in leagues that would call the ballpark home.
None of that has happened, which is no surprise in Cleveland.
The city long has given short-shrift to Black neighborhoods, aside from gobbling up empty plots, moving residents to less-central locations and gentrifying what they left behind.
No neighborhood can afford to standstill. It must remain vibrant, which does not necessarily mean it must change drastically. Hough/Fairfax is changing, reviving itself as Lewis had envisioned. League Park was one of the earlier signs of change — of the gentrification of the Lexington Avenue-East 66th Street area, a 12-minute drive to City Hall.
In reality, City Hall is lightyears away, its indifference toward the neighborhood masked in excuses, missteps and commitments elsewhere.
Of course, all city projects cannot have the same priority; some prove more pressing than others. League Park, however, is not among the latter.
Because the ballpark is no longer a project, no longer a councilwoman’s dream. It is a brick-and-mortar facility that sparkles like the Hall-of-Fame ballplayers who starred there in the early and mid-1900s.
Perhaps League Park does not merit a politician’s attention. Just leave the place alone and let it go unused.
For four decades, the city tried that approach, and what its residents got in exchange was an eyesore.
League Park is not the eyesore it was once, but it is a $6.3 million white elephant in a Black neighborhood.