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 initial 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 single-mindedness 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 ceremony that some people thought might invigorate a neighborhood. She had hoped it would.
Yet a fetching, seven-figure facelift has proved just for show. The city never had plans for what to do once the ballpark was saved. The reluctant leadership in the Public Works Department, which controls the site, has been clueless about what to do with it. They have set the price for renting the ballfield beyond the ability of youth programs in the city to pay.
Teams from well-to-do 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’s OK if League Park can’t draw suburban youth. From what you hear, Lewis had 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 doesn’t necessarily mean it must change drastically. But Hough/Fairfax is changing, reviving itself as Lewis had envisioned it would. League Park was one of the earlier signs of change — of the gentrification of the Lexington Avenue-East 66th Street area, a 10-minute drive to City Hall.
In reality, City Hall is lightyears away, its indifference toward the neighborhood masked in excuses, missteps and commitments to downtown.
Of course, all city projects can’t have the same priority; some of them prove more pressing than others. League Park, sadly, is not among the latter.
Because the ballpark is no longer a councilwoman’s vision. It’s now brick walls artificial grass and chain-link fencing that sparkle like the ballplayers who starred there in the early and mid-1900s.
Perhaps League Park doesn’t merit a politician’s attention. Just leave the place alone and allow it to sit idle.
The city tried that approach, and what residents in the area got in exchange was an eyesore.
League Park isn’t an eyesore anymore. Instead, it’s a $6.3 million white elephant in a Black neighborhood.