“It’s a pretty special place.”
-Bill Belichick on Soldier Field
I remember the first time I saw it.
December 1st 2001.
Noah and I had driven from New York to Chicago, with a layover in some shitty town in western Pennsylvania. We drove north up Lake Shore Drive en route to our cheap hotel room booked, ironically now, in Arlington Heights.
It appeared out of nowhere. Not through a Lake Michigan fog or Arthurian mist, mind you, but through the naïve haze of “I don’t know where the fuck I am and WAIT IS THAT SOLDIER FIELD????”
I got emotional. I couldn’t help it. It was only a few moments but in those few moments I thought of a lifetime of seeing this team, loving this team, admiring this building, in all the weird ways an out of town fan had to in the years before NFL Sunday Ticket.
I thought about the photograph of three year-old me in a Jim McMahon shirt. A shirt I still have, and until very recently, was kept on a King Louie stuffed animal.
I thought about my Steve McMichael and Richard Dent Starting Lineup figures. And how I would play with them on this Chicago Bears football field carpet I got for Christmas.
I thought about going to Jets games in the Meadowlands, in our family’s season tickets, dressed all in Bears shit and cheering every time the out of town scoreboard updated in the building. After a while the section joined in those cheers and became Bears fans.
Until that moment on Lake Shore, Soldier Field was a character on television. Gordon Shumway. George Costanza. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. You don’t meet those people because those people are not real. But here was Soldier Field. Real. And in a day I would get to walk through those gates.
What Do I Love About Soldier Field?
A buddy of mine, a construction guy in Woodside, met me at our local last Friday and asked me about “the Soldier Field thing”. I explained it to him as best I could, handing him my phone and Twitter feed for ten minutes while he laughed and laughed and laughed. His response was great. “You can’t get rid of Soldier Field. That’s like Fenway.” (I guess he’s a Red Sox fan but I don’t know that much about him.)
That’s what I love about Soldier Field. It’s a piece of American sports history. I travel to old, historic cities like Bruges and Dinan. I drink in old taverns, with stories etched in the barstools. When we sit and watch a football game at Soldier Field we become part of that building’s history, part of the story.
The fact that it is actually IN the city is one of its coolest elements. Soldier Field is a part of Chicago’s cityscape in a way that no other NFL stadium can claim to be. New York doesn’t have that. Los Angeles doesn’t have that. San Francisco and Houston and Dallas and Washington DC don’t have that. When you leave the building, marching with thousands upon thousands of other either jubilant or despairing fans, you’re deposited directly back into town. Back onto the L. Or into Kroll’s. Or into an Uber with Lou Malnati’s as the only logical destination.
The Bears are Chicago. Soldier Field is a big reason why.
Does Soldier Have Flaws? Of Course.
Does the building have enough men’s rooms? No. (Does any sports facility?)
Is it supremely cold in the dead of winter? Yes. (But so is the rest of the city. You want to move the whole town to the tropical climate of Arlington Heights?)
But you know what Soldier’s most pronounced flaw is? It’s the folks who sell their tickets to the out of town fans. Having been in that building 15 times, I have never seen the building more than 60 or 70% Bears fans. A third of the seats (at least) are always inhabited by those cheering for the opponents.
For those of you clamoring for the building to increase capacity, stop. Increased capacity does not increase the home field advantage. Increased capacity would merely increase the likelihood of half the building being Lions fans in December.
What Could I Absolutely Care Less About?
(1) How much the Chicago Bears are worth.
So let me get this straight: everybody hates the McCaskey family but everybody wants them to be wealthier? If the Bears were put up for sale tomorrow, they would fetch north of $5 billion. Billion. With a B. Some land in the suburbs with a building on it would probably increase that value by a few hundred million.
(2) Final Fours. FINAL FOURS?!?!?!?!?!
Why do people in Chicago pretend like hosting a Final Four is a badge of honor the city needs? Chicago is one of the 2-3 best cities in the country, and I’d argue the world. It doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. Hosting the banner event of one of the country’s most desperate and corrupt organizations isn’t going to bolster your civic resume. (And I got news for those of you who want the Super Bowl or Final Four in Chicago: you won’t even notice. And you can’t afford to go.)
Sometimes folks in Chicago talk like they live in Syracuse. Chicago doesn’t need more events. Chicago IS the event. That’s why hotel prices at $300+ in the summer. People come to see the town. They don’t need Gonzaga to sweeten the pot.
(3) Your traffic complaints.
News alert: cities have traffic.
Foxboro, Massachusetts has brutal traffic leaving games. East Rutherford, New Jersey is a traffic nightmare on Sundays. Ever leave a Buffalo Bills game in a car? You look up and you’re in Rochester. If you think moving the team to a suburb will solve the traffic issue, you have no idea what you’re talking about. All it will do is move the traffic to a different, shittier location.
Also, find me another NFL stadium accessible by “subway” (L), commuter rail and car. There ain’t one.
The Bears play most their games at noon in Chicago. Do you really need to be drunk before kickoff? You paid enough for the tickets, why not watch (and remember) the game?
I’ve had to step over a passed out puke machine in the men’s at both of my last two Bears home games. I got no issue with tailgating; I’ve had some great times in parking lots. I also would have no issue with it disappearing forever.
On the Architectural “Debate”
Soldier Field’s remodel in 2003 is a work of art. If you don’t like it, fine. But many of you reading this think Forrest Gump is a good movie so your artistic opinions mean intensely little to me. This is from Herbert Muschamp’s architectural review of the building in the New York Times (September 30, 2003):
The new football stadium at Soldier Field in Chicago is an uncannily accurate portrait of a great American city in changing times. Some Chicago lovers find the portrait less than flattering. Even before the inaugural game last night, the Chicago Bears’ new home has been harshly criticized for (among other things) destroying the old landmark stadium that the design has transformed.
I suspect that it won’t be long before the city embraces the new field. The design’s urban and architectural merits are considerable. Its conceptual qualities are better still. If you set out to write something bad about the design, you ultimately end up with a critique of the society that produced it. But the design is much more than a symptom of our time. It is a creative response to it. Soldier Field is a daring study of urban America in extremis, precariously poised for a future beyond its widely unlamented demise.
Designed by Ben Wood of Chicago and Carlos Zapata of Boston, the 62,200-seat stadium stretches the concept of adaptive reuse nearly past the breaking point. Retaining the classical shell of a stadium designed in the 1920’s, the architects have inserted what amounts to an entirely new structure. Instead of matching the two parts in style, they have updated the old stadium in terms of spirit. The result is a major breakthrough: the liberation of sports architecture from sports architects.
If you want to build a great stadium, hire a real architect. Cities in Europe, Asia and Latin America have understood this for years. In the United States sports architecture has been crippled by the same developer mentality that has hampered almost every type of building except museums and concert halls. Make it exciting! But don’t risk surprises. Don’t hire anyone who hasn’t done the same thing at least 2,000 times.
This Catch-22 has given us 10 years of mediocre sports architecture, much of it in the retro mode typified by Coors Field in Denver. It has been riveting to watch baby-boom fathers inflict their traumatized inner childhoods on their own unsuspecting progeny in turn. But for cities the loss has been great. Just when our urban centers might have been aiming to surpass our overseas counterparts in creative ambition, our teams were settling for the architectural equivalent of stale popcorn and warm beer.
Soldier Field, by contrast, is easily a match for the most advanced stadium design anywhere in the world today. The $382.5 million building, part of a broader plan to improve Chicago’s lakeside parks, should be a model for cities that are looking toward architecture to strengthen their identities as contemporary cultural centers.
I am, by no means, an architecture expert. The late-Muschamp was. You can criticize the building all you want but you also must acknowledge that experts on the subject believe the building is a breakthrough in stadium architecture; a merging of the old and the new; a chance taken on a project that rarely yields anything by way of adventure. Soldier Field’s new design may not be for everyone. But guess what? Neither is Stephen Sondheim. Neither is Edward Hopper. And I love them too, without so much as considering for an instant YOUR opinion on them.
Be Careful What You Wish For.
When new buildings go up, you the fan do not benefit. You NEVER benefit.
Luxury boxes increase tenfold.
Lower level seating, with waiter/waitress service, and absurd prices, increase tenfold.
The diehard fans who create the “homefield advantage noise” get pushed further and further from the action. (Giants Stadium used to be a tornado of noise at the field level. At MetLife Stadium, the field level is suits. The noise is louder in the parking lot.)
And for those of you arguing it will be a boon to the local area’s economy, I ask you to find me a single example where that has occurred in this country. You won’t find one. The Bears would be playing in Arlington Heights 8-10 times a year. What becomes of this bustling new entertainment district the other 355 days?
I don’t want Soldier Field to go.
I don’t think Soldier Field will go.
But I find it sad how so many of you are willing to throw history in the bin for the potential promise of Marquette v. Kansas on a Monday night in April. So many of you are willing to disregard tradition for 20 minutes less in the car. I understand the power of convenience. But you should know that any new structure will have nothing to do with the only thing that matters in a stadium: the truly remarkable relationship between the athlete and the fan; the electric current that flows between them. That will be the last thing considered, if it’s considered at all.
And so I’ve said what I have to say. Maybe I’ll lose this fight. I’ve lost many before when it comes to preserving history. But if Soldier Field goes, you’ll miss it. Mark my words, you’ll clamor for these glorious days on the lakefront. You’ll wax poetic about them. But hey, at least you’ll have the opportunity to see ten 18 year-olds play basketball for colleges you don’t care about once every decade.