Washington to Erect a Cathedral

“Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once — the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show. Somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.” — Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham.

In the Middle Ages, one could often tell how prosperous a town was by the size and splendor of its cathedral. The resources of a feudal town might be better spent on fortifications, higher walls on the castle, a broader moat, or more grain storage facilities. The purpose of a cathedral was not only to provide a place for worship. While cathedrals might have to be a certain size to accommodate attendance at large services, the splendor and wealth lavished on cathedrals were far beyond that which could be justified purely on the basis of providing protection from the elements for the devout.

Part of this lavishness was simply an attempt to create a grand space in the hopes of inducing a reverential mood while in the cathedral. However, there was another, perhaps not so noble purpose in these cathedrals. Having a grand cathedral, especially one larger than the neighboring town, was a way of announcing that a town was so prosperous that it could afford to devote, some might say squander, resources that might practically be spent elsewhere. A grand cathedral was part of the cultural glue that could bind a town, a way for everyone to identify with and participate in a town’s prosperity.

Washington D.C. is now deciding that it too would like to erect a modern cathedral, a downtown stadium to house a major league baseball team, the Washington Nationals. The economic arguments against such an investment are persuasive. Though a new stadium might generate some new income for the city, studies have shown that if economic growth is the goal, then investments in other infrastructure would generate more government revenue.

The public schools in Washington are in a physical shambles and are grossly ineffective in teaching. Some have argued that the resources that would go to a stadium should be spent on education. However, the argument that the stadium money should be invested in schools is less cogent. The Washington, D.C. school system already spends $9000 per year per student, far above the national average. The problem with the Washington school system is attributable to poor management not a lack of resources.

An investment in a baseball stadium is not solely an economic calculation, but a spiritual one. A stadium is a statement that a city it is sufficiently prosperous to apply resources to a less than practical enterprise. Its lack of economic justification is part of its attraction. Like a cathedral, a baseball stadium is a spiritual decision — a deliberate choice to embark of unifying cultural enterprise to draw together a city. It is not a green-eye-shade economic calculation.

Each city must make its own decision. A stadium and a major league baseball team is not a good decision for every city. Whatever the economics, the world would be a poorer place now if people in the Middle Ages did not put aside for a moment practical matters and erect beautiful cathedrals. Likewise, the world would be a poorer place if on occasion cities did not feed the spirit and build baseball stadiums instead of filling potholes.

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