Monday, March 22, 2010

A City Best Seen With A Map

Originally written February 17, 2010

As a child I never dealt with the trouble that comes from moving. I know many people who did and I can’t imagine having to restart my life and develop a new circle of friends. Had I not lived in the same house my parents bought in 1981 for my entire pre (and part of my post) college life, I would be completely different. Of course, it’s entirely possible I would be more able to deal with transition, which might have served me well when the Devils moved into their new home in October of 2007.

Now, this wasn’t quite the same change as when the Mets jumped across the parking lot to Citi Field 18 months later. I had spent far more time at Shea Stadium than Brendan Byrne Arena. But something still seemed odd about the opening of the Prudential Center. Perhaps it was because it was the first sporting venue in the New York Metropolitan area to open since the Byrne, which, interestingly, also opened its doors for the first time in 1981.

Perhaps it was only right that the first one of my teams to change its venue – three of them would over the next three years – came just months before I moved out of my childhood home for good, to the 21st-floor apartment I currently call home in Long Island City, Queens.

While in college I had paid a fair amount of attention to the Devils’ new arena – the planning, the spending, the groundbreaking. It would be tough in some ways to bid the Byrne its farewell. Despite watching the Devils lose the first time I went there, I had gone on a remarkable run over its final years. My mother and I witnessed Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi beat Martin Brodeur 56 seconds into overtime to hand the Devils a 3-2 loss to the Canucks on December 4, 2002. That would be the last time I ever saw the Devils lose at there. In fact, I wouldn’t see them lose in person again until a 4-1 loss to Buffalo on October 28, 2009 – their third season at Prudential Center.

Still, the Byrne had several flaws. It was a dull building far from any public transportation, which meant going there without your parents was impossible until you had a driver’s license. In New Jersey that didn’t happen until your 17th birthday. While I was a licensed driver by the opening of the Prudential Center – or as it would quickly be nicknamed in a nod to Prudential’s corporate logo: “The Rock” – there was still a joy that came with public transit. Moreover, the Devils simply needed a new home. The Byrne had become outmoded, difficult to get to and did not provide the revenue streams that many newer buildings gave their teams. The Devils had been clamoring for a new building for more than a decade by the time it opened, including a tenuous moment when the franchise nearly moved to Nashville immediately following its first Stanley Cup in 1995.

After years of back-and-forth, however, the Devils had finally found their home in the Rock, a beautiful, if poorly attended building in the Ironbound District of downtown Newark. To many, the choice of Newark, a downtrodden and poorer city was an odd choice for a hockey team to call home. Many feared the dangerous neighborhoods nearby and ESPN hockey commentator Barry Melrose joked, “Don’t go outside, especially if you’ve got a wallet or anything else because the area around the building is awful”.

Not surprisingly, Melrose’s comments struck a chord with the team, the fans and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. After all, the Rock was expected to be the anchor that revitalized a dying, crime-ridden city, and after Melrose agreed to come to Newark and see the building and the surrounding neighborhood for himself he changed his tune despite a derisive greeting from the crowds. Whether he did so out of honesty or contrition is immaterial. All I can say is when I first made my way there on November 2, 2007, the hefty police presence made me feels as if I was hardly in danger. I would find my own way to put my life at risk just hours later.

At the time I was three weeks into my new job and I decided to get tickets through work for my first venture to the Devils’ new lair. On my way to the game I parked my car outside my father’s house in Maplewood, New Jersey, a few blocks from the train station. As I lived at home for nearly a year after college despite working, parking at my dad’s house and walking to the train was something I had down to a science by the time I moved.

Usually, my father was working when I went to the office, but this time he was home so I decided to stop in and say hello. In retrospect, this may have been a poor choice as once I told him I was going to the Devils game with the company tickets his eyes lit up in anticipation that I was surprising him with a gift. After I informed him that I was actually going to the game with my friends Feiny and Justin, his expression changed considerably.


I met Feiny on the train – Justin would be arriving later and, as the plan went, buying an upper deck seat and sneaking down to wherever our seats were. The public transit options were a bit untested for both of us and with this being only the Devils’ third game at the Rock not many people knew how it worked. Supposedly the public transit options involved going to one of the two train stations in the city of Newark, either Newark-Penn Station or Newark-Broad Street Station. At Penn Station it was easy enough, the platform was a brief two-block walk from the building. Broad Street, the station we were going to, was a further distance, but the Devils ran free shuttles to the Arena and as we found when we got off the train, there were dozens of employees ready and willing to direct you. As it turned out, getting to the building was as easy as could be.

As we approached the Rock it was infinitely nicer than Brendan Byrne Arena. While the Byrne was a boring, soulless box, Prudential Center had an inspired design that gave character and life to New Jersey’s hockey home. The walls were covered in red brick with dark gray borders encapsulating them, echoing the Devils’ color scheme and, supposedly, paying homage to the industrial bricklaying and railroad heritage of Newark, which is also known as “Brick City”. The front of the building featured a massive LED screen while two of its corners were made of massive glass light towers, which fans entered through as escalators led them to the main concourse. From the outside on game nights, the Rock brims with light and energy, an attempt to breathe life into a city that had been beaten down by decades of crime and poverty.

Newark had been a bustling metropolis for much of the early 20th century, with its population reaching nearly half a million in 1950. But racial tensions and eventually several days of riots in 1967 damaged much of the city and hastened its decline in population, wealth and stature. By the time the Rock opened, Newark’s population stood at nearly half of what it had at its peak. As Booker and others led the long drive back to respectability, this arena and the area surrounding it were central to the Brick City’s rehabilitation.

That is not to say that it was without its decent areas. Newark’s downtown business district was a perfectly safe place to spend your days toiling and the Ironbound district had its share of decent restaurants. My high school graduation was followed by dinner at a Portuguese rodizio restaurant in Newark called Seabra’s. But those decent areas couldn’t spare the city its reputation. In 1996, TIME Magazine dubbed Newark “The Most Dangerous City in America”, and while the ranking had dropped to a still reasonably robust 20th when the Rock opened, Newark’s reputation continued to precede it.

If its downtrodden areas were what Newark was, Prudential Center’s glitzy exterior and its clean interior were what it wanted to be. The inside of the building features far more character and decoration than the Byrne ever did. Murals detailing the Devils’ history, as well as homages to Newark and New Jersey’s sports history grace several walls along the main concourse. When the building opened, one section featured two huge banners with paintings of each building the franchise had played in from its early days in Kansas City as the Scouts, to its brief stay in Denver as the Colorado Rockies and both of its arenas in the Garden State.

One exhibit featured all of the jerseys the Devils had worn throughout their history, and another wall was painted with a bench featuring the Devils’ greatest all time players, among them Craig Billington, Bruce Driver, John MacLean, Slava Fetisov, Claude Lemieux, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and, of course, Martin Brodeur. Echoing a trend started by the Minnesota Wild, the interior of the arena on both levels is lined with the jerseys of every high school hockey team in the state in an attempt to draw a closer connection between New Jersey’s team and its residents.

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, the tops of each urinal in the men’s room has an all-too-necessary Devils logo on top of it.

The building didn’t just raise the experience – or the cost – for the fans. It was also a one-stop location for the organization, featuring office space as well as the Devils’ practice rink. The Rock was only the second building in the League to house one after Nationwide Arena in Columbus, and while there is a huge glass window that allows fans to look in on the rink during practice, this was another sign for me that I was getting older. I had more than once dragged my father to South Mountain Arena in West Orange, New Jersey, a short drive from my home to watch the Devils practice. Still, with the advantages for the team, I’d find a way to get over it. Just about everything in the Prudential Center was a dramatic improvement over the Byrne.

Feiny and I were hoping our seats would be in the building’s two All-You-Can-Eat Sections. From blue line to blue line, the lower bowl sections featured large leather seats and were attached to two bars, cleverly called the “Fire” and “Ice” bars, which featured free all you could eat food and non-alcoholic beverage. While during the games it was typical arena fair – burgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken fingers – before the games multiple carving stations were set up with finer choices like prime rib and duck. For those not fortunate enough to score those tickets, other food options around the arena still feature various types of cuisine with many coming from the city of Newark itself.

Unfortunately, while I had gotten nice seats, they were in the section over from the free food. After Justin arrived and somehow weaseled his way to our section, he and Feiny decided it was only right to sneak into the fire bar and grab some food. I was gun shy about raising trouble and reluctantly left them to their own devices while I sat and watched the game. I assumed their efforts would be fruitless, but sure enough the pair returned to our seats 15 minutes later with a slice of pizza for me.

I found it a bit of meaningful symmetry that I would see the Devils face the Maple Leafs in my first game at the Rock as I had 12 years earlier for my first game at the Byrne. In a lucky change of fate, however, the result was different this time around. While the Leafs controlled play for much of the first two periods, outshooting New Jersey 20-9, the Devils somehow managed to keep it tied before John Madden potted a shorthanded goal with 4:12 left to play to break a 1-1 stalemate. Zach Parise would add another 97 seconds later and the Devils had a 3-2 win in my first visit to their new home.

The streak would remain intact for another night.

While I was convinced the action was over for the night, I would find myself in for a surprise. With a rare Friday night off, my original plan was to continue on to New York and spend the night drinking with friends. Feiny, Justin and I,were unable to find the shuttle back to Newark-Broad Street station, however. The next time I came I would wonder how on earth I missed it. It was in the exact same place we were dropped off beforehand. But rather than stand there and wait for a second shuttle to arrive, we decided to expedite the process by simply walking to the train.

After all, how far could it be?

And so off we went through downtown Newark, which seemed perfectly fine on a Friday night. Crowds who were leaving the game or their offices still surrounded us and we headed on with impunity. As we continued the surroundings started to get somewhat less pleasant, but we assumed the station must only be a few blocks away. At one point we happened upon a theater with a long line of people in their early to mid-20s waiting outside. Justin, never one to pay social awkwardness any mind, suggested we run across the street and check out the show. While Feiny was amenable to the idea, I was not and insisted we continued walking.

Justin, however, has a tendency to be a free spirit and so off he went to see what was happening. This being the heart of downtown Newark, the crowd outside the theater was entirely African-American. In fact, there wasn’t a non-black person among them. While I detest bigotry, there was no denying that we would seem at least a little out of place. Between the three of us, our collective heritage was 83.3% Caucasian Jew and 16.7% Indian. We did not fit in, and the stunned reaction of the entire crowd when Justin nonchalantly asked them what was happening at the theater let us know it.

All of them gave us a look as if they had no clue what we were doing in the heart of Newark on a Friday night. After all, I was wearing cargo pants, Birkenstocks and a purple Northwestern hooded sweatshirt. It was clear to them I did not belong. Justin continued to press for details about whatever concert was about to be performed, but I refused to play along and started walking. As we continued it started becoming apparent that the train wasn’t as close as it seemed.

The walk continued, the lights got dimmer, the surroundings got darker and more and more broken glass appeared on the ground. More and more people on the street were asking for money and the buildings became more rundown. It was about the time the malnourished prostitute with several missing teeth offered her services to us that I realized we were lost in one of the most dangerous cities in America.

I started walking faster.

Justin and Feiny, in their absentmindedness couldn’t enjoy the light evening stroll enough. They spent most of the walk laughing, but I decided I was done aimlessly wandering the lesser parts of Newark. When we finally happened upon an onramp for I-78, we knew we were far from the right place. We soon found ourselves in a convenience store where the clerks were unable to provide adequate directions.

We walked further and I called my mother to see if she could find a map online to tell us where the train station was. Fearing for the life of her child as mothers often do – although perhaps this time it was rational – she insisted she come and pick us up, but being an adult who dreaded the idea of his mommy coming to the rescue, I rebuffed her offer and insisted we’d find our way back. Eventually, our clueless triumvirate found its way to a McDonald’s on McCarter Highway, where I asked the security guard – apparently McDonald’s in Newark requires protection – how to get to either of Newark’s main train stations.

We were, in fact, nowhere near either of them and unwilling to undertake the long trip to wherever it was we needed to go, I called mommy to rescue me. After looking up where we were and how to get there, my mother was on her way.

The three of us sat down in a booth and took deep sighs of relief. I was badly in need of comfort food so I went to the counter and ordered a vanilla sundae. A few minutes later the manager let me know that the machine which pumped out whatever it was they thought was ice cream was actually broken.

Of course it was.

As I sat back down with what I thought was my last defeat of the evening, Justin reached into his backpack and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. After unraveling it he noticed it was a color-coded map of Newark which had been given to him by Devils personnel at the train station. Not only did Justin have a map on him the entire time that would have easily directed us to the station, but we had wound up walking some three miles in the complete opposite direction.

At this point all I could do was laugh at what had been a long comedy of errors. Soon my mother was there and we were back in Millburn with no harm done. The three of us headed to Justin’s home where we spent the next few hours laughing about the misfortune over a six-pack of Yeungling and all the leftover Halloween candy the Goldstein household had to offer.

I may have risked my life at various points in the evening, but all in all, good friends, good beer and a pile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups wasn’t a bad way to spend a Friday night. With my memories in tow, however, I would never spend one the same way again.

The next time, I waited for the shuttle.

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