You’ll Never Walk Alone: Sports and the Urban Neighborhood
By Ken Pirie
Eyes on the Street: An Urban Series
As a teenager I lived for a while in my parents’ home town of Aberdeen, Scotland, and I supported the local soccer team, known as “The Dons”. The team was at the peak of its success under their manager Alex Ferguson, who would go on to greater exploits with another well-known team, Manchester United. I attended as many home matches as possible at the stadium, located between an historic residential area and a stretch of beachfront golf links.
Most of the supporters (as they’re called in the UK) would arrive on foot, filtering through the neighborhood having walked from bus stops, or from their homes, or from cars parked on surrounding streets. As they all converged on the stadium, the tight residential streets of granite rowhouses would effectively become pedestrianized for an hour before kickoff. The people flooding the streets would sense a critical mass and begin an organic round of singing, the words reverberating off the granite facades and out across the links. Squeezing through turnstiles, paying a nominal amount to enter, I would find myself standing on a terraced concrete slope, with no set seat or row number, just part of a swaying, chanting mass of supporters.
Now, it’s worth noting that this was in the days just before a series of disasters in the UK and Europe put an end to this type of experience, standing in a packed crowd of thousands at a sporting event with no seats. The hooligan violence that sometimes caused these tragedies was another reason for the move to control seating, to standardize and manage the unpredictable horde.
But the move to all-seated stadiums didn’t eliminate what, to many, is a unique and memorable element of watching soccer in the UK and in many European cities: the singing. To someone raised on watching American sports, which features some rote vocalization (basketball’s “De-Fense”) or just plain uncoordinated noise (college football comes to mind), nothing can prepare you for the spontaneous and ear-splitting singing that emerges from the terraces of certain soccer stadiums. Admittedly, there is a certain vulgarity to the singing, but there’s also a distinct sense of ingenious humor and irony, with many fans co-opting old pop songs and old musical numbers for their use (not to mention the odd use of The Sloop John B and Guantanamera recycled for any number of new lyrics—“You Only Sing When You’re Winning” is a favorite Guantanamera knock-off of mine). It’s probably a cultural phenomenon, with Europeans more likely than Americans to shed a bit of their personal identity and become part of a crowd.
Celtic FC Fans Singing During Match
What has always interested me is how this singing affects the street life nearby and how this creates a vivid, audible sense of time and place while involving passersby and residents in a detached but tangible link to the events happening within the stadium. Is this necessarily a feature of urban stadiums? I would sometimes find myself in Aberdeen, without a ticket, walking to and around the stadium anyway and, before the days of smartphones, getting a strong sense of the events inside merely from the sound of the crowd. There’s a very real sense of place and community that is formed by the “tribes” who support a team, and this community spirit continues outside of match days and seasons.
Certainly, American stadiums were all once situated in tight urban neighborhoods and many, such as Fenway Park, are still well-integrated with their context. There must have been a swell of crowd noise at key moments around Ebbets Field that excited people in the surrounding streets. But after World War II, stadiums in the inner cities clearly couldn’t accommodate the consumers of sports who were increasingly arriving by car from their suburban homes. This led to a generation of new stadiums such as Dodger Stadium in L.A. (Ebbets’ replacement), the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, and the Kingdome in Seattle. Any noise audible from these enclosed, remote fields was heard only by parked cars.
There has since been a resurgence in the construction of new baseball and football stadiums in walkable urban areas, which has corresponded with a wave of urban regeneration in nearby neighborhoods. But still, something about the forced commercial breaks imposed on a placid, stuttering “American Football” game just leaves me cold. Fans at basketball, hockey, or baseball games just don’t seem to get worked up unless there is something at stake at the end of a season. College crowds may be the only really vocal sporting audiences in North America.
So I have been fascinated to witness an emergence of UK-style singing in the stadiums of Major League Soccer, in particular at the home of the Portland Timbers. The supporters of the team, self-proclaimed as the Timbers Army, have curated elements of fan culture from across the globe, from the drums of South America, their rhythmic beat felt several blocks from the urban stadium, to the green smoke that is released with a home team’s goal, wafting out into the street, to the 100-foot-tall hand-painted banners, or tifo (these originated in Italy), spread across the stands and visible from blocks away. Some of these banners serve as political statements, such as a recent display against homophobia. But best of all, evoking their British counterparts, the supporters sing for the entire match, with numbers ranging from children’s songs, to Elvis, to the Beastie Boys, to Russian folk songs—all repurposed with new lyrics. While most singing is coordinated by volunteers, some just emerges in the best kind of crowd-sourced, organic way. And as I walk to the stadium, I can hear the noise echoing across the city from the crowd as they warm up, acting as a sort of wayfinding device guiding me there and adding a vitality to a formerly moribund part of the city.
The Timbers have also encouraged a more multimodal approach to getting people to the stadium and this contributes to a thriving urban neighborhood. Over 20,000 supporters arrive at the tight urban park, many via the adjacent light rail line, some on bicycles that they park on a street closed to accommodate hundreds of temporary bike racks. Many more arrive on foot, from nearby neighborhoods, or from bars and restaurants in the vicinity. Some even peer into the stadium from the balconies of nearby apartment buildings. The whole ballet of activity, which is repeated at least 25 times a year regardless of the team’s performance, is a bracing reminder of the benefits of our urban, more ethnically diverse future, celebrating aspects of other cultures and getting us out of our cars and mingling with each other.
Portland Timbers Season Opener: “This is how the world knows where we are”
This phenomenon in Portland truly represents a communion between this team and its place, one that transcends the corporate “experience” that is inevitable in modern sports, and inspires us as supporters to participate in creative, enduring ways. Perhaps the most place-based expression of this team is the display of the Cascadian flag, which is gaining in popularity as a totem of the particularly avid sense of bioregionalism found in this part of the continent. With a recent tifo display that included this flag and a representation of the iconic copper statue of Portlandia that sits atop a downtown building, the Timbers Army proclaimed that such symbols and proud local support are essential to the identity of the team and to their supporters, including a stanza from the poem at the statue’s base:
She kneels down and from the quietness of copper reaches out. We take that stillness into ourselves and somewhere deep in the earth our breath becomes her city. If she could speak this is what she would say: Follow that breath. Home is the journey we make. This is how the world knows where we are.
Ken Pirie is a senior associate with Walker Macy Landscape Architects in Portland, Oregon, and the coauthor with Simmons Buntin of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places. Originally from Quebec, via Scotland, Ken works on urban design and master planning projects and is currently working on a plan for a former mill site at Willamette Falls in Oregon City. He teaches graduate classes in planning at Portland State University, is a member of the Terrain.org editorial board, and loves to explore the outdoors when he’s not supporting the Portland Timbers.