City Games

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Steven A. Riess. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Pp. xii, 332. $25.31 (Paperback): ISBN 0252062167.


Scholars have offered two distinct positions on the role of sport in urban society. On one hand, books like Arthur Schlesinger’s The Rise of the City, 1878-1898 and John R. Betts’s America’s Sporting Heritage, 1850-1950 showed that people used organized sport as a way to cope with industrialization and urbanization. However, Stephen Hardy’s How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and Community, 1865-1915 and Melvin L. Adelman’s A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics, 1820-1970 showed that sport and urbanization influenced each other (260-1 n. 1). Steven A. Riess, as a result, used his work to present his position in the historiographical debate. In a study that synthesized sport as a subset of urban history, Riess argued that “[u]rban development influenced the sporting culture and athletic institutions of their inhabitants, which impacted on certain aspects of city building, which in turn shaped American sport” (1).

Urbanization had a multifaceted impact on athletic development. As Riess declared, “[t]he increased urban populations provided sufficient numbers of people with similar interests to facilitate the formation of sports clubs based on ethnic and class backgrounds” (47). At the same time, various socio-economic groups used sport as a means of coping with the rapid changes taking place within the urban environment. Immigrants used their distinct sporting heritages as a way of assuaging their alienation in a new land. For example, German immigrants established gymnastics societies within their own communities, holding meetings and keeping records in their native language (23-4, 96-9). The rising middle class, furthermore, used sport as a means of coping with the growing bureaucratization of the workplace. Through sport, middle class men could demonstrate their strength, independence, courage, and masculinity in ways they could not in the workplace (61). Sport in short represented a safety valve for people coping with society’s rapid changes.

Yet, sport also had an impact on the urban environment, highlighting a more interactive relationship. Riess noted that urban growth limited the available space for sporting opportunities, as the increased development of residential and commercial properties removed available playing sites. As the nineteenth century progressed, “a nation-wide municipal park movement organized to secure and maintain large public parks for immediate and future use” (47-8, 127-8). Conflicts developed over the use of parks for sporting purposes, as opponents believed that athletic events would harm the park’s natural esthetic and encourage the assembly of rowdy crowds. Echoing the democratic themes of The Park and the People, Riess showed that parks eventually became the site for sporting events. Franklin Park, for instance, built a golf course, while other parks built tennis courts and baseball fields (132, 141, 149-50). Through municipal parks, Riess showed how sport interacted with urbanization to shape the built environment.

Professional franchises further showed the interplay that existed between sport and the city. As Riess declared, “[b]y the late 1950s, when any of the aging ballparks and arenas needed expensive refurbishment or complete replacement, owners turned to local governments for new facilities. These new public grounds and arenas were major municipal expenditures, rationalized as a means to enhance the city’s image, promote commerce, and encourage local development” (231). San Antonio’s mayor, for example, used civic pride and boosterism as the justification of a $3.7 million improvement on the Convention Center, which housed the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) San Antonio Spurs. As new urban markets in the south and the west expanded, professional franchises did not have to remain in its current city. The National Football League’s (NFL) Baltimore Colts relocated to Indianapolis in 1984, attracted by the local government’s construction of a much larger stadium (240, 246). While the promoted benefits of commerce and stature never materialized as expected, Riess showed the influence and importance of sport on urban politics and society (243-4, 251).

As a result, he concluded that sport and urbanization served to mutually interact with each other as a means of shaping the urban environment. Riess stated that “[s]port…is not merely a recreational activity that happened to take place in cities, but is an institution that has been shaped, reshaped, and further molded by the interplay of the elements comprising the process of urbanization” (259). The growth of cities presented problems of disease, overcrowding, and poverty. In response, urban residents of various socio-economic classes turned to sport as a means of fostering community in a rapidly changing environment. Sport, however, was not shaped by urbanization. Instead, sport interacted with urbanization as a means of shaping the urban environment. The democratization of municipal parks showed the influence of sport on urban space. Most of all, professional franchises clearly illustrated the interaction between sport and municipality, allowing Riess to show how sport shaped urban change (259).


Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Riess strived when discussing African American sporting options. Here, he provided nuance and depth to the socio-economic dynamics of sport in the city. Riess pointed out that “[t]he sporting options of black urban residents were influenced not only by such factors as class, culture, and space but also by their race” (113). He showed that African Americans did not differ significantly from other ethnic or economic groups in terms of sporting tastes, as blacks enjoyed participating in baseball and basketball (116-20). However, unlike other ethnic and economic groups, African Americans faced limited opportunities such as their access to semipublic and public sporting facilities (150). Boxing as a result grew in popularity with black urbanites. Not only did boxing provide for inter-racial competition, and the opportunity for racial victories in the ring, boxing eventually enjoyed widespread black participation and dominance, illustrating the racial limitations elsewhere in sport and society (115-6).

Riess’s organizational structure hindered his ability to deeply examine the role of sport on urban society. Organized chronologically, Riess examined sport in the walking city, the industrialized radial city, and the suburban era. The structure allowed Riess to show how the city changed over time. However, the structure also gave Riess’s analysis a repetitive quality, especially when sporting patterns did not exhibit similar change. For instance, Riess showed that sporting patterns divided urban populations along socio-economic lines. The pattern emerged during the walking city era and persisted as cities grew. As a result, Riess repeated themes in different sections of his work, namely sport as a means of cultural adjustment and assimilation for immigrants (21-3, 94-100, 121). The repetitive quality thus prevented Riess from exploring other important elements that shaped the relationship between sport and urbanization.

By omitting repetition, Riess could have focused on topics he overlooked. His analysis, for example, did little to explore the complex relationship between sport and gender. While sport can be used as a tool to reinforce femininity, books like Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History showed how women used sport to step outside traditional gender roles, as they formed their own leagues and played with, and against, men. Moreover, Riess focused heavily on professional sports in the suburban era. Professional sports represent an important characteristic of urban life. However, Riess could have strengthened his analysis by also showing how cities used sporting events like marathons and Formula One races to attract tourists and generate income. The omissions weaken what could have been a valuable and useful synthesis that monitored the interaction of sport and city.

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