The Empty Baseball Stadiums of Opening Day

The melancholy spectacle of public spaces minus the public has become — along with the bare supermarket shelf and the mask-wearing pedestrian — one of the defining visual calling cards of the coronavirus crisis. To this gallery of empty plazas and lonely streets and deserted landmarks, we can now add photos of the 15 empty Major League Baseball ballparks that would have hosted games on March 26, Opening Day in North America.

In Queens, New York, not far from a public hospital overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, the scene outside the Mets’ Citi Field looked like this on Thursday.

Citi Field in Queens, New York. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Here’s Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox were scheduled to play the Kansas City Royals.

Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Baltimore, where I live, had some crisp but glorious Opening Day weather for Opening Day; the Eutaw Street concourse at Camden Yards would have been hazy with barbecue smoke and thronged with O’s fans lining up for pit beef sandwiches.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Baseball fans put a brave face on this stark absence, and the hashtag #OpeningDayAtHome was trending all day. But there’s no getting around the end-times vibe that accompanies the extinguishing of yet another totem of American normalcy, especially on a day in which the United States officially passed China to become the global epicenter of Covid-19.

Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

For many U.S. cities, amenity-packed new baseball stadiums are showpieces of local economic vigor and symbols of downtown resurgence. Emptying these civic stages offers a vivid illustration of the pandemic’s ability to disrupt the workings of urban life, and drain the pleasures from it.

Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. (Harry How/Getty Images)

But there is another, more hopeful way of seeing sights such as Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium (above), sitting serenely unpeopled beneath a strangely smogless Southern California sky. As the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman recently noted, the people that aren’t in these photos are doing the right thing: “Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good.”

“Going to the World Series,” a sculpture by Harry Weber, stands in front of Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers will delay the March 31, 2020 debut opening of Globe Life Field, the club’s new park. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

On March 12, MLB announced that the 2020 season will be delayed at least two weeks. Like some other deadlines that have been floated recently, that is looking improbably optimistic. No further dates have been announced.

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Airlines Are Flying Empty ‘Ghost Flights’ Amid Coronavirus Fears

As coronavirus infections rise around the globe, demand for air travel is projected to hits its lowest point since the last financial crisis. Airlines around the world could lose up to $113 billion in revenue this year if COVID-19 continues to spread, the International Air Transport Association forecast on Thursday.

With travelers scarce, some carriers are turning to a troubling practice, the Times of London reports: flying planes with no passengers, in order to hang on to take-off and landing slots. On Thursday, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, posted a letter he sent to air travel regulators after learning of airlines operating “ghost flights” during the global outbreak. “Bad news for the environment, airlines & passengers,” he tweeted.

The custom stems from the way airports manage their limited runway capacity. More than 200 of the world’s busiest airports allocate specific time slots to airlines, which often pay top dollar for them. To manage demand, airlines are required to use their slots at least 80 percent of the time, or risk losing them to a competitor.

In order to maintain that 80/20 ratio, flying empty jets around is not an entirely uncommon industry practice, nor is it illegal. But given the growing scrutiny of air travel’s climate toll, it is frowned upon, especially by U.K. regulators. Several British carriers that have since gone extinct, including British Mediterranean Airways, BMI, and Flybe (which declared bankruptcy this week amid plummeting demand for air travel), have all been reported to fly empty or mostly empty planes from London Heathrow in the past.

Shapps’ letter to British air regulators asked them to suspend the 80/20 rule during the coronavirus crisis. The IATA has also requested that global air regulators suspend the rule until the fall, so that “airlines can respond to market conditions with appropriate capacity levels, avoiding any need to run empty services in order to maintain slots.”

For reference, the average round-trip flight for a single passenger from Heathrow to Hong Kong produces about 1.82 metric tons of CO2, according to a flight emission calculator by The Guardian. That is more carbon pollution than the average person would emit in an entire year in 81 countries around the world.

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CityLab Daily: The Empty Promise of a Clear Backpack

What We’re Following

Clear-eyed: Since the 1990s, requiring see-through backpacks has become a common method for securing public spaces. But for the students in Parkland, Florida, returning after the deadly 2018 shootings, a new school rule requiring clear book bags was a bridge too far. They used the bags as a forum for protest.

The teens aren’t the first to question whether the clear bags do much more than invade personal privacy. Transparent bags have streamlined efforts to screen for firearms and other dangers in stadiums, music festivals, and even public transit. But critics say the policies serve as another example of security theater that undermines public trust, whether or not they prevent the next tragedy. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the story: The Empty Promise of a Clear Backpack

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

The Changing Demographics of America’s Suburbs

The changes in the demographic makeup of America’s suburbs are so profound that some urbanists are calling for a new sociology of suburbia.

Richard Florida

The Slave Revolt Reenactment Taking Over New Orleans

On November 8 and 9, costumed black people with guns will be marching across Louisiana reenacting one of the largest slave rebellions in United States history.

Brentin Mock

In Virginia, the Suburbs Decided the Democratic Sweep

Votes in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi all show how the suburbs are getting more Democratic, while rural areas get Republican.

David Montgomery

Inside the Controversy Over Rebuilding an Iconic Berlin Store

The Karstadt department store in Kreuzberg was once an architectural marvel. Local officials say a new plan to bring it back would worsen gentrification.

Feargus O’Sullivan


Imagine All the People

Bay Area readers, have we got an event for you. With San Francisco’s move to ban cars from Market Street, the time is ripe to talk about reimagining the region’s streets as safer, greener, and more efficient. On Monday, November 18, CityLab’s Laura Bliss and Sarah Holder will host “Imagining More People-First Streets,” a discussion with our co-host SPUR and Oakland transportation leaders.

Come meet your fellow urban enthusiasts and your favorite urban thinkers, and don’t forget to bring your questions. Tickets are free, but advance registration is required. More information available on our Eventbrite page.


What We’re Reading

After the water: Flash floods pose an existential threat to towns across the U.S. (NPR)

Los Angeles asks residents to design their own parks (Next City)

A dream of homeownership, undermined (New Republic)

After a statewide ballot initiative, Seattle is suing to keep its car tabs (Streetsblog)

Why protests around the world often involve public transportation (Vox)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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The Empty Promise of the Clear Plastic Backpack

For high schoolers in Parkland, Florida, going back to class after the shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 meant being on display. The name of their town had become shorthand for a tragedy; their trauma had become fodder for a nation trying to make sense of—and move past, and regulate around—yet another school shooting, which left 17 classmates dead.

Also on display were the contents of their book bags: Over spring break, the school established a rule that students wear clear plastic backpacks instead of conventional ones.

See-through book bags are a school-violence-deterrence tactic that dates back decades. But the MSD teens rebelled against the gear. They told journalists that they hated the beach-ball smell, the uniformity, and the fact that their private belongings—from tampons to medication—were now public. Students turned their bags into stages for protest: They exhibited Spongebob memes (“ravioli ravioli give us the gun controli”), snarky notes (“so when are our clear school uniforms coming in??”), and makeshift prisoner ID badges in them.

AJ Cardenas, then a 19-year-old freshman at Florida State University, created an Instagram account dedicated to sharing photos of backpacks mocking the trend. By soliciting submissions from MSD students, the account—still up at @msdcamo2—became a home for “clear backpack clapbacks.” (Cardenas was never a student at MSD, he says, but knew several people affected by the violence.) “This is not effective: It’s a poor solution, it’s a waste of time and money, and it does not make the students feel secure,” he says. “It feels like the students have had their freedom taken away from them.”

But more than a year later, clear backpacks—like the fears of random violence that they embody—haven’t gone anywhere. Along with active-shooter drills, metal detectors, and visitor’s badges, the transparent accessories are now familiar elements in the security theater that laces the American public education experience.

The number of schools that require clear backpacks isn’t known; school security experts say it’s small. But the market appears to be expanding: Such bags are also increasingly mandatory music festival gear, paired with flower crowns and glitter. Transit commuters, stadium-goers, and patrons of everything from comedy marathons to folk concerts are urged to lug them around. There’s an emerging industry of security-optimized packs and bags; several brands have capitalized on the trend.

But what, if anything, do these PVC-scented reminders of The Worst That Could Happen accomplish to improve public safety?

***

In 1998, a year before the two shooters at Littleton, Colorado’s Columbine High School left 13 dead, fears of school violence in America were on the rise. In December 1997, a 14-year-old high school freshman in West Paducah, Kentucky, took a pistol out of his backpack and opened fire, killing three classmates and injuring several more. That mass shooting was just one in a string of high-profile incidents that had parents and school administrators on edge. In the fall of 1998, President Bill Clinton convened a special White House conference on school safety.

Amid this unease, some schools took pre-emptive action. In June, after “recent and numerous school shootings that occurred throughout America,” Alexandria, Louisiana’s Rapides Parish school district decided to institute a see-through and mesh bag policy for the coming school year. “Clear book bags,” Sarah Crook wrote in Alexandria’s Town Talk newspaper. “Here to stay or gone for good?”

See-through personal accessories were originally about fashion, not safety. Clutches made of lucite plastic emerged in the late 1940s and ‘50s, becoming a glam trend popular among movie stars and Miami Beach vacationers. In the 1990s, the Hollywood Reporter claimed, rave culture had appropriated and democratized plastic totes. Clear bags became obligatory at music festivals like Ultra, as organizers cracked down on the drug-hiding. But in the mass-shooting era, clear bags emerged with a different mission: to help school districts see into their students’ lives.

In Alexandria, the clear backpack rule sent “parents and students into a tail-spin,” the local paper reported. Area businesses rushed to stock their shelves with them; students prepared to part with the regular backpacks their parents had already bought. Two weeks before the start of the school year, the board reversed the decision, first saying they’d let each school decide their own policy, and then putting off the decision entirely until the 1999-2000 school year. By 1999, Town Talk wrote that clear backpacks were “one of the hottest items to hit stores,” according to then-Target executive Brad McPherson. (Target, which now carries clear backpacks emblazoned with college mascots, declined to comment for this article.)

Rapides Parish was hardly the only school debating backpacks and security in the pre-Columbine era. Earlier that decade, some schools had banned backpacks altogether. Grayson, Kentucky’s East Carter High instituted a backpack freeze after a 1993 shooting that killed a teacher, a policy that, as Isabel Fattal wrote in The Atlantic, warped students’ perceptions of what high school was like for years to come. When Nicole Martin, who graduated from East Carter in 2001, had a daughter of her own, she told Fattal she couldn’t believe her school allowed her to carry a backpack at all.

But the Columbine massacre in April 1999 dramatically raised the stakes on school security. The shooters wore trench coats, so some schools banned them; the shooters carried some of the deadly firearms used in the attack in backpacks and duffel bags, so schools got rid of them, or enforced strict plastic backpack policies.

Decades later, trench coats are back, but school shootings remain a core American anxiety: The number of violent incidents in schools hit a new high in 2018. That same year—19 years after after Columbine, six years after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school—Parkland’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School joined several other schools across the country in instituting clear or mesh backpack policies.

Other schools have followed. In October, a day after a weapon was found on a high school student in Douglas, Arizona, parents and students in the district were alerted that backpacks would be banned altogether. After a school board meeting, the policy was changed—the only backpacks and bags allowed moving forward would be either clear or measuring smaller than a hand. “Any item that does not meet approved criteria shall be confiscated and returned at the end of the day,” read a Facebook post by the school.

Seeing the growing market potential for see-though gear, Bobby Lin launched The Smarty Co., a heavy-duty clear backpack company, in 2017. Since then, the former Apple engineer has seen business double each year, as more school districts—especially in Southern states like Texas, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia—turn to the company to fill bulk orders, or to offer backpacks to students who don’t have the means to buy them themselves.

“In 2018, I think it was more of a shock factor for a lot of students. But now that they see, oh wow, it’s cool—they’re asking their parents for our brand,” he says. “This year I think that a lot of more schools are warming up to the idea.”

(Screenshot: The Smarty Co)

The company doesn’t just supply backpacks; it sells gym bags and lunch bags, and is planning on launching a line of clear purses. The market ranges from correctional officers (who have to carry clear gear on the job) to gym rats (some gyms won’t allow you to put your duffel of equipment on the floor unless it’s in a clear casing) to costume designers (honestly, they just want to be able to see their needles better). After a shooting at California’s annual Gilroy Garlic Festival this summer, transparent picnic bags and totes were nearly all you could see at San Francisco music festivals.

Browsing through Amazon’s clear backpack options, you’ll see dozens of other brands offering similar “stadium approved” gear. “For School, Security, Sporting Events,” they often suggest. Herschel Supply Co., a popular backpack retailer, sells a line of clear plastic models for $50 to $75, and also a clear fanny pack. Urban Outfitters, Target, Walmart, and even Victoria’s Secret sell see-through models.

“From our projections, next year more and more schools and stadiums and public events will start to require them as well,” Lin says. More people are carrying them preemptively, he says, to ease security hassles. Even where they’re not mandated—like at San Francisco’s NBA arena, the Chase Center—“there are people who still wear them because they can just breeze right through security; the personnel don’t have to rummage through their bag.”

Majig Ilyas, left, and Jessica Turner model transparent backpacks outside an underground train station in London in 2005, in the wake of terrorist bombings that targeted public transportation. (Sergio Dionisio/AP)

At first, the mandates may seem inconvenient, Lin says. Then, you get used to them. “You say, hey, here’s the framework, let’s work within it,” he says. “And then why not have the one that matches your lifestyle or personality?”

That’s also how transparent backpacks are advertised on Vera Bradley’s website: “Three school- and stadium-ready pieces that meet the regulations, but still have all the pops of personality you’d expect from us.” If you have to live in constant low-level fear, you might as well do so in style.

***

Beyond their aesthetic qualities, clear plastic can be a challenging material for a heavy-duty bag: Based on a survey of online ratings from shoppers, many backpack buyers complain about their flimsiness. “These things suck,” one parent wrote on Reddit. “You’re lucky if your kid can even get thru one semester with this junk. Last year I had to buy 2 and now another.”

And some students do not seem to have warmed to the products. After Texas’ Cypress Fairbanks School District instituted a clear backpack rule last year, it released an FAQ. No, colored backpacks weren’t allowed. Yes, non-transparent athletic bags and instrument cases are allowed, but only if they’re stored immediately upon arriving at school. And no, the policy didn’t constitute a privacy violation. “We understand the concern regarding the privacy of certain items contained within backpacks. Students will be permitted to carry such items in a small makeup pouch or purse within the backpack.”

Not all students weren’t satisfied. Conor Fulbright, a student at the high school, started a Change.org petition addressed to the district’s superintendent, Mark Henry. While it is much appreciated that the Cy-Fair Administration has been making an effort to protect our children … A clear backpack policy will do nothing but simply increase the risk of another tragedy,” he wrote. “The root of a vast majority of these events is bullying. Exposing the personal items of students will increase bullying, and will inevitably increase the risk of a shooter.” He notes that the policies are easily thwartable, and suggests just enforcing a size limit instead.

Gun safety experts tend to be similarly skeptical of backpack rules. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re useless,” says Michael Dorn, the executive director of the school safety nonprofit Safe Havens International. He’s heard some principals sing the praises of clear backpacks: Once, a child brought a turtle to school, and the principal was able to intervene quickly. “But generally speaking, it’s very easy to conceal weapons in them.”

Pistols and knives can be hidden in transparent bags just as easily as tampons can, he says: Inside tennis shoes, or wrapped up in T-shirts. Musicians could cram a larger gun into a music case, and football players could stuff them in gym bags. “In our experience, most of the students figure out the limitations of them,” says Dorn, whose organization has consulted over 8,000 K-12 schools on safety policies. “They’re not that hard to defeat in relation to the inconvenience they cause.”

He says some schools he advised told him they adopted clear backpack policies only to later drop or loosen them “because they found it was not very effective.” He can’t recall ever advising a client to institute the requirements. “It could help a little bit to speed up screening, but you’d have to do the same things you’d have to do with or without clear bags,” says Dorn. “You have to look inside to see if anything contains a firearm.”

Even back in the pre-Columbine 1990s, kids were raising these concerns. “A clear backpack cannot tell you if a child is meditating something illegal or hurtful, such as bringing a gun to school with the intent to use it,” wrote Patrick Richardson and Norisha Kirts, members of the Town Talk’s Youth Council. “[I]f someone is intent on bringing a weapon to school, they will. Just as plain as that.”

Lin wouldn’t comment on whether or not he thinks they’re effective—there isn’t enough data to say either way, he says.

But the hope among schools that pursue such measures is that, like instituting mandatory visitor screening and metal detectors, forcing people to carry clear bags is a gentle-but-persistent means of discouraging malicious activity. If it’s even a little bit harder to walk into school with a weapon—or with alcohol, which spurs a lot of the more minor stadium altercations, Dorn says—some violence could be quelled.

Backpacks might also have a kind placebo effect that helps ease student anxieties about their classmates: By insisting no one has anything to hide, they could show students just how little there is to fear. Basically, in a nation with 393 million civilian-owned firearms, a clear-backpack rule is better than doing nothing, schools say.

“We understand that no single measure is the answer, but that a layered approach will help in the prevention, identification/intervention and response to potential school threats,” Cypress-Fairbanks Superintendent Henry told CityLab in a statement.

Regardless of their effectiveness, Dorn has a more fundamental objection to these security policies: They address a problem that has long been overstated. School shootings may be framed as an epidemic, but only 1.2 percent of homicides are committed at school. Fears of mass shootings and the increasingly aggressive counter-measures they inspire affect far more people than violence itself, he says. Programs like active-shooter drills have made recruiting teachers more difficult, and could be inflicting psychological trauma on students.

In this atmosphere, clear backpacks might even be making things worse, Dorn says. “It can be very counterproductive to present to people an image of security that is not realistic,” he says. If it fails, the institution is seen as incompetent, and trust in the systems of protection is lost.

“There is a place for physical security, no question about it. However, the human elements—the behavioral training and threat assessment and self-harm assessment processes, etc—those are by far the most reliable,” he says. “What we often see is the more [schools] go for simple solutions—like metal detectors or putting a cop in every school, arming teachers, clear book bags—the less they’re doing the things that are the most important.”

Fulbright, who says only a few hundred people signed his petition when he first posted it last spring, was surprised to see the signatures had now surpassed 10,000. But he’s not surprised that others share his clear-backpack hatred. “I’ve personally gone through seven of them. They snap and they tear,” he says. “They’re completely useless and they just make my life harder.”

Though the Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent says the bags’ intent is to curb gun violence, “I also think there’s another—not necessarily secret, but another reason,” he added, “to reduce the amount of vaping and drugs and whatnot in school.” (It doesn’t stop that, either.)

At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, students’ frustration has been heeded. When students returned to the classroom in September last year, the clear backpack policy was gone. In its place: metal detectors.

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