The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Rams might be winners, but two communities know what has been lost

It took weeks for a steady succession of moving vans to relocate the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Local 39 decorators Jack Dungey, left, and Jim McNeely are shown in January 2016, removing a banner honoring Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, which hung inside Edward Jones Dome. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS — That domed stadium a billionaire and his NFL franchise abandoned years ago still keeps accurate time above its Broadway entrance. The correct date, too. And there’s nothing wrong with the archaic yet completely adequate signage on the columns in front. (Think mid-1990s movie theater chic.) Still, the Dome at America’s Center feels haunted.

When I visited my hometown this week on a cold afternoon, I peered through the stadium’s windows. The halls were empty, much like the broken hearts of all St. Louisans who no longer have a football team to claim as their own. Empty just like the streets of downtown that you would expect to be buzzing with the business-casual lunch crowd. Well, almost empty. A 66-year-old retiree named Governor Hill had just finished eating at his favorite spot and needed to work off all that BBQ with a brisk walk around the place.

He politely stopped and held his cane as I spilled my pitch: I’m writing a story about a billionaire and football and stadiums and hometowns and what it means to lose.

He immediately got it.

“They were here. They were playing in this beautiful building right here, and it’s empty now,” he said while pointing toward the locked doors. “The only thing we get is a concert, but we’re talking about the NFL! The National Football League. It should be here. They came here. She moved them here and then that Walmart dude — I mean, he’s crazy!

“It hurts, you know.”

A single tear welled in his left eye. Probably stopping to talk when it’s windy and 34 degrees had more to do with it, but I’d like to think at that moment Hill was channeling the neighbors of his adopted hometown.

St. Louis — where good mothers and fathers teach their children not to hate but will make the exception for Enos Stanley Kroenke. He was viewed as the city’s savior when he chipped in nearly three decades ago to help Georgia Frontiere relocate the Rams to Missouri, where they both have roots. She was the native St. Louisan, and he was the Columbia, Mo., native who married rich. When she died in 2008, he became majority owner.

He eventually bought a plot of land in Inglewood, Calif., and stopped returning calls from city officials. By 2016, the St. Louis Rams were a memory. Now they have been reborn in a $5.5 billion stadium and have a motivated willingness to spend and win and make two Super Bowls in four years.

In my city, we know what it means to lose. But we’re not the only ones.

Morningside Park, Inglewood, Calif.

SoFi Stadium defies description. You need to see it in person to properly grasp what’s happening here. Our humble, little $985 million design we — football-crazed St. Louisans — pitched to keep the Rams in town would have sat on the riverfront. SoFi has a freakin’ moat. And it’s seven miles from the ocean.

It looks as though an alien space craft has landed in Yolanda Davidson’s neighborhood.

“It’s like Alice in Wonderland/Gotham City mixed together,” she said. “It’s daunting. It’s bizarre. There’s never been a time where they came and built something that was $5.5 billion in the neighborhood where people actually live.”

Davidson will celebrate her 50th birthday this year, so she has been here, living in Inglewood, for nearly a half century. She has big auntie energy, and by the time we finish our long-distance phone call, she invites me to stop by the next time I’m in town. In fact, just about every stranger in Inglewood I interview for this story will close the conversation by inviting me to ice cream or to work out or just to roll by and say hello. I can see why they love living in Inglewood; there are good people here.

I take Heather Presha up on her offer. She’s a real estate agent with an office in the heart of Inglewood, and on Tuesday afternoon we’re touring open houses around South L.A. Just one is in Inglewood.

“I wish I could keep an Inglewood listing on my website,” Presha said. “As soon as I get it, it’s gone.”

Presha sees the positives in having the stadium around the corner from the new townhouse she purchased last year. The existing homeowners and anyone wise enough to get in while the stadium was being constructed now have equity out of this world. And many of those homeowners also happen to be the Black and Brown people who have made Inglewood the welcoming place it can be today.

But while buyers are swarming in, longtime residents are also moving away. Over the past few years, Davidson has watched friends pick up and move, sometimes inland as far as 40 miles out.

In Baton Rouge, there’s a $100 million football coach and everyone else

They were just like her, renters. And before Inglewood enacted rent control, they could not afford the swelling cost of living spurred by the arrival of the billionaire’s stadium and vision for a new and revitalized neighborhood.

Even now Yesi Lopez, who has lived in the same apartment unit in Inglewood for five years, says moving trucks are a constant presence outside her building. Her apartment is five minutes from the stadium, and Lopez recently received notification that rent will increase by an additional $50 per month. She and her partner are doing okay and can afford it, but Lopez worries about her neighbors.

“When I look at the people that are surrounding us and I know their situation and partly because I grew up in that situation. I know that they are very, very, very low income,” Lopez said. “It’s challenging for them to live in a city that’s getting more expensive every day.”

Davidson was never in favor of the stadium. She says she would ask the mayor, the city council, anyone willing to listen about SoFi Stadium’s impact on the community. She felt Inglewood would lose that intangible piece that made the city so desirable. She felt Inglewood would no longer belong to its lifetime neighbors, and she was right.

“I absolutely feel at home, but I feel like my home is being invaded and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Davidson said. “I don’t want you to think I’m not for progress. … I am. But I am for Inglewood being Inglewood.”

S. Prairie Ave., Inglewood, Calif.

Derrick Brown is still a very busy man. When I finally track him down, he’s outside a corner convenience store and someone in an SUV rolls by the street calling his name. Brown leans on the passenger side and jokingly describes this as a board meeting. He’s still a businessman, even though he has lost his business.

In 2000, Brown opened Bourbon Street Fish on South Prairie Avenue and served the delightfully fried food of his hometown of New Orleans. His place won the Steve Harvey “Hoodie Award” for best fried chicken. The small restaurant is painted in purple and gold, but now there’s a green fence surrounding the property that ironically completes the Mardi Gras color scheme. Brown had rented the property for more than two decades, but last summer the owners informed him they would not renew his lease.

His former restaurant sits directly across from SoFi Stadium. During its construction, he envisioned renovating it into a two-story sports bar. At that point, Brown believed the stadium would help the neighborhood.

“Real good for Inglewood, [but] it wasn’t good for all the small minority business owners,” Brown said. “A lot of bigger corporations came in and offered owners more money for their property. So it changed a lot of stuff for small business owners in the community.”

When Bourbon Street Fish loses its lease or Ms. B’s M & M Soul Food, which opened in 1990, has to move because rent skyrocketed to $14,000 per month, a community loses a bit of its identity. This week, when tens of thousands of people converge on Inglewood, they’ll marvel at the stadium and flood the local market with money. But it will come at a cost.

A Rams superfan lost out on Super Bowl tickets. Then he started praying (and posting).

N. Broadway, St. Louis

Come Sunday, the good people in my hometown will hate-watch the Super Bowl. Critics can say we should get over it, to stop watering our little garden of resentment and accept that our stolen franchise was only returned to its rightful owners in L.A. But you’ve never felt loss like we’ve felt loss.

The pure joy of fandom. We’ve lost that. And when we can hold our nose long enough and try to enjoy the product — the NFL allowed two franchises to move away from St. Louis in my lifetime — we see clearly what we’re missing.

“We’re no longer a part of the club,” Frank Cusumano told me. “Initially, my gut feeling is I despised the NFL and everything about it. But because the league is so sexy and so compelling, I couldn’t feel that way much longer.”

Cusumano is a St. Louis native and the longtime sports director at KSDK, the local NBC affiliate. When St. Louis sued the league and Kroenke over the relocation, Cusumano would ask people what they would rather have: a team or a billion dollars?

“And a heavy percentage of people said, ‘We want the team,’ ” he said. “I feel terrible that my kids will not be able to go see Patrick Mahomes in person. We’re not going to be able to see Josh Allen play a football game 20 minutes away from us. We can watch them on TV, but there’s something about actually saying, ‘Hey, I just saw Kyler Murray run 60 yards.’ We’re never going to have that. Never.”

The beauty shots of the Arch filmed by national outlets when they come to town to broadcast a game. Our city’s name scrolling on the bottom of ESPN on Sundays. We’ve lost that.

“It’s much more than financial. It’s the prestige of being one of 30 cities that have an NFL franchise,” said Bob Wallace, the former counsel for the St. Louis football Cardinals and executive vice president of the Rams. “[St. Louis] may be a baseball town, but it’s a football nation.”

That’s why I think back to Hill, walking alone with his cane outside the dome. He was pointing at the giant empty building and telling me how he has sworn off Walmart. (Kroenke is married to the Walton family heiress.) Even though Hill has lived in St. Louis for just six years, brought here by his job, he decided to stick around. And now our pain is his.

“You can’t stick your chest out anymore,” he said.

Other minority-owned restaurants are surviving in Inglewood. And we’re doing just fine, thank you, in St. Louis. Yet, a billionaire and his team have affected two separate hometowns. His relocated Rams team very well could win Sunday. But he should know that others had to lose something for him to hold up that Lombardi Trophy.

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