Sports Nut

Dome Is Where the Heart Is

How a not-so-beloved stadium became New Orleans’ favorite building.

On Monday night, nearly 70,000 geeked-up New Orleanians will crowd into the Louisiana Superdome to watch the first pro football game in the city since Hurricane Katrina. Everyone here is shocked that the Saints are still undefeated. Even more surprising, though, is that the Superdome is still standing.

After Katrina, the Superdome became the most recognized symbol of the despair that followed the storm. During the flooding, newspapers and TV talking heads reported on the desperate people huddled inside. Mayor Ray Nagin told Oprah Winfrey that the “frickin’ Superdome” was full of “hooligans killing people, raping people.” Among locals who remained in the city, the prospect of “getting Domed”—that is, forced to evacuate to the stadium—became the worst possible survival scenario. I told one friend who stayed that if the National Guard tried to take her there at gun point, she should risk getting shot.

It turned out that most of the Dome horror stories—including the killing and raping—were apocryphal. Still, the physical damage and psychological trauma associated with the stadium led many, including me, to assume it would be torn down. Less than a week after Katrina hit, Ted Koppel reported that, because of the damage it sustained, the stadium was likely slated for demolition.

But in the last year, an odd transformation has taken place. Far from being a shunned totem of the horrors of Katrina, the Superdome has become a rallying point. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Hurricane Katrina saved the Superdome.

Strange but true: The Superdome was built on an abandoned cemetery. When the stadium opened in 1975, there were no bad vibes—this was the city’s stab at the big time. I can still remember my sense of wonder the day it opened: the glowing orange scoreboards; the gigantic projection-screen gondola; the disco-era, multicolored seating meant to fool television audiences into thinking the stands were full even when the Saints were losing. The Dome was so hip that it even landed starring roles in cheesy movies, including 1978’s Superdome (starring a young Tom Selleck) and another where the stadium’s powerful air conditioning system was used to eliminate a swarm of killer bees that invaded the city during Mardi Gras.

The Superdome was the apex of the domed stadium fad that began with the Houston Astrodome a decade earlier. While much of the country reeled from the energy crisis, the New Orleans economy was flush with money from offshore oil production. The skyline soared and the idea that the Crescent City might overtake Houston and Atlanta to reclaim its position as the South’s leading city did not seem unrealistic. The factoid I remember best from the Dome’s early days was that it was big enough to fit the entire Astrodome inside. Take that, Houston!

Of course, that civic boom never came to pass. By the time the oil bust hit New Orleans in the mid-1980s, Atlanta and Houston were far ahead, and Birmingham and Memphis were closing fast from behind. The declining fortunes of the city seemed etched in the Dome’s facade, as the subtropical climate defaced its space-agealuminum hideand polyurethane roof. The Dome’s monumental scale was always at odds with New Orleans’ quaint architectural dimensions, and over the years it looked less and less like a showpiece stadium and more like a dilapidated, rusting alien craft marooned on the edge of downtown.

By the turn of the century, the Dome was a relic of the passing megadome epoch. Seattle’s Kingdome and Detroit’s Silverdome, both of which opened after the Superdome, were abandoned by their NFL teams. Saints owner Tom Benson complained loudly that the Dome’s antiquated seating and luxury-box layout made it impossible for the franchise to compete. In the summer of 2001, he proposed that the state buildthe Saintsa new stadium, complete with a retractable roof.

Before Katrina, it was unlikely Benson’s stadium demands would have been met. After the storm, it was plainly impossible. Benson pushed toward relocating the team to San Antonio, which had built itsown dome in theearly 1990s in hopes of luring an NFL franchise. Sensing a public relations disaster, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in and strong-armed Benson into returning the team to New Orleans. In return, the state, the federal government, and the NFL agreed to sink $185 million into refurbishing the Superdome in time for the Saints to return home this season.

It’s fair to ask why, in a city where vast swaths remain uninhabitable, all this money is being spent to fix a stadium. You won’t hear that question in New Orleans. Merely tolerated for 31 years, the refurbished Superdome has become what it never was before: beloved. Like the World Trade Center, another hulking brute that was once viewed as a downtowneyesore, the Superdome became beautiful only in its hour of peril. Many New Orleanians saw in the Superdome’s travails a metaphor for their own Katrina experience—they too had been battered and abandoned.

Now, like many homeowners around town, the Dome has pumped out the water, patched the roof, painted the walls, and invited some friends over to celebrate. Even Bono will be there. So, while much of the world will forever associate the Superdome with the horrors of Katrina, for New Orleans it will now become what it was always meant to be: a symbol of renewal. New Orleans knows now that it will never pass Houston and Atlanta to be the South’s leading city. But if they can fix the Dome up after all it endured, then perhaps other things can be fixed as well. Perhaps, after all, the city need not die.