Wednesday, February 20, 2013

This is no longer the Madison Square Garden I grew up with

The older I get the more I notice or am affected by the passage of time. This brings about many signs that maybe, just maybe, my childhood might be long gone and never coming back. I can look at my brother's wedding more than two years ago or my sister's nuptials coming in just over four months for indications of that. But one significant sign that the world is different from when you grew up comes from recognizing that the places you spent your youth are long gone. Perhaps the diner you frequented is now a Five Guys or the record store you bought Use Your Illusion I at has become an Apple Store.

Or perhaps the sports venues you once attended are all long gone.

Indeed that last one has gotten a dramatic and striking overhaul. In my life growing up in the New York metropolitan area there were nine professional sports teams and I've seen them all, but in the last six years, nearly all of them have changed, or announced they will soon be changing their homes. The Devils moved to the Prudential Center in 2007. The Yankees and Mets each opened new ball parks in 2009. The Giants and Jets opened MetLife Stadium in 2010. The Nets moved to a cozy new place at the Barclays Center this past fall and the New York Islanders will join them when they leave Nassau Coliseum behind for good in 2015.

The Knicks and Rangers always seemed like outliers, though. There were no plans to leave Madison Square Garden, the home they proudly call "The World's Most Famous Arena" whenever they opportunity presents itself. While I'm not a Rangers fan, I am a Knicks fan, and the Garden is still where I saw my first in-person hockey game in April of 1995. It is a place with an interior that even as recent as last season felt magical and yet comforting to me, with its purple and green seats and almost claustrophobic intimacy as the upper decks crouch uncomfortably above the lower ones.

There are memories there.

But even if the Knicks and Rangers aren't moving, they are still adapting with the time. In the summer of 2011, the Garden began a lengthy renovation process that will be executed in three distinct phases so as not to disrupt the NHL and NBA seasons. While the first phase changed some of the distinct purples seats into black, the building, aside from some widened concourses, was still more or less recognizable. However, with the second phase essentially finished in the summer of 2012, the building has taken on an entirely new look.

I got my first view of this last night courtesy of a friend who invited me to the Rangers-Canadiens game in his company's suite. The suites, for one thing, are noticeably different as rather than being up high like they once were, they are now simply the first handful of rows around the ice with an entertaining area complete with a bartender and a private bathroom that can be accessed underneath the stands. That wasn't particularly jarring in and of itself. Every building has luxury seating areas rarely seen by the masses, and unless you frequent them with regularity, they always seem like an alien world that is probably too nice for you to inhabit before a hockey game.

Sitting in those first few rows, however, was a whole new world. It wasn't the closeness to the ice, though that is unusual and a new experience in its own right. But rather, it was the view of the Garden interior at large. The 200s and 300s that were clearly divided before have been smashed together into one solid upper deck, giving the arena the appearance of the two-tiered style most common these days. The 400s and luxury suites spanning the length of the rink have entirely disappeared, though for the time being, they still exist on the ends of the building. And most noticeably, those purple and green seats, so iconic and distinct to me for most of my childhood, are long gone.

Simply put, at the risk of sounding overly nostalgic or wistful, the Garden no longer looks like the Garden I went to as a child. It felt somehow bigger, less intimate, unusual and not the place I had formed memories in as recently as last spring.

Sometimes as you get older you start to realize that it's not just where you are, but how where you were has changed. The Knicks and Rangers are going remain in the same building for years to come, with the same exterior shell and the same dramatic lines leading you right to the jumbotron above center ice. But aside from that exterior, those lines and the rumbling train station beneath it, the Knicks and Rangers might as well be in a different place. That isn't a bad thing, of course. Change is good. Modernization is good. For all the distinct memories I might have formed at MSG, there was no denying the fact that its concourses were cramped and its bathrooms less than pleasant. The seats no longer feel like they're falling apart and the general walk around the arena is nicer than it once was. That doesn't mean it doesn't seem strange, however. I enjoyed being at the game last night and rationally I knew I was in the same place I always had been when I saw the Knicks or the Rangers.

But at the same time, I couldn't shake feeling like I was in someone else's living room, unsure of where to sit or what I couldn't touch. I wonder how long it will take until it doesn't.


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