Location, Location, Location
Which is more important? How it looks or where a stadium is?
Strong chance he'd arch his eyebrows at the sight of folk in the parking lots grilling meat and sinking beers at the back of their pick-up trucks. But if LS Lowry were still alive, still painting, still a fan, he'd find going to the match a more familiar experience in Houston than Bolton.
It's the location of Houston Dynamo's new stadium. In the industrial East End, just a couple of blocks from the core of downtown, between an elevated freeway and railroad tracks, amid stiff grids of streets named for Texas heroes.
There is nascent gentrification. Mostly there is urban density and decay, warehouses and factories that don't let on whether they've been shut for years or are in business right now. Poor people. Pubs. A music venue. A scene that's a bit shabby, a bit shambolic, but organic and distinctive.
And from all directions, people walking to the match: noise, colour, anticipation, the kinship of a crowd of strangers. Buying beers from stalls, listening to bands and drinking in the street.
There are no cars in "Going to the Match", the Lancastrian artist's 1953 portrait of Bolton Wanderers' former home, Burnden Park. Everyone is walking. In the painting, as in Houston, people and buildings dominate the working-class landscape immediately surrounding the stadium.
Understand that this is not normal in Houston, this characterful and compact mass of pedestrians filling old city streets. Houston is a hymn to convenience and consumption, money and motor vehicles, the epic scale of Texas, the suburban American dream and the conviction that if plenty should sometimes tip over into excess, well, so what? That's our choice and our birthright.
We're not in 1950s England. It's sunny and sweaty-humid almost all season long. Most people drive to Dynamo games in big cars. The arena's naming rights were bought by a Spanish bank, its footprint and adjacent new apartments are as fresh, slick and precisely landscaped as the hair of a teen pop idol. The place has a giant video screen, an adidas store and lots of corporate seats.
At BBVA Compass Stadium it's the skyscraping headquarters of multinational energy companies you can see in the distance, not smoke stacks and chimneys. The colour scheme is so orange that doctors could prescribe visits to cure patients deficient in vitamin C.
Yet the experience feels old-European as well as modern-Texan. Thanks to its location this new-born stadium already has life and soul to add to its architectural elegance and flair. Even a short saunter from wherever you've parked will engage you visually, viscerally, with your surroundings. It will provoke reactions.
The site amply justifies the club's decision not to break ground in the suburbs amid one of the myriad outlet malls or generic housing estates, glossy and manicured as a model's fingernails. The Dynamo now feel like an immutable and storied thread of the city's fabric, yet they moved to Houston from San Jose in 2006.
"We were adamant about being downtown. We had opportunities to get [the stadium] built in the suburbs, probably via public money and it would probably have happened sooner, but we felt very strongly that we had to be a downtown location so we held out for that, and it's worked out perfectly," Chris Canetti, the Dynamo president of business operations, told me in May. "It's made us very relevant, it's made us very cool."
In time, the stadium will blend into its surroundings, encouraging attention, investment and regeneration, a rebirth of the East End. And whether that makes the rich richer or is truly a boon for everyone — well, that's up to the good people of Houston. But today, the team have brought hope and pride and publicity, and that seems like more than enough.
Houston's rivals, FC Dallas, do not play in Dallas. They are based in the nearby commuter city of Frisco. They are 28 miles north of downtown, just off a highway, the stadium encircled by car parks, arterial roads and strip malls.
Bolton do not play in Bolton. In 1997 they moved from Burnden Park — a mile from the town centre, their home for more than a hundred years — to the Reebok Stadium in Horwich, five miles west. By a motorway, surrounded by car parks and shopping centres filled with the usual chain stores. It's the showpiece of a sports and leisure complex - misleading name, that, because life for the customer is simple.
The Reebok Stadium is really very good. It's just that it was built smack in the middle of a place called Anywhere. It is a homage to American car-friendly consumerism, Burnden Park to retail park. On any given Saturday you might be going to the match, or the mall, or the cinema, or the fast-food outlets. Or all of the above. Attending the football is one of a range of competing and comparable on-site entertainment options. Going to the match is like going shopping; what was once a ritualistic act of faith is now a conscious capitalist choice.
This way of life has some logic in the United States, where there is vast space and sports teams are bottom-line focused franchises that can be dismantled like flat-pack furniture and rebuilt thousands of miles away, leaving only hollow memories of their once-solid presence, like the impression of chair legs on a carpet.
It generally ensures high standards and competitiveness. It's discordant with the back-story of English football, where clubs sprang naturally from local communities long ago and were not just in their towns, but of them. These days, though, the English professional game is becoming a suburban pursuit, leagues of Reeboks.
Some 25 of the 92 clubs presently in England's top four divisions play in stadiums built since 1996, the first year of Major League Soccer. In all but five cases, the club has moved farther away from its town's centre.
There are good reasons for this, such as cost, logistics, the difficulty of finding suitable central land and the challenges of renovating existing grounds. Tottenham Hotspur were recently tempted to relocate to Enfield, near the M25, given the hassle of rebuilding White Hart Lane. Whatever the causes, it's a trend that changes a matchday's tone.
Coming in, you're not elbow-to-elbow with other fans, overhearing or engaging with them, smelling their food and the beer on their breath; you're isolated and sedate in a personal steel-and-glass bubble, sitting in traffic, listening to radio phone-ins in which supporters from across the nation bore you with the story of their day. You arrive and leave vacuum-packed.
The atmosphere is different, less intense, perhaps because opposing fans seem more like shoppers than invaders who've breached the city walls. And they've got their own car park, anyway. Might not even see them.
The club isn't your neighbour, as it would be if you lived around the corner. No matter how much it may matter to its fans, it's hard to see how a football team can be at the heart of its community if its premises are on the outskirts. Or how it can reflect much beyond the neon glare of the adjacent Burger King.
Colchester United, Northampton Town, Stoke City, Swansea City: outsiders have to take a detour to visit the town. If you're looking for the stadium and come across something interesting, you've got lost.
It seems as if no club in England these days can build a stadium without the muscle of a major supermarket chain who use the emotional clout of football as a Trojan horse to win planning permission and part-fund the project. So it's not a shock that many new grounds are functional boxes that don't look much different from supermarkets.
With little incentive to be original they are often as bland as their surroundings. And what's chiefly being improved and regenerated: wasteland or the bank balances of landowners and property developers?
New, clean, standardised and sterilised, these arenas suit football's growing sense of itself as a family entertainment product. This seems to owe much to the high production values of the American major leagues, where sport is a spectacle, slickly marketed and brand aware, doing as much as it can to provide reliable fun around the inherently variable quality of the actual matches.
But England's present and future is already America's past. While England is copying the suburban American sporting model, city-centre venues are experiencing a renaissance in the US: attractive and highly-visible redevelopment catalysts that ensure downtowns remain a hub of activity after office hours.
In Major League Baseball, the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992 presaged the construction of many other charming, downtown, "retro" ballparks — there is one near the Dynamo's stadium — bringing to a close the "cookie-cutter" era of near-identical out-of-town, concrete, multi-purpose venues.
In MLS, which began by building or borrowing cheap out-of-town arenas, three downtown venues have opened since last year. Six of 18 stadiums are central. Despite the presence of the New York Red Bulls just across the water in New Jersey, MLS is obsessively pursuing the dream of a club in the most famous urban area on the planet, New York City. Imagine the attention, the energy, the credibility. All being enjoyed by the Nets basketball team, which has moved to hip Brooklyn from boring Newark.
England's new palaces primarily cater not to the traditions, history and geography of their clubs but to the affluence and mobility of the modern consumer. That physical location is now a matter of pragmatism not roots, choice not heritage, tallies with the philosophical shift prompted by the game's on-going globalisation.
Attending matches is no longer a prerequisite for serious fandom. Distant supporters identify with players, managers and victories, not buildings they will never visit.
What difference does a few miles make in a stadium's location in an era when Manchester United might have more fans in Shanghai than Salford and a foreign supporter who logs on religiously to arsenal.com can consider himself as much a loyalist as a season-ticket holder? In which Fifa have polished and regulated their World Cup product so much and so well that the tournament is essentially portable and almost flavourless for spectators, as if each stadium was encased by a giant Truman Show-style dome and flown to the host country every four years?
In this context, a stadium's immediate surroundings are no longer significant. It's the inside that counts. Not because of ticket income, now dwarfed in the Barclays Premier League by television money. But it's still important that the stands are full and smart and orderly, so that the TV pictures look good. A stadium is no longer a traditional gathering place, a locus of civic pride and identity. It's a film set.
Fans are wallpaper, unlike in MLS, where broadcasting rights are paltry and wooing local people is critical to a team's prosperity. An urban venue such as Houston's is sound business sense and a symbolic act: football right in the middle of town, and for everyone, not only the SUV-driving suburban families of stereotype. The location and architecture engages where other arenas detach and prove that with effort and originality it's still possible to build an iconic football ground.
In Lowry's work, Burnden Park gives downtrodden factory workers a feeling of purpose, belonging and escape. What are most modern stadiums giving the community, other than excellent views of the action, clean toilets and a wide choice of food?
In England the smaller clubs trade quirks for functionality and lose part of what makes them distinctive. The top clubs increasingly see themselves as citizens of the world, their stadiums as the headquarters of global companies with multi-national workforces.
The balance between the local and international, the new and the old, the unique and the generic, is tense and strange. It's the recipe for an identity crisis, this strategy of dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.