Quiet end for JFK Stadium

A series of photographs shows a panoramic view of the historic Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium in 1985. Brent and Amy Blanchard
A series of photographs shows a panoramic view of the historic Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium in 1985. Brent and Amy Blanchard
Posted: April 08, 2012

It was 20 years ago that our company was hired to help with the demolition of JFK Stadium. I remember enthusiastically jumping on the assignment, knowing that the razing of the venerable Philadelphia landmark that had stood for more than a half-century as the largest-capacity stadium in the country would be a historic event.

Until then, my history with JFK had been memorable but limited. Our family hadn't been big on Army-Navy games, so my only sports-related connection involved years of tailgating in JFK's parking lot for Phillies and Eagles games held across the street at the Vet. However, I was fortunate enough to attend a half-dozen concerts in its monstrously oversize bowl, including Live Aid. Some of those experiences are still vivid. I recall marveling at the delay between seeing a tiny Pete Townsend hit a big note and actually hearing it. There was the thrill of hoisting beer-filled jugs up along the stadium's outer wall to the top row at a Journey show. I felt chills as 110,000 Pink Floyd fans nailed a pitch-perfect "Wish You Were Here."

Anyone who ever hit an event at JFK has similar stories to tell. What they will also remember is that, by the late 1980s, the structure was an unsightly shambles. Its dank, gothic corridors led to dilapidated bathrooms with rusted-out urinal troughs. The few concourse lights still functioning were dim, and you hoped the perpetually wet concrete floors were the result of leaky water pipes. The combo of human mass and woeful utilities tested even the hardiest of partyers, as it could take a good 45 minutes of cozy shoulder-knocking just to grab some drinks or hit the toilet. t

By 1992 it was time for the 66-year-old venue to go, and as a local sports and music guy I looked forward to witnessing its final bow amid banner headlines and sentimental eulogies recalling the glory days of "Philadelphia Municipal Stadium."

But that's not how it happened.

That first cold, misty morning, I arrived to find two workers off-loading a couple of excavators into an empty parking lot. They rumbled the gear up alongside the north bleachers while I installed vibration equipment. (Our company monitors ground vibration to protect utilities and liabilities during demolition.)

I was still waiting for the podium, paparazzi, and pretty people to arrive when one of the rig operators slowly leaned out of his cab and flashed me a "thumbs up." Puzzled, I returned the gesture to indicate that my equipment was monitoring. Then he revved his engine, swung his boom forward, and started crunching through dusty brick.

Demo had started, and we had marked the occasion alone, in the rain.

The tributes never came. Over the following three months of tearing, separating, and recycling, not only were there no on-site ceremonies, but there were few reporters, memorabilia scavengers, people wanting their picture taken, or parents dragging their kids to the fence to "witness history." Yes, cars slowed as they passed, and locals occasionally stopped to ask for a brick. But the frenzied hype and hubbub that usually accompanied such high-profile demolition projects didn't happen.

Since then I have worked more than 100 stadium and arena demolitions, and I've never seen a major entertainment venue go so quietly. But why? How could no one gather to bid communal farewell to a legendary building that accommodated more people than Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park combined?

My theory is that, even with its storied history and all its noteworthy events, JFK Stadium may have simply lacked a substantive identity. Its expansive seating areas were functional but not personal, spacious but not comfortable. For more than five decades, no sports team regularly played there (the annual Army-Navy game notwithstanding), so nobody really called it home and few big-game memories were created. And, finally, because only the most high-profile music acts or lineups could move a hundred thousand tickets, it wasn't used often enough to justify expensive renovations, which perpetuated the maintenance issues.

In short, because its use was so infrequent and so socially diverse over such a prolonged period, it's unlikely that many people alive today attended more than a handful of events there. With limited opportunity to build familiarity or become emotionally attached, maybe few people did.

However, for the rest of us, just one event at JFK could leave indelible memories.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, any JFK concert announcement instantly became a big deal. A show would be anticipated for months, and was often considered the signature event of the summer. Partying with the era's greatest bands in such a ludicrously massive sea of festivity always felt like being in the center of the universe. Small clusters of fans would eagerly bond out of logistical necessity. When someone ventured off for drinks, they always returned with enough to pass around. Folks also shared everything they smuggled in, and whether you partook or not, some shows were remembered as much for the endless overhead procession of liquor bottles as they were for the music.

Then, in the spring of 1985 - almost overnight and with little time to prepare - the stadium suddenly became as critical to Philadelphia's fortunes as Independence Hall itself. JFK was selected to host the U.S. half of the global mega-event Live Aid. Only weeks earlier, the MOVE disaster had capped a dark decade of racial turmoil, and with the ruins of Osage still smoldering, Philadelphians were being crucified with ridicule and condemnation worldwide.

Live Aid was going to be either a godsend or a coffin peg, and we needed JFK Stadium and its sorry, antiquated facilities to come through one more time.

It did, and the city never looked back.

At one point during Live Aid, my sister and I retreated from the stewing masses to a small open area high along the stadium's northwest ledge, where we snapped a series of photos to try to capture one of those "words can't describe it" moments in a crude panorama.

Seven years later, while watching the structure methodically disappear in total obscurity, I thought of those photos, and I decided to trek through mangled debris back up to the same spot to replicate the panorama.

Both images hang in my family's den today in curled, faded recognition of two equally nostalgic moments:

The first celebrates the day that JFK Stadium was indeed the center of the universe. The second is a sadder image, conveying a graphic finality to its brick-and-mortar existence while offering the viewer a chance to reminisce â ¦ heck, maybe even to pay silent tribute.

Even if it is 20 years late.

Brent Blanchard is director of operations at Protec Documentation Services Inc., a South Jersey vibration-monitoring firm. E-mail him at brentb@protecservices.com.

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