Ashes to Ashes

by: Steve Tignor | September 06, 2014

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The U.S. Open was once a symbol of American democratization. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—It’s a big year for New York World’s Fair anniversaries in Flushing Meadows. The first Fair, held here in 1939, is celebrating its 75th, while the 1964 version is celebrating its 50th. Both took place in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Open. In fact, the ’64 Fair is the reason the tournament is here in the first place; Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand, once a single structure, served as its outdoor performance space. 

In honor of those anniversaries, the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows is exhibiting some of the 10,000 items it has from the two Fairs. A show in the museum’s café will tell you how, if you’ve ever wondered, Louis Armstrong Stadium got its name. The trumpeter was a long-time resident of nearby Corona, and he performed in that arena at the ’64 Fair. 

To mark the occasion, here’s a look at the connection between the Open, the World’s Fair site, and its creator, the city’s infamous master builder, Robert Moses. These days the U.S. Open is associated with money; this year one writer called the Open “the Super Bowl of the one percent.” But like the story of the U.S. itself for the first seven decades of the 20th century, the Open’s story for its first 100 years was one of democratization, of walls—walls of class and race—slowly crumbling. 

The tournament has changed locations twice: first from Newport, R.I., to Forest Hills, Queens, and finally to its present home in Flushing Meadows. Together, those moves represented a gradual, often reluctant, opening of an upper-crust pastime to the country’s population at large. We pick up that now-forgotten story up in the 1970s, the decade when the sport finally escaped the country club for the public park, and when the U.S. Open was looking to follow suit. 

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A match at the 1890 U.S. Nationals in Newport. (Wikimedia Commons/International Tennis Hall of Fame)

The U.S. Nationals (now called the Open) was first played in 1881 in Newport, R.I., and remained there until 1914. During most of those years it was less an athletic contest than a see-and-be-seen society diversion, held in the fashionable Newport Casino at the height of the summer social season, and attended by the resort city’s parasol-spinning matriarchs. When the sport expanded and became a serious athletic contest—you could tell it was serious because the players started complaining about those spinning parasols behind the court—it was moved to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills Gardens, New York, where it was held from 1915 to 1977.

New York was obviously much closer to the commercial heart of the United States than Newport, but it didn’t turn out to a big leap in social strata for the tournament, or for American tennis. The Tudor-dominated Forest Hills Gardens in Queens was a master-planned community based on the layout of a traditional English village. One part of its master plan was that it was reserved for WASPs—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—only.

By the 1970s, though, the power of the WASP establishment had waned as the country’s economic base shifted from the Northeast’s steel and railroad industries to the oil and aerospace industries that had risen in the Sun Belt. With wealth, tennis has traditionally followed, and it did in this case as well. Texas oilman Lamar Hunt began the first major pro tour of the Open era, World Championship Tennis (WCT), thereby making Dallas a new hotbed for the sport. In 1973, the most-watched match in history was played not on Wimbledon’s Center Court, but in Houston’s futuristic Astrodome, where Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. In 1977, as Georgia farmer and avid tennis player Jimmy Carter moved into the White House, the USTA followed suit and elected its first president from the deep south, 66-year-old William Ewing “Slew” Hester of Jackson, Mississippi. Invariably caricatured as Ol’ Slewfoot, a bluff, beady-eyed, cigar-chomping, wildcat oilman and scion of a state political family, Hester was also one of those rarities in the tennis establishment at that time: A gentleman entrepreneur and an energetic force for change.

“I’m a real hustler, a salesman,” he said, someone who liked to “drink all night and play tennis all day.” He had built the 26-court River Hills Tennis Club in his hometown in the early 1960s and then stumped the country, cocktail firmly in hand, successfully selling his cronies in the USLTA on the idea of allowing professionals to invade Forest Hills. But Hester remained underestimated in New York, where he was, in the words of Tennis magazine's Peter Bodo, “pegged as a stupid redneck.”

The U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills, in 1920. (Wikimedia Commons/George Grantham Bain)

As with Newport before World War I, it was clear by the mid-70s that tennis had outgrown Forest Hills. During the two weeks of the Open, the West Side Tennis Club, now wedged in by high-rise apartment buildings, threatened to burst its own walls. The club’s narrow pathways and viewing areas were overrun; fans lay face down on the ground to see whatever they could see from beneath the windscreens at the backs of courts. There was limited room for the sponsor tents and merchandise booths that now ate up large swaths of ground at all tournaments. The grass, never as firmly rooted as in England, was chewed up so quickly and thoroughly that it had to be spray-painted green for the TV cameras.

An even bigger and more intractable issue was the lack of parking space for the new suburban fans who wanted to experience the “carnival at Forest Hills.” There was very little space in the streets that Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.—son of the man who designed Central Park—had planned 70 years earlier for Forest Hills Gardens. By 1977, as New York’s notorious Summer of Sam drew to its violent end, a spirit of lawlessness had taken hold of the Open. Trash spilled out of giant bins and floated on the courts after a rainstorm. A spectator was shot during an evening session featuring—who else?—John McEnroe. Rebellious fans unhappy over the rescheduling of a match staged a sit-in and threw oranges and paper cups onto the court in protest. And they got their way. Tennis’s clubby past—members at West Side still wore all white—had come face to face with its own colorful, big-money present, and with the subversive spirit of the times. 

(Wikimedia Commons/Doug Coldwell)

Hester knew the tournament had to find a new location, and after looking out of an airplane window one night in January ’77, he knew where it was. “You throw a dart in the dark and drill,” he said of his job as an independent oilman, and that’s pretty much how he went about moving the U.S. Open. As his plane descended toward LaGuardia Airport that night, Hester glanced out at the land below him. There were several inches of snow on the ground in Flushing Meadows Park. Taken by the beauty of the scene, he looked more closely. He caught a glimpse of Louis Armstrong Stadium, a disused and graffiti-strewn outdoor exhibition hall and performance space built for the 1964 World’s Fair and originally called the Singer Bowl. Slew had his drilling spot.

He also had a new partner. After 62 years, the West Side Tennis Club was out, and cash-strapped New York City was in. The USTA agreed to spend $5 million (it ended up costing twice that) to lease the land around Armstrong Stadium, build a tennis center, and use the space for sponsored events for two months each year. The other 10 months it was to be a municipal tennis facility. For the first time, a Grand Slam would be played on public courts, on a hard surface similar to the one used by the waves of recreational hackers who had picked up the game over the previous decade in parks all over the country. It was also, not coincidentally, a surface where most U.S. pros thrived. Now all Hester had to do was have it finished by the fall of the following year.

Most observers familiar with New York construction believed that this was next-to-impossible, that the ol’ wildcatter would be eaten alive by the industry, if not by the city itself—the plan required the approval of nine different agencies before it could even get off the ground. Gene Scott, the patrician Yalie publisher of Tennis Week, believed the Open would likely still be in Forest Hills in 1980. “It pushes the outer limits of wishful thinking to believe otherwise,” Scott wrote. When another writer, Herbert Warren Wind of the New Yorker, visited the site that May, he was stunned to find out how much work was yet to be done. He mentioned his concern to Hester, who “smiled broadly and easily” and said he believed that the new, eight-layer DecoTurf II surface would be ready to go on August 27, three days before the tournament started. Hester was right.

On August 30th, 1978, the National Tennis Center opened with 12 fast-food stands and nine bars in Armstrong Stadium. This seemed a little dangerous, considering that the sides of the arena were steep enough that Hester said, “If a drunk fell out of the 51st row, he’d end up somewhere on the sideline.” Every one of the 70-odd flags on the grounds was red, white, and blue. There had been no time for landscaping of any sort—it was steel and concrete for as far as the eye could see.

But the tennis fans of New York City didn’t care. 
Labeled “cheerful slobs” by a New York fashion critic of the time, they came in tube socks and T-shirts, chinos and sneakers, sleeveless denim jackets and skull-and-crossbone tattoos, Lacoste shorts and Madras jackets, short shorts and halter tops, designer jeans and polyester shirts unbuttoned to the waist, and often with no shirts at all. Behind sunglasses of every shape, color, and size, they stuffed themselves with shrimp cocktail and strolled around licking ice cream cones. They yelled out as players were serving and jammed the outer walkways of Armstrong to survey the field courts below. Sometimes they jumped the fences and plopped themselves down on one court to get a better view of the match that was being played on the next court. In the evenings—the Open was the first Grand Slam to stage night matches—when the place was jammed, the 18,000 people inside the stadium could unleash a formless, unceasing roar more commonly heard at NFL stadiums than tennis clubs. 

The U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. (Wikimedia Commons/Edwin Martinez)

All of this sounds normal now, of course, but it was something new for the sport at the time. Tennis had become fully professionalized just 10 years earlier, in 1968, when Wimbledon, 91 years after it was first played, finally consented to offer prize money to its players. That move, it turned out, was the first shot fired in a broader war between the dying British tennis empire, which had governed the game since its invention in England in 1868 and had kept it strictly amateur, and the ascendent American tennis empire, which was in the process of turning sports into a global industry performed in colossal domed stadiums. 

Before ’68, the game had been run by the International Lawn Tennis Association (ILTF), headquartered for five decades in London. After ’68, it would be run by the motley, ambitious band of agents, lawyers, promoters, and carnival barkers, mostly from the U.S., who built the professional tours—men like Mark McCormack of IMG, Hunt of the WCT, Donald Dell of the ProServe agency, and Jimmy Connors’ fast-talking Svengali, Bill Riordan. Now, 10 years after taking over the sport, the American tennis empire had its capital at Flushing Meadows. The U.S. Open was no longer a baby Wimbledon; it had left the private Tudor club and the imitation English village in Forest Hills for the public spectacle of the modern concrete sports arena. It was no coincidence that, in 1977, the same years that Hester dropped his dart on Flushing Meadows, the ILTF dropped the “lawn” from its name. The lawns of tennis were made of asphalt now.

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The move from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows didn’t take the U.S. Open far geographically. It didn’t even take it out of Queens. But it transported tennis from a British vision of the world to an American one. 

Robert Moses. (Associated Press)

At the beginning of the 20th century, Flushing Meadows had been a vast dumping ground for all of Brooklyn’s garbage. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald memorialized it in The Great Gatsby as a “valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.” It had been a lifelong dream of another famous New Yorker, the cantankerous, high-handed city planner and Machiavellian master builder Robert Moses, to create the city’s greatest park on top of those ashes, one that might even be worthy of naming after himself. 

Moses, whose career spanned much of the century, saw New York as an ever-expanding mural, with its population stretching farther and farther east. In his vision of the future, its citizens would drive on his parkways, past his monuments and parks and beaches, and gather together at its geographical center, in his sprawling Flushing Meadows Park. For years he had wanted to one-up Frederick Law Olmstead—his son designed Forest Hills Gardens—and upstage his stuffy, rinky-dink, 19th-century Central Park in Manhattan.

Forest Hills had been the earliest example in the U.S. of a "Garden City," part of a late-Victorian urban-planning movement that was started to counter the urban sprawl caused by industrialism. Olmstead, Jr., and his fellow Garden City designers thought the only way to maintain any kind of society, and sanity, within the urban jungle was by having people live in discrete, green neighborhoods. Tennis in Forest Hills fit that vision; all over the U.S., the sport’s clubs were part of the glue that held towns and suburbs and city districts together.

Robert Moses had a different vision. He believed in leveling old urban neighborhoods. In 1898, Garden City founder Sir Ebeneezer Howard set out his ideas for modern in a manifesto entitled "Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform." Fifty years later, Moses described his method in somewhat different language: “When you build in an overbuilt metropolis,” he said, “sometimes you have to hack your way with a meat axe.”

Moses believed in the car, and he believed that cities should be shredded to make room for the expressways that would carry them. His modern world would be vast and public: Jones Beach, which can hold half a million people on a summer day, and Shea Stadium were two of the creations of which he was most proud. (In retrospect, you have to wonder about the man’s historical judgment. He believed that Shea, which was knocked down in 2008, was New York’s answer to the Roman Colosseum.) He thought of Long Island as a potential Eden for the millions of people crammed into New York City. Moses, meat-axe in hand, would eventually build his expressways, his bridges, and his steel-and-glass office buildings. But he would never build his park.

Reading the Old Testament in the 1920s, Moses had come across the passage, “Give unto them beauty for ashes [so that] they shall repair the ruined cities . . . ” This would become his motivational slogan regarding Flushing Meadows. He succeeded in covering some of the dump with green for the 1939 World’s Fair, though the 50 million cubic yards of refuse that was removed barely made a dent in the ashes. In 1964, Moses got a second chance, in the form of another World’s Fair, again at Flushing Meadows. He had himself named president of the Fair, believing that the revenue it generated would allow him to build a green space there that was one-third larger than Central Park. Instead, it proved to be his undoing. The Fair, despite its kitschy, eye-catching mid-60s futurism, was disorganized and drew disappointing crowds. Moses, for one of the few times in his career to that point, was viewed as a deluded failure.

Present-day structures from the 1964 World's Fair, in Flushing Meadows. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

When Slew Hester glimpsed the old Singer Bowl from the air 13 years after the ’64 Fair, he saw one of the great ruins of that failure. It sat next to other rusting, graffiti-strewn, Ozymandian structures that, seemingly out of forgetfulness, had never been razed: The stainless-steel Unisphere; a pair of stripped out, abandoned observatory towers; a life-size model of a rocket ship; the circular, aggressively jagged pavilion that Philip Johnson had designed for the New York State exhibit. These were the ruins of an optimistic, pre-Vietnam American past, a Star Trek vision of the future that soon looked hopelessly naive.

Still, while Moses hadn’t created a park that would make anyone forget Olmstead, and Long Island is few people’s idea of Eden, he had put green where there had been garbage. Late in his career, when public opinion had turned against him, Moses pointed to his work at Flushing Meadows. How could anyone criticize the man who had given them beauty for ashes? And today you can see the fruits of his vision. On weekends, the grounds around the Unisphere and the other World's Fair ruins are filled with the children of immigrant families playing on well-tended soccer fields.

Yet the ashes had left their mark. To many spectators at the National Tennis Center, it was unclear whether Moses and Hester really had stamped them out after all. They seemed to live on in the stench of trash, sweat, and cooked meat that arose during the two humid weeks of the U.S. Open, described by Bud Collins at the time as “the ripest of all tennis tournaments.”

Moses died in July 1981. One month later, the ashes finally exploded onto the grounds at Flushing Meadows. The third-round match between Ivan Lendl and Mark Vines in the Grandstand—the Singer Bowl had been chopped in two to form a main stadium and this more intimate, 6,500-hundred-seat arena—was stopped when clouds of noxious smoke began to drift across the court. While Lendl was winning the first set, a pungent haze settled inside the arena, and cinders flew. A nearby garbage compactor had begun to burn, necessitating a call to the local fire company. “I never seen a tennis match called on accounta fire,” an usher told Collins, as they gazed at a “black and smelly mist rising from behind the south wall of the Grandstand.”

Lendl decided to call the match on his own. After angrily demanding a delay, he put on his jacket and silently stalked off the court to a lively chorus of boos. Half an hour later, the young Czech would stalk back onto the court and win the match, but he was never happy about it. Ivan the Terrible was a no-show for his press conference afterward.

Over the course of the next decade, Lendl would have more success at Flushing Meadows than any other player. After 1981, he would reach the final a record eight consecutive times and win three titles. He would move to nearby Connecticut, and in 1992 become a U.S. citizen. Ironically, the ex-Czech’s mercenary, workaholic style would find a perfect home in tennis' new American empire. His style wasn’t elegant, and he would never be a crowd favorite in his adopted country—he didn't even get to be the champ you loved to hate; instead he was, according to Sports Illustrated, "The Champion That Nobody Cares About." But it didn't matter. Like the even more unpopular Robert Moses, Ivan Lendl would make some beauty of his own out of the ashes.

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, today, with an observatory tower in the background. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

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