Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Ashes to Ashes
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Ashes to Ashes 11/30/2010 - 1:59 PM

Arm[2] There's word that Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand, the two original stadiums at the National Tennis Center, will be razed in the near future. Blame the swamp and ash (not Ashe) heap they were built on. The two were originally one arena, the Singer Bowl, constructed for the '64 World's Fair and named after its sponsor, Singer Sewing Machines. Pre-Open, it was most famous for being the scene of a near-riot caused by Jim Morrison in 1968 (you should be able to see a little of it here.) Otherwise, here's some more of the history behind the place.

***

The story of the U.S. Open is a story of glacial democratiziation. From 1881 to 1914, the U.S. Nationals (now called the Open) was a see-and-be-seen Society event, held at the Newport Casino at the height of the summer "season" and attended by the resort town's parasol-spinning matriarchs. When the sport expanded and became a serious athletic contest—and the players started complaining about those spinning parasols behind the court—it moved to Forest Hills Gardens, New York, where it was held from 1915 to 1977. That was closer to the commerical heart of the country, but it wasn't a big leap in social strata—the Tudor-dominated Forest Hills was planned as a WASP-only community.

By the 1970s, though, the power of the WASP establishment had waned as the country’s economic base shifted to the Sun Belt’s oil and aerospace industries. With that wealth, tennis followed. Texas oilman Lamar Hunt began the first major pro tour of the Open era, World Championship Tennis (WCT), and made 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 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 entered 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: 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 fellow old cronies in the USLTA on the idea of professionals at 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.”

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 it 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. By 1977, as New York’s notorious Summer of Sam drew to a close, a spirit of lawlessness had taken hold of the tournament. 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 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 colorful, big money present. 

Hester knew the tournament had to find a new location, and after looking out 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 flew into La Guardia 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. Hester 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 to lease the land around Armstrong Stadium, build a tennis center, and use the space for sponsored events for two months out of the year (it ended up costing $10 million). 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 public parks all over the country. It was also, not coincidentally, a surface where most U.S. pros thrived. Now all Hester to do was have it finished by the fall of the following year.

Most observers familiar with New York construction thought it was impossible, that he 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 and self-appointed conscience of the sport, believed that the Open would likely still be in Forest Hills in 1980. “It pushes the outer limits of wishful thinking to believe otherwise,” Scott sniffed. When another writer, Herbert Warren Wind of the New Yorker, visited the site in 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 laid down on August 27, three days before the tournament started. That's basically how it turned out.

The Doors On August 30th, 1978, the National Tennis Center opened with 12 fast-food stands and nine bars in  Armstrong stadium alone. This might have seemed a little dangerous, considering that the sides of the arena were steep enough that Hester would say, “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. The newly minted cheerful slob tennis fans of New York City didn’t care. 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 inside the stadium could unleash a formless, unceasing roar more commonly heard at NFL arenas than tennis clubs. Ten years after taking over the sport, the American tennis empire had its capital. The U.S. Open was no longer a baby Wimbledon. It had left the private club and the imitation English village in Forest Hills for the public spectacle of the modern concrete sports arena. The Lawns were made of asphalt now.

The game had come a long way in a short time, and the new view could be dizzying. When you climbed to the top of Armstrong Stadium as the sun set, a haze of orange pollution could be seen spreading over the steel canyons of the Manhattan skyline. It looked like the city was on fire.

But tennis hadn’t completely given itself over to the great unwashed: There was plenty of quiche at the concession stands.

***

The move from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows didn’t take the U.S. Open far geographically. It didn’t even get it out of Queens. But it transported tennis from a British vision of the modern world to an American one. At the beginning of the 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 center, in his sprawling Flushing Meadows Park. He 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 urbal sprawl caused by industrialism. Olmstead, Jr., and the Garden City designers believed that the only way to maintain any kind of society, and sanity, amid the urban jungle was inside discrete, green neighborhoods. Tennis in Forest Hills fit that vision; all over the country, the sport’s clubs were part of the glue that held communities together.

Robert Moses had a different vision. He believed in leveling old urban neighborhoods. In 1898, Garden City founder Sir Ebeneezer Howard put his ideas for modern planning 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. (Though 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 would get his expressways, his bridges, and his steel-and-glass office buildings. But he never got his park.

Reading the Old Testament in the 1920s, he came 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 from it would allow him to build a green space 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, power-hording failure.

When Slew Hester glimpsed the old Singer Bowl from the air 13 years later, he saw one of the 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 observatory towers, a life-size model of a rocket ship. These were ruins of an optimistic, pre-Vietnam American past, a Star Trek vision of the future that soon looked hopelessly naive. While Moses didn’t create a park that would make anyone forget Olmstead, and Long Island remains few people’s idea of Eden, he had put green where there had been garbage. Late in life, when public opinion turned against him, he pointed to his work at Flushing Meadows. How could they criticize the man who had given them beauty for ashes?

Still, the ashes had left their mark. To many spectators, 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, the ripest of all tennis tournaments. In 1981, they finally exploded onto the grounds. 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 and ash began to drift across the court. While Lendl was winning the first set, a pungent haze settled inside the arena, and cinders fly. 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 Bud 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 never got much happier—he 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's 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 SI, "The Champion That Nobody Cares About." It didn't matter. Like the even more unpopular Robert Moses, Ivan Lendl would make some beauty of his own out of the ashes.


 
17
Comments
 

Posted by Master Ace 11/30/2010 at 03:06 PM

First...

Posted by ralph 11/30/2010 at 05:36 PM

Didn't know much about the history of the National Tennis Center and I love the USO so I really enjoyed reading this.

Posted by wilson75 11/30/2010 at 06:14 PM

Steve: Thanks for this piece. I never knew the history behind the NTC. It's a pity that Armstrong and Grandstand has to go. I'm not sure when they will be bulldozed but if they are there for next year's USO it would be a nice send-off if they scheduled some matches that involve some of the top players on those courts.

Posted by Avec Double Cordage 11/30/2010 at 10:07 PM

Great! Sad they are gonna smash the place where so many epic battles took place and where the Doors played that show, it should stay. Why don't they just build a "lighter-than-air" roof for the Arthur Ashe stadium, some sort of flat zeppelin, or actually two or more, connect them to cables and tow them on top of the stadium when it rains or when the wind is too strong to have a decent match. When not needed these L-T-A roof modules could be parked on top of a bunch of columns next to the stadium or even on the ground though then it would take longer to move the roof on top of the stadium. Basically the roof would be something like a giant saucer shaped rigid air-ship infated with hot air, or actually considering the size of what's to cover it could be 2 or 4 segments. It should be technically possible (the technology is from around 1870) if the roof is only needed for the US Open period.

Posted by VE 11/30/2010 at 10:09 PM

Steve, as a fan for whom the world stops when the US Open invades this city, thanks for the history lesson.

Posted by Abe 12/01/2010 at 05:41 AM

Well! thanks for the history behind the US Open and the NTC

Posted by just horsen 12/01/2010 at 08:19 AM

Avec Double Cordage: because it's not just about the roof. The foundations are sinking as well. That's really the main reason, I think.

Posted by jodiecate 12/01/2010 at 08:37 AM

Thanks Steve, very interesting to hear about the transition from grass to concrete - it gives a very clear visual image of that evolution. Thanks!

Posted by David 12/01/2010 at 10:11 AM

M.A.---where is your exclamation point?

Steve---Why R U subtly trashing Gene Scott?
Didn't he suddenly die recently?
I thought he did alot for the sport...no?
Doesn't he leave a widow and kids?
I really liked the article, as I do most of your writing...
I don't get it.

David

Posted by Sahana 12/01/2010 at 11:12 AM

Steve,

That was some history leason in NTC. Thank you.
MAN...YOU ARE SO GOOD.

You move between two different eras with such elan, you are indeed a great writer.

I adore the USO.

Posted by Ross (FOE, even Gael) 12/01/2010 at 04:06 PM

Wonderful article. Thanks.

I actually remember the West Side Tennis Club and Forest Hills Gardens fondly. The most memorable matches of my youth were played at Forest Hills--'53 semis (Trabert, Seixas, Rosewall and Hoad) and Hoad's first pro match v. Gonzales ('57?).

Posted by pegofmyheart 12/01/2010 at 05:42 PM

Please not the Grandstand! I love the place even when it had that horrible restaurant lining one wall. Even the players liked it because it went to shade. I even like Louis Armstrong where for years I had the best seats right in back of the boxes and was then relegated to nosebleed territory in Ash which quite frankly I refuse to enter.
But Slew was great! My first National was watching Mo Connolly and Sedgman win and we had to wear dresses and sit on our hands. But in later years Forest Hills was horribly crowded and the move was well overdue (Note: I was one of people causing a riot when they tried to cancel a Vilas match because of rain.)
Still I can see they have to build a bigger alternate to Armstrong and hopefully rain proofed. I am with Double Cordage. The Hamburg tournament used to have some kind of light tent like structure and surely engineers could do likewise. As for Ashe it is hideous. Build a much better stadium to take its place and then strip it down. The vertigo is one thing but the boxes destroyed all the synergy of the crowd to say nothing of being empty for lots of the time.

Posted by d 12/02/2010 at 11:22 AM

beautiful. I love the patrician - democratic theme, with newport - forest hills - flushing, and Olmstead - Moses, mock English - true American, Lamar Hunt, Slew Hester, ...

thank you

Posted by Ross (FOE, even Gael) 12/02/2010 at 01:18 PM

pegofmyheart--

"My first National was watching Mo Connolly and Sedgman win...." Wow! Great start! Little Mo was one of the all-time greats, although never mentioned in these pages. I did watch her too--on tv.

Posted by Steve 12/05/2010 at 12:33 PM

thanks, d, i'm glad those themes came through. this is hopefully part of a chapter of a book i'm writing about the 1981 us open. at least i know one person will get it

Posted by per head 10/17/2012 at 02:58 PM

After what happened with Louis Armstrong. I didn't know that they honored him like this and I think that it is great that they did something like that.

Posted by per head 10/17/2012 at 03:00 PM

After what happened with Louis Armstrong. I didn't know that they honored him like this and I think that it is great that they did something like that.

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