Sunday, October 3, 2010

Multiple Identities

For two weeks every year, at about the same time that the city’s university population swells with the return of vacationing students, the tennis world descends upon New York. Around the city, lampposts, buses and billboards are covered with the products of the year’s latest ad campaign. Ball boys, umpires, and linesmen will be chosen while cooks, vendors, cleaning crews, and security are all hired to prepare for one of tennis' top four major championships, the U.S. Open. Over the fortnight over three-hundred of the world’s best tennis players, and upwards of 700,000 tennis fans (712,976 this year to be exact) make the trip to USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. The center’s main stadium Arthur Ashe will be the main focus of numerous television broadcasts which will undoubtedly catch a glimpse of the occasional celebrity and perhaps the even more elusive head-of-state.
Yet among the hoopla of these two weeks, few realize that it is merely that, two weeks. The site of the National Tennis Center serves its main and primary purpose for just fourteen days. After the final match on the last Sunday of the tournament most of the fans and players will leave not only the stadium, but New York as well, returning to homes as far as Sydney and Tokyo (the winners of the men's and women's events this year took their trophies home to Spain and Belgium respectively). Ninety-five percent of the time the center is technically merely another public tennis facility distinguished from others simply by its size and illustrious history and kept in the minds of only a small segment of New Yorkers.
I was lucky enough to actually go to the U.S. open this semester and while I was there it occurred to me how odd of a place this must be for an archaeologist. If for some reason all of New York was abandoned and rediscovered thousands of years from now, how would one conceptualize a place such as this? The population that uses the site is not representative of the people that live nearby year-round. Unlike other sports stadiums in the U.S. the USTA National Tennis Center does not showcase a domestic league, meaning that a greater segment of the people attending the Open are not native to Queens nor to the United States. Of the many people I encountered on my visits I heard a large portion speaking a different language and I heard many accents hinting at multilingualism, or at least foreign origin (such as the boisterous Australian Samantha Stosur fans whom we could hear sitting clear on the opposite side of the stadium) in the remaining portion.
In a sense it is fitting that the center is located at the old World's Fair grounds since for these two weeks it hosts once again the world's talent. Yet also like the World's Fair the majority of its time is spent catering to secondary purposes not necessarily intended by its original creators. Throughout the year these courts will be stepped on by the feet of more amateurs than professionals, and perhaps for this reason I was wrong in saying earlier that the U.S. Open is the site's "main and primary purpose". Perhaps I should have simply said "primary intended function."
In terms of use throughout the course of year one could argue that the primary function of the site is as a public tennis facility, yet one must excuse the mistake since the money and attention spent there during the US Open fortnight can lead us to different conclusions. Which conclusion would one make from the archaeological record at this site though? Probably a mix of both. So, then how should the archaeologists of the future look at this place? How should he or she "read" the large parking lot and massive stadium, obviously signs of a large event, with the trash and lost items of the local New Yorkers that use the facility all the time? Would we create some kind of hybrid scenario in our minds or is there some way in which we could accurately capture a picture of this place's dual life?
- Shane

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