NEW YORK - When the first tennis ball is served tomorrow at the US Open, people from around the world will once again descend on Flushing Meadows Corona Park to follow the action. This city park is well-accustomed to playing the role of international host. Visitors from all over the globe have been coming to this tract of land in the borough of Queens ever since it was transformed from a dump - immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Great Gatsby" as the "valley of ashes" - into the gleaming grounds that hosted the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs.
If you walk around the park on a summer weekend, however, it seems as if the world decided to stay after the fair left town. Teenagers dressed in the national colors of their native South American countries play a spirited game of soccer, while on an adjacent field, Bengali men in spotless uniforms engage in a cricket match. Korean and Chinese families from nearby Flushing wander the pathways as their children pedal their tricycles, and women dressed in colorful saris push baby carriages past vendors selling empanadas, carne asada, and chorizo con papas.
Central Park is New York's most famous parkland, but Flushing Meadows offers a more authentic slice of the Big Apple. While Central Park is the backyard for the city's ultra-rich and famous, Flushing Meadows is New York's grittier commons. No celebrity-gawking tourists, Bugaboo strollers, and hansom cabs here. Instead, you'll find working-class Queens residents from the borough's diverse ethnic neighborhoods, a small-scale version of the melting pot that has defined the city for centuries.
Planes on their approach into LaGuardia Airport occasionally roar overhead, smoke from family barbecues wafts through the air, and the boisterous shouts and cheers of crowds watching soccer games routinely pierce the air.
The energy of the city permeates Flushing Meadows, but that's part of its appeal. It is a park meant to be used. It's a well-trod recreational playground, where trees are as apt to be used as soccer goalposts and volleyball net poles as they are shady respites from the summer sun. Plus, the park is home to cultural institutions such as a zoo, botanical garden, theater, and museums that rival those in the rest of the city.
Most of the attractions from the two World's Fairs have long since vanished, but a few endure. The most fascinating remnant from the '64 fair is the Panorama of the City of New York, located in the Queens Museum of Art. The Panorama is the largest architectural model ever built, a building-by-building scale model re-creation of all five boroughs. Forget about the observation deck of the Empire State Building; this is the best bird's-eye view of New York. From a walkway ringing the edges of the model, you peer down on 895,000 miniature structures and all of the landmarks, from Yankee Stadium to Coney Island, JFK Airport to the Statue of Liberty.
An extensive sound, lighting, and multimedia system upgrade last year has breathed new life into the Panorama, which, at 9,300 square feet, still dwarfs most Manhattan penthouses. In addition to the Panorama, the Queens Museum of Art features works by contemporary and local artists, and it has a permanent exhibition with memorabilia from the World's Fairs.
Step outside the museum and you'll quickly feel mighty small in the shadows of the 140-foot-high Unisphere. The stainless-steel globe, surrounded by a large reflecting pool and water-jet fountains, was the centerpiece of the 1964 World's Fair, and its three orbital rings celebrated the dawn of the Space Age. When it was unveiled, US Steel touted the Unisphere as "the biggest world on Earth," and to this day it remains the symbol of Flushing Meadows.
Along with the Unisphere, the hulking ruins of the three towers of the New York State Pavilion, designed by famed architect Philip Johnson, dominate the park skyline. During the '64 Fair, capsule elevators transported fairgoers to the tops of these towers, which held cafeterias and an observation deck with spectacular views of the fairgrounds. Decades of neglect have given the towers, which bear a resemblance to flying saucers, a distinctly apocalyptic aura.
The massive rocket ships reaching for the stars outside the New York Hall of Science are the real deal. The spacecraft include newly refurbished booster rockets from the US space program of the 1960s along with a replica of John Glenn's Mercury capsule. Inside the hall is the largest collection of hands-on science and technology exhibits in the city.
On the other side of the park, the 39-acre Queens Botanical Garden has opened an environmentally friendly visitors center that has breathed new life into the park with its rainwater recycling system and geothermal heating and cooling.
Another respite from city life can be found at the park's Meadow Lake. Trails around the 84-acre man-made lake are popular with bikers and joggers, and visitors can rent paddleboats and rowboats. Golfers can head to the Flushing Meadows Golf Center, which has an 18-hole pitch-and-putt course along with a miniature course, both of which are lighted for night play. The latest recreational addition to the park is a new $66 million complex housing an Olympic-sized indoor pool and an ice rink.
If the New York Mets are in town, head to Shea Stadium. Time is growing short before it is replaced next year by Citi Field, the ballpark being built next door.
And then there is the nearby USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which hosts the US Open, the last Grand Slam tournament of the year and summer's last hurrah in the city. The US Open embodies the distinctive character of New York: noisy, flashy, celebrity-laden, pressure-packed, and unabashedly commercial. As soon as you walk through the turnstiles, it's clear that this is a far cry from Wimbledon, that traditional cathedral of the game where players wearing all-white play on grass courts in front of hushed and reverent crowds. The atmosphere at the hard-court Open is high energy.
Even when the US Open is over, the National Tennis Center continues to draw tennis junkies. Since it is a public facility, weekend hackers have the unique opportunity to play on the same courts where Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Venus and Serena Williams reign. Whether you can play like a champion, however, is an entirely different matter.
Christopher Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.