The U.S. Open tennis tournament will celebrate the 50th anniversary of equal prize money for men and women in the event, part of a legacy of equality and inclusion of which the Open is extremely proud. But many close neighbors of the U.S. Open have not always felt so included.
On 111th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, in the shadow of the No. 7 train’s elevated tracks, thousands of people go about their business during the U.S. Open while having virtually no interaction with one of the most popular and profitable sporting events in the world.
Kamal Alma and his family have owned the 111 Corona Discount & Candy Store, less than half a mile from Arthur Ashe Stadium, for over 40 years. Occasionally, during the week of qualifying and the two weeks of competition, some of the event’s temporary workers filter into Alma’s store. But he rarely sees tennis fans there and does not gain any noticeable uptick in business from the event. His children like tennis, but tickets for the main draw are too expensive.
“Plus, I’m working all the time,” he said. “Who knows, maybe someday I’ll go.”
The U.S. Open is one of New York City’s landmark events, drawing international attention to Queens while generating huge profits and employing about 7,000 seasonal workers from around New York. But for some, it could be a better neighbor.
“We are happy it’s here,” said Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president. “It’s definitely an economic driver for the borough, for the city. But if it’s not benefiting the local community, what good is that for the people of Queens? When the three weeks is over, we’re still here.”
Richards said that he had just recently begun to dig deeper into how the U.S. Open engaged with the local community and that he planned to attend an event hosted by the United States Tennis Association on Tuesday to discuss those matters. He said he recognized and appreciated that the Open donated money to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, on which the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center sits in its 40-acre corner, and provided funds to enhance local community projects. He just wants to see more of it, commensurate with the huge sums produced by the event each year.
“I look forward to sitting down with the leadership to really think about ways this partnership can benefit the fans, the tournament and the borough,” he said. “Not to say they don’t give support. We need to see that support ramped up to address inequities outside the park and in the park.”
More than 888,000 spectators attended the U.S. Open last year, and at least that many are expected this year at an event that is in some ways an annual contrast of culture and class.
Many fans will drive there on the crowded parkways and highways adjacent to the stadium. Some will ride the commuter rails from Manhattan, Long Island and New Jersey, and others will squeeze onto the No. 7 train from Grand Central Station. And when they have seen the last ball struck for the day, most will make their way back in the same fashion, without setting foot in the nearby streets and restaurants of Corona, Flushing or Jackson Heights or ambling into the adjacent park, where soccer and volleyball players mix with in-line skaters, joggers and picnickers.
“We never lose sight of the fact that we are in a public park,” said Daniel Zausner, the National Tennis Center’s chief operating officer. “We want to be a bigger player in the community, always.”
The U.S.T.A. offers free admission to a week of professional tennis during the qualifying tournament before the main draw, providing an opportunity to attract future fans.
Omar Minaya, the former general manager of the Mets baseball club and now a senior adviser for the Yankees, grew up in Corona just a few blocks from where the Open site is now. He and his friends played football and baseball in the park before the Open moved to Flushing Meadows in 1978, and boxing was a popular sport in Corona, too. Few of the kids played tennis. Minaya said he still saw a positive overall effect from the event but recognized that it was not for everyone.
“It’s brought a lot of attention to Queens, and that’s good,” he said. “But most of the people that go to the Open, they aren’t going into Corona. It’s more of a corporate crowd than a local crowd.”
Lew Sherr, the chief executive of the U.S.T.A., said economic activity from the Open filtered across the region, and he pointed to a decade-old study that put the annual economic impact of the tournament at $750 million for the New York City area. He estimated that a similar study now would double that figure.
But in Corona and nearby Elmhurst, two areas devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, many residents have little or no interaction with the U.S. Open.
Carlos Inga owns the Super Star II food stand in Corona Plaza, just off Roosevelt Avenue and 103rd Street. He has lived in Queens for 20 years but has never been to the U.S. Open, nor have any of his friends, he said. Sometimes he will see employees wearing U.S. Open shirts and badges, but rarely any fans, unless they get off at the wrong subway stop by accident.
“There is definitely a disconnect,” Richards, the borough president, said. “Although the stadium sits less than a mile away, it has no connection. Those are the questions we will be raising on Tuesday. The same goes for the airports and the new soccer stadium. How do they impact the neighborhood?”
Since moving to the Corona and Flushing area from its previous location at the tony West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, the U.S. Open has sat in its corner of the park pumping out revenue for the nonprofit U.S.T.A., which pays the city a percentage in rent for the privilege. In 2022, the event raised $472 million and paid close to $5 million in rent. The U.S.T.A. builds and pays for the infrastructure, including the stadiums, and more than 40 percent of the 7,000 seasonal employees are from Queens.
“I love working here,” said Yvette Varga, a regular seasonal maintenance worker at the Open, who is originally from Ozone Park in Queens but now lives in the Bronx. “We would always go to this park, and still, every year, we have at least one cookout here. So for me, it’s like home.”
Some employees have not had such a favorable experience. In 2022, three employees accused a U.S. Open subcontractor of wage theft during the previous year’s event, and the funds were ultimately restored after Zausner’s intervention.
“I wish I had known in September so I could have acted upon it then, instead of hearing about it 11 months later,” Zausner said.
In 2019, Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller at the time, charged that the National Tennis Center had underreported $31 million in revenue from 2014 to 2017 and therefore had underpaid rent by more than $300,000. The U.S.T.A., in a letter to the deputy comptroller dated Nov. 16, 2020, and obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Law request, concurred with a shortfall of $143,296.61 and paid it.
The N.T.C. also donates funds for the upkeep of the park, but more attention seems to be focused closer to the tennis center, where park benches along the path surrounding the perimeter fence bore “wet paint” signs on Tuesday. Farther away, the paint was chipped off the benches and litter was more evident.
“If you look, it’s not as nice as you move away from the stadium,” said Tina Chen, a Flushing resident and a senior at Yale University who was walking her dog, Coco, in the park. “I think it’s good to have the U.S. Open here, for sure. But maybe they could do more to fix up the rest of the area, too.”