Big-time concerts return to West Side
by Michael Perlman
Sep 04, 2013 | 3692 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Forest Hills, synonymous with tennis and music history, regained a bit of its glorified musical past last week, as the iconic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, dormant and neglected since its last major concerts in the 1980s, reopened after undergoing eight weeks of repairs totaling approximately $1.5 million.

An estimated 16,500 fans began standing on long lines on Burns Street as early as 5 a.m., eager to enter the historic stadium archways to see the U.K. folk-rock band, Mumford & Sons, as well as opening bands The Bear’s Den and The Vaccines.

They took center court on a newly constructed stage, reminiscent of the day The Beatles landed in a helicopter and performed 49 years ago, or when other musical greats such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, and The Doors made summers in Queens memorable.

Mumford & Sons energized fans with multi-platinum hits such as “I Will Wait,” “Little Lion Man,” and “The Cave.”

“This has been a unique day for us,” said Marcus Mumford. “We are really proud that we got to revitalize this venue with you all.”

Mumford & Sons commemorated the stadium by throwing tennis balls into the audience and sometimes switching out a banjo or guitar for a tennis racket.

“We just can't believe you all came,” said keyboardist Ben Lovett. “This is amazing. Are you sure you can invite 17,000 people to a tennis court? It hasn't happened in a long time!”

Cheyenne Kerekes came all the way from Connecticut for the show.

“You could feel the history in the stadium,” she said. “It was even more powerful because the bands have such respect for the greats that came before them. Someday people will be talking about Mumford, Vaccines, and Bear's Den the same way they did for Dylan, Hendrix, and The Beatles.”

“The stadium is the jewel in the crown of Forest Hills, and to tear it down would rip the identity so closely associated with tennis and this historic neighborhood,” said Forest Hills resident Patrick Lannan. “Mumford & Sons fully understood the connection, which they referenced throughout the show. Mumford and Lovett are from Wimbledon, where tennis is also prevalent.”

Dating to 1923, the stadium was the first home of the U.S. Open. It is where tennis players such as Bill Tilden, Don Budge, and Billie Jean King made headlines, and Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson broke racial barriers when tennis was still a segregated sport.

After the U.S. Open moved to Flushing Meadows in 1978, major music festivals gradually declined at the stadium. Neighbors began to complain about the concerts, which would go on well into the night, and the rowdy patrons who would throw garbage in their yards. The stadium soon fell into disrepair.

Just three years ago, West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) members rejected a bid by Cord Meyer Development to purchase and demolish the stadium to make way for condos.

WSTC President Roland Meier played an instrumental role in breaking with tradition and looking outside the club for ideas for the stadium’s future. Recent 100th anniversary events played homage to the club’s past, and influenced club members and the greater community to support the stadium’s rebirth.

Last winter, concert producers Mike Luba and Jon McMillan began a dialogue with the club, and founded WSTC Events. Their vision is to hold 18 concerts over the next three summers.

“We want to justify the faith of the community, we had to earn the trust of everyone involved” said McMillan.

Key stakeholders included members of elected officials, Community Board 6, the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, the Mayor’s Office, and members of the West Side Tennis Club.

The Department of Buildings approved a 17,000-seating capacity, and the producers worked with the 112th Precinct to approve an approximate 150 safety officers and street closures near the stadium. Engineering assessments proved the stadium was sound.

“Based on historic drawings, surveys, and meetings with the DOB, we’re doing everything we can to make the stadium safe,” said McMillan.

To address concerns over noise and crowded residential blocks, WSTC Events set a 10 p.m. concert curfew and created a new stadium entrance on Burns Street. Patrons were advised to take mass transit in order to ease congestion and take into account the stadium’s lack of parking.

“We have a history of coordinating shows in small communities, and part of our vision is to drive local economies,” said McMillan.

Businesses on Austin Street said they noticed an increase in customers both before and after the show. Some increased their hours and offered live music and specials, and Forest Hills Station House served English pub fare.

Some concertgoers complained that the stadium was overbooked, but McMillan refuted that claim.

“We were aware of the capacity and did not oversell the show,” he said. “There were issues with the way people moved inside the stadium and the placement of security, all of which we’re working to correct.”

After the show, a letter was sent offering full refunds to those who felt they were wrongly turned away.

“We can assure you that we are working with city officials and agencies to improve conditions, and make sure everyone who comes to a show in Forest Hills has the best experience possible,” read the letter.

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