Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Remembering the 1964 World's Fair

Some years are transformative -- and 1964 was one of them.

Like 1994, it was a "hinge-of-history" year, a year when everything changed, a year when events that happened in it had long-term repercussions. The previous year, 1963, ended on the tragic note of President Kennedy's assassination. For many American it felt like the end of innocence. In many ways, it was: in the near future were Vietnam, Watergate, race riots, stagflation, and rising crime rates. But despite the horror of November 22, 1963, 1964 was an exciting year. We got, amongst other things:

1. The British Invasion of Beatlemania that would transform rock music and American culture.

2. The 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended legal discrimination across the country and would one day lead to the first black president.

3. The historic landslide election of President Lyndon Johnson that (Vietnam not withstanding) lead to the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and even the creation of public television (amongst other things).

4. The 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens.

This last event, obviously, was a big deal in NYC. The world came to New York to see the future. Designed and overseen by legendary master building Robert Moses (it was his last big career triumph), the Fair stretched from April, 1964 until 1965 and featured thousands of exhibits by companies like Ford and GM, Pepsi, IBM, and Westinghouse all displaying their wares. Governments from the around the world came and had big displays and shows to "advertise" themselves to an international audience. And, of course, artists came to sell their work. Plus, this was the beginning of the Space Age, and there were lots of exhibits featuring rockets, some of which are visible in Flushing Meadows Park today. 

In 1964, America realized that the 20th century wouldn't last forever and the World Fair gave us a glimpse of things to come.

The actual Fair has taken on legendary status. It was the last of its kind in New York City and is considered the gold standard for all World's Fair since then. But it was not without its controversies.

First, there was financial mismanagement. Even though the Fair brought in tons of money, it cost more to run. Blame for this can be laid at the feet of Mr. Moses, as Robert Caro writes about extensively in The Power Broker. Its money-losing legacy is one of the reasons there hasn't been another World's Fair in NYC since then.

Second, a lot of stuff was built for it that has since fallen into disuse. There's a sphere in Flushing Meadows Park that, despite looking cool, had cost a fortune to maintain. And then there's the Pavilion, which has been called New York's most beautiful ruin

Third, there's the politics. In the 1960s, New York State was ruled by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. His money and political power made him invincible. The World's Fair was his baby, the crown jewel of his legacy that he hoped would propel him into the Presidency. Obviously, it didn't, but his political goals led to decisions in planning and management that led to the cost overruns. Most appallingly, however, is that it led to an unconscionable act of censorship by the then governor. The great artist Andy Warhol created his only work of public art for the Fair called "13 Most Wanted Men" (it was, bizarrely, a mural of the 13 most wanted criminals in America). Some people found it offensive, and Rockefeller pressured Warhol to paint it over. He did, and the public was denied seeing this amazing piece of art.  

Since 1964, Warhol has, like the World's Fair and unlike Nelson Rockefeller, become iconic. And, in fact, 1964, was truly an iconic year. It felt like, and was, a time when possibilities were limitless. We were going into space. We were ending discrimination. The culture was changing, become more radical, more weird. The middle class was exploding. It was a good time in America and NYC -- and the World's Fair encapsulated it.

Of course, it would all come crashing down very soon thereafter. The Kennedy assassination late the previous year seemed to be a dark foreshadowing of the many crises that would shake America and the world after that. NYC would go through turbulent times too (think the fiscal crises of the 1970s, booming crime, the destruction of the middle class). But the World's Fair showed then that the future should be something to be embraced and not feared -- and maybe one day, hopefully, it will be so again.

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