Could a World’s Fair put a smiley face on America?

For much of our history, world’s fairs have done just that. During times of triumph – and especially of trial – these garish events have papered over our imperfections and even in the darkest of times have offered a sunny picture of the present and a rose-tinted view of a bright tomorrow.

In both the present and future, ours would be times of engineering marvels, of spiritual awakenings—of American exceptionalism.  The world around us could be in shambles, our country in dire straits, our carefully constructed institutions and infrastructure crumbling.  But, world’s fairs were there to boost our morale, to reassure Americans that the best was yet to come–and that the present, despite myriad travails, wasn’t so bad at all.

It may have been no more than an illusion, but how comforting it could be. America could celebrate the country’s centennial in 1876 without focusing on the imminent end to Reconstruction, the institution of Jim Crow laws, the restitution of white supremacy and the disenfranchisement of the newly enfranchised formerly enslaved. The exhibition in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park would instead show off the latest mechanical inventions of the Industrial Age.

Call it The Diversion Factor

For a collector like me, world’s fairs could be a great diversion – or simply boxes full of ephemera: postcards, banners, ride tickets, guidebooks and brochures. But pause for a moment to peruse and consider them, and a three-dimensional view emerges of an escape from the realities of harsh and unforgiving times.

In 1933, one-third of the nation could be unemployed, ill-clothed, ill-fed, facing financial ruin and despairing. But in Chicago we could mark “1933 century of progress” with a glorious exhibition only 40 years after the 1893 Columbian Exposition in the same city marked 400 years since Columbus “discovered” America.

As many as 39 million attended the 1933 world’s fair, pegged to the city’s centennial. Its theme was “technological progress,” at a time of human regress.

In 1939, in the shadow of world war, at the New York World’s Fair, we could gaze inside the General Motors pavilion at a model of “The World of Tomorrow,” with its glimpse at 1960’s uncongested superhighways.  Fair goers were given a button that said, “I have seen the future.” If only.  Attendance counters added up 45 million visits to this utopian oasis, even as the lights went out all over the world.

“Building for tomorrow” was the fair’s theme. “We are convinced that the potential assets, material and spiritual, of our country are such that if rightly used they will make for a general public good such as never before been known,” the theme committee proclaimed.

In E.L. Doctorow’s novelistic memoir “World’s Fair,” his youthful protagonist Edgar, fresh from the Depression-era Bronx, says, “”As the evening wore on I forgot everything but the World’s Fair.  I forgot everything that wasn’t the Fair as if the Fair was all there was, as if going on rides and seeing the sights, with crowds of people around you and music in your head, were natural life.”

But then came reality:  On Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland, triggering six years of state-sponsored mass murder and the physical devastation of a continent. Still, the fair continued into 1940, when European countries were falling like dominoes to the Nazi blitzkrieg. The theme that year was “for peace and freedom.” Well, amidst all the glitz, one could at least wish.

A generation later, in the Borough of Queens, New York City again provided the setting at the same location for another World’s Fair, in 1964-1965.  It opened just months after the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was in Washington during college spring break, in a long line at Arlington National Cemetery leading to the eternal flame at JFK’s grave. The fair also opened that spring; it would draw 51 million visitors.  I recall  making at least one trip to Flushing Meadows, but my memory of that is far less vivid.

Still, LBJ’s Great Society promised to transform America, even as we were about to descend into the mire of Vietnam, with 57,000 American fatalities stretching to 1975, and exponentially more deaths on the other side—and our country once again bitterly divided. A World’s Fair was like a bandaid on a national wound. It could cover but could not heal it.

America Today

Today’s America is, more or less, at peace, but the state of our nation, at home and abroad, is fragile, and, many feel threatened not so much from without as from within. One senses that we are in the throes of another Great Depression. But this time it’s not economic. It’s emotional.  The country is polarized.  People are angry, or alienated, or simply depressed and fearful.

This time, there is no magic elixir to heal us. No wondrous Ferris Wheel, the centerpiece of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, to lift our bodies and spirits. Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of All Things promise worry-free existence, but also to rob us of all human agency.

Writing in the early 1980s, I envisioned a world’s fair that would look not forward but backward.  I called it “backtracking,” and I suggested it might be our salvation.

A World’s Fair might be a great, temporary diversion—a distraction from what to some might seem like the worst of times.  But it will not cure what ails us. “The world is too much with us,” as the 19th century poet William Wordsworth wrote, for just a fun day at the fair.

And this is no time for distractions.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Charles Kaufman on August 5, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    The New York World’s Fair, with its enormous, glimmering globe, was a window to the future. In 1964, the world was enormous to a 12-year-old from Texas. The United States and Soviet Union pavilions squared off architecturally like a fighting eagle and a fierce bear. A world’s fair brought together the superpowers within a monorail of the other. Such was the fantasy of that world’s fair. Anything was possible.

    Eighteen years later, however, In 1982, the world’s fair seem to lose its mojo. This wasn’t a legendary city like St. Louis on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, the gateway to the West. It wasn’t Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, a mercantile powerhouse. It wasn’t Seattle with its futuristic needle. This was Knoxville, Tennessee, home of Tennessee Marble, which is really a variety of limestone. It was the next to last organized world’s fair.

    By this time, products from around the world had come to every American community through Pier 1 Imports. Modern architecture exploded throughout the United States with iconic I.M. Pei structures and the vision of Buckminster Fuller.

    Fast forward to the 21st Century. The dysfunctional world attempts to comes together at the United Nations. How’s that working? Every event takes on global proportions. Corporate sponsors no longer need a world’s fair. They can barely support an Olympics. What could a world’s fair deliver? What can it deliver today. What do we see today when we look through today’s window to the world. We see a virtual world without borders. The more we can see and know, the less we really understand. Welcome to the age of cognitive dissonance. Today’s world’s fair would have to be a world peace conference. One wonders, what would an 12-year-old experience?

    • Gene Meyer on August 5, 2019 at 7:58 pm

      Chuck, thanks for your comments.

  2. Ken Rossignol on August 6, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    The value of the New York World’s Fair was the ability to ignite the imagination of a generation born after WWII and see the great possibilities of space travel, wondrous innovations that would soon be employed by NASA and Disney and to experience life beyond the schools and of small-town America and big-city neighborhoods.
    It was not the fault of those who boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad at Union Station on the way to the New York World’s Fair for a great adventure, that the near future would turn to quagmire and discord.
    Those young men who enjoyed the impressive display at New York were soon destined to be mired in a swamp in Viet Nam within two years.
    The connected and the wealthy found ways to escape the draft or flee to Canada while the middle class was used as pawns of poor public policy designed and carried out by the elite of business, government and the media.
    The concept and delivery of the Worlds Fair in New York in 1964 was a positive and constructive accomplishment in many ways and a credit to the generation that fought and won WWI.
    The delivery of the young to die in Viet Nam just two years after being at the New York Worlds Fair was a product of deceitful politicians, of which we never have a shortage in both major parties.
    Now, more than ever, as Hollywood and entertainment corporations provide an onslaught of the big screen and digital violence to corrupt and grow sadism among young people – all for making a profit – and then howl and preach about the violence they encourage — we need another World’s Fair more than ever.
    The Worlds Fair is not for the old to pontificate about, though they surely will; but for the young to link their imaginations and dream about the possibilities of a better life.
    Anything that young people would find at a New York Worlds Fair of the 1964 vintage would be better than anything now being produced as “entertainment”.

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