The ’64 Fair and the World of Tomorrow

The New York State Pavilion and the Unisphere from the ‘64 World’s Fair are some of the few icons the borough of Queens has ever had. And yet for those of us who live here, they’ve always seemed like relics from a different, abandoned world. On its 50th anniversary, in light of the changing context of Queens, the Fair and its relevance are still vague and unclear. I’ve tried to make some sort of meaningful connection to it as a local kid who hears about the Fair talked about as some fantastical, epochal event. But it always seems a bit tenuous and just a little out of my grasp.

The ‘64 Fair was an extension of the World of Tomorrow theme from the last Fair held at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The exhibits about the promises of the Space Age and exceptional American technology and industry would not prove to be as prescient, however. The ‘39 Fair introduced people to TV and the car-oriented future of America. The ‘64 Fair had moon colonies and underwater resorts.

On the other hand, the Fair might have played a curious role in the transformation of Flushing that followed. Because the Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, most major European countries didn’t participate. Instead, smaller countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Greece made up the International Pavilion. Aside from introducing the beginnings of certain international cultures, many of the vendors made Flushing their home during and after the Fair. They spoke English and were generally educated, and middle-class in their sensibilities if not in reality, and so they wanted to settle in a proper middle class community. And they allegedly went on to anchor the immigration and demographic shifts of Flushing for the following decades.

But of course, the Fair was about a specific time and a specific mood more than anything else. The pictures of it were the earliest color pictures I remember seeing of anything in my borough. There was the clean look about it all that set the tone for what the general public thought of Queens and urban American life. New York is diverse and bohemian and subversive and all of that, but there in the park, in the crowds, they made up a world of tomorrow that was good-natured and oblivious enough that it embodied something else.

What we wanted out of Queens was what the World’s Fair promised. But it’s not so simple as the way everyone now talks about diversity and multiculturalism and inclusiveness, as if our everyday differences were cause for celebration. This seems a pretty strange reputation to have for any of us who’ve grown up in an immigrant family and can recall the frank and casually bigoted conversations at the dinner table. It’s the unfortunate truth that even in this borough there is no real harmony and benevolence between peoples. But then again that was never part of the deal.

The neighborhoods along Queens Boulevard were settled by people who were at war with each other before they got on the plane. When they landed they still did not like each other. It was a new country though, and there was an unspoken understanding that there is a new way of living here too. The togetherness they envisioned here was quiet and modest and assimilative and maybe a bit Disney but there is something inspiring in that too.

I’ve been thinking about cities all my life, and I go to grad school now just to study them, and contrary to how I might come off sometimes, I still like cities and I still believe in them. Like our parents before us, we have also been looking for a kind of togetherness, those of us who grew up in New York and who still take some bit of pride in that. I’ve been looking all this time, and I couldn’t find it in the secret, bohemian corners of the city, and as far as I can tell it’s not in the exclusive world of the rich, and I’m sorry to say that it’s not in the humble neighborhoods of working-class immigrants either. But we’ve all envisioned it, in one way or another.

The ‘64 Fair seems to be popping up everywhere I look these days. In honor of its fiftieth anniversary, the Times did a sweeping piece about the Fair as a moment in time and space, along with a beautiful feature on the old Fairground. Different World’s Fair stories pop up everyday on my Google Alerts about Flushing and Queens. A couple of weeks ago, the New York State Pavilion reopened to the public for a day. And all around there seem to be new caretakers working to revitalize and recreate something about the Fair.

Salmaan Khan and Matthew Silva are the founders of People for the Pavilion, a volunteer-run organization trying to preserve and ultimately develop a long-term plan for the New York State Pavilion. Khan is a Long Island kid, and he told me how he became curious about the Fair in much the same way as I did, driving past the Unisphere on the Long Island Expressway while I was riding past it on the 7. You don’t think much about it or pay it much notice, but the small details stay with you until later on when you really start wondering. People for the Pavilion now raises awareness about the structure through programs, events, and communications. Ultimately, they hope to encourage the development of a sustained community around the Pavilion.

Things have changed since the Fair and Queens does not look the same as it did in the pictures. Khan works hard in his free time to build support for his organization, and public response is quite positive. People’s memories of the Fair and their enthusiasm for such a singular moment in time have been great. But Khan also noticed that his efforts drew an audience that was not entirely representative of Queens. He has a hard time engaging anyone who actually lives around the Pavilion now, in Corona and Elmhurst and Flushing and along Queens Boulevard in the neighborhoods that have settled in some manner like what the conspicuous internationalism of the World’s Fair suggested. I told him I felt the same way writing this blog, and talking about my ideas to my fellow grad students and well-intentioned young urbanists, and yet the people that I went to grade school with, whom I still see in Flushing and whom I always thought I was writing for — I don’t think they care much for this at all. I guess this is also why we don’t have World’s Fairs anymore.

Khan said that he doesn’t want to preserve the Pavilion as how it used to be. “I don’t want it to end up as a tribute to the World’s Fair,” he told me. “I don’t want it to be a museum.” It has to serve the people who are here now.

But as I read through great, evocative recent coverage of the Fair, I think about the people who went there and their memories of the place, and I feel the nostalgia and the Kodachrome optimism of the Fair and I picture the exhibits in my head. It’s almost like I was there.