Like most New Yorkers, Darryl Zeigler, 20, has never heard of the 1964 World's Fair. He's not particularly interested in the multimillion-dollar genesis of the giant metal Earth he now orbits on his skateboard, nor the shitty Colosseum whose rusty steel innards he knows only from their Grand Theft Auto analogs. Though he's spent his whole life in Queens, the South Jamaica native has no idea that this park used to be Jay Gatsby's infamous ash heap, and then a global exhibition. Zeigler just grinds here.
Today, April 22, marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, an event that simultaneously birthed one of the city's most popular civic spaces—Flushing Meadows–Corona Park—and littered it with bizarre Cold War ruins, rotting in midcentury state as though frozen by nuclear winter. In the words of the New Yorker's Ian Frazier, "No place I know of in America looks more like Moscow than Flushing Meadow Park."
With all the official fanfare, art exhibitions, reams of newsprint, and the promise of a brief but thrilling public tour of the structurally shaky New York State Pavilion (Shitty Colosseum), it's easy to forget that the fair still ranks among the Big Apple's more expensive modern failures, a Disneyfied blip on what was an increasingly blighted cityscape about which virtually no one under 40 is either concerned or aware.
"It's definitely one of the most historic spots," Zeigler said of the Unisphere's eminence in local skate lore. "In New York City, you gotta know the globe."
While the New York Times and the New York Daily News worked themselves into paroxysms of nostalgia over its golden anniversary, the overwhelming majority of New York City's 8.4 million residents and Flushing Meadows' 7 million annual visitors could give a fuck about the World's Fair.
It's a fact that surprises fair buffs like Larry Samuel less than you might think.
"People leave the room when Boomers start talking about it," said the historian and author of The End of the Innocence: the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. "It's really hard to get it today because we just get online and see everything, but at the time it really was an amazing thing."
Amazing, maybe. Expensive, for sure. Like its predecessor in 1934, which transformed F. Scott Fitzgerald's Valley of the Ashes into a world-class exhibition site, the 1964 New York World's Fair hemorrhaged cash. Unlike the former event, the latter was never sanctioned by the International Exhibitions Bureau, the global authority on fairs, which led to a boycott on par with the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games.
The fair did introduce Americans to some pretty cool stuff, including the Datsun, Panasonic color television, and Fuji film, as well as our appetite for global consumer goods.
"If you had told most people in this country that in the 70s and 80s they'd be buying a Datsun or a Toyota, they'd have said you're crazy," said University of Central Florida professor Lori Walters, who constructed an interactive digital model of the fair with her students. "It's really astounding as to what the fair predicted."
But for all of its lauded technocratic vision, the '64 World's Fair was socially reactionary: The NYPD spent months in advance of opening day debriding New York's bohemian enclaves of their inhabitants, raiding artists' collectives and shuttering gay bars in an effort to sanitize the city for the 70 million expected attendees. (Only about 52 million showed up during the fair's two-summer run, the same number of people who now visit the city every year.)
"There were major protests on the opening day of the fair," said Queens Museum curator Larissa Harris, who designed the museum's anniversary exhibit of Andy Warhol's Thirteen Most Wanted Men, a 20-by-20-foot mosaic of contemporary NYPD mugshots that Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller ordered painted over because it got some bad ink in the tabloids. "The Civil Rights Act was being filibustered in Congress at the same time President Johnson was opening the fair."
Those weren't the fair's only historic blunders: While Freedom Summer activists were helping to enfranchise voters across the American South, Walt Disney and UNICEF were fine-tuning It's A Small World, a cack-handed tribute to diversity that would successfully unite humanity only in its collective hatred of audio-animatronic dolls.
Oh, and organizers said no to the Beatles. In 1964. The Beatles.
"The World's Fair was looking backward," Samuel said. "It was just this safe little cocoon, this bubble, a very safe place to escape the issues of the day: Vietnam and poverty and racism."
Fast-forward 50 years, and what wasn't sold for scrap is still rotting in Queens. Recently, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation began collecting feedback on possible future plans for the Shitty Colosseum, whose demolition preservationists have long opposed. According to the study, it would cost more than $22 million to stabilize, $31 million to make even partially publicly accessible, north of $50 million to restore, and $14 million just to raze to the ground. That costs more than the annual operation and maintenance of all five city zoos.
"There's really no need for a New York State Pavilion," Samuel argued. "I feel like it's a form of necrophilia in a way, like this perverse interest in something that's dead."
For many of those closest to it, the fair's decaying monuments are not only dead but also forgotten. Virtually no one among the scores of prayer groups, cricket teams, soccer leagues, and skateboard crews that filled Flushing Meadows–Corona Park on a recent Sunday afternoon could say where the Shitty Colosseum had come from, or why the giant planet Earth was there, or what the empty concrete pools they raked leaves from were built to reflect.
"I've never heard of it," 21-year-old soccer coach Hansel Lema said of the fair, whose artifacts his team of mostly Mexican immigrants had volunteered to clear of debris. "I've been coming here since I was small, maybe five years old. I think it's a unique place; it brings back memories from when I was a player."
Others were less sanguine.
"They need to utilize that space. Right now it's just there. It needs a purpose," said 26-year-old Abhi Sharma, a bowler for local cricket team the New York Spartans, whose roster of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and Caribbean immigrants play in the shadow of the Shitty Colosseum. "It's just abandoned space in a local park, you know what I mean?"
The historian agreed.
"People expect because I invested some time writing this book that I should just say, 'Let's recreate it,'" Samuel said. "I think a lot of these people are living in the past. You can't revive what existed in a different time and place. I feel like it served its purpose, it was wonderful, and it's gone."
In fact, only the park itself was meant to last beyond 1965. The fair's architect and New York City's bureaucratic supervillain Robert Moses grew near the Valley of the Ashes and dreamed it would one day rival Manhattan's Central Park, a vision he thought the fair would fund. Instead, it closed with more than $23 million in debt. Yet the park survived.
"In a way he's having the last laugh, because it is a great park and people use it," Samuel said. "The demographics aren't what he envisioned, because he was kind of racist, but in a way his dream became fulfilled."
Of those people, the only one who did seem to know something of the park's history was Zeigler's pal Adrian Chen, 19, another local skater who offered to show off some tricks at the globe.
"Honestly, I wish they'd do something with it," he said as he ambled from the new skate park under the Shitty Colosseum to the mammoth steel Unisphere. "It's history, but it's just sitting here not doing anything, just catching rust."
No sooner had the pair started circling the globe's abandoned concrete basin than a gray-haired jogger stopped to chase them off of it. For a few minutes, the skaters sparred with their new adversary, trading barbs about what was and wasn't allowed on park property, and whose tax dollars (including some $3.6 million to keep it from crumbling in the mid 1990s) gave him the right to say so.
In a way, it's the same debate the preservationists are having with the Parks Department, and an echo of the one the '64 Fair had with the world it was supposed to represent.
"Why come out like that?" Chen wondered aloud. "It's not like he's using it."
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