There is every reason to be confident, at any given moment, that it will happen, but we no longer embrace its promise and possibilities the way we used to, certainly not in the long-term: Our future is measured, it seems, in just weeks or months, the metric being the release dates of upcoming new electronics or software upgrades, or the disappearance of ozone or ice. These days, we more easily dwell in that foreign country of the past, finding comfort even in its anxiety, and vice versa. The past is soothing to us because we have made it through it more or less intact, and that’s where our loved ones will always be alive. The present demands choices, and the future is not predictable, and often, not even imaginable.
Philosophically, now – this very split-second – is all that is real, and yet, in early 1939, the future was just as real, and, in one specific location, past, present and future were all lived at once: a temporal convergence not seen before or since and likely never again, that resulted in an explosion of pure optimism or, at the very least, great pleasure. It was a grand place to be; in imagination, it still is.
That the 70th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair slipped by most of us last year around this time is something of a shock, considering its place in American history, its signal influence on invention and design, and its symbolic balancing on the precipice of hope and war’s crashing bleakness: In terms of the road of faith in progress’ benevolent patrimony, it was the last stop before tolls.
Twenty years ago, for the Fair’s 50th anniversary, a celebration and memorabilia sale was held at the site of the ’39 exposition, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. In the existing park, there wasn’t much left of that fair, or the one in 1964 put up on the same spot: just the huge globe called the Unisphere from ’64; the time capsules set in place in the ground at each fair, 25 years apart, to be opened by our descendants 5 centuries from now; a few recreational facilities; and what was once the New York City pavilion used for both events, but which is now the Queens Museum, home of a spectacular room-size, 3-D replication of New York City, and, in 1989, ground zero for the anniversary festivities. Attended by some who built the Fair, others who’d attended it, and most who only dream about it, are moved by it and curse the unfortunate timing of their births that caused them to miss the experience of it.
Being there, as we were, despite the near-barren grounds, one could try and succeed (squinting a little helped) in envisioning this Oz within view of the larger Dream City just beyond to the west, this now-ghostly Fair: the Promenade, and all the excited folks strolling down it (in the past, people strolled – it was a favorite form of perambulation, not a waste of time); the dancing waters of the Lagoon of Nations; all the streamline moderne and kitsch corporate buildings, some looking like the products they were pushing (although it was progress, not sales, that they claimed to be espousing). And, of course, the Fair’s theme building and centerpiece, the continually seductive, classically inspired, and still-ahead-of-its-time symbol of the new age/space age/scientifically enlightened age to come: the elongated pyramidal Trylon soaring to the sky, and the grounded, bulbously tactile Perisphere. Today, none of it there, yet magically present.
That was 20 years ago. Last year, for the 70th anniversary, what passed for a celebration took place in an airport hotel near LaGuardia. A comedown, certainly of style — and, after all, wasn’t style what 50 percent of the Fair (and, generally, life) was all about? As the fair recedes in time, and living memories die, the dream of this Camelot, this congenial spot of happy ever-aftering, made legendary by its programmed impermanence, devolves — except in the hearts of a few loyalists — into little more than fluctuating price lists for collectibles.
And now we are approaching the 70th anniversary of the fair’s second season, one of the most disappointing of sequels. Perhaps a more direct harbinger of the real future, much of what made the Fair a joy in ’39 was gone in ’40; the focus shifted to the amusement park and sideshow areas that had once been the secondary, seamier but popular side of the enterprise. By spring of 1940, when what remained of the ideal future reopened to try to squeeze more money from the curious or idle to help defray the losses incurred by Season One (who said art pays?), the Nazis had taken Poland, Europe was descending into fear and darkness, and the moral and political undertow of involvement was dragging us out beyond safe shore. In bitter irony, the metal substructure of the Trylon and Perisphere would soon be melted down to make the stuff of wars. Also ironic: even as our symbols of great expectation became scrap, we were never so unified as a nation as in our war efforts.
A place in the mind is as much one dwelled in as any other, and maybe more so, because it is what you want it to be, or need it to be, and you can walk it, and smell it, and taste it, and be there with whomever you want to be, whenever you want. We are not in such dark times now, as then, but we are not in such bright ones, either. The 1939 World’s Fair was, by its own reckoning, The World of Tomorrow. We could use one today.