1964 World’s Fair, I was there


I am one of more than 50-million people from all over the world who went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. That was the year that the US passed the Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination, and when a South Africa court sentenced Nelson Mandela to life in prison. This week marks the 50th anniversary of that world’s fair’s opening. (It re-opened for another 6-month run in April 1965.)

T-shirt of New York World's Fair 50th anniversary

Anniversaries from the 1950s, 60s or 70s are a chance to sell things to Baby Boomers

My parents wanted their children to learn more about the world, so our whole family piled onto the train and travelled several hours to New York City. To Queens, actually – a borough of The Big Apple that is home to some big airports, and a dump that F. Scott Fitzgerald reinvented as the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby, now the site of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Unisphere of 1964 World's Fair

The “Unisphere” was the icon of the 1964 NY World’s Fair

That world’s fair held a half-century ago is now easily dismissed as a consumerist theme park, selling “a white-bread utopia of rocket ships, superhighways and futuristic kitchen gadgets”, in the words of one of many present-day critics. The Disneyfied world it presented was out of touch with the world beyond the fair’s parking lot. Bob Dylan was out there, singing about times that were (a-)changing, socially and politically – but he wasn’t invited.

Andy Warhol was – and then his artwork was dis-invited. Pop Art’s leading light had been commissioned to create a huge mural on the wall of the New York State pavilion. When New York’s governor, then a 1 percenter of note named Nelson Rockefeller, saw “13 Most Wanted Men” featuring police mug shots of gangsters, he had it painted over so as not to offend tourists. (Some say it was also to avoid offending the Mafia, whose members were well represented in Warhol’s portraits.)

mug shot from Warhol N Y World's Fair pop artwork

One of Warhol’s notorious portraits banned in 1964 and now on show at the Queens Museum to commemorate 50th anniversary of the late artist’s involvement in the New York World’s Fair

This episode gave Warhol the beginning of his 15 minutes – which, apparently, has never ended.
– author Joseph Tirella, who researched Warhol’s banned mural for his book on the ‘64 world’s fair

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.
quote attributed to Andy Warhol, but possibly incorrectly so

Another victim of New York’s clean-up campaign was provocative comedian Lenny Bruce. Just before the world’s fair opened he was arrested twice for obscenity while performing at a Greenwich Village club. (His vindication came long after his death, when he was granted the first posthumous pardon in New York’s history for his 1964 conviction.)

My own childish memories of this world’s fair are of long lines: to ride the Monorail, to talk on pre-Skype picturephones, to watch colour TV. Despite all the technology we marvelled at, what I remember most was the atmosphere of diversity. Cultures from all over the world were on display – including those of my immigrant parents, but also from continents I knew nothing about.

This was due in part to a boycott by most of Europe, Canada and the USSR. These countries were protesting US violations of the regulations of the International Exhibitions Bureau that governs world’s fair affairs. Such as the rule barring fairs from being held in the same country more than once per decade. (Seattle had hosted one two years earlier.) And the rule against charging rent for stands.

With so many countries not exhibiting at this quasi-official world’s fair, those from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America enjoyed a higher profile, along with newly independent African nations. A Mozambican friend proudly recalled the cashews exported to his country’s pavilion in New York.

Mexican pavilion nypl

One of the monumental pre-900 BC Olmec heads was brought to New York for display at Mexico’s pavilion.

A new book, Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America, concludes that this event had a profound impact on the host country – but not in terms of anticipated PR and profit. Author Joseph Tirella argues that the New York World’s Fair helped lay the ground for the radical change in demographics that is now shaking up the US.

Census projections are that 30 years from now the majority of America’s citizens will be people of colour. What better way to level a playing field than through a national team where everyone is an ethnic minority? Who knew that a world’s fair could play a part in starting that ball rolling?

News coverage commemorating the 1964 world’s fair has raised the question of why such events seem to have gone out of fashion. The world still holds what are now called “expos”, with one in Milan, Italy planned for next year. But these gatherings became less influential when, according to The New York Times, “People no longer had to congregate in large crowds to learn about the world.”

ruins of NY World's fair 50 years later

The ruins of the 1964 world’s fair, now that TV and the internet ended the need for people to attend mass gatherings in order to learn about the world.

Thanks to technology, soon after that world’s fair 50 years ago you no longer needed to travel to an event to learn about the world. You could sit at home and watch TV – in colour, with ever more channels. And now you can search for anything in the world on the internet.

It’s true, we no longer need to congregate in large crowds to learn about the world. We may still go to big concerts and shows, but that’s not the same as attending a mass gathering with a view to learning something. That world’s fair I went to 50 years ago really was a unique experience, one that may well never be repeated in my lifetime.


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