On a balmy spring day in 1939, the New York World’s Fair officially opened for business. That day, it welcomed roughly 200,000 visitors to its extensive grounds, which had only recently been developed out of the old Corona ash dump. The Fair’s numerous pavilions and attractions all loosely coalesced around a single theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and its desire to present visitors with a technologically-enhanced future was epitomized by the Fair’s two symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere. The Perisphere contained an installation called Democracity, designed by Henry Dreyfuss and sponsored by the Fair Committee, which took visitors on a journey into the city of the future. A promotional booklet for Democracity explained its intent: “The City of Tomorrow which lies below you is as harmonious as the stars in their course overhead — No anarchy — destroying the freedom of others — can exist here. The streets, the houses, the public buildings…all are built in relation to all the others.”
Despite this setback, the Fair’s planners forged ahead, convinced that aggressive promotion of the Fair would bring in the necessary number of visitors and provide profit not only to the Parks Department but to the city as a whole. In order to net the most economic benefit to the city, the Fair had to bring in a significant number of out-of-town visitors, who would consequently not only visit the Fair but also make use of New York’s hotels, restaurants, and other attractions in conjunction with their visit. Advertisements for the Fair appeared in all of the major national magazines, and six months in advance of the Fair’s opening, the 1963 Thanksgiving Day Parade’s theme was “a salute to the 1964-1965 World’s Fair,” and was seen by a national audience of 60 million people.
New York’s civic leaders not only worked tirelessly to drum up interest in the Fair; they also worked diligently to control the city’s image. The coming of the Fair added fuel to New York conservatives’ fight against aspects of the city’s culture they deemed threatening. In the fall of 1963 the city cracked down on gays and lesbians, revoking liquor licenses for several gay bars. Over a six month period in 1963, the city made 166 arrests for obscenity. The increased policing of the city’s queer community overlapped with the targeting of writers, comedians, and filmmakers for obscenity, and reinforced the adversarial relationship between New York’s counterculture and its World’s Fair promoters and business boosters. The poet Frank O’Hara gave voice to his disgust with this conflict in his 1964 poem, “Here in New York We Are Having A Lot of Trouble With the World’s Fair.” In it, he skewers the Fair’s attempt to whitewash the city’s problems in pursuit of profit:
The stink of the fire hydrant drifts up
flows down the streets.
the Shakespeare Gardens in
glisten with blood, waxen
blossoms and apple simultaneously. We are happy
facing the multiscreens of the IBM Pavilion.
We pay a lot for our entertainment. All right,
O’Hara was not the only New Yorker who resented the Fair’s power and its desire to put forth a sanitized, conflict-free picture of the city. In 1964, New York City was embroiled in civil rights conflicts, from February’s 450,000-student school boycott to ongoing conflict about police profiling that would erupt that summer in the form of the Harlem Riots.
The failure of urban planning to bridge gaps of inequality and create a society without want, which 1939’s exhibits had suggested would be a central feature of the world of the 1960s, came literally to the Fair’s gates in 1964. In the weeks preceding the Fair’s opening, Brooklyn’s branch of The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) tried to upend the idea of the conflict-free, highway-bound city by plotting a “stall-in,” whereby protesters would create gridlock on the Grand Central Parkway to raise awareness of New York’s racist hiring practices, low minimum wage, de facto segregated schools, and prejudicial modes of law enforcement. CORE fliers called the Fair “a symbol of American hypocrisy,” declaring that “for the great steel Unisphere we submit our bodies…as witnesses to the tragedy of the northern ghetto.” While the stall-in itself was ill-attended and was roundly dismissed in the media as “a wild-eyed, harebrained, crackpot scheme,” other civil rights protests at the Fair, like a picket at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, were more successful.
This notion ran counter to the vision of the city presented at the Fair. Futurama II, sponsored by General Motors, echoed the arguments made by its predecessor; its display allowed visitors to see “a gigantic machine build a superhighway in the jungle, see barren desert become farmland, and hover above a futuristic metropolis of automated highways and moving sidewalks.” The Ford Pavilion dazzled visitors with its Magical Skyway, which whisked them on a 12-minute journey through time culminating with an aerial view of The City of Tomorrow. Several other exhibits extolled the virtues of suburban living, oil consumption, and the personal automobile.
In one sense, these were impressive numbers. But in another sense, they were disappointing, and indicative of a shift that was happening in American culture. Moses had projected 70 million visitors; the end result fell far short of that. While the 1939 World’s Fair had lost money, returning only 40 cents on the dollars to its investors, the 1964 World’s Fair had been an even greater loss, returning only half that amount.
Because the Fair was so eclectic, it can be hard to glean meaning from its lackluster attendance. Certainly some of it may be due to overly optimistic initial projections. As a number of newspaper articles from 1964 suggest, some of it may also have been due to potential fairgoers’ wariness about the safety of coming to New York. But an undeniable factor in the Fair’s ambivalent reception was also the fact that much of what it presented had become commonplace, and, for some, repugnant. As an editorial in Life Magazine opined, “the Fair is nothing but the concentrated essence of motel, gas station, shopping center, and suburb. Why go to New York to find it, then, when we have it all at home?”
Katie Uva is a Doctoral Candidate in History at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
 “Your World of Tomorrow” (Democracity Promotional Booklet) New York: Rogers-Kellogg-Stillson, 1939.
 Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways (New York: Random House, 1940), 269.
 Lawrence R. Samuel, The End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 185.
 For the best and most extensive overview of the preservation movement in New York prior to the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, see Anthony Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008)
 Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 1086.
 Joseph Tirella, Tomorrowland: The 1964-1965 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2014), 258
 Samuel, 9.
 “Macy’s Parade Today Will Salute 1964 Fair” New York Times Nov. 28, 1963, 38; “World’s Fair Progress Report #7” World’s Fair Corporation Records, New York Public Library. Box 68, Folder A1.4
 “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern” New York Times Dec. 17, 1963, 1.
 Tirella, 161.
 Frank O’Hara, “Here in New York We Are Having a Lot of Trouble With the World’s Fair” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 480-81.
 Taylor, Clarence, “Conservative and Liberal Opposition to the New York City School-Integration Campaign,” Clarence Taylor, ed., Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 95.
 Poster for Brooklyn and Bronx CORE World’s Fair ‘Stall-In,” reproduced in Erin Pineda, “Present Tense, Future Perfect: Protest and Progress at the 1964 World’s Fair.” The Appendix: Futures of the Past (July 2014), 119.
 “How CORE Views the Fair.” Protest Flier, 1964. Eliot Linzer Collection, Box 1, Folder 2. Queens College, NY.
 “Civil Rights: The Flop” Time May 1, 1964; David Nevin, “The Show Goes On, the Spoilers Lose the Day” Life May 1, 1964.
 Caro, 1088.
 Wood, 182.
 Lewis Mumford to Jane Jacobs, July 22, 1958. Jane Jacobs papers, Boston College. Box 2, Folder 2.
 Robert Moses to Bennett Cerf, November 15, 1961; Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961), 131.
 Jacobs, 448.
 General Motors Advertisement, Boys’ Life April 1964, 10.
 Samuel, 111.
 “Attendance Figures for the Fair Are Given” New York Times October 19, 1965, 45.
 Robert A.M. Stern, et al. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial (New York: Monacelli Press, 1997), 1055.
 Vincent J. Scully, Jr., “If This is Architecture, God Help Us”Life July 31, 1964, 9.