Gasopolis: From the 1939 to the 1964 World's Fair

By Katie Uva

Courtesy of Bill Cotter, www.worldsfairphotos.com

Courtesy of Bill Cotter, www.worldsfairphotos.com

The 1964 World’s Fair aimed to celebrate and perpetuate an already powerful mode of thinking about America’s cities, but in doing so also became a major target for criticism.

Since their inception in the mid-nineteenth century, world’s fairs have been major cultural touchstones. While fairs have typically had malleable themes and many different types of activities and displays on offer, one of the signature features of world’s fairs has been their role as industrial showcases. Fairs present new technology and inventions and promote the goals of their funders. In the mid-twentieth century, many of those goals centered on reshaping America’s cities. At the 1939 World’s Fair, several exhibits sought to awe visitors with a picture of prosperous regions anchored by cities, sculpted by highways, and based in suburban family living. By 1964, these ideas and the public-private cooperation they demanded had remade American life. The 1964 World’s Fair aimed to celebrate and perpetuate an already powerful mode of thinking about America’s cities, but in doing so also became a major target for criticism.

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.”[1]

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Not far away at the General Motors Pavilion another exhibit, Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama, reinforced this vision of the city. Both exhibits provided a bird’s-eye view of a massive urban area, but an urban area that had been planned and streamlined in such a way as to eliminate the ills that plagued the American city of 1939. There was no crime in the city of tomorrow, no slums, and no poverty. Human conflict and hardship had been eradicated by the heroic efforts of planners and designers. Progress was presented as inevitable and uniform. As Norman Bel Geddes himself put it, “for years there was talk that machinery had enslaved the individual, but now it can free the individual...the country as a whole will follow. Living in such a world of light, fresh air, open parks, easy movement, the man of 1960 will more naturally play his full part in the community and develop in mind and body.”[2]

"Scene From the General Motors Futurama." Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal

"Scene From the General Motors Futurama." Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal

A generation later, in 1964, a second New York World’s Fair opened in the same location. Futurama was reprised, and although it greatly expanded its plans for the world of 2024 (including underwater hotels and lunar restaurants), in many ways it continued the ideas that had been presented in 1939.[3] Again the city of the future featured fields of skyscrapers laced together by superhighways. Again, business and residential areas were kept completely distinct from each other. Again, the city was envisioned according to the demands of the automobile. Both iterations of Futurama were consistently ranked among the most popular exhibits at their respective fairs; both were seen by millions of fairgoers.

Courtesy of Bill Cotter, www.worldsfairphotos.com

Courtesy of Bill Cotter, www.worldsfairphotos.com

Yet the depictions of the city at the 1964 World’s Fair were occurring in a different context than those of 1939. In 1939 a loosely affiliated group of urban officials, private businessmen, and artists and designers had presented a largely theoretical proposal for cities of the future. They envisioned a dense, vertical, business-oriented central city ringed by highways which radiated out to sprawling suburbs full of single-family homes, a set of ideas I refer to collectively as mid-century urbanism. At the first Fair, these ideas

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had not widely pervaded the general culture or the lives of New Yorkers. By 1964, however, the cracks in mid-century urbanism had begun to show. Jane Jacobs’ and Ada Louise Huxtable’s critiques of large-scale urban planning and slum clearance were being embraced more widely, and although many people still supported a technocratic urban future, small groups of New Yorkers were starting to defend the human scale of their city in an organized way, a fight which led to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.[4] The first New York World’s Fair was aspirational, dreaming of a future that was only barely beginning to take shape. The second New York World’s Fair, by comparison, refused to acknowledge the ways in which mid-century urbanism had not succeeded, and in doing so proposed a future in which Americans essentially stayed the course.

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Although the idea to have a second World’s Fair did not originate with him, it soon became the special project of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Moses, who as Parks Commissioner had also been heavily involved in the 1939 World’s Fair, saw this new fair as providing essential income that would allow him to complete the construction of Flushing Meadows Park, a task he had begun in the 1930s.[5] Moses’ primary goal, then, was to maximize the Fair’s profitability. He and the other planners projected an attendance of 70 million people and a profit of $100 million,[6] an ambitious number that required the Fair to run for two seasons and also prompted Moses to charge rent to exhibitors. Charging exhibitors for their spaces and running the Fair for more than one season both violated the policies set by the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), which meant that The New York World’s Fair of 1964 would not be an officially sanctioned fair.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] Over a six month period in 1963, the city made 166 arrests for obscenity.[10] 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
and rust
flows down the streets.
the Shakespeare Gardens in
Central Park
glisten with blood, waxen
like apple
blossoms and apple simultaneously. We are happy
here
facing the multiscreens of the IBM Pavilion.
We pay a lot for our entertainment. All right,
roll over.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13] 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.”[14] 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.[15]

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Pockets of New Yorkers were resisting the Fair’s vision of the present-day city. In addition to the civil rights and free speech conflicts that marked 1963-1964, there was another struggle raging over New York’s future, a struggle that in many ways was the most threatening of all to Robert Moses. The Fair was, for him, a tool by which he would cement his legacy as New York’s master builder and visionary urban planner.[16] Moses espoused mid-century urbanism actively; his career was a testament to slum clearance, road building, and fostering a seemingly inevitable linkage between New York City and its suburbs.

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But over the years an opposition to this mode of urban planning had arisen. On the local level, in old communities like Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village, residents organized to fight the destruction of historic buildings and resist the construction of additional roadways.[17] Architectural critics and urban theorists began to be more vocal in their condemnation of mid-century urbanism; well-known architectural critic Lewis Mumford lamented in a 1958 letter to Jane Jacobs that “if anything survives this age it will be known, retrospectively, as the age of the wreckers and exterminators.”[18] Jacobs herself provided some of the most compelling criticism in her 1962 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Moses referred to the book as “junk” to its publisher, Bennett Cerf, and was particularly angry at a “libelous” passage that criticized him as “negating the power of votes with the power of money.”[19] Jacobs offered a resounding critique of the political structures that fueled mid-century urbanism, and also provided an alternative urban vision, one that was essentially optimistic about the city’s future. Where Moses and his allies had increasingly seen the core of the city as an important conduit for traffic throughout the region, Jacobs and her fellow preservationists renewed their focus on the pedestrian experience. Where the mid-century urbanists saw New York as fundamentally flawed and in need of rezoning, slum clearance, and new construction, Jacobs recognized that “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration,” and fought to protect the vitality she saw inherent in New York’s old neighborhoods.[20]

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.”[21] 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.[22] Several other exhibits extolled the virtues of suburban living, oil consumption, and the personal automobile.

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The 1964 World’s Fair occurred at a moment of significant upheaval in New York. The Fair was a powerful symbol of the establishment, a showpiece for corporate giants and urban leaders alike to bolster their claim to be bringing Americans a better future. Consequently, it held enormous appeal to visitors but was also a focal point for protest. The pictures of mid-century urbanism promoted at the Fair were undeniably popular; out of 51 million total visitors to the Fair in its two seasons, 29 million went to the General Motors Pavilion, 2 million more than went to Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican Pavilion.[23]

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.[24]

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?”[25]


Katie Uva is a Doctoral Candidate in History at The Graduate Center, CUNY.


[1] “Your World of Tomorrow” (Democracity Promotional Booklet) New York: Rogers-Kellogg-Stillson, 1939.

[2] Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways (New York: Random House, 1940), 269.

[3] Lawrence R. Samuel, The End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 185.

[4] 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)

[5] Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 1086.

[6] Joseph Tirella, Tomorrowland: The 1964-1965 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2014), 258

[7] Samuel, 9.

[8] “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

[9] “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern” New York Times Dec. 17, 1963, 1.

[10] Tirella, 161.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] “How CORE Views the Fair.” Protest Flier, 1964. Eliot Linzer Collection, Box 1, Folder 2. Queens College, NY.

[15] “Civil Rights: The Flop” Time May 1, 1964; David Nevin, “The Show Goes On, the Spoilers Lose the Day” Life May 1, 1964.

[16] Caro, 1088.

[17] Wood, 182.

[18] Lewis Mumford to Jane Jacobs, July 22, 1958. Jane Jacobs papers, Boston College. Box 2, Folder 2.

[19] Robert Moses to Bennett Cerf, November 15, 1961; Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961), 131.

[20] Jacobs, 448.

[21] General Motors Advertisement, Boys’ Life April 1964, 10.

[22] Samuel, 111.

[23] “Attendance Figures for the Fair Are Given” New York Times October 19, 1965, 45.

[24] 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.

[25] Vincent J. Scully, Jr., “If This is Architecture, God Help Us”Life July 31, 1964, 9.