Would the 20th century have been “the American century” without the two New York World’s Fairs, in 1939 and 1964-65?
And are the two most recent world's fairs — in Aichi, Japan (2005) and Shanghai (2010) — harbingers of what some have called “the Asian century”?
Like the great American fairs, the Asian "world expos" showcased industrial might and technological achievement — amid compelling displays of contemporary architecture and design. The 2005 fair in Aichi, Japan, though largely overlooked in the U.S., drew 22 million visitors. It was an economic bonanza for Japan’s industrial heartland, which received a huge influx of tourist dollars and was left with one of the largest public parks in Asia.
The 2010 World Expo, held in Shanghai, was a no-expense-spared advertisement for Chinese ambition. It transformed Shanghai long before opening day with port expansions, high-speed rail links (including MagLev trains that reach 270 miles per hour), and new airports for domestic and international travel. During its six-month run, the fair brought some 70 million visitors to Shanghai. And of course there was innovative architecture (a hallmark of every world’s fair since the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower came to symbolize the great London and Paris expositions).
I attended both the Aichi and Shanghai fairs, each time returning home convinced that New York should host a fair in 2020 or 2025. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent much of his first term trying to bring the Olympics to New York, at a cost of millions of dollars, and considerable political capital. Had he succeeded, the Olympics would have brought thousands of well-heeled sports fans to the city for two weeks; by contrast, a world’s fair could attract millions of visitors over a period of months, and to large swaths of the city — not just a few hermetically-sealed venues.
The Olympics bid failed, but the mayor’s efforts reminded us that New York, the world’s most international city, would be a great place for a twenty-first century fair.
Forty percent of New York City’s residents are foreign-born. More than 140 languages are spoken in the city, and students from nearly 200 countries attend its public schools.
At past fairs, national pavilions have been conceived entirely by the sponsoring countries and, effectively, transplanted to the host city. At a new New York World’s Fair, national pavilions could be created with the input of city residents who have connections to participating countries. The fair would be not just an international exposition, but an international reunion, a celebration of New York's connections to the world.
Benefits to New York City
A world’s fair in 2020 or 2025 would bring millions of visitors, and with them hundreds of millions of dollars for hotels, restaurants, and shops. Other likely benefits of a New York world’s fair would include physical improvements to the city (including the completion of infrastructure projects that, until now, have faced no real deadline); the sprucing up of cultural and civic buildings throughout the metropolitan area; and renewed enthusiasm for New York in the eyes of the world.
With its theme of connections, the fair would bestow greater recognition on the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, some of which are little known even to other New Yorkers. It would be a world’s fair doubling as a civic celebration.
Critics tend to object that world’s fairs are passé in the Internet age, when virtual communication reduces the need for “physical” gatherings.
In fact, advances in transportation make it easier than ever for people to attend world’s fairs. And, while people may have higher expectations in an age of digital effects, technology makes it possible to meet, and exceed, those expectations.
The crowds at the two recent expos were vast and enthusiastic, hardly deterred by the ability to participate via computer. As historian Robert Rydell wrote of the Japan fair, “People were lined up for eight to 10 hours trying to get into the Expo grounds. And this in a high-wired, high-tech society if ever there was one."
Ironically, much of what drew the Japanese to Aichi was American culture — the biggest nightly attractions were created by New Yorkers Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson, and a band of robot musicians performed New Orleans-style jazz.
Critics also complain that world’s fairs are too expensive. But according to New York Times Metro reporter Sam Roberts:
Each of New York's 20th-century World's Fairs drew tens of millions of visitors,
provided jobs and generated tax revenue. The first led to the linking of the Grand
Central Parkway to the new Triborough Bridge and spurred the completion of the
airport that would later be named after Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.
“Fairs are a lot more successful economically than they seem, because we set our
sights too narrow,'' said David Gelernter, a professor at Yale and the author of
1939: The Lost World of the Fair. The 1939 fair helped make Flushing
Meadows-Corona Park possible, in part, because “a stupefyingly huge dump got
cleaned up,” Mr. Gelernter said.
It also helped improve the city's image. “The fair brought huge crowds to New York;
they didn't spend enough money, but left with the impression that New York was
the most exciting place on earth,” Mr. Gelernter said. “And the years following the fair
and the war — 1945 through the mid-'50s — were boom years for the city…. Many
things helped, but the fair was a huge factor.”
In fiscally tight times, the fair must not be allowed to become a financial drain on the city and state. But, properly planned, it could be a boon to New York’s economy.
Where would the fair be held?
If a fair were to be held in New York in 2020, Governors Island could be the site of most or all of the national pavilions. Governors Island is an iconic location — providing views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Ground Zero — symbols of American diversity, tolerance, and resilience. No other site in the world is so laden with symbolism.
And no other site is so well-situated. Governors Island is, in fact, easily accessible from much of New York and New Jersey. High-tech pontoon bridges could link Governors Island to Brooklyn and Manhattan. At the same time, a “people mover” could be fitted into one of the tubes of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which already runs beneath the Island.
Several architects have proposed ways Governors Island could host a unique, and relatively green, world expo: National pavilions could be boats and barges, which would dock at Governors Island for the six months of the fair, and then return to their home countries.
At the same time, satellite fairgrounds, in all five boroughs, could host corporate and theme pavilions. These locations could include:
i. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens (the site of the last two New York World’s Fairs).
ii. The West Side of Manhattan, where the newly-enlarged Javits Center could provide exhibition space, perhaps for countries unable to afford free-standing buildings.
iii. The Bronx waterfront adjacent to the new Yankee Stadium.
iv. The Brooklyn waterfront, including the new Brooklyn Bridge Park — where gantries practically reach out to Governors Island.
v. Fresh Kills in Staten Island, which would serve as both a place for remembering the victims of 9/11 and a model of environmental stewardship.
At present, Governors Island lacks the infrastructure necessary for proposed commercial and civic uses. And it lacks a deadline to get that infrastructure built. A world’s fair in 2020 would provide that deadline. Both the new infrastructure, and the p.r bonanza bestowed by the fair, will make any future uses of Governors Island that much more successful.
What needs to be done?
When it comes to world’s fairs, the U.S. has been sitting on the sidelines. The U.S. hasn’t hosted a world’s fair since 1984. Meanwhile, its involvement in overseas fairs has ranged from embarrassing (Seville in 1992; the State Department erected a tent it found in storage) to mortifying (Hanover in 2000; the U.S. simply didn’t attend). The U.S. made a better showing in Aichi, where a corporate-funded pavilion extolled the wit and wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, but it was hardly the dazzling attraction expected of a country associated with art, entertainment, and scientific innovation at the highest levels. The U.S. put on another humdrum show in Shanghai, again in a corporate-focused pavilion.
Even more surprising, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based organization that chooses the sites for world’s fairs. (Under a 1988 BIE treaty, registered expos — commonly called world’s fairs — are held once every five years.) The BIE dues, which the State Department was no longer willing to pay, were approximately $20,000 a year. Ninety-eight other countries, including every major U.S. ally, belong to the BIE. The absence of the U.S. from this forum sends a disturbing message.
Not surprisingly, no U.S. city prepared a bid for the 2015 fair; the BIE was left to choose between Izmir, Turkey and Milan, Italy. Selection of a site for the 2020 fair will be made in 2012.
Proposed immediate steps
1) New York’s congressional delegation, led by Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, must ask the State Department (led by former New York Senator Clinton) to rejoin the Bureau of International Expositions.
2) Mayor Bloomberg should immediately form a high-level committee to develop a bid for the 2020 World’s Fair, and provide it with the same resources that were available to the organizers of New York’s Olympics bid.
3) GIPEC — the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation — should embrace the concept of a fair, which would help facilitate future uses of the island.
Only by acting quickly can New York City create a bid in time for next years’ BIE meeting (during which the site for 2020 will be chosen); preclude competing bids by other U.S. cities; and engender the enthusiasm among the fair’s many constituencies — from the statehouse in Albany to the city’s immigrant neighborhoods — needed to move the idea forward.
New York has long been the world’s center of both innovation (media, fashion, art) and international cooperation (as the official home of the United Nations and the unofficial home of a united nations of immigrants and the children of immigrants). A New York World’s Fair in 2020 would give New York a chance to demonstrate its continued importance in the twenty-first century.