September 23, 2013

[Book Review] Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America

  • By: Lauren Walser

(l.) Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair; (r.) Cover of Tomorrow-Land. Photos courtesy TAPorto, Flickr; Lyons Press.
(l.) Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair; (r.) Cover of Tomorrow-Land.

The theme of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York was “Peace Through Understanding.” But as Joseph Tirella demonstrates in his forthcoming book, Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America (Lyons Press), the fair’s preparations -- and the United States, in general -- were anything but peaceful in turbulent 1960s America.

Tirella, a widely published journalist who has covered Queens, N.Y., for the New York Times’ City section, follows New York’s fair from its earliest days as a seed of an idea to 18 months after the last visitor left the fairgrounds and the land was rechristened Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

With great detail, he tells the story of powerful Robert Moses, New York’s “Master Builder” who used any number of tricks and tactics to create the fair he envisioned -- even when it became clear to the public that the fair was a financial disaster. He lays bare the political landscape of New York and all its major players, as well as all the negotiations and in-fighting that took place during the years leading up to the fair’s opening.

And Tirella takes readers past these planning stages to the opening day of the fair, when the pavilions were largely panned by architecture critics and the number of actual visitors fell far short of expectations.

1964 World's Fair Pavilion. Photo courtesy: Bill Cotter,
1964 World's Fair Pavilion

But understanding the 1964-65 fair and what led to its disappointing outcome, Tirella argues, requires an examination beyond the fair itself. It requires a closer look at America in the ‘60s. After all, fairs had always been a celebration of cultures, nations, and ideas, with an eye to the excitement of the future. Why was this fair not greeted with the same enthusiasm?

To answer that, Tirella presents an impressive historic overview of the decade, spanning popular music trends, the political climate, Civil Rights efforts, and the rise in urban crime. He surveys the major players of the decade -- the Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Andy Warhol, for starters -- and the major events -- like the Harlem Riots, New York City’s crackdown on downtown bohemians and artists, and the Vietnam War -- to show that the world was changing in ways that no longer fit with the common ethos of the fairs of the past.

Tomorrow-Land will hit bookshelves in January 2014, just months before the 50th anniversary of the opening of the New York World’s Fair.

Until then, you can read more about the fair, and the current state of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in the Fall 2013 issue of Preservation magazine.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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