My friends Bex and Todd had shown interest in going to the park, so we decided to meet up there in the afternoon. It was a lovely day fit for a walk in a park. A little too lovely, really. It was unseasonably warm, in fact, something that played into our conversation about this particular historical site outing.
We’d spent the train ride up, Bex and I, gushing about our interest in past versions of the future, how shiny and attractive everything seemed. I grew up not too far from Disney World, where a number of the 1964 fair’s attractions ended up. According to them, we’d all sing songs holding hands while living on the Moon and running our vehicles on dinosaur fossils—technology was the answer to all our problems. How far that is from our current prognostications of what the world will look like in our wake.
Near the western entrance to the park, on 111th Street, Bex asked jokingly if anyone in 1964 would have guessed that the future would be so warm in early March. (A rudimentary search suggests the science of climate change has a much longer history than I’d thought.) Considering our current environmental pickle, our forebears seem like they were brimming with a perhaps overreaching optimism.
We met Todd in front of the New York Hall of Science. He’d arrived early to take his own pictures of the park. The Hall of Science was built for the 1964 fair, and today bills itself as the city’s only hands-on museum of science and technology, which is fair considering they don’t let you climb on the Barosaurus skeleton in the Natural History Museum’s foyer. Two rockets, one from the Mercury space program and one from the Gemini, stand proudly in front of the Hall of Science. They both shone brilliantly in the sun as the clouds pushed eastward. The rockets, a gift of NASA’s to the city, had been there since the fair, except for a brief interlude when they were restored for the Hall of Science’s expansion in the early 2000s. I’d wanted to hit up the hall in the hopes of finding more information about the World’s Fairs that had inhabited the park, but since the day had cleared up, we thought it best to see as much of the outdoor park first while the light held.
Following the nearest map of the park, we made our way around the Queens Wildlife center as birdcalls emanated from within its perimeter fence. The first World’s Fair remnant we came to was the Terrace on the Park, a truly strange-looking building. If you look at it squarely on any side, it resembles a capital T. My closest frame of reference was to joke that it was the model for the imperial shuttle’s landing pad on the forest moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi, to which Bex helpfully informed me that the Terrace was in fact used as a helipad at the ’64 fair. Huh. It turns out that the Terrace was built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and offered panoramic views of not only the fairgrounds but the Manhattan skyline, too. Today, this majestic monstrosity serves as a catering hall for proms and weddings.
Past the Terrace, on a footbridge over the Grand Central Parkway, we found the famous observation towers—now perhaps most famous for their appearance in the movie Men in Black. At the end of the movie, as the story goes, the towers are revealed to be alien spaceships hiding in plain sight, and it’s suggested that the whole ’64 World’s Fair was a cover-up for the crash landing of visitors from another planet. Perhaps in 1997 these saucer-like towers retained enough luster to pass for extraterrestrial crafts, but they have since been stripped of anything shiny or remotely technological enough to suggest space travel. They are drab, concrete structures girded with rusted metalwork. Behind the towers stands an elliptical arena, similarly derelict. Unlike the towers, I couldn’t recall seeing this building used as a setting or plot point for anything, but it seemed most like an urban version of the Thunderdome, so that’s what I called it for most of the rest of our visit.
We walked all around the Thunderdome, taking as many pictures as possible. Yesterday’s city of the future is today’s ruin porn. I noticed that the path we were on had a bronze marker identifying it as the Avenue of the States. All the pathways in the park have these broadly innocuous names: United Nations Avenue, Avenue of Discovery, Avenue of Commerce, Avenue of Progress, Promenade of Industry, etc. Behind the Thunderdome there’s a small skate park, and that Saturday it was filled with teenagers using it to the fullest. I kept a respectful distance while snapping a picture. Coming up the other side of the arena, we found a locked fence, but one that we could peer through to its insides. Inexplicably, not to mention grotesquely, a Styrofoam plate covered in white rice and an indistinguishably processed meat had been left just inside the gateway, out of our reach. Bex spotted a black cat running across the far side of the open floor of the arena. Perhaps someone had left a meal for the leader of the ThunderCats.
Coming back the other side, we passed a middle-aged couple that had noticed our interest in the strange structure. We asked if they knew what it had really been or been used for. The gentleman explained that he didn’t know the name, or its former use, but that both the arena and the towers had been built for the ’64 World’s Fair, which was some sort of Space Age exhibition. We politely pretended not to have already known all this. We continued our walk and found the Queens Theatre in the Park, also built during the ’64 fair, and yes it uses that ridiculous British spelling for no discernible reason. The theater was closed, but it seems like they have an eclectic and busy schedule if the banners out front are to be believed. (Tom Wopat, anyone? Bubblemania? Doktor Kaboom?)
We headed back toward the central promenade of the park, where the Unisphere stands. The Unisphere sits in the same spot that the ’39 fair’s Perisphere had. Both monuments were models of the globe that acted as foci for their respective fairgrounds. According to Bex, a really hot sex scene takes place inside the Perisphere in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which seriously, get off my back, it’s on my list. As relics of a bygone era of hope and optimism for the burgeoning Space Age go, the Unisphere is the least outdated and anachronistic of the park’s structures. Gleaming in the winter sunlight, the stainless-steel sphere sits at the center of an exposed network of fountains. I assume the Park Department turns these on during warmer months, and I imagine it’s all splendid when they do. Since the fountains weren’t on, though, we could walk right up to the Unisphere. Bex was so adventurous as to climb up the pedestal and sit underneath, which produced a number of fantastic photos. She also helped some children, who’d climbed up earlier, to get down, as things always look more intimidating from a higher vantage.
Along the rim holding the fountain waters, I found a plaque dedicating the Unisphere to “man’s aspirations toward Peace through mutual understanding and symbolizing his achievements in an expanding universe,” reiterating the fair’s theme of Peace Through Understanding. I don’t suppose you’ll find a loftier goal today. Underneath it says that the Unisphere was built and presented by the United States Steel Corporation, a gift to New York City and the fair.
From there we strolled up another series of presently defunct fountains to find the Rocket Thrower, a bronze sculpture, green from weathering, made by Donald De Lue for the ’64 fair. While Todd circled it taking pictures, Bex and I sat on a bench pondering the spirited, muscular, mostly nude male, simultaneously hurling a handful of spiraling stars and a fiery ball into the sky. Another pair of photographers wandered into our frame, snapping their shutters. Bex pulled up the sculpture’s Wikipedia page on her phone, and read off its attributes. One of the other photographers approached us and asked where Bex was getting her information, and how, and what the statue’s name was. The guy seemed genuinely unaware that you can search for practically any information, from anywhere, on smart phones these days. He didn’t seem much older than us is the weird part. (Could he have been from the past? A specter from the ’64 fair? In a way, our casual take on these technological miracles could be seen as a vindication of the very principles of industry and global connectivity that these fairs celebrated. But I also wonder how clearly the fairs’ futurists envisioned Foxconn.)
Todd returned from his long journey around the sculpture, and asked me and Bex if we knew anything about numerology. He noticed that the front of the sculpture has three stars on its pedestal, in an ascending diagonal line. The three stars, left to right, have eight, four, and six points. The stars being cast upward by the statue’s left hand have a seemingly inconsistent number of points, but I counted 20 of them total, give or take. After considering the implications of these figures, we essentially agreed we know shit about numerology.
We left the Rocket Thrower in mid-hurl and strolled over to the Queens Museum of Art, where we found the famous Panorama, the largest architectural model of an urban area in the world. It was built in the three years leading up to the ’64 fair by Robert Moses, the urban planning magnate that more or less gave New York City its modern shape. In addition to such hits as the Triborough Bridge, the BQE, Shea, Lincoln Center, and the United Nations, Moses was also actively involved in the construction of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for both the ’39 and ’64 World’s Fairs. The Panorama is a meticulously faithful model of all five boroughs at a scale of 1 inch = 100 feet, making the whole thing 9,335 square feet. Visitors to the ’64 fair could go on a virtual “helicopter ride” around the model. Today you have to walk, but binoculars are available for viewing the finer details of our city in miniature. Having flown in and out of New York a lot over the past five years, I can say that the experience of circling the perimeter of the Panorama loses little in its replication.
However, Todd, Bex, and I noticed a lot of structures we were certain didn’t belong on the map, such as a giant geodesic dome off Roosevelt Island, or an iceberg in the Hudson. The walls around the Panorama explained that an art collective was asked to curate submissions for artists’ visions of islands missing from our waterways. Most of the additions are politically motivated: a Wall Street replica sinking, an island dedicated to attacking “the absurdity of capitalism and religion,” or a single building for all residents to inhabit, so as to return the land to “the native folks,” and one called Palestine as a metaphor. Then there’s strange additions like an island where rich and poor will recreate Oscar-winning movies, and Snuggle Island. Even the well-meaning stuff is fairly hacky. Never read artists’ statements. We were all bummed that this beautiful model of the city now has these tacky little things scattered about it. Rounding up past the Bronx, we moved onto the next hall.
In a corner hallway leading to the restrooms, we found an exhibit specifically relating to the World’s Fairs. Several glass cases contain memorabilia from both fairs, including toys, ties, buttons, flatware, dishes, and a tour-guide uniform from the ’39 fair. A map hanging in one case showed the layout of the ’39 fairgrounds, of which no structure remains standing today. A listing for the companies, countries, and pavilion names on the side revealed some curious choices for family-friendly amusements, such as “Battle of Emotions,” “Live Monsters,” “Midget Town,” “Nature’s Mistakes,” “Plantation Show,” and the “Wall of Death.” In the gift shop, Bex found a picture book of attractions at the ’64 fair, which revealed that what I’d been calling Thunderdome was actually the New York State Pavilion, a large, enclosed map of New York state that visitors were encouraged to walk over. Considering the “Wall of Death,” I’m not sure my instincts were entirely out of line.
The three of us then headed back over the Parkway, back to the Hall of Science. I felt certain there would be further exhibits explaining exactly what the World’s Fairs were. I was wrong. The guy at the information booth told us none of the Hall of Science’s attractions had anything to do with the World’s Fairs, which makes sense in light of how far science has come since 1964. Instead of entering the Hall of Science proper, we tooled around the gift shop. I tried on a space helmet designed for heads much smaller than mine. Kids of my generation were still brought up to believe that they could have an active part in the space program, and honestly most of us were misled there, too. Do they still try to inspire these cosmic dreams in children today, with the shuttle programs all winding down? What are kids supposed to aspire to now?
Was the World’s Fair ever about anything other than commercialism? At the same time the fairs promoted the advancement of human achievement, those achievements were usually tied to a product, or an industry. Telephones, radios, and automobiles. Texaco, IBM, General Motors, and Pan-Am, just to name a few, all had pavilions at the ’64 fair. Which is not to say that the fair’s participants didn’t want peace with their neighbors, but other interests were also at work. Just as man’s accomplishments were being cheered, a product line was being marketed. Can we even separate our vision of the future today from the manufacturing it will take to get us there? Maybe the technological advances showcased at the fairs have made a difference. Maybe cell phones have made our lives better, even if we still don’t get to live on the Moon.
Somewhat dejectedly, but with a nostalgic hat-tip to the boy who grew up visiting Cape Canaveral on class trips, I bought a few packets of freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” on our way out.