Today in NYC History: Welcome to the 1939 World’s Fair!

Statute of George Washington. Image from Curbed, courtesy of Henry Weber.

Statute of George Washington. Image from Curbed, courtesy of Henry Weber.

Equal parts magical, frightening, odd and successful, the 1939 World’s Fair offered tourists from all over the world the possibility of a peaceful, technocratic future, just as World War II began. It opened to great fanfare in Flushing-Coronoa Park, Queens, 76 years ago today.

The idea for the 1939 World’s Fair was cooked up by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s brainstrust at the height of the Great Depression, and was meant to engender optimism. The slogan was “Dawn of a New Day,” though a different phrase from the promotional materials, “The World of Tomorrow,” is what stuck.

Longtime New York reformer George McAneny came up with the idea of using the Corona Ash Dumps of Queens as a staging ground. The depository for coal ash, trash and manure, the “Valley of Ashes” was memorialized in the Great Gatsby, as the gang drove home from the city to West Egg:

This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

According to McAneny, Robert Moses was thrilled when he heard the idea, rare for an idea that was not his own. That said, it involved taking underutilized land and turning it into a park and highways, which was right in Moses’ wheelhouse.

Crews worked feverishly to get the grounds ready. Moses oversaw the completion of two sewage treatment plants, planted more than 1,000 trees, erected administrative buildings, and extended two highways through the new park. Describing the layout of the grounds is difficult, but fortunately, a website completely devoted to the 1939 World’s Fair has all the maps, photos and descriptions you could ever need. Put simply, the Fair was divided into categories such as Transportation, Communication, and the Arts, all of which were supposed to promote a vision of the future. The exhibits were supplied by corporations, foreign nations, and American states. Huge statutes, robot technology and booming optimistic propaganda about the future abounded, which critics said gave it a fascistic vibe.

On Opening Day, 206,000 visitors came through the gates, with 35,000 on hand to watch President Franklin Delano Roosevelt address the crowd at the “Court of Peace.” (Watch a clip here.) The day was doubly celebratory, also serving as the 150th anniversary of George Washington being sworn in as the first President of the United States, right here in New York City. (This was obviously a contender for the Today in NYC History post.)

Prepping a diorama of NYC that took up a regular city block. (Image from Life Magazine.)

Prepping a diorama of NYC that took up a regular city block. (Image from Life Magazine.)

The real winner of the day was RCA (Radio Corporation of America). For it’s World’s Fair opening act, it showed off its latest television, which broadcast Roosevelt’s speech in black and white. Most “regular folks” had never seen a television before, and crowds were astonished, despite helpful brochures explaining what was happening. After Roosevelt’s speech concluded, RCA broadcast a speech by Albert Einstein discussing cosmic rays. Exciting demonstrations were also displayed by General Motors, Westinghouse, AT&T, and the Soviet Union. Overall, the Fair had 44 million visitors from 1939-1940, with the average visitor attending more than twice.

In the years after the Fair, Moses tried to parlay the facilities into the new United Nations Headquarters, but foreign diplomats sneered at Queens, and demanded a location in Manhattan, or they’d flee to greener pastures, like San Francisco. San Fran had to settle for being the seat of the Federation in Star Trek. Ultimately, Flushing Park was used as a temporary UN headquarters until 1951, while the East Side location was built. The park was used again for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, a disastrously run sequel that helped grease Robert Moses’ removal from power after 35 years of dominating New York.

Today the park remains a refreshing burst of green in the middle of Queens. If you’ve never been, just pretend you’re going to a Mets game, then get off on the other side of the subway station and you’ll see it. Sadly, parts of the 1964 World’s Fair are falling into disrepair. John Catsimatidis, failed 2013 mayoral candidate and controversial supermarket magnate, actually had one of the few refreshing ideas of the 2013 mayoral election when he suggested hosting a new World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Imagine the excitement of Apple and Google putting on their exhibits, to say nothing of emerging foreign nations. Let’s do it!

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