At Flushing Meadows
The World's Fair looks as if it had been created by some usually normal person who had taken meascaline and allowed his consciousness to go wild. The world's biggest cheese a (seventeen-ton cheddar) sits near a simulated cigar chimney that blows ten-foot smokerings 150 feet into the air. Near the "Festival of Gas" loom nine life-size dinosaurs, and one display boasts a "university for porpoises.."
In part the fair is Mainstreet cum Madison Avenue out of control, a veritable phantasmagoria of garish commercialism. But even the blatantly tawdy has its fascination. So does the sideshow atmosphere of a Ford convertible ride to Walt Disney's dinosaur-land and "Space City," an "audio-animatronic" Abe Lincoln, and a Ferris Wheel disguised as a giant tire.
But the fair is more than a legacy of P.T. Barum's vulgarity and showmanship. There remain exhibits that combine both beauty and taste--the Pieta, of course; the gigantic scale model of New York City; and the Federal Pavilion that stresses some of the glittering aspects of American development such as immigration, urban blight, and the integration struggle. The United States also plans to offer productions of Shakespeare, ballets and concerts in its courtyard, as well as symposiums given by Noble prize-winners inside. In addition, the city's Museum of Science, if ever completed, promises an intriguing, permanent exhibition.
The most exciting display to mark the rainy opening day, though, did not come from the hands of the irrepressible Robert Moses but rather from the voices and placards of civil rights demonstrators. Although the vaunted stall-ins failed to materialize and the number of picketers (and arrests) proved small, the spirit of protest seemed omnipresent. The opening ceremonies alone escaped. When President Johnson spoke at the Federal Pavilion, voices (most of them belonging to white teenagers) interrupted his speech with barely comprehensible cries of "freedom, freedom." James Farmer, cattle-prod in hand, was arrested at the Louisiana exhibit, and protesters forced the Missouri display to close.
The civil rights demonstrations not only provided excitement; they also served as a constant, though unpleasant, reminder that the fair was in part a caricature of American affluence, wastefulness, and indifference. Situated only twenty minutes away from the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem, the fair seems to deny existence of deprivation and hardship. What twisted irony it is that General Motors can spend over $50 million on a building that will be torn down in two years. With the exception of the Science Museum, the city pavilion, and a very few other buildings, all the rest of the fair will be destroyed. Not that most of the buildings should be preserved (far too many are architectural abominations), but certainly some could be put to permanent use.
But even if the World's Fair fails to fulfill its promise of "Peace through Understanding," and even if it denies so much of America, it still provides an enjoyable trip into a gaudily tinseled euphoria and a partial insight into our national character.