The Magazine

Yesterday’s Future

A World’s Fair in Queens for a nation in transition.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By LAUREN ZELT
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During the summers of 1964 and 1965, more than 51 million people—beatniks, squares, and international tourists alike—packed their bags and traveled to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of opening day, Joseph Tirella, in this carefully detailed account, explores the fair itself and, perhaps more important, uses that extraordinary event as a lens through which to view one of the more critical junctures in American history. 

Robert Moses

Robert Moses

associated press

Tirella uses the World’s Fair to examine the biggest forces shaping American life during the early 1960s: the civil rights movement, the cultural revolution, post-Kennedy-assassination politics, America’s changing relationships with other nations. He also employs the storytelling style that made Erik Larson’s study of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2002), so compelling. The result is a fascinating trip back to what the fair’s mastermind, Robert Moses, dreamed would be the “greatest single event in human history,” during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent memory. 

Much of Tomorrow-Land focuses on the civil rights movement, using the well-publicized threat of an opening-day “stall-in”—which could have been a disaster if executed as planned by civil rights activists—as a jumping-off point for a discussion of race relations in America. One of the most impressive things about the book is Tirella’s skill in drawing a virtual map of the movement, then at its height: We travel from the 1963 March on Washington to the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and the Harlem riots that threatened to scare tourists away from the fair. The “stall-in” never materialized, but the World’s Fair was marked by the movement in a variety of ways, and Tirella neatly ties events outside the gates to the goings-on inside. 

Tirella takes a more lighthearted approach to the cultural revolution just getting underway. Many of the teenage girls who attended the fair in the summer of 1964 had already flocked to Queens in February to catch a glimpse of the Beatles as they touched down at the newly renamed Kennedy Airport. Thanks, in part, to Beatlemania, rock ’n’ roll was alive and well in America, and Tirella describes the connection between the Fab Four and New York-based folk artists such as Bob Dylan. Robert Moses had initially rejected the notion of inviting the Beatles to perform at Shea Stadium—built in conjunction with the fair—but he changed his mind to entice larger audiences to the second summer. (There were, of course, some things about which Moses never did change his mind, including the decision to remove, at the request of Nelson Rockefeller, Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men from the exterior of the New York Pavilion.)

Moses is Tomorrow-Land’s main character—the powerbroker who built a legacy in New York’s infrastructure, shaping the city and state like no one else before or after. Nor would any account be complete without a discussion of politics, domestic and foreign, during the Cold War’s middle phase. Ronald Reagan may have won a second presidential term in 1984 by telling Americans that it was “morning in America,” but in the political landscape of 1964, it was mourning in America. Still grieving over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which had occurred just months before the opening of the World’s Fair, Americans had much to worry about in the mid-’60s: the battle over civil rights, an escalating conflict in South Vietnam, the continuing global influence of the Soviet Union. Tirella describes how politics and world events affected the fair, which was visited by the American president, Lyndon Johnson, innumerable foreign leaders, and even Pope Paul VI, on the first-ever papal trip to the Western hemisphere.  

Some features of the churning culture go unmentioned. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published the year before the fair opened (although the zenith of the women’s movement came in the years after the fair closed). For that matter, Moses changed his mind about the Beatles, but did he ever consider featuring one of Berry Gordy’s Motown groups? These are minor quibbles, however: Tomorrow-Land reminds us how a single event can epitomize and encapsulate a phase in our collective history, a time when the fair’s motto—“Peace through Understanding”—might even have seemed possible. 

Lauren Zelt is a campaign adviser and communications consultant in Washington.