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WHY CARE ABOUT THE FAIR?
April 24th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

painting the needle for its big b-day party

Keith Seinfeld at KPLU recently asked, “Why does Seattle still care about the world’s fair?

That’s an excellent question.

As international expos go, Seattle’s was relatively small.

And it took place a full half century ago.

Until Mad Men came along, that era was widely considered to have been a dullsville time, a time wtih nothing much worth remembering.

The “Space Age” predicted at the fair would seem would seem ridiculous just a few years later. It predicted domed cities and cheap nuclear power. It predicted computers in the home (in the form of fridge-sized consoles) and video conferencing (with a special “picturephone”), but it didn’t predict the Internet.

It sure didn’t predict the racial, sexual, musical, and social upheavals collectively known as “The Sixties.”

And a lot of the fair’s attractions were so utterly corny, you can wonder why they were taken seriously even then. Attractions such as the world’s largest fruitcake. Or the Bubbleator (essentially just a domed platform on a hydraulic lift). Or the adults-only risqué puppet show (by the future producers of H.R. Pufnstuf).

Yet a lot of us do care about all that. And not just us old-timers either.

And not just for the physical structures the fair left behind (the Space Needle, the Science Center, etc.).

The fair was the single most important thing that happened in Seattle between World War II and the rise of Microsoft. (The launch of the Boeing 707 was the next most important.)

The fair revved up the whole Northwest tourism industry, just as jet aircraft and Interstate highways were getting more Americans to explore other parts of their nation. This once-remote corner of the country became a top destination.

The fair was a coming-out party for a new Seattle.

A Seattle dominated not by timber and fishing but by tech. Specifically, by aerospace.  Boeing had only a secondary role in equipping the U.S. space program, but its planes were already making Earth a seemingly smaller place.

The fair didn’t start the Seattle arts and performance scenes, but it gave them a new oomph.

Seattle Opera and the Seattle Repertory Theatre were immediately established in the fair’s wake.

ACT Theatre came soon after. Visual art here was already becoming famous, thanks to the “Northwest School” painters; the fair’s legacy led to increased local exposure to both local and national artists.

The fair established a foothold for modern architecture here.

Before the fair, there hadn’t been a major change to Seattle’s skyline since the Smith Tower in 1914. (The few new downtown buildings were relatively short, such as the 19-story Norton Building.)

The Space Needle became the city’s defining icon, instantly and forever.

The U.S. Science Pavilion (now Pacific Science Center) established the career of Seattle-born architect Minoru Uamasaki, who later designed the former World Trade Center.

Speaking of tragedy and turmoil, some commentators have described the fair’s era as “a simpler time.”

It wasn’t.

The Cuban missile crisis, revealed just after the fair ended, threatened to turn the cold war hot.

The whole Vietnam debacle was getting underway.

The civil rights and black power movements were quickly gaining traction.

The birth control pill was just entering widespread use.

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which helped launch the U.S. environmental movement, came out while the fair was on.

So yes, there were big issues and conflicts in 1962.

But there was also something else.

There was optimism.

In every exhibit and display at the fair, there was the notion that humans could work together to solve things.

And, at least at the fair, most everything was considered solveable.

I wrote in 1997, at the fair’s 35th anniversary, that its creators sincerely felt Americas would strive “to ensure mass prosperity (without socialism), strengthen science, popularize education, advance minority rights, and promote artistic excellence.”

It’s that forward-looking confidence that got lost along the road from the Century 21 Exposition to the 21st century.

It’s something many of us would like to see more of these days.

And that, more than Belgian waffles or an Elvis movie, is why Seattle still cares about the World’s Fair.

And why you should too.

(Cross posted with City Living.)

souvenir display at the world's fair anniversary exhibition


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