Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America

Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America

by Joseph Tirella


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780762780358
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Joseph Tirella wrote about Queens for The New York Times’s much missed City Section, and penned pieces for the paper’s Metro and Business Sections. A former Senior Editor at Fortune Small Business, his work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Vibe, Esquire, Reader’s Digest, the New York Post, the Daily News,, and He lives in Oakland Gardens, New York.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Greatest Single Event in History 1

Part 2 Something New 117

Part 3 Bringing It All Back Home 255

Epilogue: Tomorrow Never Knows 322

Acknowledgments 330

Notes 331

Sources 343

Index 347

About the Author 356


A Conversation with Joseph Tirella, Author of Tomorrow-Land

At the center of Tomorrow-Land is a World's Fair, an enormous and expensive showpiece for New York City and America placed upon on the world stage during the challenging 1960s. What was your approach to narrating such a complex historical flashpoint?

I approached writing Tomorrow-Land like I was writing a novel, albeit a completely factual one. The narrative spine is the World's Fair and the central character is Robert Moses, the president of the World's Fair Corporation, a titanic figure in the history of New York City, and in America. Moses held a dozen positions in New York City and State before taking over the Fair. He was best known as Parks Commissioner of New York City and New York State, and as the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. He was by any measure one of the most powerful men in the city—far far too powerful. He casts a shadow over New York City at least as large as the Manhattan skyline. All the book's other real-life storylines—the emergence of the Beatles and Bob Dylan; Andy Warhol and the emergence of Pop Art; the crackdown by New York City officials on downtown bohemians; the national Civil Rights Struggle, particularly how it affected race relations in New York; and the first rumblings of the drug culture—intersect with the World's Fair. And all these other events, which were happening somewhat independently of each other, comprise an almost separate or alternative World's Fair; one completely beyond the control of Robert Moses.

Drop some more names for us—who were some of the politicians, religious leaders, power brokers, entertainers, and other well-known figures who appear in the story of the 1964-65 World's Fair?

It was a veritable Who's Who. Jackie Kennedy took her daughter to the Fair (one of her first public appearances after her husband's murder); Bobby Kennedy took his children there, too; Billy Graham had his own pavilion. Pope Paul VI arrived in the final weeks of the Fair after giving his historic U.N. speech—he was the first Pope to come to America. Lucille Ball. Jonathan Winters. Every major politician, including President Johnson (who came twice), and Vice President Hubert H. Humphreys. Richard Nixon made an appearance, too. In fact, his 1968 Presidential campaign really began at the Fair. Politically, Nixon was considered done. Finished. Then one of his top fundraisers saw the hero's welcome he got from the crowd. Right in the middle of working class Queens, he was treated like a superstar. The next day, his fundraiser, who had also thought Nixon's political career was over, started raising money. Tricky Dick was back. Martin Luther King took his family to the Fair, as well. Supreme Court justices. Everyone came to the Fair. Hundreds, if not thousands of VIPs got free tickets.

And millions of regular people still remember going to this World's Fair, too. But they might not remember the preparations for the Fair. What would surprise them about what the World's Fair Corporation, New York City, and the U.S. Government did to prepare for the Fair?

Well, I think people would be amazed to see just how much public money—millions and millions of dollars—was spent in preparing New York City for the Fair. Millions were spent on public works projects—many of which were scheduled to happen at some point anyway—but Robert Moses used the Fair as a way to speed up the process. I think people would also be shocked—I certainly was—by how New York City officials, urged on by local religious leaders, cracked down on bohemians and artists and the downtown establishments they frequented in order to "clean up" New York City for the millions of tourists they expected for the Fair. There was a very homophobic undertone to their campaign. I still find it quite shocking that such a thing happened, of all places, here in New York City just fifty years ago.

Which makes "Peace Through Understanding," the motto of the 1964-65 World's Fair, seem misapplied. Based on what you discovered while researching and writing this book, did the Fair live up to that motto?

No. Peace Through Understanding, while a noble goal, was impossible to achieve at a World's Fair held in New York City—or anywhere in America—during the years 1964 and 1965. Millions of Americans didn't have their civil rights, segregation was still the law in the South, people had to fear for their lives on many city streets, and soldiers were being drafted to fight what was, essentially, a civil war in Vietnam; and, for that matter, the whole world lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

But what the World's Fair did offer was a glimpse of a 21st century multicultural America, and of the larger multicultural world—you could say, a less Eurocentric world—one in which nations from Asia and South America and Africa and the Middle East, would play an increasingly important role in global affairs. And that world, which was on display for the first time at the Fair in 1964, is now the world we live in. But as I say in the book, Peace Through Understanding continues to elude us. And seems like it will for some time to come.

Protests, politics, and controversy were staples of this World's Fair and its surroundings. What took place inside the Fair's gates and just outside?

There were civil rights protests inside the World's Fair on opening day—April 22, 1964. The Brooklyn Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a national organization, threatened to stage a "Stall-in"—that is, instead of a "sit-in" they would clog all the expressways and highways that lead to the World's Fair in Queens by running out of gas or just stopping their cars—thus pulling the plug on the Fair's opening day. It would have been the largest traffic jam in history. And while it never happened—people refused to sacrifice their cars—city and state officials, not to mention President Lyndon B. Johnson, had to take the threats seriously. It became a national story, and one that represents a fracturing among younger activists and the established leaders of the civil rights moment. This fracturing would later have repercussions for the movement. And it started because of the World's Fair.

Take us inside the Fair's gates. "Tomorrow-Land" was an advertising label applied to General Motors' Futurama II pavilion, but in a sense it applied to many of the Fair's exhibits. How would you describe this mid-1960s Fair's vision of the future? What did they get right, and what did they get wrong?

There is this conventional wisdom that World's Fairs were more altruistic before the 1964-65 World's Fair, and that Robert Moses' Fair was simply out to sell people products. But all World's Fairs are out to sell you something. The 1939-40 World's Fair was selling Depression-era Americans home appliances and this grand vision of the "World of Tomorrow." But what was the World of Tomorrow in 1939? According to GM's Futurama exhibit, it was a world of superhighways, taller skyscrapers, and cars (it was a GM exhibit after all). In 1939 that must have been something to see, but in the 21st century we recognize it as urban sprawl and soul-deadening architecture. In 1964, Futurama II showed underwater hotels and lunar range rovers. Pure science fiction eye-candy for the Space Age. I doubt anyone, other than the children in the audience, who it was meant for, took it very seriously.

The 1964-65 World's Fair, as Robert Moses wanted it to, shied away from grand visions. What it offered—and not necessarily on purpose—was a glimpse of the chaotic and cacophonous multicultural world in which we now live. I don't think that the critics, or many of the people who attended, understood at the time what they were seeing. I imagine that in 1964 it was nearly impossible to see a world that wasn't dominated by the Cold War. Moses said his Fair had "something for everyone." And literally, it did. Walt Disney used the World's Fair as a testing ground for his particular brand of entertainment. The rides Disney created for the Fair—It's a Small World, the Animatronic Abraham Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, all went on to live at his theme parks. The Fair had Michelangelo's La Pietà; it had the Unisphere; it had pavilions from throughout Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa.

What makes this Fair and the two years of its run "transformative," as the book's subtitle indicates?

It was held at such a unique moment in American history. The country was changing. Robert Moses took charge of the Fair in May 1960. Within a few months, Kennedy is President. Almost immediately Moses meets with JFK and gets his blessing. Kennedy knew that the Fair would be a public relations bonanza for the American Way of Life versus the Soviet Union. From the word "go," the Fair was a peaceful battleground in the Cold War—one we could win without firing a bullet. As we all know, the Kennedy years were not uneventful ones in America: Civil Rights, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis—all these things were happening while the Fair was being created from 1960 to 1964. Then Kennedy is assassinated; the Beatles arrive in the U.S.; a folk singer named Bob Dylan starts to change popular music; the Civil Rights bills are passed; Malcolm X; Pop Art; Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who got on their psychedelic bus specifically to go to the World's Fair—all these things were happening outside the Fair's gates. While Moses was putting on a World's Fair, there was a cultural revolution exploding outside the Fairgrounds and it was transforming the country and that transformation just seemed that much more radical in comparison to the World's Fair.

Who have you discovered lately?

Since finishing Tomorrow-Land I've been focusing on writing fiction so I've been reading mostly novels and short stories. One writer that I've discovered in the last year who has made a tremendous impression on me is Flann O'Brien. I can't recommend his novels The Third Policemanand Two Birds—At Swim highly enough. His writing is musical and magical and wonderfully playful yet completely humorous. I've also spent the last several months rediscovering a lot of music from the 1990s, such as Pulp, the great Brit Pop band. Jarvis Cocker, the band's front man and lead singer, has put out some outstanding solo albums over the last few years that I've become obsessed with. In fact, a few other musical acts from the 1990s like Tricky and My Bloody Valentine also came out with some wonderful albums last year [2013]. It's been a long time since I've bought CDs; yes, that's right: I still buy CDs.

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