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New York's 1964 World's Fair Was Actually Something of a Failure

On this date in 1965, New York City's third World's Fair came to an end, ultimately welcoming over 51 million visitors. While that sounds like a lot, it was well short of the organizers' original goal of 70 million. The now fondly remembered event ended up mostly as a U.S. consumer products showcase mixed with the occasional international exhibit. It wasn't even allowed to be an official World's Fair.

Despite the official theme being "Peace Through Understanding," dedicated to "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," the 1964/65 World's Fair ended up with an overwhelmingly corporate message, hosting pavilions for some of America's biggest conglomerates including Westinghouse, Kodak, General Motors, Ford, RCA, and Johnson Wax. There was even a Sinclair Gasoline gas station of the future. The Fair's iconic Unisphere sculpture was built by US Steel, a commission the industrial giant put on a pedestal for a 1964 promotional film.

Just like New York's second World's Fair in 1939/1940 (the first was held in 1853–54), the event failed to be certified by the Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE), its rules stating that only one exposition be allowed per country every 10 years (Seattle had just hosted one in 1962) and that rent could not be charged to exhibitors, something the Fair's organizers felt was necessary to turn a profit. The event ran for two separate six-month periods over two years, another violation of BIE rules which state an official World's Fair can only last six months total.

Robert Moses, put in charge of the '64/'65 Fair by its organizers, flew to BIE headquarters in Paris to state New York City's case at the time. Unaccustomed to being told "no," Moses then burned any proverbial bridges left with the BIE, expressing his disdain for the organization to the press.

The feeling was mutual. After Moses's comments, the BIE officially requested that all member nations not participate in the Fair. The USSR, most of Europe, and even Canada declined to participate as a result, the organizers then turning to tourism organizations to help fill the gap. One of the nations that did participate, Indonesia, ended up having its pavilion seized, shut down, and barricaded after the country removed itself from the United Nations in the middle of strained international relations.

Moses was not only spokesman of the Fair, but a financial stakeholder of sorts as well. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the site of the Fair, was one of Moses's many urban renewal projects in the 1930s, converting it from a tidal marsh and a garbage dump into a massive public park. Moses hoped the 1964 event would bring in the revenue necessary to finish his vision for the park. But by the end of the first session, the Fair was on the verge of bankruptcy, with organizers using 1965 advanced sales to help pay off the first year. Despite the financial troubles, the Fair still managed to last the full 1965 run. 

Unhealthy bottom lines and a lack of international support or certification aside, the event was still pretty cool. With time, it has become a time capsule of sorts to the early 1960s, giving an incredible look back to what a future-loving, corporate America thought its customers would love and what the country thought it could one day become. As for getting to the futuristic Fair though, New York City still wanted you to arrive by good old fashioned subway:

Keywords: New York, World's Fair

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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