Back to the future at the New York World's Fair

April 20, 1994|By Mark Miller

IN THIS 30th anniversary year of the Ford Mustang, Beatlemania and the surgeon general's report linking smoking with lung cancer, let's not forget the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. The fair had many memorable attractions, most notably General Motors' "Futurama," with its dazzling displays of what life would be like . . . about now.

We saw underwater cities replete with submarine ports, farms irrigated with converted seawater and maintained by laser-controlled vehicles. We saw primordial forests mowed down, sliced, diced and devoured, vegetation and all, by G.M.'s giant laser machine. Another machine put down four-lane highways that connected dazzling cities springing out of the wilderness. And we saw models of gleaming, crime-free cities with no parking problems and a simulated Antarctic weather station that made instant worldwide forecasts based on data beamed from satellites.

Looking back, some of it looks corny and naive, as futurism can be when we see it with the benefit of hindsight. The world's population is exploding, yet those underwater cities are still far from reality. Then again, much has come to pass: weather satellites and, unfortunately, the deforestation of the Amazon rainforests -- not by G.M.'s laser machines but by electric saws wielded by those who place economic gain over the environment.

My grandmother, who took me to the fair in '64, had attended the 1939 World's Fair at the same site in Flushing, Queens. That, too, was a spectacle loaded with futurism, much of it courtesy of General Motors. On display were cars steered by radio beams (beams have been a mainstay of futurism for more than a century), whisking people around on 14-lane superhighways that sliced through green, spacious countryside; orchards fruiting under glass domes and cylindrically-shaped skyscrapers gleaming at the center of pollution-free, congestion-free cities.

Those utopian cities were supposed to be a reality by 1960. But in 1964 we knew a different reality: American cities were in decline. Air pollution, much of it caused by our automobiles' exhaust fumes, had become a health hazard; our superhighways were becoming increasingly more congested; and suburban sprawl was eating up what remained of our greenbelts and countryside.

Little wonder we weren't as enamored with futurism in 1964 as we had been 25 years earlier. More highways meant more traffic and more pollution, and monorails, a staple at Flushing Meadows in '64, had become a futuristic cliche. Now they're seen mostly in places like Disneyland.

Today, I'm not sure a futuristic-laden world's fair would go over very well. Not only have we seen science and technology accomplish what some earlier in this century considered either ridiculous or impossible (manned moon landings, test-tube babies, organ transplants and desk-top computers are just a sampling), but, jaded cynics that we are, we now question whether such "progress" is a good thing in light of some not-so-good consequences.

Laser-driven deforestation machines? Look at what we're doing to the Amazon without them! Underwater cities? We pollute the oceans enough with oil spills and waste dumps; imagine what a marine settlement the size of Towson might do. Clone human beings? We'll debate the ethical, legal and moral ramifications of that one well into the 21st century.

Fifty-five years after the '39 New York World's Fair and 30 years after the '64 extravaganza, the shine is off our gleaming future.

Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.

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