Reminiscing on the New York World’s Fair of the 1960s

A Westchester writer reflects on the New York World's Fair, which opened in April 1964 in Flushing Meadows.

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I hold two distinct memories of the summer of 1965. First, it was so devoid of rain that by mid-July the Croton Reservoir had practically evaporated and, from the vantage point of the reservoir’s iron bridge, all you could see were stray puddles and a rowboat stranded in the sunbaked mud.

My second memory is of the New York World’s Fair.

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When I think of the World’s Fair, I hear something I had never heard before in my young life — on a humid summer night the happy, magical sound of Caribbean steel drums, emanating from the “Tent of Tomorrow.”

The fair opened 60 years ago on April 22, 1964, under the slogan, “Peace Through Understanding,” a vacuous theme as easily ridiculed by cynics then as now. The fair (in case you missed it) consisted of 146 pavilions and 110 restaurants spread over 646 acres in Flushing Meadows, the former site of an early 20th-century refuse pile called the Corona Ash Dumps, or perhaps more famously, “the valley of ashes,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to it in the first pages of The Great Gatsby.

At the heart of the fair was the 12-story, 900,000-pound Unisphere built by U.S. Steel. The giant globe was considered an engineering marvel, a triumph of American exceptionalism fulfilling “the modern notion that no structural design problems are too tough to solve, given the right technical know-how, and the right facilities, and the right steels.”

The Unisphere served as the fair’s logo and its image was plastered everywhere, especially on souvenirs, among them silly-looking hats with cheap, feathered plumes — and yes, I had one.

For reasons I can’t quite recall, I only visited the fair in the second and last season, in 1965. Once I went with a friend and his family, which was a minor disaster because the minute we arrived my friend wandered off on his own and we wasted the whole day looking for him. He was far from alone: One report had it that an average of 50 kids per day were lost and found at the fair.

Phil Reisman Photo by Stefan Radtke

The fair opened 60 years ago on April 22, 1964, under the slogan, “Peace Through Understanding.”

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The fair was the brainchild of Robert Moses, the autocratic New York mega-planner, who gave us glorious public beaches and parkways as well as ribbons of soul-crushing concrete roadbeds that destroyed neighborhoods. (Luckily, he failed to give us the Rye-Oyster Bay Bridge.) A 1,162-page book was written about Moses — The Power Broker by Robert Caro.

Moses exuded the warmth and bonhomie of a bail bondsman. In the official Guide to the World’s Fair, he greets fairgoers with a photo that could scare a 2-year-old. “Come often,” he urges.

Unfortunately, not enough people came at all.

It hardly helped that international participation was scant, owed to a feud Moses waged with the Bureau of International Expositions. (The only European nation that officially sponsored an exhibit was Franco’s Spain.) Nor did it help when critics said the fair was a glorified commercial for consumer products like General Electric toasters and Johnson Wax.

Beset by disappointing attendance, the fair was deemed a financial failure and, of course, whenever money is lost, accusatory fingers are pointed. Most were pointed at Moses.

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“Day after day, the headlines about the fair were not about new exhibits but about prices and deficits and money,” wrote Caro. Moses, the author said, was arrogant, ego-maniacal, and power drunk. By the time the fair closed on Oct. 17, 1965, he “was in public disrepute so great that his name became a symbol for things the public hated.”

Well, not the entire public. Westchester County, for instance, was a font of fair boosterism through thick and thin.

“Certainly Mr. Moses is not noted for making mistakes,” asserted a June 2, 1965, editorial in the Mamaroneck Daily Times. “But why, in any case, should prospective visitors to the fair concern themselves with either its profit or its loss position — that’s for Mr. Moses and his associates to worry about.”

As a 10-year-old, I certainly didn’t worry about it.

The fair’s diamond anniversary came and was barely noticed, but just ask those who went what they remember, and what comes back to them are stray snapshots of fading memory. They remember the Carousel of Progress, the World of Tomorrow, the animatronic robot of Abraham Lincoln, and the Sinclair dinosaurs.

They remember Belgian waffles.

They remember the smoke rings from the General Cigar pavilion.

They remember the Pieta.

They remember first dates.

They remember hot weather and soaking tired feet in the cooling waters of the Unisphere’s fountains.

I remember the Unisphere. I remember the sound of the steel drums on a humid July night in 1965.

And I remember thinking all was right with the world.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.

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