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Could Seattle do it again?

Fifty years ago the World's Fair put Seattle on the map. Could the Emerald City pull off another world expo?
Century 21's Big Three: Ewen Dingwall, Eddie Carlson and Joe Gandy. They bet the city, and won.

Century 21's Big Three: Ewen Dingwall, Eddie Carlson and Joe Gandy. They bet the city, and won. Century 21

I've spent much of the last year-and-a-half researching the Space Needle and the 1962 Seattle World's fair, which was in high-gear 50 years ago this summer. The fair was much more than the Bubbleator and Belgian waffles. It was, many claim, the event that "put Seattle on the map." It was certainly a success by every major measure: it left a permanent legacy in Seattle Center, re-branded the city as a utopian-minded tech center, and turned a profit.

Century 21 itself was first conceived to mark 50 years since the city's first major fair, the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909. We're marking Century 21's anniversary with the Next50 series of events looking ahead. So it's natural to ask, "Could Seattle do it again?" Could Seattle do another world's fair?

The simple, answer is no.

Even if we wanted to, the barriers would be huge, largely reflective of changes in policy and politics.

The first hurdle is that no U.S. city can host a recognized world's fair today. During the administration of George W. Bush, America withdrew from membership in the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based treaty organization that oversees and sanctions world's fairs. This was the group that Seattle fair president Joe Gandy courted so assiduously, successfully out-maneuvering New York City for official approval of the first U.S. world's fair after World War II. The U.S. has as yet been unwilling to rejoin. The failure to resolve the membership question resulted in the collapse last year of a serious potential bid for a Silicon Valley fair for 2020. Unless the U.S. resumes good standing in the BIE, no bid or fair is possible.

Second, the Seattle World's Fair had strong federal support. The post-Sputnik spending boom on science in the late 1950s and early '60s, fueled by the Cold War and the space race, shook loose $10 million in federal dollars for the Seattle fair. The horse-trading and persuasive arm-twisting of Washington's powerful dynamic duo of U.S. senators, Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson in an era of earmarks, pork and largesse were critical to the fair's success. That era is over. Congress has even made the federal funding of U.S. pavilions at overseas fairs impossible (they are funded by big corporate sponsors like Boeing and Coke). Getting funds for a domestic fair seems highly unlikely. In the Tea Party era, who would vote for "an expo to nowhere?"

Another hard-to-reproduce element: bipartisan support. The Seattle fair had the sign-off of presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. It had the backing of GOP Governor Art Langlie, and his successor Democrat Al Rosellini. When Rosellini became governor in 1957, he let Republican Eddie Carlson remain as chair of the state fair commission. Backing for the fair survived changes in federal and state administrations. In the current era of political polarization, it's difficult to imagine achieving that kind of constancy and consensus over the decade it would take to organize a major expo — even if the funds were found to do so.

The bigger question is, could Seattle overcome the gridlock and nay-saying that has become our civic hallmark. Big things still happen in greater Seattle:  expanding regional light rail, remaking the waterfront, building a downtown bypass tunnel, straightening out the "Mercer Mess," laying down a new 520 bridge. Combined, we are undertaking huge, simultaneous multi-billion-dollar projects. Not as much fun as the Space Needle or The Gayway, but important. Still, these projects feel like civic slogs, completing old to-do lists, and more in sync with old ways and highways than the future.

We seem to have lost a willingness to gamble and have fun doing it. Gandy called Century 21 the biggest dice-throw in Seattle's history. Today, we often seem consumed with minutia: road diets, pea patches, and "More Important Things." We lose a Fun Forest and gain a single Ferris wheel; we have the Sonics stolen, then peck to death plans to bring NBA basketball and NHL hockey to town. We've become a bit like the current Mariners, always rebuilding, shuffling bit players, not even thinking about winning a World Series.

Worrying the details might be a sound day-to-day approach. Civic skeptics like me are largely happy with that approach. Still, are we now a city that no longer takes generational big risks, a burg that has misplaced its sense of wonder? Have we forgotten what it is to see a city galvanized? I recently returned from an expo in Yeosu, a small provincial port city on a beautiful natural coastline in South Korea. It was exciting to see a city stretching itself in the Seattle tradition. That gamble has given them a new waterfront, better infrastructure (water, roads), high-speed rail, and a shot at being a tourism center.

In retrospect, it seems amazing that a small group of smart, visionary executives and politicos pulled off what Seattle did in '62. They had enormous hurdles to jump themselves. But the reason we're celebrating what they did then is because the civic exhilaration they produced lingers 50 years on. We're still benefitting from what they set in motion. We can still feel the residual energy of having placed a big bet, and winning. The men and women of '62 exceeded what their predecessors of 1909 did. We have yet to surpass their Space Age accomplishments.

In 2012, we're left to remember the glory days and ask ourselves, "Will they ever come again?"


 
   

 

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

The arena project is NOT needed to bring back "glory days" -- it should NOT be publicly funded, and should NOT be built in Sodo.

Rather than "peck to death plans to bring NBA basketball and NHL hockey to town," local elected officials are engaged in essential due diligence to see whether public dollars should be used to subsidize another sports facility whose economic benefits are questionable according to independent studies such as the one by UBS Wealth Management Research. And that study doesn't fold in factors that make such a public investment even more dubious and short-sighted here in Seattle, including the selected site in the heart of our industrial area, where it and the associated development of an "entertainment district" would push out family-wage blue collar jobs in favor of low-paying service jobs.

If Hansen and company want to build an arena and bring the NBA and NHL here, they have far more than enough financial capacity needed to do just that, and could do so many times over. But even paying for it themselves, it should not go into Sodo.

As it is, the entire process to jam the public funding gambit through quickly with as little scrutiny as possible -- remember, Hansen wanted this done in June -- makes it imperative that responsible elected officials, which obviously does not include the mayor and county executive, act as stewards of public resources rather than cheerleaders for this questionable enterprise. The fact that those two and the "investors" show such disregard for the people and businesses in Sodo whose jobs depend on access to the waterfront, the Port and the railroads -- and people and businesses all across the state that also rely on trade -- shows how far these "leaders" are from the visionaries that made the Seattle World's Fair a reality.

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

The Century 21 had one more extremely important thing going for it: timing. When planning began, there had not been a World's Fair anywhere in the world since before World War II, in New York and San Francisco in 1939 and 1940. The term "World's Fair" conjured up something magical, almost unattainable, too exciting to believe. Parents told children exciting, mythical tales of Chicago in 1933 and New York in 1939. And there was a sense of urgency. New York was planning an exposition for Flushing Meadows in 1964 that was certain to be bigger, better, more exciting. It was important for Seattle to be first. When the Space Needle appeared on the cover of Life, with misty blue skies and the Olympics in the background, the deal was sealed. Everyone wanted to come; some did, and loved it. Others were understandably disappointed at the modest size and scope of the thing.

Since then, World's Fairs became more common currency. Spokane? San Antonio? Was there really a Fair in New Orleans? A friend recently claimed that one was being planned for Fresno. The Shanghai Expo was immense, and security was intense. Millions sweltered under polluted, stagnant skies, reading signs in Chinglish while enduring excruciatingly long lines. There was an interesting and effective security measure for vetting plastic water bottles: open it up and drink some. If you didn't explode, they would let you in. Century 21 was great, but face it: we snuck in the back door.

gabowker

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

So much to comment on here, both in Knute’s story and the comments preceding mine. As a 63-year resident of Seattle, born in Doctor’s Hospital, I have an odd view of the goings on. As a boy, I went to the top of the Space Needle before it was completed. In those days, a dad could take their child on a job and show them around. Luckily, dad was working on the Needle and I got to go for an afternoon.

I would agree with almost every comment made. However, I believe the one big drawback to any major, non-transportation, civic endeavor is the idea that Seattle has become fat and lazy. When you become fat and lazy, risk is abhorrent, safe and easy is the only realistic option. Fear controls our lives, look at the tea party and the anti arena folks; they base their whole scheme on fear, same as our government. As an example, the TSA is a completely bloated national government answer to self-generated fear.

My folks, and the ones like them who conceived and built the Seattle Worlds Fair were all gamblers. Look who feeds the casinos today. My folks and their contemporaries each week go down with their $40 each and gamble it away on the chance they will hit the jackpot. Perhaps it is because they are children of the depression who had nothing, except the will to take a chance. We, who seem to have everything, find risk totally abhorrent. I am one of those people, much to my shame. I wonder why I did not learn to take a chance. I guess like Seattle, I grew up with everything I needed or wanted. Shame on me.

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

What have you been drinking?

"who would vote for "an expo to nowhere?" Wait a minute, you led off claiming Century 21 put Seattle "on the map." Here's an idea for your next story: what map is this that you have in mind, how do places fall off of it yet remain the farthest thing from a ghost town, and what does falling off, getting back on, and falling off again in X years mean to its residents and which ones?

Those Fair minded might also want to check the Public Channel tonight as it repeats its cleaned up (but still gory) two part documentary comparing Victoria with Albert and Victoria without Albert. Well-meaning Albert invented the first world's fair to promote the industrial age and compare progress—England won, who'd have guessed. The Crystal Palace would have done it all by itself, but there was much more. It all went to their heads, especially Victoria's (sans Albert) and the world has gone on promoting and comparing who sells whose soul best ever since.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 1:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Arena opposition is not based on "fear" but on common sense. Farmers have an expression that fits -- you don't eat your seed corn.

The trade and manufacturing activities in Sodo are equivalent to a major share of Seattle's seed corn -- producing far more as they are, planted and growing in our major industrial area, than if they were "eaten" by gentrification. Look at a map -- all those railroad tracks and the very few roads that allow effective access to and from the area. Fouling this nest with an arena makes no sense.

Look at what Hansen is proposing, an arena that he'll ultimately turn over to the public that he acknowledged on a local radio show this week could be obsolete in 30 years (probably sooner). Look at his financial model, which essentially ignores the fact that much of the revenue generated by the arena will go back into his and his investors pockets or back into the arena -- thing is, there is no "new money" created, so this is money that already is being spent elsewhere that will now be captured by his investment team and this facility. Sure, he says 60% of arena patrons will com from the Eastside, so voila that is "new" money to Seattle, as if no one on the Eastside comes to Seattle now to spend anything.

No, it is not fear that motivates people -- the vast majority, according to polls -- who are opposed to public funding of an arena in Sodo; it is common sense that motivates them. There are real needs in the city and county that could be financed with $200 million in public bond money -- the Youth Center people will be asked to raise their property taxes for, for example. A new arena is not a need. It won't be utilized by people who can't afford obscenely high NBA ticket prices. Putting it in Sodo is stupid when there are other far better sites. And Hansen and his investors do not need one dime of public support -- they can build it and a dozen others if they choose with their own resources, and have money left over.

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 1:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Good thing the privately owned Space Needle was built back then. Can you imagine something like that being proposed today?

Mr Baker

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate

A correction to my earlier post: there was one other World's Fair that was held after World War II and Before Century 21--in Brussels in 1958. But I think that makes the timing issue even stronger. Seattle wanted to be in international company, in the First Class cabin of Spaceship Earth.
New York, Brussels, Seattle. In a way, it happened.

gabowker

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

@gabowker: The Brussels Fair played a huge role in Century 21, a story that needs to be written. And not just because of Belgian Waffles. One factor: the U.S. science community was very unhappy with the presentation of American science at the Burssels fair, so they were extremely receptive--pre-disposed to be receptive--to the science focus adopted by Century 21, as advised by Maggie who knew the scientific community was looking for an outlet and knew that that would be where the money was.

@afreeman: My use of "expo to nowhere" was simply to suggest that in the Tea Party/anti-earmarking era, it would be dismissed as a potential boondoggle, regardless of past history. In the context of Century 21, the first federal financial support for it came from Republican Eisenhower and funding occurred within a Congressional context of horse trading (you fund our expo, I'll vote for local project, etc.). Maggie said he's be paying of the Century 21 debt for years afterwards.

Posted Sun, Jul 8, 8:08 p.m. Inappropriate

"My use of 'expo to nowhere' was simply to suggest that in the Tea Party/anti-earmarking era, it would be dismissed as a potential boondoggle, regardless of past history."


While it may be true that today the Tea Partiers could potentially be major opponents of World's Fair participation, it's important to remember that one of the most reliable opponents to US participation in late 20th century fairs was Democratic Senator William Proxmire. Opposition to US participation knows no party. Rhetorical opportunism is bipartisan.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Jul 9, 5:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Your: "in the Tea Party/anti-earmarking era, it would be dismissed as a potential boondoggle, regardless of past history" is a puzzle both as to what you mean to say and factually:
Wa Post 9/25/11: "President Obama, as part of his latest jobs plan, has proposed building new infrastructure projects and funding a government infrastructure bank, although he vowed: 'No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more bridges to nowhere.' But where “nowhere” is depends on where you stand."
http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/alaska-bridge-to-nowhere-the-knik-arm-crossing-project-still-on-the-table/2011/08/02/gIQApu7vwK_story.html

You are much more succinct in the interview with Robin Lindley as to what makes federal financing less likely now— no Cold War us vs. them. Your phrasing there telegraph James Peck's 2010 'Ideal Illusions' word for word, less his conclusions.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 4:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Hah. I meant "he'd be paying," re Maggie, though using the present tense is probably appropriate. He' could well be paying debts for us all in whatever afterlife is reserved for legislators.

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 5:26 p.m. Inappropriate

"Others were understandably disappointed at the modest size and scope of the thing."
"An arena ultimately turned over to the public but could be obsolete in 30 years."
"The anti-arena folks base their whole scheme on fear, same as our government."

Correction good sir; Anti-arena folks base their "position" on the value of "Preserving Industrial District property and associated Jobs." Who woulda thunkit? A Seattler git sumthin Rong? Bet the Rong won't be admitted or righted without a b*tchslap fest: "He Rong. No. Her rong. Her him rong." How about we try "YOU RONG" on for size, urbanizer-wannabee hipsters often wrong on design philosophy.
The DBT is an error of engineering historical record.
The DBT is NOT gonna happen. Neit!
The Norse oppose this digging, what?
Naught in this day of earnest trepidation!
Onward, Ula Inga hollan tollan yensen svenson Olinoffenheimer!!

Wells

Posted Fri, Jul 6, 11:11 p.m. Inappropriate

We probably still are paying for Century 21 as Maggie predicted, in the sense that it, along with so much else, was rolled into what has become our large national debt. Bonding, and I guess every other kind of governmental debt issuance, is a way to get the goodies now but put off paying into the future.

Trouble is, it's now the future. Peak oil, peak credit/debt, peak everything...I think I liked the old future better than this one.

Posted Sun, Jul 8, 5:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Well boys we're about to revisit the 1950s when the viaduct comes down. At least the gridlock part of it, or I guess they were probably called traffic jams back then.

Anyway...good job on that visionary thing.

jmrolls

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