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Could Seattle do it again?

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

 

   

 

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