Seattle should invite the world (again)

The 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair could shape up to be an entertaining, even important, brainstorming session about the city's future. So let's not be shy about asking for ideas  from the rest of the world.

Crosscut archive image.

The U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) during the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.

The 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair could shape up to be an entertaining, even important, brainstorming session about the city's future. So let's not be shy about asking for ideas  from the rest of the world.

Too early to think about the next 50 years?

Not really. Especially if you're planning an event in 2012 to do just that. The Seattle Center Foundation is leading the effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair of 1962, but like the fair itself, they want the event to be forward-looking.

Which makes sense for all kinds of reasons, one being that you have to be in your mid-fifties or older to even remember the '62 fair. Another is that world's fairs, in the U.S. anyway, are considered relics. The last one in North America was in Vancouver, B.C. in 1986, more than a generation ago. To demonstrate how far fairs have fallen out of vogue, consider that the '62 fair was the way the city chose to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (AYP) Exposition of 1909. Plans for Century 21's Golden Anniversary are much more modest.

But according to the Center Foundation's Todd Burely, the preliminary scheme is in keeping with the vision of that fair, which not only showcased the New Frontier (or make that the "Mad Men" era) but remade Seattle and its brand. I asked Burley to sketch out for me how he thought the fair celebration would be organized, and though it's somewhat early, he gave me a sketch at least as good as the one Eddie Carlson scrawled on a place mat when he conceived the Space Needle.

Seattle Century 21 Exposition was approximately six months long (April-October). Burley says the anniversary will kick off on April 21, 2012 and that each of the six months will have a theme. The idea is to start and sustain a look at the next half century and Seattle's role in the world. So the themes, not unlike the themed pavilions one still finds at world's fairs, focus on areas of specific interest to Seattle, such as Sustainability, Global Health, Science and Technology, Commerce and the Innovation Economy, Learning, and Civic Action. Woven through all six months would be Arts, Culture and Design.

So while nostalgia is important — you can, for example, go to the Center Foundation's "Next Fifty" web page and enter your fair memories, film footage and photos in a "Time Capsule," the celebration seeks to be a catalyst for important conversations about "where next?" Currently, volunteer committees are being assembled to begin to plan the activities for each themed month. "We want to have a conversation about what the future will be," says Burley.

In addition, the celebration will tie-in with other major events. For example, the Pacific Science Center will be hosting the new "blockbuster" King Tut exhibit during the anniversary (May 2012 to January '13). A previous Tut exhibit, in 1978, seized Seattle and drew over 1 million visitors. The hope is that other exhibits, performances, conventions etc. will also connect with the themes. One idea being kicked around, says Burley, is to showcase an updated version of the popular fair's mid-century "House of the Future" by creating a new one in sync with sustainable living (forget "Jetson's" living and think of a solar-powered 500-square-foot micro house). Burley says they also hope to have an exhibit of Century 21 history installed for the duration of the six-month anniversary.

So while the celebration isn't a world's fair itself, it could act as a kind of updated supplement to the one we already had. Virtually all of the suggested themes were the subject of 1962's content, ranging from model cities to video phones, library science, computers, and atomic cars. The themes also reflect some of Seattle's enduring strengths, such as technology (Boeing and Microsoft) and civic-mindedness (Forward Thrust, citizen activism). Burley says it also adds post-fair strengths, such as in arts, culture, and design.

In 1962, Seattle was still infamously regarded as a "cultural dustbin" but the fair helped to change that perception by showcasing Northwest pre-Grunge modernism, from the poetry of Theodore Roethke to the paintings of Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Or take the case of the Seattle-born architect Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the U.S. Pavilion for the fair, now the Science Center. That brought him to the attention of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who hired him to design the World Trade Center's twin towers.

In 2009, Seattle recognized the Centennial of the AYP Exposition, whose legacy was the University of Washington campus and more development north of the Ship Canal. The '62 fair gave us a major civic center, a legacy of infrastructure that ephemeral fairs don't always leave behind. The Center Foundation wants to keep this celebration focussed on the center, where fair icons like the Space Needle and Monorail still function. While the city debates the future of the Center, 2012 also is an opportunity for focusing on what the Center has become, and what it can be, and why it deserved public support. It also helps anchor the celebration by being the go-to place for events. The celebration of AYP was necessarily more de-centralized. Still, some aspects of the AYP centennial will be recapitulated. For example, the folks at Historylink are working on a Century 21 book to match the excellent one they produced on AYP. Burley says it is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2011, ahead of the anniversary.

Many cities celebrate their old world's fairs, and indeed, the legacy and memory of fairs has itself become the subject of scholarship. At the 50th anniversary, oral histories of participants and attendees are still possible, though most of the main fair organizers have passed on. But the anthropology of fairs has generated a fascinating literature about memory, ritual, and commemoration that can produce insight into how cities are shaped, or aren't.

A recent work on the subject, "Whose Fair: Experience, Memory and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition" by James Burkhart Gilbert, is an excellent example of the kind of fascinating look into a city's makeup that can be had by studying a fair and how it is remembered, or not. For example Burkhart notes that whites in St. Louis tended to believe the fair was a signature event in the history of their city, while African Americans did not. And among whites, immigrant groups that had a strong presence at the fair, like the Irish or Germans, carried that sense of connection down through the generations.

It turns out that many people's impressions of the fair were influenced by the gauzy nostalgia for the way of life portrayed in the Judy Garland musical, "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), which showed almost nothing of the fair and in fact was more about the cultural climate of boys going off to war in World War II than it was about real life in St. Louis in 1904. In other words, people remembered a fair nostalgically based on the nostalgia of a Hollywood movie made 40 years after the fair. Burkhart also found a certain amount of widely accepted false memory about the fair, or an acceptance of its hype as gospel. Contrary to popular belief, the St. Louis fair did not invent the hot dog, Ferris wheel or ice cream cone, though it helped to popularize all three.

So too, the memories of Century 21 are likely to have been shaped by all that has happened since, or by movies like Elvis Presley's 1963 movie "It Happened at the World's Fair" or the TV series "Mad Men" which has popularized the early '60s business and cocktail culture. By the way, the "Next Fifty" organizers are already selling reproduction Century 21 cocktail glasses online or at bars around town, a must-have for any fan of design.

The fair anniversary festivities could produce something of interest to scholars who study how Seattle's self-image might have been shaped by the fair, but interestingly, it might also be most interesting for how we mis-remember it. I think it would be a mistake to let nostalgia take over, and the themed months and the related events seem like an excellent start at getting over the relevance hurdle. In other words, everyone, especially those under 55, will be interested in thinking about the future, even while we might enjoy a Century 21 highball or pine for a future with Bubbleators.

My advice to organizers is to look outside Seattle for input on the future. One of the great advantages of world's fairs is that they are civic improvement projects that draw on the resources and ideas of the whole world. In other words, you invite the global village to set up its tents in your town and show off their best stuff. You get to feed off of their best ideas. Can the "Next Fifty" folks tap resources outside of Seattle to join our conversation?

Will, for example, we invite representatives from other cities to come and tell us how they've leveraged and shaped their former world's fair sites in ways that have strengthened their cities? There is an organization called AVE that does just that, and it will be meeting in Shanghai this October to talk about sustainability and urban best practices, the theme of this year's Chinese world's fair. Could some of these people come to Seattle and join our conversation?

In the summer of 2012 (May-August), there will be a world expo in Yeosu, South Korea focussed on the theme of "The Living Ocean and Coast." Could that produce ideas and approaches that could inform us? Could our fair anniversary tie in with their actual living breathing expo, with shared exhibits, multimedia presentations, speakers or teleconferencing? Can we leverage our South Korean cultural connections?

A 50th anniversary celebration that is forward-looking and ambitious about the future is great, but bringing in outsiders to help us explore the issues and to understand the greater context would make a huge, positive difference. The topic of Global Health is a natural for this, and there has been a push to have a global health summit of some kind in conjunction with the anniversary, but drawing on global thinking and experience is also relevant to the other themes. While the 50th anniversary event won't be a world's fair, I hope it will generate some of the intellectual rub-off that can come from a good expo. It would be sad if we celebrated Century 21 by mainly talking to ourselves. We can do that anytime.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.