No Expo for Ecotopia

As Seattle prepares to celebrate 50 years as the little expo city that could, the chance for a future fair in the USA is a long way off.

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

As Seattle prepares to celebrate 50 years as the little expo city that could, the chance for a future fair in the USA is a long way off.

Last spring, I reported that Ecotopia might host a world's fair in 2020. A group of business leaders in the Bay Area were pushing to make a bid for a Silicon Valley-based expo. Houston was also interested. The deadline for 2020 bids has come and gone with no U.S. city submitting.

Urso Chappell, who runs the ExpoMuseum website, says that the soonest the U.S. could host a world's fair would be 2022. The last world's fair in North America was Vancouver's Expo '86. The last fair in the U.S. was in 1984 in New Orleans. The failure to bid for 2020 guarantees a nearly 40-year drought in U.S. expos, by far the longest-ever stretch without a fair since they came into being in 1851.

The last time a major expo-gap was bridged was in 1962 when Seattle hosted the first American fair since 1940, a 22-year hiatus that included World War II. Seattle is already celebrating the 50th anniversary of that fair, which includes the recently published book, The Future Remembered by Paula Becker and Alan Stein of Historylink. The books offers a definitive portrait of the fair. The official birthday isn't until April 21, 2012, but many projects are already announced or underway.

The Seattle Center, the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center and others are preparing the "Next50" celebration in 2012. (Disclosure: I am writing a commissioned history of the Space Needle for the occasion and serve on the Next50's History Committee.) It's interesting that 2022 would be the 60th anniversary of the Seattle fair, which did much to revive the U.S. fair movement in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

One impediment to the U.S. hosting a fair is that we are no longer a member of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the treaty organization that oversees world's fairs. There are 157 member countries, but the U.S. withdrew during the George W. Bush administration. To host a fair, we would need to rejoin the organization.

An interesting note is that it was the Seattle fair organizer's willingness to submit to BIE rules and regulations that made the Seattle fair possible, and helped to boost its success in attracting foreign exhibitors. There have been fairs that have operated without BIE sanction, the most famous being the New York World's Fair of 1964-5, a financial flop.

Fairs still do happen. Next summer, there will be a small expo in a provincial port city with a beautiful setting, not unlike the Seattle of 1962, Yeosu, South Korea. The U.S. will have a pavilion there, designed and run by Philippe Cousteau, Jr., grandson of Jacques. The theme of the fair is "Living Ocean and Coast." It will run only half as long as Seattle's however, three months instead of six. There is a major expo planned for Milan, Italy in 2015.

Fair bids to the BIE for 2020 include Sao Paulo, Brazil; Yekaterinburg, Russia; Ayutthaya, Thailand; Izmir, Turkey; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Sao Paulo bid is part of an aggressive chain of events planned for Brazil for the time period. A 2020 fair would follow on the heels of hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In the past, some cities have used fairs as occasions to host multiple events. In 1904, the St. Louis fair ambitiously featured the Olympic summer games (III Olympiad) and the Democratic National Convention (nominating, your trivia for the day, Alton B. Parker).

The Century 21 Exposition was conceived as a 50-year celebration of the city's first fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. If the city wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Seattle World's fair with another expo, well, the field is wide open and the odds against it, but half a century ago, it was the same, and it was a gamble that paid off.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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