Monday, October 6, 2008

Lost in the World's Fairgrounds vol. 75

This past weekend was the 6th annual Open House New York (OHNY), the city's ginormously adventurous exploration of the insides of often-closed structures throughout all five boroughs. OHNY covers many bases for many peoples - from the antiquatedly awesome Highbridge Water Tower; to the luxuriously lethargic Sutton Place apartment tour. From the industrial subterranean Substation #22 in Crown Heights to the open all the time yupster pedestrian Brooklyn Academy of Music building. OHNY is cool shit. CAVEAT! There are tricks of the trade to tackling OHNY. First off - avoid downtown and midtown Manhattan at all costs. Due to the architectural and explorable density of the island, most of the tours/reserved sites are chock-a-block fullup weeks in advance; for those open houses with no reserve, lines get interminably long. Also the insufferable haughtiness of seen it all New Yorkers in their prime habitat - a genuinely cool thing they haven't seen before but play it off like Clara Bow past her prime.
HOWEVER it is possible to enjoy the fruits of OHNY. First and most critical: get far away from the expected spots. Leave Ft. Greene and Astoria to the birds and hipsters. The outer rings of the outer boroughs is fab. Second: own a car (!!!!!) which can take you to said outer rings of outer boroughs. Third: don't make plans with people who get lost on the subway (thank you Larissa!) and take 3 hours to get from Brooklyn to Brooklyn via Manhattan, which would cause you to miss a geektastical walking tour of a neighborhood most New Yorkers would have trouble finding on a subway map. Fourth: Be flexible. With all those points in mind, aforementioned late friend Larissa and I zipped over to Flushing Meadows Corona Park IN MY NEW CAR!!!!! for a walking tour of the Worlds Fairgrounds, inside and around the Queens Museum of Art.
John Kriskiewicz, a visually and audibly excited architectural historian led a group of 40+ for two marvelous hours in the historical shadow of the two Worlds Fairs - 1939-40 & 1964-65. We started inside the QMA's theater and enjoyed a slideshow filled with images and wonders of the two fairs, but focusing mostly on the second one, the first Billion Dollar Fair and the last Great World's Fair. John asked us all to "look back and remember the future" in a tone half reverential and half good-naturedly cynical. The Worlds Fair 64-65 straddled two very different epochs - planning started in 1958, Eisenhower's America, highways and suburbanization. Robert Moses (boo! hiss!) came on board in 60, and nothing was left to decide by 62, so by the time the Fair opened, it was already behind the times. By the mid-60s America was dealing with civil rights, flower power, Vietnam and disillusionment. From consensus to conflict, and the World's Fair split these two eras.
From the neato slideshow we went out into the park to marvel at the always magnificent Unisphere. 13 stories tall, 700,000 lbs, the world's largest global structure and built out of stainless steel by US Steel, it is the only remnant of the World's Fair that is landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservations Committee. The three rings that orbit the Unisphere are supposed to represent the first two men in orbit - Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and the first telecommunications satellite, Telstar. This giant hunk of metal had always intended to be permanent, while the rest of the Fair was temporary.
As John walked us on top of some etched-in-granite murals depicting various scenes from the Worlds Fairs around the globe, he pointed out the importance of the Worlds Fair to the people of America, especially as it opened six months after JFK's assassination. It brought people together to celebrate and enjoy themselves, just as the technology of entertainment (movies, t.v.) separated and privatized people from others. The reason we don't have Worlds Fairs anymore is that with flight, and eventually internet, we can visit the world on our own, and hardly need the world to come to us.
Other points of interest included the exterior of the Queens Hall of Science, designed by Wallace Harrison, in an ethereal style that reminds one of mitosis, undulating forms and shapes inside our bodies; a geodesic dome leftover from the Fair that is now the Queens' Zoo's Aviary; the Port Authority building, a ghastly T-shaped monstrosity now home to a banquet hall; an original Carousel from the Fair, still in use and hardly known by its users to be vintage from Coney Island, circa the early 20th century; and the crumbling NY State Pavilion buildings, designed by Phillip Johnson, massive urban detritus that once stood for utopian visions of tomorrow. All in all a simply spectacular tour, led by a passionate man with a personal connection - Mr. Kriskiewicz showed a slide of a chubby youngster at the Fair. The best part about this Open House? The bright sun, the cool breeze, the laughing children and the tangible history.

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