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Visiting Future Past

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So the 1964 World’s Fair was in New York City, and there is a big push afoot to commemorate the 50th Anniversary this year.  This past week, that included opening up the old New York State Pavilion, which has been sitting in ruins since sometime in the 1970’s.

I’d actually been out to see some of the other World’s Fair remains (shameless plug – I also wrote about them here), and regretted not being able to get into the pavilion, with its weird flying-saucer towers. So when a conservation group announced its opening to the public for one afternoon only this Tuesday, I made the trek to Queens.

….I was not the only one, however.

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That was the line I got into at 11:30 that morning, after following it around the perimeter of the pavilion, 100 yards through a parking lot, over a bridge, and several hundred more yards further through the park and nearly to the street.  People were in high enough spirits, though – I chatted a bit with the guy in front of me in line, who observed that the city was trying to determine whether there was enough public interest in the pavilion to justify restoring it rather than demolishing it.  “Ya think maybe there’s interest?” he said, gesturing at the line in front of us.  The line also moved quickly enough to inspire people to hang in there; as we snaked closer, people also got pictures of the pavilion in the distance, framed by the cherry trees just coming into bloom.

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The line also presented its own people-watching opportunities; I noticed at least five people in vintage garb, from both  of New York’s World’s Fair eras; two women in late-1930’s frocks, complete with hats and silk stockings with seams up the back, and three people who had opted for more of a mid-60’s look.  Completely by coincidence, I’d dressed a bit boho that day, and told myself that I was in costume too, it’s just that I was more Greenwich-Village-folky than Betty-Draper.

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There was even more waiting, we learned, when we got to the head of the line. The organization sponsoring the event was only letting 20 people in at a time – the pavilion is still a bit unstable, they explained, so people had to wear hard hats when they went in. And…they only had 20.  But they were giving out tickets to everyone, so instead of waiting around in an even slower line, once we got our ticket we could sit down, stroll the perimeter of the pavilion, wander the rest of the park, get food, or what have you, while listening for our ticket number to be called.  I’d been on my feet for about two and a half hours already at that point, so I desperately wanted to sit.  After getting food first, however – a couple food trucks sat in the parking lot behind the ticket guy.  But only two trucks.  “Gee, another line,” the guy who’d been ahead of me joked when he saw me queuing up for a hot dog along with him.  I just smiled back grimly; I’d actually wanted to hit the Belgian waffle truck, but that line was even longer, despite the efforts of three very happy-but-frazzled looking servers.

I sat near the head of the line with my hot dogs, to just sit and wait there.  And overheard a bit of a panic amid the organizers; they’d run out of tickets, with a huge line still to go.  “Sorry, folks, give me a minute and we’ll figure out what to do,” said the panicked-looking kid who’d been giving them out.  He grabbed another woman and thrust her to man the line while he made a frantic call to someone in charge.  I overheard her telling someone in line that all of us people sitting there had already gotten tickets and were going to get to go in first, and yes, they did need a ticket because we’d all been in line before them and it wasn’t fair to jump ahead of all of us, sir.  The kid came back to relieve her, telling people that he’d told his boss what the problem was and they were figuring something out.  “….You see that flag there?” he added, pointing at a flag hanging over the pavilion entrance. “That’s the very same flag that was flying at the fair in 1964!”

He was trying to stall. The people in line weren’t buying it.

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By the time I finally got in, the organizers had already extended their “visitor hours” twice. And people were leaving happy, even though they weren’t really allowed access to much of the space inside the pavilion.

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They kept us all in a little space by the entrance; the pavilion was about the size of a baseball infield, and mostly bare.  There were a few photos taken at the fair proper on a back wall, as well as a display chronicling the post-fair life of the pavilion as a concert venue and a roller rink.  The organizers were a team of volunteers who’d also given the whole thing a fresh coat of paint, but had left the old “Skate Rental” sign in place for history’s sake.

The floor itself was the biggest reason we were all confined to one spot.  During the ’64 Fair, there was a mosaic on the floor which recreated the then-current Texaco road map of New York State.  But years of roller skates had damaged the floor, and the roof falling in left the floor exposed and damaged it further; eventually in the 1980’s someone covered the whole thing over, first in fabric and then in gravel, to preserve it somehow while the city figured out what else to do. A few sections of the floor map had been unearthed and put on display, so people could see the detail of the original and the extent of the damage in some places.

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Before I left, I overheard the coordinator telling someone that they’d gotten well over twice their anticipated turnout – 2,500 of us showed up.  And the people who’d missed their chance for tickets got their reward – IOUs for VIP access when they re-opened the pavilion again in a months’ time when the city holds a park-wide anniversary festival commemorating both fairs, with a concert of 60’s music and fireworks in the evening.

I may go back again, actually. I remembered, as I made my way back, that my parents told me they’d made a road trip to see the 1964 fair themselves; they didn’t remember much, maybe a couple of exhibits and the Unisphere.  Doing the math, this would have been when my parents were still in college or barely out of it; thinking about how young they were, and the whole feel of the fair, reminded me just how young and hopeful the country must have felt at that point as well.  We had hope to try great things then; some things we failed at, but some we succeeded, and it was touching to think about that youth and that hope, and I think i’m going to go see that again.

Or, if nothing else, I want to go back and get a damn Belgian waffle this time.

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