My Accidental Pilgrimage to the 1964 World's Fair Site

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I expected another normal day. Work. Lunch. Work. Happy hour. Home. Heck, maybe I'd even treat myself to an iced coffee at some point. I did not expect to end up shivering, staring at rust, and dreaming about the America we'd lost. I did not expect to go to the World's Fair.

Flushing Meadows is a massive ribbon of green space in Queens cut neatly in the middle by the Long Island Expressway. It was also the site of the 1964 World's Fair which opened on a rainy April morning exactly 50 years ago. As one historian pointed out in a blog post pegged to the anniversary, the fair happened at a pivotal time for the country. Vietnam hadn't yet traumatized the nation. The Civil Rights Act had just passed. We'd sent a man to space and were getting ready to send a few more to the moon. Everybody was thinking about the future.

When I stepped off the 7 train at Flushing Meadows, half a century after the fair opened, I was thinking about history. My editor had sent me on an assignment to check out the abandoned New York State Pavilion, one of the last structures from the fair still standing that the National Trust for Historic Preservation just named the New York State Pavilion a "National Treasure." For only three hours that day, visitors would be allowed inside for the first time since 1987. You know the spot: it's the hulking Brutalist structure—"The Tent of Tomorrow"—that's sitting in the shadow of three observation decks, two of which look just like flying saucers. Remember that scene at the end of Men in Black, where the alien goes looking for a spaceship and ends up in Queens? This is the spot.

My Accidental Pilgrimage to the 1964 World's Fair Site

I'd seen the pavilion from the expressway many times. It's on the way to LaGuardia Airport from my house, and it's always an exciting moment, when I can peek into the park and imagine what it must've been like all lit up for the fair. This was my first time visiting in person and seeing the pavilion up close, though. Reality hit me like a punch in the neck when I strolled down the promenade that connects the iconic Unisphere with the pavilion area. It felt like walking into a photo shoot for a new coffee table book on ruin porn.

The pavilion is in rough shape. Dead vines wrap around the concrete pillars like spiny tentacles. Where the paint wasn't flaking off the steel that formed an elliptical halo connecting the pillars, rust was rearing its head. The weird wire web draped over the top of the Tent of Tomorrow looked like it was about to fall down. The only thing that wasn't a portrait of dereliction were the concrete walls which sparkled with a fresh coat of paint. The red and white stripes gave it an eery carnival feel. And yet, hundreds of people milled about with cameras smashed up against their faces, snapping shutters and looking up into the midday sun.

The event had begun. Park rangers and hardhat wearers stood on the steps of the pavilion directing newcomers to a line that snaked around the south side of the structure. It didn't look too long—until I walked around the south side of the building to see the line snake up towards the north side of the pavilion. I followed it until it turned to the west, towards the city. I walked and I walked. I walked over the expressway, through a meadow, past a baseball field and a zoo. The line meandered up some stairs, where it ended, no less than a mile from where it began. There were perhaps two thousand people waiting in line, just to walk through the door of a dilapidated pavilion and pay their respects to the sheer sense of hope and promise that the fair once embodied. I found my place, and I waited.

Morning turned into afternoon. My neighbors in line hopped out to buy ice cream or to peek through the fence at the zoo. No one complained. It reminded me of being younger and going to Disney World, where I'd gladly wait three, maybe even four hours for one five-minute trip up Space Mountain. I saw couples who'd flown in from out of town, locals taking a long lunch break, and more than one jean jacket covered in patches from World's Fairs past. A couple in bright green vests were handing out coupons for a dance studio nearby. At one point, I overheard the group of teenage girls telling a reporter why they'd come out. One was wearing an old film camera around her neck. She said, "I grew up here, and I wanted to see what this park was like when it was nice."

My Accidental Pilgrimage to the 1964 World's Fair Site

It didn't look so bad to me. Sure, there was an expressway running through the middle of it, but there were also trees that had just started to blossom. I counted no fewer than four brides in white posing for pictures in a little grove of cherry trees. I had no doubt they'd be posing next to the Unisphere next. Probably not the Pavilion, though.

By the time my part of the line reached the pavilion again, I'd nearly killed the battery on my phone so I stuffed it in my pocket and shuffled over to the back gate to look inside. It reminded me of the arenas in ancient Rome, where gladiators fought to the death. There were seats, and the ground was more grass than concrete. It was immediately obvious that the pavilion wasn't really open. A few barricades had been set up, allowing about ten visitors at a time to walk about ten feet inside. Everyone had to wear hard hats, apparently because the structure was so run down, they couldn't be sure a piece of it wasn't going to fall on someone. On one wall, it looks like someone had taped up some old photos, but nobody was looking at them.

An hour later, I made it to the front of the line.

"Hold on to this yellow ticket," a volunteer smiled as he tore off one of those tiny paper tickets you get at the county fair. "They'll call out your number, when it's time for you to grab a hard hat and go in."

"But," I stuttered. I'd been waiting in line at least three hours… for a yellow ticket? "Well, how long do you think that'll be?" I asked.

"Oh, probably just two hours."

My jaw dropped. I simply couldn't wait any more. I hadn't dressed appropriately for the weather, and cold winds had been cutting me in half all morning. Lunch had passed by hours before, and I desperately needed a drink of water. But I'd waited so long already! I wondered what I'd be missing, so I wandered up to the entrance and asked someone coming out where the tour led them. She pointed to the little barricaded area. I asked if that was it, and she shrugged her shoulders, half smiling, as if to say, "Afraid so!"

I peered into the pavilion and realized there was nothing more to see. The view from this side was just the same as the other side, where I peeked in through the back gate. It's a beautiful structure; looking up at that weird wire ceiling at the flying-saucers-on-sticks in a thrill. But there's nothing there. Not any more, anyway.

With my last sliver of battery life, I emailed my editor to explain the situation. The phone went dark, and I set out for one last stroll around the pavilion. Even though the event had officially ended an hour before, the line still snaked south and then back north and towards the zoo. I overheard one pretty jovial guy in a cowboy hat and one of those patch-covered jackets explain to an out-of-town couple that he'd been to 13 World's Fairs, the 1982 fair in Knoxville being his last. My parents met at that fair. Suddenly the whole scene made sense.

My Accidental Pilgrimage to the 1964 World's Fair Site

These people didn't show up at Flushing Meadows to see something new. Like pilgrims, they'd taken a journey and waited for hours simply to stand on hallowed ground. These structures weren't just towers of crumbling concrete. They were ruins of another civilization—or at least another phase of our own. And there I was with one World's Fair to thank for my life and another to thank for the lasting image of America on the bleeding edge of progress. Fifty years ago was indeed a specific peak in this country's history. It was when my parents and the rest of the Baby Boomers came of age, and when much of the America I know came to be.

I decided not to wait. I walked back past the Unisphere on wide sidewalks that weren't as empty as they normally are. I looked ahead, over the subway yard, towards Citi Field, and then a laughing man bumbled up next to me. He was wearing Mets gear head-to-toe and an ear to ear grin.

"Man, fifty years! The World's Fair!" he said slapping a newspaper that he was carrying in one of his hands. "I was there, you know."

"No kidding," I was genuinely surprised. He didn't look old enough.

"I was," he was still sort of laughing. "I came on a school trip. Twice actually! Both seasons: 1964 and 1965. It was incredible." He pointed off in one direction, explaining what had once been there, and then he spun around, as if he were building the fair all over again with just his memories. "I'm from Queens, you know."

I nodded.

"We were going to go to Coney Island that second season," he said, looking back at the pavilion. "But we took a vote. We were sitting in the auditorium, and we took a vote. And when the teacher said we were going back to the fair, the kids jumped up in their seats they were so excited. We were so excited."

"I wish I could've seen it," I said as sincerely as I could.