Monday, March 24, 2014

Progress ("Tomorrow-Land" by Joseph Tirella)

When we speak of "progress" in relation to American history, we speak of two dichotomous elements: those who envisioned change, and those responsible for making that change a reality. Capitalists, industrialists, politicos, and robber barons dreamed of railroads and oil fields, of rising cityscapes and vast homesteads, of rivers spanned by steel and gateways blasted through mountains; and to accomplish these dreams, they employed the poor and desperate, many of them new to the nation and from the teeming and neglected city tenements. Some were even destined to die in the process, bodies crushed, unrecognizable, unreturnable. For mere change these workers slaved in unbearable conditions, all to realize the visions of men who would reap great fortunes and become immortalized; today, we know the latter--Carnegie for his steel, Roebling for his bridge--while the thousands whose blood and perspiration cooled their foundations have been forgotten, names erased from even the footnotes of history. Just as they were replaceable in life, they have become forgettable in death. And while both of these juxtaposed entities--the rich and powerful few, the impoverished and powerless many--often found themselves in conflict with one another as the growing nation dealt with intolerance, inequality, and disparity, one could not exist without the other, and it's in that symbiotic relationship that American became what it is today.

This uneasy relationship is at the heart of Joseph Tirella's Tomorrow-Land, a thorough and tangent-heavy look at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York City. In this instance, the industrialists of decades past are personified by Robert Moses, the all-powerful city planner of New York whose unchecked powers and unyielding influence made him the most influential man of his day, possibly even after the president himself. The World's Fair was his baby almost from the beginning, and he kept a near dictatorial control over every aspect of its realization, from zoning and legislating to budgeting and hiring practices, a decision that would not only ensure the fair's success but also guarantee conflict.

At the same time, the United States was descending into a level of unrest that was both unprecedented and inevitable. Racial minorities, until now segregated in all aspects of society by powers beyond their reach, were beginning to join one another and fight for rights long denied to them. Their leaders--Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin--waged their individual battles differently, but as a movement their messages were the same:  equality now, at long last, and equality forever. It was a call echoing throughout the entire country--everywhere, that is, except Moses' urban dreamscape, where power and employment were reserved for those of the lightest complexion. For an event claiming to represent the importance of fairness, progress, and togetherness, the lack of diversity among those paid to realize this utopian ideal was startlingly--and unforgivably--ironic.

Similarly, the country was dominated by another force beyond its comprehension and control--the "invasion" of British music, as represented by the Beatles--and before long the four young, mop-haired singers from Liverpool commanded all the attention and deference befitting a single head of state. When the Beatles performed stateside, they themselves could not hear their instruments above the raucous shouts and screams of adoring fans. Venues once considered large suddenly found themselves too small, and once popular singers were relegated to lower spots on the charts, their music now indicative of a fading style. Robert Moses, again presented with a chance to make his World's Fair a true personification of progress by inviting the Beatles to perform in the ground's large stadium, refused, preferring instead the subdued and outdated music he himself enjoyed. There would be no room at his cherished project for a style that he himself did not understand.

In fact, when taken in context with America in the 1960s, Robert Moses' fair begins to seem almost antiquated--an anachronistic relic of the past somehow lodged in the present and proclaiming itself a moniker of the future. And while there were some elements of the Worlds Fair that were truly impressionistic--Walt Disney, for one, funded a series of animatronic presidents, predating the rise of realistic robotics by quite a few years, and there were works of modernist and pop artists featured prominently--much of what Moses looked at as progressive was, in fact, stale, like a tourist trap that attempted to appease Middle America without scaring it away. In such turbulent times, the World's Fair became less of a dream and more of a comfort and escape--a place where everyday Americans, themselves troubled by the rapid changes occurring around them, could bask in a view of the future in which cities did not burn, music did not scandalize, and subjugated races were suspiciously absent.

When the World's Fair closed, it did so without having made back all of the money spent on its construction, and with attendance lower than what had been expected--two indications of the event's failure that many in charge, including Moses in particular, chose to ignore. (When these shortfalls were brought to Moses' attention by a dutiful accountant, the data was ignored and the accountant, in both frustration and disgust, resigned.) Today, the 600-acre fairgrounds still holds many of the fair's most impressive buildings and artistic pieces, including the famed Unisphere, but not what the fair was intended to represent. Because, as history now shows, the World's Fair offered a look into the future while remaining blind to the present--a conflict that embodies much of American history.