By Philip Newman
These city fathers who met at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan had decided to hold what would be the greatest world’s fair. The location: Flushing Meadow in Queens.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia toured the site of the fair a day later and stood on the crest of a new overpass at Grand Central Parkway and Nassau Boulevard and listened to descriptions of what was to come by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.
“This staggers the imagination,” said LaGuardia.
Never mind that the New York World’s Fair was more than three years in the future. Work on the site was to start soon and first reports said it would ultimately create anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 jobs.
A Chance for Queens
The Long Island Daily Press said it was “A Chance for Queens.”
“There is every reason why the fair should be anticipated as a major factor in stimulating a new wave of industrial and business prosperity through the country,” the newspaper said.
Max Gertz of the Gertz Department store in Jamaica, agreed.
“All of Queens should benefit,” Gertz said. “For two years, there will be a constant stream of people directed here from all parts of the continent.”
Anything that would create jobs was welcome in a nation that suffered from 17.2 percent unemployment. A survey showed that 91 percent of Queens apartments rented for less than $60 a month. But it took income to pay even that, a goal that eluded so many unemployed citizens.
New York state provided modest financial help, which was then called “relief.”
Congress had only months before passed a law providing Social Security, but nobody would get a check until 1940.
Thousands of job applicants rioted for hours at the Municipal Building in Manhattan in a struggle to get hired as messengers, attendants and watchmen in city offices. It took six carloads of police to restore order.
In a couple of hours, more than 4,000 Queens residents had lined up to get permits to rent rooms to fairgoers and those who worked there.
Sirloin steak sold for around 22 cents in much of Queens in the mid-1930s and in 1939, Olympic Motor Sales of 137-03 Northern Blvd. Flushing advertised new Oldsmobiles for $777 but other new cars could be bought for even less.
The New York World’s Fair committee, headed by George McAneny, a prominent member of the business community, first said the fair would cost $40 million but by one month before the April 30, 1939 opening day, it had cost $71 million with $80 million more needed.
Peter Horn, president of the Central Queens Allied Civic Council, said “the site selected is a garden spot in the heart of the city,” predicting it would increase home ownership in Queens.
The 1,216-acre site of what was once known as Flushing Flats was logical but whether it was a “garden spot” was open to question.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Great Gatsby,” described it as “A valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grew like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens bounded on one side by a small, foul river.”
For 35 years the Brooklyn Ash Removal Co. had dumped ashes and refuse smoldering 24 hours a day and exuding a chemical miasma that denied growth of any living thing. Corona and Flushing were still dumping refuse there in 1935. The reclamation project to clean it up took three years.
“Yet, the “World of Tomorrow,” as the 1939 World’s Fair was known, rose phoenix-like from this noisome environment and also raised expectations a bit for Americans whose living standards had been so diminished.
On the opening day of the fair, April 30, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term (he would end up serving 3 1/4 terms) of his New Deal, officially opened the exposition. His motorcade, escorted by the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines (there was no separate Air Force) rolled across the new Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, dedicated a bare 24 hours earlier.
Speaking next to the symbols of the fair, the 610-foot high Trylon tower and the gleaming white, 180-foot wide ball known as the Perisphere, the president made remarks carried on still-experimental television by the National Broadcasting Co.:
“I hereby dedicate the World’s Fair, the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and I declare it open to all mankind.” These were the first words by a U.S. president ever broadcast on television.
When darkness fell, the revolutionary and spectacular lighting system was turned on by Albert Einstein, the discoverer of the theory of relativity. In the 19th century Thomas Edison had theorized the creation of the fluorescent light bulb, but this was the first time it had ever been used in a public setting.
Who Could Afford the fair?
In an earlier address to the nation, Roosevelt had declared, “I see a third of a nation ill-fed and ill-housed.”
Indeed, in 1939, two-thirds of all Americans earned less than $3,000 a year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture displayed an exhibit at the fair showing the various standards of living prevailing in America. Subsistence meant income of up to $800 a year. Maintenance was $2,000 a year, the Good life was $2,500 and Luxury was $5,000 on up. The USDA said one-third of the nation’s families lived at less than subsistence level.
With that in mind, the 75 cents it cost to get into the World’s Fair was a consideration. Admission was cut in 1940 to 50 cents.
It was estimated that it cost $14.90 to visit all concessions at the fair although $7 would cover a good day’s or evening’s entertainment.
Nevertheless, thousands returned for second and third visits. A Gallup Poll indicated only 3 percent expressed a negative reaction.
Who Came to the fair?
Many visitors came from far reaches of the United States, many hitchhiking or hopping freight trains, both then popular modes of transportation, and many arrived from foreign countries.
Fairgoers could get to the fair for a nickel (it was 13 years before the token) if they rode the new 1.8-mile spur at the fairgrounds connecting to the IND line at Continental Avenue in Forest Hills, the Long Island Rail Road (a dime from Manhattan) or driving (a 75-cent fee in a lot for 35,000 cars.)
There were also special buses from Manhattan for a dime and speedboat service from Manhattan for $2.
A few days after the fair opened, the French Pavilion called a news conference to deny rumors that it cost $7.50 for dinner there. A full dinner, the French hastened to explain, was served for $3, “sans vin.”
For the thousands of out-of-towners, the fair provided a list of hotels with rates as low as $1.50 a night.
What was There?
More than 60 nations along with New York City and 33 states maintained pavilions at the fair, although several pulled out in 1940 after war in Europe broke out. Germany did not show, possibly because Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia had called Germany “a chamber of horrors.”
fairgoers expressed particular interest in demonstrations of what America would be like in the future. This utopian era was to bring nylon stockings, Lucite, air conditioning (the Carrier Corp. had an igloo-shaped pavilion), robots, television, elaborate road systems, including technology that controlled the speed of cars and made collisions and traffic jams all but impossible, fluorescent lighting and automobiles beyond most motorists’ dreams.
The 1930s were, compared to 2004, a low-tech era with no television, interstate highways, Teflon, Polyester, jet planes, ultrasound, pantyhose, birth control pills, LCD or LEDs, microchips, dialysis, cordless, cellular or touch-tone telephones, long-distance dialing, microwave ovens, zip codes, area codes, videotape, plastic bags, heart bypass or transplant operations, transistors , computers, fax machines, video cassette recorders, lasers, e-mail or bar codes.
Then there was Democracity, the ideal community of the future.
The American Telephone and Telegraph Co. was particularly popular because it offered free long-distance calls and General Electric provided visitors artificial storms with 50,000-watt lightning bolts.
Most of these wonders had to wait to hit mainstream America at least until the end of the greatest war in history, which broke out Sept. 1, 1939 with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
One of the most popular entertainments was the Aquacade, a swimming and diving show produced by nightclub owner and producer Billy Rose and starring Eleanor Holm, the swimming champion, and Johnny Wiessmuller, a movie Tarzan. It included scores of shapely young women precision swimmers and divers.
Helen Maeder, 22, of 121-30 Fifth Ave. in College Point, was hired to perform in the Aquacade along with Flora Kloetzer of 9-21 College Place in College Point. They were paid $30 a week for five shows a day. Maeder married John Sullivan, 26, of Astoria during the fair.
“In all it has to offer, the New York World’s Fair resembles an enormous menu,” said Time magazine. “It would take weeks of steady gorging to eat through it.”
Time said one of the dishes worth consuming was the General Motors Futurama, which the magazine called, “perfectly staged, at once real and dreamlike.”
The utopian tomorrow promised by the fair exhibits sometimes seemed distant.
For example, David Gelernter in his book, “1939 The Lost World of the Fair,” wrote that “back in 1937, Grover Whalen (president of the World’s Fair Corp and New York City’s official greeter) promised that Negroes ‘would not be discriminated against in any way.’”
“He broke that promise but it is noteworthy that he felt compelled to make it in the first place,” Gelernter wrote.
“The American Common (section of the fair) was the scene of the fair’s observance of Negro Week in July 1940. Harvey Gibson, Mayor LaGuardia, A. Philip Randolph and W.E.B. Dubois were among participants,” Gelernter wrote.
The Jewish Palestine Pavilion opened on Sunday, May 28, drawing more than 50,000 people, most of whom were concerned that Britain had indicated it would repudiate the 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The thousands who arrived at the Jewish Palestine Pavilion from 14 states by automobile, plane, bus and special train, heard speeches by Jewish leaders, including Chaim Weizmann, who nine years later would become Israel’s first president. Weizmann spoke to the multitude over short wave radio from Paris. The 22,000 seats in the pavilion were filled nearly four hours before the dedication and speakers had difficulty making their way through the surging throng of standees.
And in the End…
Much of the benefit Queens sought materialized. Not only the thousands of jobs and accompanying business generated but also many projects which Parks Commissioner Robert Moses impatiently pushed forward, including the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Whitestone Expressway, the Grand Central and Cross Island Parkways the Queens-Midtown tunnel and Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
What the Long Island Daily Press called “the huge airport” at North Beach failed to make the deadline by the opening of the fair. It did open in December 1939 and was named LaGuardia Field.
The fair drew 44,931,681 visitors, far below the 100 million its backers had predicted and ended in bankruptcy. But by the fair’s premature end, Queens manufacturers began getting government defense contracts ($100 million worth in 1940) as America girded for the war that would engulf the world.
Reach contributing writer Philip Newman at 718-260-4536.