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Expo 67: We Were Fab

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Expo 67: We Were Fab

By Christopher Hume

Toronto Star

April 22, 2007

World's fairs aren't what they used to be. But then, neither is the world.

When Expo 67 officially opened 40 years ago this Friday, Canada was a different country. Montreal was still the biggest and most important city in the land, and its future – like that of the rest of the federation – shone as brightly as could be.

Canada was on a roll. What more proof was needed than Expo? Even now, four decades later, it is remembered as this country's finest hour, the moment when everything came together and Canada stepped onto the world stage a fully formed nation, the place where the future was unfolding.

By the time Expo closed its doors in October, 50 million people had visited. They came from across Canada – whose total population then was just 20 million – and around the globe.

Like countless other families that memorable summer, the Humes of Toronto piled into their car, an oversized Buick as I recall, and headed down Highway 401 to la Belle Province. Somewhere outside Montreal, we got lost, and for a while it seemed the trip would end in disaster.

"Might as well turn around and go home right now," stepfather announced to a chorus of adolescent groans.

Eventually, tired and sweaty, we made our way to the house we had rented for the week, and all ended – or rather began – brilliantly.

The memory grows dim, but to these then-teenaged eyes, Expo was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. It barely seemed real – all these extraordinary buildings, each filled with extraordinary things.

The glimmering, stainless-steel facades of the French pavilion; the amazing transparency of Buckminster Fuller's immense geodesic dome; the unfinished Union Jack atop the soaring tower of the British building; the cool elegance of the Czechoslovakian pavilion, which in my mind's eye glittered with hundreds of the most exquisite pieces of crystal ever beheld.

Then, of course, there was Canada's contribution, the unforgettable inverted pyramid, Katimavik.

No one had ever seen anything like it. It seemed to turn everything we knew literally on its head, upside down.

Wandering through the architectural marvels on Ile Sainte-Helene and Ile Notre-Dame, largely man-made islands in the St. Lawrence River, it seemed anything was possible – and here, in Canada.

The country might have been only 100 years old, but that didn't count. It wasn't history that mattered, but the future.

And if Expo told us anything, it was that the future belonged to us. You could see it being played out right in front of you; elevated people-movers humming through the sky, actually moving through buildings (well, one at least: the U.S. pavilion).

Then there was Habitat, Moshe Safdie's visionary proposal for housing in the city of tomorrow. Modular and mass-produced, yet each configuration was unique and somehow intimate and human.

The week flew by. In memory, the sun never set and the crowds, though enormous, never overwhelmed.

Four decades later, little remains on the Expo site. Habitat, now looking isolated and forlorn, never became the prototype it was meant to be. Though much more engaging than many other failed Utopias, it is a relic, a record of what might have been.

The French Pavilion, alone, degraded and rebuilt for permanence, has been turned into a casino. On most days, its front entrance is lined with buses bringing seniors from any number of clubs de l'age d'or. As if!

Little wonder that, from the perspective of this sad and cynical century, it seems not that Expo failed Canada but that Canada failed Expo. We could not live up to the promise. The future, we feel, has passed us by.

Historians will record, however, that even as Expo was being constructed, the FLQ was threatening to blow it up. And for all the optimism of 1967, Canada's centennial year, it is easy to forget that this country, and much of the world, was being torn apart by the Vietnam War, a nasty and pointless conflagration that haunts us still. It led to the death of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese, and destroyed the myth of U.S. invincibility.

Expo did the opposite for Canada. Suddenly, works by Canadian architects, artists and designers found a place in an international context. Side by side with examples from around the globe, it became clear, perhaps for the first time, that we were the equals of anyone, no matter where they came from.

Perhaps it was this that enabled Canada finally to move beyond its historical colonial cringe and fundamentally change our national mythology. The process that began at Vimy was completed at Expo, where we shrugged off the notion that we were a mere colony and became instead a full-fledged nation. Still, the mere fact that Expo could be pulled off itself seemed almost miraculous. There was no shortage of people who thought it all a huge waste of time and money, and more than we could handle.

Then, as now, Canada was a nation beset by naysayers. But for once they were proved wrong.

Since then, the forces of negativity seem to have regained their position of pre-eminence, and the sense of confidence and unity that surged across the country is long gone.

Last fall, Toronto's dream of bidding for the 2015 World's Fair fell apart because three levels of government couldn't see past their mutual antipathy to get organized. In the end, we simply missed the deadline.

Events such as Expo, the most successful fair in history, no longer have the drawing power they had before the world was wired, giving us ways of experiencing things without having to go to see them for ourselves. The peculiarly Canadian mix of apathy and hostility displayed last year has filled the void left by Expo. So, too, has the loss of ambition that now besets the country.

Expo held up an alternative version of Canada, one that was considerably more creative and ambitious. Since 1967, Canada has turned inward and become a country in conflict with itself.

More important, perhaps, is the disappearance of the optimism and naïve faith in progress that lay at the heart of Expo. Belief in technology, for example, has given way to universal pessimism. That's hardly surprising. In the 21st century, nothing less than the continued viability of the planet is at stake.

Back in the summer of '67, which the late Pierre Berton called the "last good year," no such doubts clouded the horizon. Certainly, there were problems – Canada hadn't turned into a nation of Pollyannas – but there was a new-found sense of confidence, a feeling that we could deal with them.

The drive home, I remember, was quieter, more subdued. Exhilaration turned to exhaustion as Toronto came into view. The city had started to change, but the smell of Hogtown lingered.

No longer. Unlike Montreal and Canada in the '60s, 21st-century Toronto is an international city – only just, it's true, but a player nonetheless.

Expo survives in the mythology of Canada. Like all myths, it is only partially based on truth.

The fair might not have changed the world, or even Canada, but it did alter forever how we view them.

<a href="http://www.thestar.com/columnists/article/205868" target="_blank">http://www.thestar.com/columnists/article/205868</a>

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That is a moving and powerful article and I greatly appreciate that you have shared this with us. I am struck by the statement that "we could not

live up to the promise [of Expo]." I believe that is the fate of all of the great fairs and expositions. They shine such a bright light on the promise of

technology, of tomorrow, of progress, that we can never quite match the idealism or reach the goal--whatever it might be. And we are left with warm

memories even as we walk the now vacant and sometimes desolate sites.

In any event, Expo 67 was very likely the most important international exposition of the 20th Century for the very reasons stated by the author of

the article. It redefined a nation and a generation.

The fact that Toronto could not organize itself in time to even bid on hosting a fair in 2015, especially as one recalls the monumental efforts made by

Montreal to host Expo 67 and have it fully ready by opening day, suggests that the importance of world's fairs is truly fading.

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Wow, that was a good article. I find Expo '67 to be much more "timeless", classy and futuristic (in general) than the others.... a look at the architecture across the fairgrounds, for instance shows that the design holds up well lo the modern eye, while NYWF architecture looks kitchy and gimmicky in comparison. Also, although like Flushing Meadows, Park Jean Drapeau is mostly cleared out, the remaining area is much more inviting these days than Corona Park.

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Friday, April 27, marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of Montreal's Expo 67.

Vive l'Expo 67!

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Just like the NWYF, it's hard to believe that it was 40 years ago for Expo. Wow. Where does time go?

By the way, for those interested in Expo and Montreal, here's something to tease you:

<a href="http://expo17.ca/" target="_blank">http://expo17.ca/</a>

Check the site in the next few days - it's supposed to go live this week with some news of interest...

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While researching images of Expo today, I came across the name of Al Carter. If one goes to Google Images and types in

Expo 67 and then goes to page three of those images, one will find a cemetery memorial to Al Carter. I clicked on it and

enlarged it and it happens that Al Carter, buried in Chicago, is a man whose claim to fame is that he set a record of firsts.

For example, he was the first motorist on dozens of expressways and interstate highways in and around Chicago. He was

the first paying visitor in the St. Louis Gateway Arch. He was the first the traverse the entire St. Lawrence Seaway. More

interesting, perhaps, is that Al Carter was the first paying customer at the following expositions: Century 21, NYWF (64),

Expo 67, Hemisfair 68, Expo 70, Expo 74, Knoxville, New Orleans and Expo 86.

Born on July 4, 1915, Al Carter certainly found a way to make life a constant reward. Forty years ago today, Al Carter

was the first paying customer to pass through the turnstiles at Expo 67. Amazing.

I would type the web address for Al Carter's monument in Chicago, but it is a mile long and has more letters than the

Cyrillic alphabet. Again, go to Google images; type in Expo 67; go to page three and there he is.

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Thanks for the reminder about Al Carter, Jim. Glen Schultzberg made a post about him on PTU last year which contains links to Carter's impressive tombstone, as well as other PTU links about who was first to arrive at various fairs (including PTU's own Hoodlock). Here's the master link to that original post:

<a href="http://www.peacethroughunderstanding.org/index.php?showtopic=5941" target="_blank">PTU - Al Carter Post</a>

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I didn't realize there had been an earlier post on Al Carter. Nevertheless, that tombstone is remarkable. All of his

"firsts" are listed on there. What a great "hobby" he had. Quite literally, he made himself "famous." He willed it to

happen and it did. And he was able to see almost every world's fair from 1962 until the end of the century.

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I spent a few minutes looking through my offical guide to Expo 67 yesterday--exactly forty years after I purchased it on my school

trip to Montreal for the opening weekend. If I could turn back time.....

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Sadly, you're right, Chairman.

Can't believe that St. Louis didn't try for another fair in 2004-- 100 years after its great 1904 Fair-- or that San Francisco hasn't gone aggressively after 2015.

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Sadly, you're right, Chairman.

Can't believe that St. Louis didn't try for another fair in 2004-- 100 years after its great 1904 Fair-- or that San Francisco hasn't gone aggressively after 2015.

Indeed, with the latter, Treasure Island is at a perfect stage where it could mount a World's Fair. Some of the old base housing has already been converted to 'public housing', but most of the other Navy buildings are abandoned or used for occasionally scattered 'rent-a-building' kind of uses.

Abandoned military bases as a general rule (when located in an urban area) might represent the last great real estate "opportunity" to place a World's Fair, before they are rebuilt.

Orange County's El Toro Marine Base would have been another candidate- but now they're converting it into "Great Park". Not to say it STILL couldn't host a World's Fair, but there just doesn't seem to be any interest out there.

Chicago's Miegs Field is another one, and there's been a World's Fair there before! If they don't win the Olympics, they could shift to a World's Fair. But it probably won't happen. Money talks, and prime lakefront property like Miegs naturally will draw the condo-builders and quick-profiteers.

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Indeed, with the latter, Treasure Island is at a perfect stage where it could mount a World's Fair. Some of the old base housing has already been converted to 'public housing', but most of the other Navy buildings are abandoned or used for occasionally scattered 'rent-a-building' kind of uses.

Abandoned military bases as a general rule (when located in an urban area) might represent the last great real estate "opportunity" to place a World's Fair, before they are rebuilt.

Orange County's El Toro Marine Base would have been another candidate- but now they're converting it into "Great Park". Not to say it STILL couldn't host a World's Fair, but there just doesn't seem to be any interest out there.

Chicago's Miegs Field is another one, and there's been a World's Fair there before! If they don't win the Olympics, they could shift to a World's Fair. But it probably won't happen. Money talks, and prime lakefront property like Miegs naturally will draw the condo-builders and quick-profiteers.

Plus World's Fairs are educational and cultural. Our U.S. Society just does not seem to embrace educational and cultural to also equal fun.

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It was long ago, but when Philadelphia dropped the ball with its proposed Bicentennial Exposition in 1976 and then Chicago blew

the opportunity to host a fair in 1992, I suspected that the age of the great fairs was over--in America at least. In the decade of

the 1930's, cities in the US hosted fairs for the most transient of reasons. The result was that there were some monumental

expositions as we all know and some memorable smaller fairs which left lasting achievements for their respective cities.

Montreal is more cosmopolitan than some US cities which have proposed fairs (Philly for example) and is a likely candidate for

a second fair. The fact that Montreal's press is gushing with praises for Expo, its legacies and relevance to the city and to

Canada suggests a second fair is possible and 2017 is a good moment. The plethora of activities celebrating the memory of

Expo also suggests Montreal has an electorate that just might embrace (not merely accept--but embrace) the idea of another

fair a decade from now.

2017 will mark Canada's 150th birthday and the 50th anniversaryof Expo 67. Also, Montreal has a mayor who is warmly remembering

Expo, the vision of its planners and builders and the hope it

offered to that city. It is highly possible he will either propose or support another exposition. That city loves Expo even 40 years

later. It, in many ways, redefined Montreal and that city has a leadership looking for another opportunity to define Montreal's

status for the 21st Century.

Did the NYC press or television media even make note of the 40th anniversary of the 1964-1965 fair?

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I wanted to have some fun for the 40th anniversary of Expo 67, so I'm giving away free copies of brochures, pavilion guides, etc. The details are on my website at

<a href="http://www.worldsfairphotos.com/expo67/index.htm" target="_blank">http://www.worldsfairphotos.com/expo67/index.htm</a>

just click on the link for more information. I'll be glad to send out this stuff while supplies last - and I have quite a pile to go through, so mark your SASE with PTU on it and I'll toss in some extra stuff for members of our little community.

Regards

Bill

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In the week following the April 22 anniversary of EXPO '67, there were 931 new visitors looking at the EXPO photos I posted at the WEBSHOTS site listed below. That was the highest ever since posting them in August, 2004.

The EXPO '67 albums as well as NYWF 1964-65, NYWF 1939-40 and others have been seen by 49,855 individuals since June, 2003.

The interest in EXPO '67 is second in popularity with NYWF 64-65 being first according to the most recent numbers. NYWF 1939-40 is in third place.

Ray D.

<a href="http://community.webshots.com/user/draydar" target="_blank">http://community.webshots.com/user/draydar</a>

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Very generous offer, Bill. Thanks!

Inquire about our exclusive "Local Pickup Option", Trey! No postage required.

Seriously, if we can put together anything for a local mini gathering I can bring along goody bags for everyone in attendance.

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