Over at the Work Blog the other day I discussed the hopes of local boosters to bring a World’s Fair to Minneapolis. I am surprised to find myself against it, because I love the Minnesota Fair, and love the stories of the great World’s Fairs, so . . . what’s the problem? In a previous column I suggested just calling the State Fair the World’s Fair and hold it for a year. Who’d complain? But my main reservation is probably the example set by other Fairs. If you can’t do it like Seattle, New York, or Chicago - don’t. Just don’t.
The 1939-40 World’s Fair - and in the same genre, the 33-34 Chicago example - were astonishing visions of modern life, and nothing else came close to building an entirely new world. Some things looked like the buildings of the Fairs, but not many, and certainly not in such concentrated space. You have to wonder how much of our cities would have looked like that if we’d pulled out of the Depression earlier and Hitler had choked to death on a fishbone in ’22. After a decade of severity, would the architectural response have been more playful and ornate, instead of the institutional restraint of 50s styles? Isn’t it great to ask questions and have them stand in for actual theses based by evidence?
It’s the 1964 World’s Fair that’s starting to haunt me, though. The Fairs of the 30s have a tragic undertone - so much optimism, so many white buildings, so much death and red to come. But the ’64 World’s Fair was built in a style that gives me the shudders here and there, because it’s modernism + kitschy tinsel. Or so I used to think. .So many buildings were meretricious and garish, and the renderings make them look cheap, loud, and horrid . . . or so I used to think. I’m starting to feel differently. These are buildings out of the sci-fi covers I've been posting.
At the Blog I posted some thoughts on a film made by Johnson Wax, “To Be Alive.” I heard of if by reading the small print in a New Yorker guide to the Fair. It was praised as the Best Thing There, and a technological achievement: projected on three screens! An uplifting story of the pleasures of being a human on the planet. It begins with the usual “life is so fast and impersonal” riff we may find amusing from the distance of half a century, but soon goes into a travelogue mode that seems like an early 70s afterschool special. It held no appeal. It had that “arty” style that sees things through different lens and prisms and makes you think, man. I suppose there’s a humanistic sweetness to the film that seems diffuse today, because we’re not seeing it with the eyes of someone in 1964.
Of course it led me to click on Related Videos, and that’s where I started seeing more of the Fair, and I started to feel something that made me stop clicking on videos and sit back for a second.
I felt angry. There’s something in those pictures, in that place, that we let dribble through our fingers. A standard, a simple standard: act like civilized adults. Dress well and behave yourselves.
Then saw a link to this article in the dreadful Grievance Scratching Post known as Jezebel, about Teens.
Teens only care about the immediate culture. They are not stuck in dead-time nostalgia. They have never heard of Missy Elliot. They do not care. That is OK. Teens plow their carts over the bones of the dead.
Teens who smoke are cool. There is simply no denying this fact.
Private schools teens are not cool because they are not oppressed. If you went to a school with couches, or free-time, or where you were allowed to call your teacher by their first name, you are not a real teen. You are not cool.
The only time private school teens are cool is when they are insanely rich and are militant about self-destruction.
And so on, and on, mostly crude and ignorant and not caring what you think, because that’s so TEEN. The word the author is trying to avoid is “dumb,” because “dumb” would suggest that there is an element of gaseous vapidity in “cool.” Can’t have that. “Cool” has been elevated to the highest of human aspirations. Of course, if the author believes that Missy Elliot is some historical standard, the ignorance of which is a measure of the mind, well, that’s rather revealing. The passage stuck out because I was a Teen in most of the clinical descriptions of the term, and was also interested in “dead-time nostalgia” as well as the “immediate culture.” Things that came before me were interesting. They helped to explain why Now turned out as it did or made you wonder why Now was different from what they expected. This wasn’t that unusual. My bound copies of Life magazine at the library, some girl’s shelf of Little House on the Prairie stories.
I have a level-headed kid, so far, and the urge to view everything adult as phony and tyrannical has not manifested itself. So far. Now and then I get a whiff of something school-scented, though - the idea that you can’t praise an aspect of the past without quickly offering up a caveat, as if saying “the weather in Phoenix was nice yesterday” does a disservice to people who died in a Bangladesh mudslide. It’s mental auto-correct for the conspicuously virtuous.
Anyway. Teens have to be cool because cool is great, the sole arbiter of worth, and so teen mentality is the best and most authentic - and that’s what counts, right? Not whether you are good or learned, but whether you are authentic. To what? To yourself. Of course. Because what else is there, really. The people who came after the Fair were devoted to demolishing all the pieties and certainties of their forebears, having gazed upon them with adolescent wisdom and found them lacking. After they had uprooted all the certainties and decided what an Authentic Person should believe, they were left with nothing but a Utopian ideal, a hissing miserabilism over its failure to be manifested in all aspects of society, and a set of shabby tattered folklore about a golden age between 1967 and 1973.
Because God knows we have to make fun of stuff like this:
Augh! The family! The source of all oppression and unhappiness!
Their visions of urban centers were, however, wrong. And by "wrong" I mean "dead wrong" with an emphasis on "dead."
Even thought there's more than a whiff of the top-down technocratic rule in that vision, it still makes me smile. Not because it was a good idea, or a wise idea - but just because it was, in its own way, confident and hopeful, and those shapes and ideas were in the periphery of my world when I grew up. I expected them to remake the world, since that's what the future did. The future would be machines and science and rockets and grown-ups frowning in concentration as they worked the levers on the Space Station to dock with the Mars mission. I didn't expect flying cars to take us to the New Frontier, but I expected we'd make it there. By the time I was an adolescent it was all granola and gunny-sack dresses and restaurants that looked like a barn inside and cars whose lines had the grace of a brick.
Lousy versions of those Fair buildings appeared here and there, mostly civic structures. Colleges, libraries, City Halls, the occasional bank. Maybe we didn't want to live there, just visit.
Well! If this was a magazine article, there would have been a thesis and a conclusion. As a blog post, there's no such imperative. Hope I haven't depressed your spirits any, because . . .
You'll see. Steel yourself.
Visitors to this feature are accustomed to small towns whose vitality long ago ebbed away, and stand as empty museums to a vanished world. The small shops, the names on the cornice, the tell-tale signs of chain stores, the shuttered theaters. At least there’s some life left in these places, even if it’s an antique store or a insurance office. The bank is still around. The old folks still come downtown for coffee.
And then there’s this place.
Grand and Joy, the center of the '67 riots.
I’ve never been to Detroit. I’ve just seen the big ruin pix of downtown, the empty factories. But while looking for an address for a matchbook, I discovered an intersection that’s almost indistinguishable from a city abandoned entirely from war or plague.
The signs long dark and painted over:
Note the brick on the sidewalk, which must have been some improvement project in the 70s or early 80s.
Even when occupied, it must have been a curious presence, turning its back on everyone:
An obit on the building owner's son helps: "Jack was best known as Detroit's 'Golden Boy" of polo during his era. He began playing at the age of 13 and continued through the 1960s, sponsored by his father, a trucking industry pioneer who founded John F. Ivory Storage Company and Ivory Van Lines." If you're thinking the sign is a palimpest and there's something else under there, yes: It used to say Leonard-Detroit Storage.
John F. Ivory was an immigrant from Ireland, where he was a "saddler." From that, an empire.
Ran for the finish line, but collapsed before it got there: The sign probably refered to the future yet to come.
Not a lot of call for walk-in Furnace sales these days:
You get a feel for the prosperity and vitality of the district, once upon a time: facades like this weren’t cheap, and must have made everyone feel modern and up-to-date in this Airship Age.
Liquor and Lotto now. And of course smokes and Generics.
Let no thief think he can strong-arm the place and put a sofa out the window:
The endless graffiti really brings a vibrancy to the street, don't you think? Articles about Times Square in the 70s always mention the grittiness, yes, but of course the vibrancy.
A school, once, I presume:
The broad sidewalk suggests people assembled for buses.
Ah, this helps explain the metal.
Those are meant to shield people from the elements. At some point they must have attempted a revitalization of the neighborhood with those things. All the property owners and store owners were assessed. A logo was commissioned. The local pols came by and there were hot dogs and balloons for the kids. Didn't help.
Jaunty hat on a skeleton head:
The professional building. Doctors, surgeons, medical supplies - closed and empty. You can only imagine what’s back in those rooms.
Looks as if it could have been a public building - a rink, a ballroom, a movie house. Everyone stay out now. Nothing here.
A beautiful intact piece of restrained Art Deco, boarded and forgotten for the rest of its life:
The local grocery store:
The Grande Ballroom. Once home for the local Jewish community; then the "Hippie Capitalist Center of Detroit" when it turned into a venue for rock. Empty since 1972.