Every city starts from somewhere. Some were fishing villages. Others began as trading posts for hunters or trappers. The lure of gold or valuable gems makes a fine start to any boon town.
But some cities start from others. Where urban decay, depression, poverty and blight destroys one … another is born on the dreams of hopeful men. So come be the fly on the wall when a mighty, brave new city is born in the mind of a man who dared think it.
October 27, 1940.
The last of the fireworks faded. The musical fanfares ended. One by one, the powerful searchlights and other decorative lighting around Flushing Meadows Park winked out. Crowds of bemused and tired people moved slowly to the gates, the parking lots, or towards the9th Avenue IRT subway station. Despite the expressions of happiness and jubilation on their faces, many of them were sad, for good reason.
The New York World’s Fair was finally over.
Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, wandered the deserted fairgrounds. He was a robust man, short and barrel-chested, a crest of black hair permanently matted to the top of his head. The mayor felt strange walking around this imaginary, whimsical place of streamlined buildings, decorative pylons, singing towers, and sculpted gardens that no longer served any purpose. Litter and garbage was all that remained of the tens of thousands of persons who had attended this final night; it flowed over the tops of trash cans and formed piles on walkways. Flower gardens had been trampled by hundreds of pairs of feet. Debris floated among silenced fountains and pools. Workers attacked the trash with brooms as city garbage trucks backed up to begin the monumental task of cleaning up.
Just outside the gates, LaGuardia spotted the arrival of dump trucks, cranes and other pieces of heavy equipment. Starting tomorrow, they would start tearing down the World’s Fair. A sad day for the city, LaGuardia mused as he turned his gaze upon the three-sided tower called the Trylon and its companion globe, the Perisphere—the symbolic centerpiece of the fair. The seven hundred foot tall Trylon was a sleek white arrow aimed at some imaginary point towards the stars. The two hundred fifty foot diameter Perisphere was a hollow globe, a massive theater-in-the-round reserved for an impressive model of a future place called Democracity. Those hopes and aspirations had to be shelved, though, for the real tomorrow was upon them … a tomorrow that promised little but war and conflict.
Everyone had hoped, in some small way, that this world’s fair would be so profitable and popular that it would become a permanent attraction in this far corner of the New York Metropolitan area. But this was not the case. The Fair Corporation was bankrupt. There had been many contributing factors to its failure: the high cost of tickets and attractions, the burden of daily maintenance and employee salaries, the low attendance figures and the looming threat of war in Europe. The only viable asset the fair had left was the metal skeletons of the pavilions and other structures;. The park was to be razed, each building knocked down and its scrap metal collected.
The mayor kicked the trodden ground; eventually this place would become a public park. Just not now. He approached one of the maintenance chiefs as he supervised the loading of trash into a waiting sanitation truck. Off to the side, two men were taking crowbars to the Fountain of the Atom, removing the humanized representations of electrons and other playful atomic particles from the display.
“Where is he, Charlie? Where’s Commissioner Moses?”
The man gestured towards the Trylon and Perisphere, still bathed in their solitary white floodlights: lone beacons pointing to an imaginary, impractical future.
“I think he’s in there, sir.”
“Just get rid of the trash, boys!” the mayor yelled at the workers dismantling the fountain. LaGuardia’s reputation for efficiency was legendary; he was known to fire city workers on sight for dereliction, he even rode the garbage trucks to insure the trash was removed promptly. Striding up the path towards the white tower and its companion globe, LaGuardia sensed with some relief that the escalator (the world’s tallest) that took riders up the base of the Trylon was still operational. He hated the idea of climbing all those stairs using only his own, beefy legs.
“Too many hot dogs,” LaGuardia burped softly to himself. A short walk from the escalator brought him inside the quiet, interior dome of the Perisphere. Feeling as through he had entered a library, or even a mausoleum, LaGuardia walked towards a medium-tall individual standing before the balcony ring, one of two such levels in the Perisphere.
LaGuardia looked down. Situated at the bottom of the Perisphere’s bowl was a fictitious model city of tomorrow called ‘Democracity’. The city was laid out so that each major thoroughfare lead away from the tall skyscraper which marked Democracity’s center. Residential neighborhoods, called suburban centers, ringed the urban core. Industrial and commercial districts were carefully placed far away from the peaceful neighborhoods but close enough to a river and highways.
Lights inside the Perisphere’s dome were timed to simulate the cycle of daytime and night. The night phase was especially impressive, small lights twinkled from the buildings and phosphorous paint glowed blue and light scarlet. Normally, the balcony rings would rotate visitors slowly around the dome’s circumference so they might better observe Democracity, but that action had been turned off.
They stood in the darkness, the mayor of New York City and the commissioner of parks, gazing down at the future. If this was one of WNBC’s new television broadcast programs, Robert Moses could easily have stood in for a tall, slim Bud Abbott to LaGuardia’s short, wisecracking Lou Costello. All that was missing was their famous “Who’s on First?” routine.
Robert Moses was a straightforward, plainspoken man. He preferred to let his ideas speak on his behalf. Dubbed the “Great Planner”, as the press sometimes called him, Moses’ fiery devotion to his public works projects bordered on the obsessive. Before the fair, he had supervised the city’s complex and costly Triborough Bridge Project. He built Jones Beach to offset the crowding at Coney Island. He built many other parks as well, installed bridges and tunnels to improve the city’s clogged transportation arteries, set aside land for regulated growth, and erected toll plazas to collect monies to pay for improvement projects. He was not a popular man, by any means. Those unfortunate enough to be in the way of his highways or bridges often found themselves up against a man who understood the political machinations of state and local government as easily as he understood its monetary needs. Where it came to the city, Moses rarely was denied.
LaGuardia watched his parks commissioner, the man who helped design and plan the 1939 World’s Fair from its origins as theCoronadumps to the public park that it was today, as he wrote something cryptic inside a journal he balanced on the balcony rail. Splayed out across the railing before him was an unfolded, detailed map of the neighborhood boundaries for Queens. The mayor paid the hieroglyphics Moses wrote down little mind, there were other pressing matters to attend to.
“The fair’s over, Robert.”
“Hmmm?” Still intent on his mysterious work, Moses did not recognize the mayor’s presence. After a long pause, he finally glanced over at him.
“Did you say something, your Honor?”
“Everyone’s gone. The wrecking crews are here,” he stepped closer to better examine what Moses was working on so fervently in the lingering darkness of the Perisphere. The city below them was slowly moving out of its night phase, revealing its precise outlines in the artificial dawn. LaGuardia could see Moses was sketching over a map of Queens, his pencil lines forming new boundaries over the existing neighborhoods. The mayor sighed. “Don’t tell me you’re still working on that ridiculous plan, whatever you call it … New Futures?”
Normally Moses might have rebuked the mayor, if he wasn’t his closest friend. Instead, the parks commissioner took the same placating approach that he often used whenever he wanted something. He gestured to the unfolded map.
“My New Futura Plan. It’s a redistricting plan for Queens. There will be a new seaport to the south with roads connecting it to the city center here,” he pointed to Flushing Meadows, the very location of the now-defunct World’s Fair. “There’s discussion that the Army may build an airfield or testing center in Idlewild, Howard Hughes is behind it. Industry and commerce will need people to make them work; those people will live here…” He pointed to an expanse just beyond Forest Hills and Roosevelt Airfield, where Lindbergh had taken off for Paris well over a decade before, “…in the east. Transportation among the districts will be vital in this new urban center, so there will be many new roads and highways. Perhaps there will even be a monorail system, similar to what Walt Disney proposed for that new recreation park he wants to build out in California. There will be gyrocopters for taxiing people around the town and airships to move cargo. There might even be rockets, if Mr. Hughes has his way.”
LaGuardia scoffed. Moses had let his idea slip during one of the city council meetings. They had all laughed at Moses, as the councilmen usually did whenever he brought up one of his grandiose ideas. Moses had wanted to keep the world’s fair and let it grow into a city. New Futura, he had called it.
“A whole lot of wasted time and nonsense, that’s what it is!”
“You know me better than to waste time, your Honor. Speaking of which, there’s none to lose.” He gathered up his maps and journal. LaGuardia continued to argue with Moses along the balcony ring’s periphery as they walked away from the glowing world of Democracity.
“It’s ridiculous thinking, Robert. Especially now! In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on the other side of theAtlantic. We have fair buildings here for countries that don’t even exist anymore!” He was referring to Lithuania, a tiny nation that had already fallen to the growing desires of Nazi Germany.Czechoslovakia and Poland had surrendered in a matter of days just last September. Their pavilions at the world’s fair were little more than empty, hopeless structures. “The French have sued for peace and the Brits have their backsides up against the Atlantic seawall. It’s crazy to start thinking about building cities.”
“Now is the perfect time. If the war comes here, think about what that would mean toNew York. All those cargo freighters and warships bottled up, defenseless, in one tiny sliver of unprotected harbor? Our airfields are woefully tiny; we don’t have the facilities to handle the military’s fighters, bombers, or cargo aircraft. And what about new types of aircraft, like rockets or airships? Where would they land or take off? How can we load all the trains necessary to carry cargo coming in from ships or soldiers leaving to fight inEurope? And what about all the people, Fio? The thousands of workers needed to build all those freighters and warships, tanks and guns, fighters and bombers? What about the people needed to work in the factories or watch the production lines? Where would those people live? Now is not the time to destroy the world’s fair. Now is the time to build.”
They descended the Helicline, a long, sweeping ramp situated from the equator of the Perisphere that would bring them down to the front of the Theme Center.
“But no one will let you build this newfangled city of yours! It’s impossible!”
“Why not?” Moses swept his free hand at the darkened, silent fair. “Look around you. This beautiful place is already a city. We planned it that way. Why not keep the fair? Let it serve as a symbol of hope that the fair committee intended. Every visitor who came here was promised they would see what the world of tomorrow would look like. Why not fulfill that promise and build that tomorrow?”
“Because it’s crazy, that’s what it is. If we go to war, every living and able-bodied man is going to end up in the army or the navy. Who’s going to build your city?”
Moses already had an answer for him. “With robots, of course. I’ve spoken to Doctor Elias Corbin. He’s an authority on the design of robots. He thinks it would be quite practical to use automatons in such difficult tasks as road building and bridge construction….”
“Robots?!” LaGuardia exclaimed.
“The seaport, airport, commercial highways and train lines would have to be built first, of course. As for housing and neighborhood development, I’ve spoke to William Levitt. His plans for Levittown, rapid construction of tract homes, can be expanded quite easily to fit the New Futura plan. No more slums, but pleasing, quiet, serene homes where families can live and bring up their children. The first order of business is to save the fair. What’s a city without its cultural and emotional center? That’s where you come in, your Honor.”
“I need you to persuade the city council. You must order a stop to the demolition. The private companies that built pavilions here must not abandon them. We must acquire funds. Reorganize the Fair Corporation. This plan cannot be ignored, especially with the threat of another world war on the horizon….”
“… now wait just a damn moment!” the mayor hollered in his high-pitched voice. “The Lord help me, you’re too impossible to talk to sometimes! All of this talk of building. Do you realize what you’re proposing? You’re going to rip apart not just this park, but the whole damn borough? Pave over whole neighborhoods for a highway? Fill in a swamp for an airport? Build a seaport out of shoals and marshland? And not to mention uproot thousands of tax-paying, voting, New Yorkers and move them east? Take a look around you, Robert! The fair is over.” LaGuardia’s last words came with a certain finality. “You’ve got to pull your head out of the clouds. What you’re talking about is impossible. Even if you got the money or robots, it would still take decades to build everything you want.”
“Not decades, Fio. I can do it in less than ten years. I know I can make it happen.”
Upon seeing how serious his parks commissioner was, the mayor backed away from him.
“It’s suicide, you’re saying! Political suicide. Build an entire city, in less than ten years?” Fiorella LaGuardia shook his head and stormed back towards the front gates and his waiting car. His cries of disbelief could be heard all the way. “…Robots! He’s going to use robots! Build a city in less than ten years? Highways and seaports! Rockets and planes? Here? InQueens??…”
Robert Moses smiled as the mayor stormed off. True, his friend could have taken the idea with more enthusiasm but he knew he would eventually change his mind. The wheels of New Futura had already been set into motion. Dr. Elias Corbin had design proposals for robots waiting for him back at his home. He had ordered his construction surveyors to move theGrand Central Parkwayconstruction further south. Dredges were appearing off the southern coast ofLong Island. Aviation magnate Howard Hughes would arrive in a few days to show off his plans to create a rocket testing facility for the Army. Moses knew there would be the usual naysayers and critics. He was accustomed to working under protest. People never appreciated what he did for them until they could see it and touch it.
“I wouldn’t mind living in your city, Mister Moses.”
Moses turned around. The foreman of the maintenance gangs was pitching refuse he had collected into a small cart. No doubt he had overheard the entire conversation between Moses and Mayor LaGuardia.
“So we’re not going to tear down this place, after all?”
“No. We’re going to build something even better.”
“Good. I was getting kind of attached to it. I didn’t want to see it come down.” Mopping the sweat from his brow, the foreman shoved the cart full of garbage down the lane. “Good night, sir.”
“Good night, Charlie. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.”
While Moses collected his papers and maps, he took a moment to look around him. There would be a city here. A wonderful, busy, marvel of efficiency, planning, and consideration. People would want to live here, hard-working people like Charlie. Moses did not build palaces for kings, he designed places for ordinary people.
In the darkness there sprang a sense of hope within him. Soon it would become real.
His gaze fell upon a nearby statue called the Astronomer, the figure’s head always looking upward … forward.
“I know how you feel,” Moses murmured in understand as he too headed for the gates.
Tomorrow, everything would change.