March 22, 2011
It was good to be a steelworker in 1964! Mills were pumping out America's backbone, slag heaps were sexy, and China was still putting all its industrial efforts into peasant starvation. On Saturday night you could drive your 12-ton car down the main drag of your mill town and pick out the stocky, childbearing vessel of your dreams -- and if you ran over some counterculture bum, who cared? It sure wouldn't damage your car, which was made of U.S. STEEL!
So the industry was clearly in a generous mood when the World's Fair rolled around. U.S. Steel's gift to the nation -- to the planet, really -- was ... a planet.
That's the Unisphere, in Queens' scenic Corona Park. Like most great pieces of Americana, these days it's a little dinged up and mostly visited by people who were not born in America. With a few hours to kill in New York on Sunday, me and the wife stopped by. You can see it from the highway every time we stay with her family, and I have strict policy about visiting awesome things visible from highways. Also, the weekend before we went to the Decoy Museum just based on an I-95 road sign, so the bar is pretty low at this point.
The stainless steel is a little bit stained these days, and the fairgrounds are now only a plot point in "Iron Man 2." But there's still something fundamentally awesome about a giant steel globe. Mostly it's a reminder that people dreamed bigger 50 years ago, and that corporate pissing contests helped make this nation great. What company has done something THAT COOL in the last 50 years? Scholarship funds are nice, but when is Google going to step it up and build a 300-foot solid-ruby server floating over the middle of fountain? When is Comcast gonna hang a 20,000-inch HD flat screen TV off a mountain in Montana, FOR THE HELL OF IT?
Interestingly enough, right next to the Unisphere is the Queens Museum of Art, which has something big on a much smaller scale. The Panorama is a 9,500 square-foot model of New York City built by Robert Moses, right down to the individual homes. It was also built for the 1964 fair, but it was updated in 1992, so it has the World Trade Center. You walk on an elevated platform around the edge of the room, which gradually ascends as you circle -- by the time you go from Midtown around to the Bronx, you're about 20 feet high, which is the perfect height to pretend that you're Mothra.
It's another fine example of things that don't happen anymore. Now, only recluse folk artists with mild mental disorders do crap on this scale, and you only find the art in storage lockers or abandoned warehouses three weeks after the artist has died in some kind of autoerotic accident. Cities don't budget for these things because they'd rather provide "child and protective services" and "clean water."
But on the positive side, there are a lot fewer Communists running around these days. I guess it's a draw.