Hardly world-class

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 16, 2005

Great industrial cities have historically hosted world’s fairs and world’s fairs have augmented these cities’ greatness. The first true world’s fair, London’s Great Exposition of 1851, created the Crystal Palace and attracted six million visitors. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 brought us Ferris’s Wheel, the 1889 Paris World’s Fair Eiffel’s Tower. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1934 and the New York World’s Fair of 1939, were also landmark, iconic events. Toronto, which decided this week to host the World’s Fair of 2015 in its largely undeveloped waterfront, should not be faulted for wanting to follow in the footsteps of the great industrial centres of the world.

It should be faulted for not noticing that great industrial cities have abandoned world’s fairs. In recent decades, world’s fairs haven’t been held in metropolises such as London, New York and Paris, they’ve been held chiefly in places such as Knoxville, Tenn., Daejeon, South Korea, and Spokane, Wash. If Toronto’s city council aspires for Toronto to join the Industrial Big Leagues, rather than strive to be a Knoxville North, it had best back out quickly, its pride and its pocketbook intact, and focus its energies on the substance, not the symbolism, of great industrial cities.

One of the last world’s fairs worthy of the name was Expo ’67 in Montreal, my hometown. I remember it well and fondly. I visited it 24 times, agape at the world of choice on offer. For the first time, I could peek behind the Iron Curtain to see the wares on display from the U.S.S.R. and other communist countries. For the first time, the traditional cultures of dozens of countries were readily accessible. For the first time, I drank real Czech beer, from Pilsen, the legendary beer centre; I sampled the cuisine from dozens of countries around the world; I gaped at new technologies being introduced to the global marketplace.

Then came airplane deregulation, lowering the cost of travel to these faraway places and providing the general public with the opportunity to obtain their own, authentic experiences. Then came telephone deregulation, allowing for the freer flow of information, and shipping deregulation, allowing for a freer flow of goods. Not only did trade open up, the Iron Curtain came down, giving the West access to direct knowledge of the workings of these formerly closed societies. Then came the Internet, perhaps the most profound of the globalizing technologies, allowing services as well as goods to criss-cross the globe more easily than they once crossed town.

We don’t need a world’s fair, anymore, to expose us to Czech beer or to anything else. The world has moved on. Great industrial fairs are no more. They are obsolete, even if some governments do not yet realize it.

London’s Great Exposition of 1851 created the institution of world’s fairs because it met a commercial need. Through the world’s fairs that soon spread to the capitals of the civilized world, the civilized peoples of the world had a forum in which they could compare each others’ industrial arts and learn from each other. It was here that America’s prowess first became evident to the world, to everyone’s surprise winning large numbers of awards. These were won not because American machinery was more elegant than others – Europeans bested Americans here – but, as remarked at the time, “owing to their skillful, direct, and admirable adaptation to the great wants they were intended to supply, . . . convert[ing] the elements and natural forces to the commonest uses, multiplying results and diminishing toil.”

World’s fairs brought new products to market. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair gave us the zipper, pay toilets, souvenir postcards, and beef bouillon. Milton Hershey, impressed by Walter Lowney’s invention of the chocolate bar, went home to Pennsylvania and made his chocolate fortune. Other entrepreneurs, seeing the popularity of the Ferris Wheel, went home to create the modern amusement park.

As world’s fairs lost their commercial raison d’etre, they lost their way. Some tried environmental themes, some social. Most failed, some spectacularly so. Louisiana’s World Fair of 1984 set a first – the only world’s fair to declare bankruptcy while still operating.

Toronto city council’s rationales for hosting a world fair are even worse. In part, the councillors are embarrassed that Toronto has failed to develop its waterfront as other major cities have – a failure that extends the better part of two centuries. By placing the world’s fair at Toronto’s waterfront, they hope to muster the momentum needed to overcome their own inertia. In part, they seek a world’s fair as a consolation prize, having been spurned in previous bids to land an Olympics. It would be a booby prize.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.; www.urban.probeinternational.org


A reader’s response

Re: Hardly world-class, Lawrence Solomon, April 16

If Expo 2015 World Fair was awarded to Toronto it would be a cure for many ills, and not as Lawrence Solomon describes, a “booby prize.” In fact, Mr. Solomon, in his column: “Hardly world-class;” has missed the point and is mistaken about the motivations behind the Expo 2015 World Fair bid.

Mr. Solomon states, “… they seek a world’s fair as a consolation prize, having been spurned in previous bids to land an Olympics. It would be a booby prize.”

Look deeper into Toronto’s needs and you will find the necessary motivation behind Mayor David Miller’s and city council’s bid to land the World Fair.

The Toronto Port Lands were slated for a massive film studio complex. That fell through. There are renewed attempts to try it again but the film industry in Toronto is underemployed. Suddenly, developing the Port Lands into a studio complex isn’t such a hot idea for investors.

Originally, the Port Lands were to be developed with the Olympic bid for 2008 – but lost it when it should have got it. Leverage went to the economic changes led by outsourcing: “Big Business Fortune 500 companies, outsourcing to China.”

Now, a World Fair will be a perfect cover to get those darn brownfields fixed up in Toronto’s Port Lands. This is why Toronto needs the Expo 2015 World Fair. Afterwards, redevelopment by businesses, and condos, which are heavily built on Toronto’s west-end waterfront, could continue construction and revitalization of the east-end Port Lands.

Current companies, such as Home Depot, own a huge swath of land just sitting barren. It was home to the infamous Tent City, a homeless city built with pieces of debris. City enforcement disbanded this settlement. The land sits undeveloped.

(Jack Layton, then a Toronto city councilor and now the federal NDP leader, used the homeless situation in Tent City to stand on their backs, to better his own political prospects. Worked for him, I guess.)

Toronto will profit. It may not appear in the immediate ledger. The city investment, for a break-even or lose-a-bit result, is fine for the price it needs to pay, to scoop out the brownfields and make it livable, and working land for purchase and development after the Expo 2015 World Fair is gone.

That’s all the soul Toronto has to offer for the pursuit of the World Fair. On the shiny side, Toronto is the most culturally diverse city planet Earth has ever seen! Toronto’s modern diversity history in the making, is the backbone of a potentially fantastic Expo 2015 World’s Fair.

“What I like about the world’s fair is we have the world in Toronto, and it’s time to show Toronto to the world,” Mayor David Miller said.

It really is a win-win bid for Toronto and for the Expo World Fair. Hands down it may be one of the best events of the year, worldwide, for visitors and residents to participate in . . . and Toronto can finally recover from it’s nasty Port Land’s toxic open sore with a cure-all for good!

Great call by Mayor Miller to embrace this opportunity.

Patrick Reilly, Toronto, published by the National Post, May 2, 2005

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