Updated: Sep 25, 2021
(Note: Urso originally published this post on December 1, 2011, as part of a collaboration with Expo 2012 Yeosu. We're publishing it here posthumously. The original post can be accessed here)
How will Expo 2012 change Yeosu? How will it be remembered in fifty years? For a glimpse into that possibility, you can look to Seattle That city is gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their last expo, or “world’s fair” as they are more commonly known in the United States. Seattle’s 1962 Century 21 Exposition left behind many enduring legacies: both physical and intangible.
Like Yeosu, Seattle was lesser known at the time and relatively isolated, geographically, from larger urban centers. Before 1962, larger cities in the United States would typically host a world’s fair: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Seattle ushered in an era of smaller cities hosting expos as a way of generating interest in various regions and developing new civic neighborhoods. Several cities looked to Seattle after 1962 to provide a model for urban renewal and economic growth. San Antonio’s Hemisfair ’68, Spokane’s Expo ’74, Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair, and New Orleans’ 1984 Louisiana World Exposition all used Seattle as a model to one degree or another. Seattle certainly benefitted from that increased awareness, sometimes to the consternation of locals who perhaps want a little less growth in their city.
Seattle is now the center of a metropolitan area with about 3.7 million people. Back in 1962, though, it was about half that. Just north of downtown stands the Space Needle, the symbol now universally associated with the city. It’s hard to even imagine a Seattle without the Space Needle, but it almost didn’t happen.
When plans were first being drawn up for a world’s fair in Seattle, several concepts were considered, but it was only later that the idea of a privately funded tower (with restaurants) was conceived. Even today, the Space Needle receives over a million visitors a year, making it the number one tourist attraction in the northwestern United States.
The Space Needle sits in the appropriately named Seattle Center, the geographic legacy of the 1962 World’s Fair. Near the tower’s base is the northern end of Seattle’s own monorail, created for the expo. It was the first commercial monorail in the United States. It connected the expo site to the downtown core and still runs to this day.
The Century 21 Exposition’s United States Pavilion focused on science. Today, that complex is the Seattle Science Center. The buildings and towers were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the same architect that designed the World Trade Centers in New York.
Not all legacies are built of concrete and steel, however. The memories of the world’s fair continue to inspire people decades later. Seattle writer Knute Berger writes about the expo often. He sites the 1962 Century 21 exposition as shaping his own expectations of life in the 21st Century. Seattle often looks back to 1962 to take stock of where it is today. Berger finds many reasons to take pride in the world’s fair. Among them, he cites the city’s ability to create a consensus when it comes to development, the focus on inner city development as opposed to suburban development, and the demonstration of a regional transit system. He also cites the beginnings of a green movement even back then, as the city put forward a vision of a clean and smart city – a legacy that Seattle has lived up to.
The official guidebook to the expo predicted a future where we’d glide to work in silent vehicles and work in offices filled with the noisy sounds of computers. They might have gotten some details wrong, but the general idealism and the inspiration the expo created would live on for decades.
The Seattle Center Foundation, which promotes the expo legacy site, is creating a wide range of events and activities to celebrate the big anniversary. Under the name “The Next Fifty,” they’re collecting oral histories from the expo, planning a 10-kilometer run, giving walking tours, and creating conferences and exhibits. In the spirit of the forward-looking 1962 World’s Fair, The Next Fifty also challenges the community to imagine what will be in store in the decades between now and 2062.
Today, the focus in Yeosu might be on 2012, but in 2062, you can bet people will still be celebrating the expo, the ocean, and coasts And, with any luck, they’ll also be looking forward to 2112. The years of planning might end in 2012, but it’s legacy starts the day the gates close.