For New Yorkers of my generation--I grew up in Manhattan during the Depression years--the thought of the New York World's Fair of 1939 is like the taste of Proust's madeleine or perhaps like deep analysis, a dizzy plunge into memory that, in this case, mixes one's own childhood with what now seems the childhood of our century. It was all, I recall, about the future; but then, what else would I be thinking about as my twelfth birthday approached in the summer of 1939? It was the moment, in fact, that I was anticipating eventual release from a Dickensian public school on Seventy-seventh Street and Amsterdam Avenue to the Elysian fields of the High School of Music and Art, way up on Convent Avenue. I had already had quite a few precocious glimmers of the World of Tomorrow, which for me suddenly took material shape when I fell in love with the wraparound streamlining that gave Cord cars a science-fiction modernity, or with the equally clean velocity of corner windows, open to the health-giving sun of Utopia, that marked the twin-tower Art Deco skyscrapers which loomed like cathedrals along Central Park West and carried Brave New Morld names like "The Century" and "The Majestic." And at a time when children could stroll more fearlessly in the city, I had already stumbled across the threshold of New York University's Museum of Living Art, down at Washington Square, and had seen pictures by Léger and Picasso, Miró and Mondrian that looked like blueprints for a future I hoped would be mine.
But all of these tremors of Things to Come were to turn, miraculously, into a total reality in the form of the Fair. Like something out of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, it was to land in Flushing Meadow in time for my own summer vacation of 1939. I 1 remember the previews in the newspapers of extraterrestrial buildings that were called things like "Perisphere," "Futurama," "Trylon"; and as an early addict to roller coasters and amusement parks, I also stared in wonder at artists' renderings of strange new rides that would boggle the imagination of those who had only known the terrestrial pleasures of Coney Island and Palisades Amusement Park: the Bobsled, a version of greased lightning that would put wooden roller coasters back in a pre-industrial era, or the Parachute Jump, which promised the free-floating sublime, appropriate to the new era of space travel. Obsessed, I collected cuttings about the Fair from every imaginable source and then compiled them, with typed commentaries, for my grade-school scrapbook project, which I still preserve today in a plastic wrapper as a crumbling relic of my own history and the world's.