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The Fair and the City's Founding

Lessons from big ideas

By now the verdicts on New Orleans’ World’s Fair, whose opening day anniversary is this month, May 12, 1984, are widely accepted:

  • It was a financial flop.
  • It was an artistic success.
  • Locals loved it.
  • It hastened riverfront redevelopment.

With those points conceded, we can now look from the perspective of three decades plus four years (yipes) later. From this vantage point, the fair emerges as another example of the economic bucaneerism that has so often been a part of the city’s history. And that goes back to the very beginning: New Orleans was not developed as an enclave for religious pilgrims nor as a safe haven for the politically persecuted. It was established instead as a business venture, a chance for John Law’s Company of the West, operating under a charter from the French monarchy, to exploit the Louisiana territory of its perceived medals, pearls, furs, produce and other demands of the European market. The proponents had big dreams of the fortunes that could be made from establishing a spot near the big bend along the Mississippi.

On paper, it was not a good way to do business. Too many decisions were made based on too much bad information. Law’s company eventually flopped; the city’s founder, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne Sieur de Bienville, would be reprimanded and recalled by the French government. Still, a great city arose from the calamity.

As for the experience of founding a city? It was, like the World’s Fair that it would one day give birth to, a financial flop; an artistic success; locals loved it and riverfront development was hastened.

Through the centuries, the pattern would be repeated in other ways. The cost of building the world’s largest dome stadium was underestimated by about $100 million, and the promised nightly spectacle of sporting events and festivals to be generated by the building never happened. Still, the stadium anchored the Poydras Avenue revival and made New Orleans a big league town. Not only has the dome long been paid for, but the refinancing of its bonds helped build both the arena that now houses the NBA Pelicans and the stadium for the team formerly known as the “Zephyrs.”

Count us among those locals who loved the World’s Fair. We cherished the times we were there, although we were always conscious of the sometimes disappointing attendance. (To be a New Orleanian, we suppose, is to be a worrier.)

Because the fair had gone bankrupt during its run, the closing ceremony was trimmed, but still rich in sentiment. Earlier that year a national television audience had watched the closing of the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The Olympic athletes, gathered on the floor of the coliseum, swayed to Lionel Ritchie who, in his reggae beat, sang of partying “All Night Long.”

Most politicians shunned the fair’s finale, but not Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. Standing hand in hand with Irma Thomas, Seymour D. Fair (the fair’s pelican mascot) and miscellaneous fair employees, the group also swayed, but to a recorded version of Ritchie’s song.

Ahead would be years of lawsuits, hard feelings and legal wrangling. For the moment though beauty was in the beholding. The theater’s backdrop opened to reveal big ships making the same graceful turn in the river that once attracted Bienville. With the city lights adding sparkle, the moment was soulful. Creditors were anxious to close the doors, so the party would not last all night long. Anyone who was there, however, would be moved by the moment. The city seemed special that night, a place deserving of more big ideas in the future.

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