During the first weekend of the 1984 world’s fair I glanced up at the gondola system that was stretched from the fair’s grounds across the river to a point near Blaine Kern’s Algiers float dens. Riding in a capsule dangling from a cable high above the river already seemed scary enough, but what I saw was even more frightening. The gondola was stuck. There were many mechanical problems during those first few days. While the engineers tinkered with the motor, passengers were locked in glass bowls while swaying with the breeze. One capsule had just begun its descent, having clanked over the support tower on the fair side. The passenger inside was imprisoned over the midway, close enough to be seen by us, high enough, on this warm May afternoon, to be horrified.
That was one of my first impressions from the fair which opened 25 years ago this week (May 12) and which spent most of its existence dangling from a wire.
By now the verdicts on the exhibit seem to be 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 two-and-a-half decades (yipes) later. From this vantage point, the fair emerges as another example of the economic buccaneerism 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 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 Zephyr stadium and an arena.
Count me among those locals who loved the world’s fair. I cherished the times I was there, although, just as when the Hornets first arrived, I was always conscious of the sometimes-disappointing attendance. (To be a New Orleanian, I suppose, is to be a worrier.)
I never did ride on the gondola, though I recall gazing at it from my seat in the amphitheater during the closing ceremonies that following November. The capsules moved smoothly across the river as the passengers within looked down at the fair’s final hours.
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 Richie 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, Semour d’Fair (the exhibition’s pelican mascot) and miscellaneous fair employees, the group also swayed, but to a recorded version of Richie’s song.
Ahead would be years of lawsuits, hard feelings and legal wrangling. For the moment though, with the theater’s backdrop opened to reveal big ships making the graceful turn in the river, and 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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