Funding the World of Tomorrow: Public-Private Partnerships and the 1939 World’s Fair

This piece by Katie Uva is the first entrant into the Third Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We invited graduate students to submit essays on “the birth, death, or aging of institutions, neighborhoods, cities, or suburbs,” and Uva hones in on the life cycle of the New York World’s Fair to argue that we have been celebrating the wrong birthday of public-private partnerships.

The New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940 was a bold assertion of modernity. Everywhere visitors looked they saw harbingers of the future. At the Westinghouse Pavilion, a 7-foot tall robot named Elektro teased the crowd and smoked cigarettes, while a mural at the Food Focal Exhibit depicted technology’s aid in vanquishing food waste and scarcity. Before the fair had even opened, the people of the 1930s staked their claim on the future by burying a time capsule on the grounds to be opened in 6939.

Historians and writers have long commented on and debated the meaning of this fair.[1] Was it poignantly innocent, with its faith in technology and human perfectibility as war broke out around the world? Was it ominous and sinister in its insistence on efficiency and systemization in every aspect of life? In retrospect, was it amusingly far-fetched or surprisingly prophetic?

Yet one of the most significant legacies of the 1939 World’s Fair was not immediately visible to fairgoers or preserved in postcards and souvenirs; instead, it was budgetary. Long after the Perisphere was disassembled and the fifty cows on the Rotolactor had returned to their pasture, the fair’s impact as an antecedent of urban public-private partnerships remained. Public-private partnerships in New York City are typically discussed as an impact of the fiscal crisis in the 1970s; as the city’s budget tightened and a climate of austerity prevailed, public-private partnerships seemed like an attractive way to keep the city running and growing while shifting the burden of the costs away from government. But the extensive implementation of public-private partnerships from the 1980s onward should instead be recognized as the maturation of an idea that was born during a different moment of crisis in the city: The Great Depression.

City planners in New York during the 1930s experimented when it came to conceptualizing and funding large-scale public works. The energetic lobbying of Fiorello La Guardia and Robert Moses helped New York receive $58 per capita[2] in New Deal funding and reshaped much of the city in the process. They remained pragmatic in their attempts to find additional sources of funding and opportunistic in their efforts to tie different agencies and projects together in order to gain greater budgetary flexibility. In this climate, the 1939 World’s Fair was a unique opportunity to achieve multiple goals at once. It generated construction jobs, increased tourism, provided a public relations boost for New York City, and created a basis for raising private bonds to supplement the public dollars supporting the fair. The fair was innovative in the way it collected public funds from multiple levels of government and combined them with private bonds to create the event itself and also build the infrastructure that nominally supported the fair but became a permanent part of the city afterwards.

Construction – Fiorello LaGuardia laying spackle with Grover Whalen and others,” between 1935 – 1945, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, , Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

A combination of city, state, and federal funds, money from foreign governments exhibiting at the fair, and private bonds underwrote the fair. The approximately $28 million in private bonds accounted for nearly one-third of the fair’s overall budget.[3] While the most visible parts of the fair were temporary (i.e., most of the pavilions), the city also undertook significant investments in infrastructure in order to make the fairgrounds usable. As Kara Schlichting has noted, “The Queens’s world’s fair was a touchstone that united the regionalization of the city, local ambitions of the outer boroughs, and suburban decentralization with contemporary urban design theory.”[4] The infrastructure supporting the fair was part of the fair’s message and reflected the fair’s importance as a catalyst for regional planning.

The $28 million in private bonds went into the coffers of the Fair Corporation, and the interconnectedness of the Fair Corporation, the Parks Department, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority meant that some of that money was used for broader public projects that benefited the fair in the near term but also served longer-term planning goals. Robert Moses saw the 1939 World’s Fair primarily as a vehicle for the reclamation of Flushing Meadow. The fairgrounds occupied 1,216 acres of land that combined city property and hundreds of acres of former dumping ground the city had purchased with fair funds.[5] The Fair Corporation subsequently undertook an enormous project that involved the creation of large sewers, draining the marshes, and building artificial lagoons, as well as adding pavement and landscaping.[6]

1939 World’s Fair with New York City Skyline in the background:”Construction – Site with skyline”, between 1935 and 1945, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Beyond Flushing Meadow itself, the preparation for the fair also involved improving transportation infrastructure. Planners added extensions to the Grand Central Parkway. The coming of the fair provided momentum for the construction of the Whitestone Bridge, which builders completed ahead of schedule and in time for the opening of the fair.[7]

While the 1939 World’s Fair technically failed financially, because bondholders lost money on their investment,[8] in broader terms it accomplished many of its organizers’ goals. It was a hugely popular local and regional attraction, drawing about 45 million visitors over its two-year run, and provided valuable advertising for industrial giants like General Motors. It also helped directly fund reclamation and infrastructure projects for the city.

New York’s World’s Fair, 1964-1965. Unisphere presented by United States Steel, Robert Peak, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

A generation later, when organizers developed the 1964 World’s Fair, the Fair Corporation and public officials once again used the fair as an impetus for public works and as a source of financial flexibility for other projects. Preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair was the basis for widening the Van Wyck Expressway.[9] Governor Nelson Rockefeller repurposed $15 million of World’s Fair funding in order to build The New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.[10] And as a long-awaited conclusion to what Robert Moses dubbed “The Saga of Flushing Meadow,” the Fair Corporation gave its remaining $11.6 million after the fair ended to the city to complete Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.[11]

In present-day New York, public-private partnerships are ubiquitous; most of the large parks are partly funded and maintained by conservancies, dozens of business improvement districts (BIDs) provide street plantings and sanitation, and there are more than 500 privately-owned public spaces (POPS) that dot the landscape.[12]

It is certainly the case that public-private partnerships grew enormously in the wake of the fiscal crisis, but the two New York World’s Fairs demonstrate that there was a precedent for them pre-crisis, in a time when public funding was more robust. The World’s Fairs anticipated the city we live in today in that the public officials organizing them saw the added flexibility that the Fair Corporation’s budget provided. Even when they weren’t directly using fair funds for city projects, they could also point to the World’s Fairs as time-sensitive catalysts, a way of expediting projects in the city. Decades later, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff described the Bloomberg Administration using the city’s 2012 Olympics bid in much the same way. He claimed that the catalytic factor proved impactful in the long-run even though New York lost the bid.[13]

Public-private partnerships are often credited with the city’s post-crisis “rebirth,” but just as often today’s city residents decry the “death” of New York. When you scratch the surface of that complaint, private money is usually a factor. The intensification of the city’s affordable housing crisis, the conflict over New York’s attempt to incentivize Amazon to build its headquarters in the city, and the criticism of Hudson Yards as “a private space masquerading as a public one” increasingly beg the question: has the city become too beholden to private interests to fill public needs, and what happens to democracy in the city as a result? The question for modern New Yorkers is, where are we in the life cycle of the public-private partnership? Is it an idea whose time has passed? Is there life beyond the public-private city?

IMG_1170.jpgKatie Uva is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the CUNY Graduate Center.







Featured image (at top): Robert Moses and General Maxwell D. Taylor, president of Lincoln Center, sign Memorandum of Agreement, 1961, courtesy of

[1] For a sense of the debate about the 1939 World’s Fair’s meanings, see Warren Susman, Culture As History: The Transformation of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984); Robert W. Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Remembering the Future: The New York World’s Fair From 1939 to 1964 (New York: Rizzoli, 1989); and Dolores Hayden, “ ‘I Have Seen the Future:’ Selling the Unsustainable City” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 1 (January 2012): 3-15.

[2] Mason B. Williams, City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 183. Williams notes that while this was not the highest per capita spending for an American city during the New Deal, it was well above the national average of $33 per capita.

[3] New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporation Records Overview, vii. Accessed June 28, 2019.

[4] Kara Schlichting, New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 189.

[5] Rebecca Rankin, ed., New York Advancing: World’s Fair Edition (New York: Municipal Reference Library, 1939), 246.

[6] For more on the ecological impact of Flushing Meadow’s redevelopment and the impact on the local community, see Ted Steinberg, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[7] “New Queens Span Opens in Time for Fair,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 30, 1939, 1.

[8] “World’s Fair Bondholders to Receive 38.4 Cents on the Dollar,” New York Times, October 23, 1940, 1.

[9] New York World’s Fair 1964-1965 Sound Recordings, #104–Community Dialogue, September 15, 1963, New York World’s Fair Corporation Records, New York Public Library.

[10] Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (New York: Random House, 2014), 352.

[11] Murray Shumach, “Moses Gives City Fair Site as Park,” New York Times, June 4, 1967, 1; Robert Moses, The Saga of Flushing Meadow–Report on the Building of the World’s Fair, 1966, La Guardia and Wagner Archives, Box 060175, Folder 15.

[12] NYC Department of City Planning, “Privately-Owned Public Space—History,” Accessed July 2, 2019.

[13] Sam Roberts, “Is New York ‘Greater Than Ever?’ Yes, a Former Official Argues,” New York Times October 5, 2017, MB3.

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