Book Review: Books about the 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young 
Title: The 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing (2004)
Rating: ***


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young
Title1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing Library Editions (2008)
Rating: ***

Summary/Review:

I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair.  These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.

The first volume details the fair itself.  Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments.  Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.

The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions.  These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF.  Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill.  Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion.  While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.

While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success.  The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state).  Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort.  The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair.  This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over.  Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair!  There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.

Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.

 

*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.

Recommended Books:

Book Review: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1 by Andrew Hickey


Author: Andrew Hickey
Title: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1: From Savoy Stompers to Clock Rockers
Publication Info: Lulu.com, 2019 
Summary/Review:

Last fall I discovered the podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs and it has become a must listen for me.  Presented by English author Andrew Hickey, it is a meticulously researched and well-produced in-depth study of popular music.  Each episode focuses not on one song but on the musicians, songwriters, and producers behind that song including samples of their work (not just the title song) and songs that influenced this work. Hickey is very good at debunking the myths of rock music and revealing the much more interesting history of the genre and the people behind it.  This includes acknowledging the innovations of Black musicians whose contributions were often appropriated by the white music industry and later historical revisionism.

Right now the podcast is at episode 153, but this book covers the first 50 podcasts.  This very early history begins in 1938 with the jazz, jump blues, rhythm and blues, Western swing, vocal groups,  and other artists who created the many elements that would become rock & roll.  This volume ends in the mid-50 just after the first generation of rock & roll stars such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Elvis Presley.  The book, and the podcast, is easy to follow in the chapters/episodes on each song, but it is also an ongoing story that winds through the whole project.  The individuals who manage to pop up again and again and different times and places, and the way they influence and collaborate with one another is one of the fascinating elements of this history.

I can’t recommend the podcast and the book more highly!

Favorite Passages:

One of the great things about popular music before about 1970 is it had a lot of space for people who could do one thing really really well, and who just did their one thing. Artists like Duane Eddy and John Lee Hooker just kept making basically the same record over and over, and it was a great record, so why not?

But people will always want to push against those constraints. And in the 1950s, just like today, there were black people who wanted to make country music. But in the 1950s, unlike today, there was a term for the music those people were making. It was called rock and roll. For about a decade, from roughly 1955 through 1965, “rock and roll” became a term for the music which disregarded those racial boundaries. And since then there has been a slow but sure historical revisionism. The lines of rock and roll expand to let in any white man, but they constrict to push out the women and black men who were already there. But there’s one they haven’t yet been able to push out, because this particular black man playing country music was more or less the embodiment of rock and roll.

This series is about the history of rock music, but one of the things we’re going to learn as the story goes on is that the history of any genre in popular music eventually encompasses them all. And at the end of 1955, in particular, there was no hard and fast distinction between the genres of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Gandhi (1982)


Title: Gandhi
Release Date: 30 November 1982
Director: Richard Attenborough
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | International Film Investors | National Film Development Corporation of India | Indo-British Films
Summary/Review:

I saw Gandhi in its first run in the  movie theaters which means I must’ve been 9-years-old at the time.  That seems young to watch an epic historical drama, and it may be the only movie I ever went to with an intermission.  But Gandhi resonated with me perhaps due to some combination of being a history geek inclined towards social justice and a budding cinephile.  I saw the movie a few more times on tv but it has been more than 35 years since my last viewing.

I wondered if the movie would hold up since a lot of movies that received lots of awards in the 1980s are less well-regarded.  There’s also the fact that the movie about a seminal figure in Indian history is directed and produced by British and American filmmakers.  I did get the sense that throughout the movie the perspective is coming through white characters – a priest, journalists, politicians, and a pilgrim – which tends to keep Gandhi at a remove. Also the biggest criticism I’ve seen about this movie, with which I agree, is that it makes Gandhi too perfect.  This has the unfortunate effect of making the characters around him look bad, even villainous, especially Muslim leader and founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee).

Despite these failures in cultural competence, I feel that Attenborough and co. were really trying their best to make a film that does justice to the life and movements of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley).  Kingsley performance is excellent and the cast features many top-notch Indian, British, and American actors, even in small roles. Compressing six decades of Gandhi’s life and the larger Indian independence movement into 3 hours is hard but the film has several  memorable set pieces that I’ve remembered over the years, from the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi) sweetly recreating their wedding ceremony for a couple of reporters.  The movie is also impressively filmed with beautiful cinematography framing intimate moments between a couple of characters ranging to massive crowd scenes.

So I’d say that Gandhi has held up and is a worthwhile introduction to his life and the history of India and Pakistan with issues that still reverberate to this day.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by Michael R. Virgintino


Author: Michael R. Virgintino
Title: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2019)
Summary/Review:

It sounds make believe, but for five seasons from 1960 to 1964, a theme park that legitimately claimed to be bigger and better than Disneyland operated in the northeast corner of the Bronx.  In fact, the park was designed by the firm of C.V. Wood, who had worked on Disneyland before having a falling out with Walt.  Many Disneyland veterans worked for Wood’s company as well. The park was shaped like a map of the lower 48 states and was divided into seven themed lands:

  • LIttle Old New York – an entry land in a late 19th-century style
  • Old Chicago – which included regular reenactments of the Great Fire of 1871
  • The Great Plains – which featured a replica army stockade and a stagecoach ride
  • San Francisco – home to an earthquake dark ride and the Northwest Fur Trapper boat ride (Freedomland’s answer to the Jungle Cruise)
  • The Old Southwest – where the park’s train ride was often boarded by masked robbers
  • New Orleans/Mardi Gras – opened before Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and had a pirate-themed ride called Buccaneer.  Also home to a Civil War reenactment.
  • Satellite City – The Future – where visitors could visit a recreation of a Cape Canaveral control room and watch a simulated space mission

This book includes detailed description of the lands, attractions, restaurants, and memories of park-goers and employees.  A lot of the book is written in list format rather in narrative that makes it less fun to read, but the material is fascinating nonetheless.

A lot of reasons are given why Freedomland failed.  The biggest is that unlike Southern California, the climate of New York meant the park could only operate seasonally.  Although Virginitino notes that proposals to open Freedomland for special holiday events for Halloween and Christmas were never followed-up on (the same types of things that regional parks in the northern climes do today for added revenue).  Another reason for the failure, one that the park’s owners harped on, is that Freedomland could not compete  with the New York World’s Fair (and its Disney-built attractions) which opened in 1964.  Virginitino notes that in reality, Freedomland was planned with the knowledge of the World’s Fair coming and the hope to piggyback on the fair’s success.  By 1964, Freedomland had already downsized considerably and sold off some of its most ambitious attractions, so that probably affected attendance more than the fair.

Virgintino also puts forward the idea that the property owners (real estate developers separate from the management of the park) had always intended for Freedomland to be temporary.  Plans for Co-Op City, which was eventually built on the site, were put forward in the 1950s.  The author’s evidence suggests that the the Freedomland structures built on the marshy landfill served the purpose of convincing the government to allow the variances to build the more profitable

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Freedomland being able to persevere through the Bronx’s really bad times of the 1970s and 1980s. Also the the superpatriotic theming of the park would’ve been a hard sell as early as the counterculture era of the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, I wish Freedomland had survived. My mother, who grew up in the Bronx, has fond memories of visiting Freedomland in her teen years, and I wish I could’ve gone there with her when I was young.

Oddly, little bits of Freedomland have showed up in my life without me even knowing it. A sternwheeler that sailed at Freedomland was renamed the Mark Twain and was docked for many years by the Steamboat Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Two of the Freedomland trains were loaned by Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts.  And a 20 foot cutout figure of Paul Bunyan later stood outside of United House Wrecking in Stamford, Connecticut during my childhood.

This video from Defunctland will give you a glimpse into Freedomland’s all-too-short history:

Favorite Passages:

Freedomland’s employees were slotted within 54 categories, some of which were not listed by big city employment agencies at the time. Many employees were required to possess unique skills, including buffalo wrangler, carrousel horse jeweler, totem pole carver, and stage coach harness-maker.

Other odd occupations at the park included pretzel bending, seal keeping, doughnut rolling, can-can dancing, glassblowing, and space tracking. The park also employed a skin diver who regularly inspected the Great Lakes for purity and maintenance

A new attraction was five new-born burros appropriately named Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey. Bolster


Author: W. Jeffrey. Bolster
Title: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (2009)
Summary/Review:

I read this book with my co-workers to see if we can better reflect the experience of Black sailors in the archival records of ships and merchant mariners.  It’s a broad overview of Black sailors in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It traces the sailing traditions of Black Americans to their African roots.   In some cases, enslaved Black men served as sailors and ship’s pilots at the behest of their enslavers.  Free Black men found a greater level of freedom and equality in the maritime trades than in other areas of work available to them, although the practices of ship discipline were contradictorily some of the most restrictive to liberty. A great percentage of New England and New York Black men found work in the maritime trades in the 1800s although at the cost of separation of families and loss of community leadership.

There are numerous fascinating stories in this book about people I’d like to learn more about.  These include Richard “King Dick Crafus who lead the Black US Navy sailors held prisoner at Dartmoor during and after the War of 1812, and who remained a revered member of Boston’s Black community decades later.  Robert Smalls was a pilot who escaped from slavery in Charleston during the Civil War and turned a gunboat over to the Union Navy.  David Walker distributed the abolitionist tract “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” while working at a second-hand clothing shop near the wharves of Boston.  Honestly, these stories should be made into movies.


Favorite Passages:

“Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness, and wealth denied to most slaves.” – p. 36

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle


Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]
Summary/Review:

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2021) [Originally published in 1998]
Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore explores the history of King Philip’s War, fought in New England from 1675 to 1678 between an alliance of several Algonquian-speaking indigenous tribes under the leadership of Wampanoag Chief Metacomet, a.k.a. King Philip, and the English of the New England colonies and their Mohegan, Pequot, and Mohawk allies.  The war is poorly defined in American history with even the name controversial.  Was Philip a King? Was his name even Philip? Was it really a war or an exchange of atrocities?

Lepore investigates how the war changed the way the English colonists identified themselves.  She also examines the historical resources to find the Native perspective on the war that’s not often directly recorded in Western literature. A large part of the book focuses on the captivity narratives that became one of the major forms of literature that arose from the war.   She also details the lasting legacy of the war, particularly how Metacomet became a romanticized figure in American drama in the mid-1800s at the same time that Andrew Jackson is forcibly removing the Cherokee from the Southeastern states.

It is a very interesting historical account of a significant but forgotten war and a historiology of the study of war itself.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Fannie Lou Hamer’s America #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter F that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: Fannie Lou Hamer’s America
Release Date: February 22, 2022
Director: Joy Elaine Davenport
Production Company: WORLD Channel | PBS | Black Public Media
Summary/Review:

Fannie Lou Hamer, the indefatigable civil rights and voting rights activist from Mississippi, is someone I wanted to know more about.  She’s also someone I think everyone should know about.  This short documentary covers the highlights of her life and career, and is special because all the narration comes from Hamer’s speeches and interviews.  Similarly, the soundtrack includes Hamer singing several freedom songs. It’s hard not to be inspired by Hamer’s persistence despite the obstacles she faced, and her calls for justice and equity sound all too relevant decades after her death. I felt outrage at a scene when Hamer and a small group of activists went to the US Capitol and were met with a massive show of police and were arrested, whereas in our own time there was nowhere near the number of necessary police on hand to meet the actual threat of white supremacist insurrection on January 6, 2021. Fannie Lou Hamer lived a life that was too short and too hard but she left behind a legacy that continues to make a better America today.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story (2020) #BloggingAtoZChallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter E that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story
Release Date: January 13, 2020
Director: Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Production Company: Florentine Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary is a story about public housing in Atlanta, but it could be in Boston or New York or Chicago or St. Louis or Los Angeles, as the same story has played out again and again in cities across the country.  Once seen a vital stepping stone for the white working class, in post-World War II America, the emphasis shifts to subsidizing suburban living and public housing becomes the place to warehouse the poorest of the poor, typically people of color.  Even when new public housing is built it is poorly planned – in East Lake Meadows, the houses were flooding with sewage soon after tenants moved in – and poorly maintained.  Out of sight and out of mind, public housing is plagued by drug abuse and crime.

What’s great about this documentary is that it tells this familiar story from the point of view of the Black residents of the East Lake Meadows project.  They tells stories of crime and indignity, yes, but also of joy.  Despite all the problems of public housing there also were the advantages of forming strong community bonds.  And there were those who fought for their community to have something better, in this case the late Eva Davis.  Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, when improvements came with the demolition of East Lake Meadows in the late 1990s and replacing it with a higher-quality mixed-income development, it came at the cost of shutting out the poorest residents.

In addition to the many great interview subjects, East Lake Meadows features a great variety of archival footage.  I particularly like the homemade films made by some school children who lived in East Lake Meadows in the 1990s.

Rating: ****

BONUS DOC Movie Review: Attica (2021) #atozchallenge


I have a lot of documentary movies on my watchlist, so throughout the Blogging A-to-Z  Challenge I will be posting bonus documentary movie reviews, as time allows.

TitleAttica
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Director: Traci Curry, Stanley Nelson
Production Company: Showtime Documentary Films | Firelight Films | Topic Studios
Summary/Review:

I remember learning about the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in Western New York, and the ensuing massacre,  in the documentary series Eyes on the Prize II in the 1990s. This movie offers a far more in-depth examination of the tense four-day standoff in September 1971.  Interviewees include surviving former inmates, guards, family members of the hostages, members of the observers committee who helped with negotiations, and journalists who covered the event.  This includes John Johnson, a Black reporter from ABC News in New York who I remember seeing on tv when I was a kid.

What’s fascinating about this story is how after the initial uprising the Attica inmates quickly organized a society with elected leaders, medics, latrines, shelters, and a security force.  While still quite chaotic, over a thousand people who probably never worked together before quickly organized an effective system of governance.  I had also not know of the role that Islamic inmates played in protecting the hostages.  The most heartbreaking aspect of this story is that the Attica inmates put together a set of demands to address the abuse in the prison that were deemed reasonable by the observers committee and yet the prison authorities (backed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and ultimately President Richard Nixon) refused to budge.  Ultimately they chose to retake Attica with excessive force, allowing the correctional officers to carry out bloody revenge.  Even the lives of the hostages were expendable and they murdered nine of them.

Even fifty years later, this movie is a powerful indictment of incarceration in the United States and the virulence of racism that undergirds it.  This movie is unflinching in its depiction of the violence of the Attica massacre so take the content warnings at the start of the film seriously if you are so inclined. But I think a lot of people like myself need to see this and be made uncomfortable to fully understand the brutality of racist institutions in American history and the American present.

Rating: ****