Of all the dignitaries at the opening of the New York World Fair on April 10, 1939 - President Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and New York Mayor LaGuardia - none spoke more grandiloquently than Grover Whalen, otherwise known as ‘Mr. New York’.
He had worked tirelessly to make the Fair happen, even as the dark clouds of war gathered over the horizon. He traveled to embassies around the world, including meeting Mussolini at his vast office in Palazzo Venezia. Of course, despite gathering exhibitors and sponsors, the inevitability of war meant that there was hardly anything to celebrate in 1939, with the consequence that hundreds of millions of dollars was lost.
Not to be defeated, Whalen decided to have another makeover in the following year. The never-say-die approach distinguished the zeitgeist of the city and its people at that time, despite precarious circumstances. Dubai, with its World Expo has been following a similar path, with the pandemic wreaking havoc on an economic scale that has been similar to that of the World War.
A year later, with anxiety still visible, the indefatigable nature of the authorities, the organizers and sponsors has been infectious enough to shimmer with optimism and confidence. And redouble efforts to make it a financial, cultural and social success along the lines that made New York the capital of the world after the World Fair of 1939 and 1940.
Despite the recovery that is now underway in parts of the economy, as well as throughout the world, government support will continue to be needed as the site hosts this seminal event, and then prepares for the aftermath. From developers to engineers, coders to teachers, there is a palpable sense of anticipation as to what happens once the exposition is over.
For a glimpse into this, New York once again provides a clue. Despite the second fair being held under the shadow of the Second World War, visitors thronged to the site, looking for imagination and optimism. Renowned author E.B. White kicked off the cultural impact with his seminal essay ‘The World of Tomorrow’ in 1940. More than 50 years later, the arts and sciences continue to echo the impact of the Fair in 1940.
Developers who brought into the brouhaha early on, have been patient, as have government authorities while a fresh impetus is made to redraw the cultural roadmap of the city districts. Just like Robert Moses in the 1930s, Dubai’s city planners have been farsighted with their road networks to ensure that architectural and cultural diversity can further the congruous themes that will be highlighted during the expo.
Development will be slow and deliberate at first, but just like the Big Apple, Dubai’s moment seems to have arrived despite the bumpiness of the pandemic. Auden’s poetry comes to mind here when he stated: “I sit in one of the dives, uncertain and yet unafraid, as the clever hopes expire of a low dishonest decade.”
Unanimous in thought
The diverse city of Dubai rarely speaks with one mind on any topic, and the post-pandemic residents have been no exception. There have been various debates on some of the policies adopted around Covid, both economic and social, but rarely has there been this much unity displayed around the determination to make the Expo a stage for the world to marvel at.
Dubai’s history may have begun 50 years ago, and accelerated some 20 years earlier, but the sheer will that has been channeled towards the city’s success has left even the efforts of Mr. New York’ pale in comparison. Nearly 25 centuries ago, Aristotle observed that men and women come to cities so that they become more human: that they might enlarge and enhance their humanity by experiencing the humanity of others.
As a world city, Dubai is by no means perfect, but its 3.4 million residents have been living on the cutting edge of a global experiment. For all of its faults and inconsistencies, Dubai has been bearing witness to the immemorial gift of urbanism, the nurturing of life and possibilities, the celebration of civil and civilized living.
This citizenship, in one very special version is the manifestation of mankind’s greatest social invention, the city in time, which is to say the city past and the city present. The world expo beckons the city of future.