I’m reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which recounts the creation of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the parallel story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on women drawn to the fair. Larson explains how important the expo was to the United States, which at the time was an emerging power and the factory to the world. He quotes journalist Richard Harding Davis, who called the exposition, “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” For Chicago, the expo served as a bold marker asserting its role as a center of architectural innovation and the birthplace of the skyscraper. Civic leaders desperately wanted to show they had built a powerful new city after the Great Fire of 1871 and offered more than just the country’s largest slaughterhouses. The book’s subtitle—Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America—underlines the lasting significance of the expo.
Visiting the 2010 World Expo Shanghai China, I couldn’t help but think of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Shanghai has spent more than $45 billion erecting the fair on an old industrial site straddling the Huangpu River and building an impressive network of infrastructure (new subway lines, bridges, tunnels, and street improvements) that will pay dividends for at least the next hundred years. Even if you hate the architecture of the expo or think the construction of so many temporary structures belies its green theme, you have to acknowledge the scope of the effort to create the event and the skill summoned to orchestrate it all. (And so far, no one has tried to repeat the gory deeds of H.H. Holmes.)
Crowds flock for shade under the Expo Axis with the China Pavilion in the background.
A lot of us, myself included, turn a wary eye on grand displays of municipal or national self-importance. Is Dubai a better place because it can build a tower much taller than any other in the world? Is Beijing more important because it hosted the most elaborate Olympics ever? Maybe. Maybe not. But both Beijing and Shanghai are using momentary gatherings to invest in infrastructural projects that will contribute to the lives of residents for many decades. Shanghai built five new subway lines leading up to the expo, connecting more of the city in a modern web of mass transit.
Like Barcelona with its Olympics in 1992, Shanghai is using the expo to rebrand itself as a center of creativity and a hub of world commerce. After years of oppression, it is tapping a deep reservoir of energy and talent. So maybe a bit of bragging is in order.