Grey Matters: Life After the Jetsons

Seattle Center was born in the Space Age, but as it approaches its 50th anniversary, the issues are

There’s nothing so antique as the future. Seattle Center embodies that. The site of the Century 21 Exposition in 1962, it remains a Space Age fly caught in amber.

There are few old world’s fair sites as intact as ours. The Space Needle, the monorail, the “space gothic” arches of the Science Center, all now historic landmarks, remind us of a past when the future looked much different than the 21st century we live in. We don’t live in Jetsons-style needles, we aren’t whisked about in monorails, we don’t even recognize the authority of science anymore, much less the salvation of technology (thank you, BP).

The fair was opened when President John F. Kennedy initiated a signal that bounced off the distant star Cassiopeia, a nod to the New Frontier of space exploration. In 1893, in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the close of the American frontier and he predicted a change in the national psyche shaped by our attachment to the idea of limitless expansion in the West. The Seattle fair reopened the frontier nearly 70 years later, with President Kennedy declaring that the next century was virtually all frontier. Not only would we send a man to the moon, we would conquer space. One of the Seattle fair’s greatest icons was Friendship 7, the capsule in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. It was exhibited in Seattle in order to ignite the imaginations of a generation of young fairgoers. (I was one.)

How times have changed. America’s era of manned space flight is headed to what is at best a long hiatus with the ending of NASA’s space shuttle program. Manned missions to Mars are way off. The closest most of us are likely to get to outer space is visiting Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum.

The concerns at Seattle Center these days are on the ground, over the future of the Fun Forest, whether to Chihuly-ize the place with a new glass museum, how to get more (and greener) open space, and whether to provide more amenities for nearby neighborhoods like South Lake Union, Belltown and Queen Anne. Arguments are over skateboard parks, playgrounds, bumper cars and Bumbershoot, or noise, crime, rents and budgets. You can preserve the architecture of a world’s fair, but you can’t bottle its dreams.

Time moves on. Some of the technologies featured at Century 21 are part of daily life (video phones, solar batteries, computers), some have already had their day (pagers), and others never materialized (nuclear-powered cars). Seattle Center has evolved into an ongoing, multipurpose campus that boosts the arts, science, tourism and civic connection. There’s even a school there. While it’s important to keep the center’s legacy alive, it also must not become static. True to its founding spirit is a measure of reinvention.

In two years, the center will turn 50. The Seattle Center Foundation is planning a birthday celebration under the umbrella slogan “The Next 50: Seattle 2012.” For those of us who attended the fair, it’s a sobering date: To remember the fair, you have to be at least a baby boomer in your mid-50s. Nostalgia will be part of the festivities. Already you can go to the foundation’s website (seattlecenter.org/the-next-fifty) and become a Facebook friend, put your memories of the fair in an online “time capsule” and buy a set of frosted “zombie” cocktail glasses for your next Mad Men–themed barbecue.

But it would be a mistake to let nostalgia rule the anniversary festivities. Not only would that leave out everyone younger than 50, but such nostalgia is already available 24/7 via eBay and YouTube. While we all remember that Elvis performed at the fair, it was also an event that wrestled with big issues. It was a high-minded carnival. People flocked in wonder to see models of the DNA double helix; a symposium was held to explore the future of religion in the Space Age; great art from all over the world was exhibited. It balanced P.T. Barnum with big thoughts. The “Next 50” celebration should do the same.