Delirious City

This month Gary Kamiya takes a critical look at the legacy of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and explores the idea of a 21st century PPIE. 

As we commemorate the 100th birthday of the fair, a question inevitably arises: How does the bustling, squabbling, self-cannibalizing city of today—stomping ground of billionaires and drifters, techies and leave-towns, youthful optimists and graying Jeremiahs—compare with the triumphantly reborn city of a century ago? What has changed since those buoyant days? What strains of pride, ego, and audacity remain? And what lessons can we take from the ambition, hubris, naïveté, civic unity, and relentless optimism—for better and worse—that marked the city of 1915?

Taking the thought experiment even further, we might ask: What would the PPIE look like if we constructed it today? What human achievements would it showcase? What technologies would it hype? What kind of rides would it offer? Which exhibits would stand the test of time, and which ones would come to be seen as politically incorrect embarrassments, like the “ethnic villages” of 1915?

This is, of course, strictly an exercise in fantasy. San Francisco is not holding another world’s fair in the foreseeable future. For one thing, the whole idea is passé. Who wants to marvel at the “university of the world” or the “shop window of civilization”—two of the 1915 fair’s taglines—when their smartphone holds the whole cosmos? And then there are the more quotidian obstacles. For one, where would we put the damn thing? The Marina district, which was all mudflats before the PPIE waved its magic wand, is sadly no longer available. Treasure Island? Too much bridge traffic. Golden Gate Park? Outside Lands is big and disruptive enough as it is, thank you. And then there’s our fractious body politic—one so divided that we can’t even agree on whether to build a high-rise next to a BART station or an arena in an empty lot.

Read the full story online in San Francisco Magazine.