San Antonio is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. April 6 will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of HemisFair ’68, a world’s fair organized to celebrate San Antonio’s 250th anniversary, but also, not incidentally, to accomplish urban renewal downtown, to revitalize the Riverwalk and increase tourism, to dispel stereotypes of this City as a “backwater” town, and to effectively put San Antonio “on the map.” It worked. It was a big deal. It was a bona fide World’s Fair certified by the International Bureau of Exhibitions in Paris, and it was the first World’s Fair held not only in Texas, but in the Southern United States. As I said, it was a BIG deal.
I was a college student in San Antonio at the time, in residence all through that summer for the duration of the Fair (April 6- October 6). HemisFair ’68 was certainly a big deal to me, precisely because it was a bona fide World’s Fair! As a small-town Texas girl who came from a place where the biggest deal was the annual livestock show, I could hardly wait for the expansion of my world that HemisFair promised. I was not disappointed, and I went downtown to visit that world often.
Some 32 nations plus the United States, Texas and Arkansas exhibited. Since the theme was “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” representation was heavy, of course, by Mexico and the Central and South American countries, but nations from Europe, Asia, and North America were also present. All the countries who could trace their contributions to America were here sharing their histories, cultures and connections. The wonders of it all, the assemblage of the arts and artifacts, the international foods and entertainments, the exuberance of their presentations created such an excitement, such a world view — well, for this girl, it was the stuff of which dreams are made — and bucket lists. My own favorite country, to which I returned time and again, was Espańa, with its priceless exhibit of exquisite paintings by Goya, Velasquez, and El Greco on loan from the Prado (which I have since visited in Madrid).
And then there were the corporate pavilions. Major Fortune 500 companies such as IBM, GE, Kodak, General Motors, Ford, and Coca-Cola were here, almost 20 of them, showcasing their products and proudly touting their innovations for the future. I personally loved IBM, where two separate pavilions contained computers that talked to each other. You could create a design, program it into a computerized loom, and come away with a sample of your fabric to take home. (Could this have been where my love of design and fabric arts began?) IBM also introduced the Selectric® typewriter at this exhibit, which certainly spoke to my aspirations as a writer and subsequently made my life easier for years.
But it was the Tower of the Americas, that 750 foot tower with the revolving restaurant and observation deck on top, which emerged as the enduring symbol of HemisFair and the familiar landmark of the San Antonio skyline. I got engaged in the summer of ’68, and my fiancé (now husband) and I celebrated with dinner in the romantic restaurant atop that Tower. The aerial view was stunning, of course, but the revolving inner platform was more “stumbling” than stunning, presenting a real challenge for waiters trying to serve diners rotating at a steady clip of 360º every hour. We laughed as our plates and glasses “walked” on the table with vibration, halfway expecting them to spin out by centrifugal force! And then there was the issue of trying to locate your table, which had moved while you visited the ladies’ room — and trying to appear nonchalant about being disoriented.
As I think back on all this now, I realize that the Tower was an apt symbol not only for a world’s fair, but an apt metaphor for America then. We were reaching for the stars, quite literally through the space program, and yet society was spinning, sometimes out of control. The 1960s were tumultuous, and 1968 was no exception. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated two days before HemisFair opened, and Robert Kennedy six weeks later. There were anti-Vietnam protest and civil rights marches and love-ins and sit-ins and every other kind of “in.” Then, as now, the nation was divided; then, as now, (we) young people were idealistic, sometimes naive, but feeling the emerging power of our numbers and liking the sound of our own voices. There was even a special youth pavilion at HemisFair called Project Y that invited young people from all nations to raise those voices in music, performance, discussion and debate — a place for the spontaneous “confluence” of cultures to happen.
The general climate of social unrest has been cited by some as the reason HemisFair ’68 lost money (about $7 million by most estimates) and that attendance was not quite up to expectations (roughly a million visitors shy of projections). Yet, the success of the Fair cannot be measured solely in terms of money, or even in a revitalized downtown and a lasting tourism and convention business. Rather, it was the larger world view that drove HemisFair and fostered a collective attitude of inclusion and diversity that is the greater legacy for San Antonio today. With the whole world coming to visit, there was simply no room for discrimination or parochialism (and there still isn’t). Most people don’t realize, for example, that it was HemisFair ’68 that put a de facto end to racial segregation in our city; it was also HemisFair that prompted the legalization of liquor by the drink. so much for the “backwater” politics and policies of the past.
Today, San Antonio is indeed a “world class city” with a distinct character, a diverse culture, and a blended history born of all the people who have lived here. You can pretty much draw a straight line between HemisFair ’68 and San Antonio’s emergence onto the world scene. We may be only the second largest city in Texas, but we have the biggest heart. There’s even room for me in it!