Between 4 May and 2 November 1974, the City of Spokane in the US State of Washington gathered the world for a Specialised Expo under the theme of “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment”. Gathering 5.6 million visitors, Expo 1974 was the first ever to have a specific focus on the environment, and the development of the site was centered around a large-scale clean-up of the city’s environment and the Spokane River. The City this year celebrates the 50th anniversary by taking inspiration from this remarkable event, explains Matt Santangelo, the Program Manager of Expo '74 50th Celebration.


What are the primary goals in commemorating the 50th anniversary of Expo '74?

Matt Santangelo: The primary goal in and of itself is multi-faceted. It is simultaneously a moment to reflect on the historical significance of Expo ’74, consider how far the region has come in the past 50 years, and act as a catalyst for the ambition of what is possible when dreams are big and we work together. Simultaneously, it reacts to the global pandemic and the need to reconnect in our local, regional, and global communities. The celebration signifies that it is good and necessary to gather and connect. Lastly, the goal includes the sentiment of gratitude and a challenge for the future as we look at the diversity and vibrancy of our community and the beauty of Riverfront Park and the Spokane River. Without Expo ’74, there would be no Riverfront Park; without the work of the past 50 years, the river would not be as healthy as it is; without a challenge for the future, we would never realise what we can become.

One point of criticism of Expo ‘74’s legacy of environmental stewardship is that it did not lead to new policies or legislation. A strong focus of the Environmental Stewardship committee of the 50th anniversary is to drive change. The committee comprises 68 extremely active organisations engaged in environmental stewardship and sustainability. This illustrates the power of Expo ’74 in our community to unite people and highlights the amazing individuals and organisations working for the environment, and the priority to create lasting change.

"The impact of Expo ’74 on the citizens cannot be understated"

Overview of the Expo 1974 Spokane site. Credit: Spokane Public Library

For Spokane and its citizens, how was the experience of holding Expo ’74?

Matt Santangelo: As a member of our community who did not have a direct experience with Expo ‘74 (I wasn't born yet, and my family wasn't from the area), it has been an amazing experience to learn from all the people that do have a direct tie to the Expo. The overarching feeling is that Expo ’74 was the “best summer ever.” Stories range from families that came to Spokane for the Expo and fell in love with Spokane and decided to move here, to tales of those that simply fell in love during that summer, to accounts of hosting various visitors from around the world, to working in the pavilions, to sneaking into the site to enjoy it all. The impact of Expo ’74 on the citizens cannot be understated.

Does the modern city of Spokane still bear traces of Expo ’74?

Matt Santangelo: Everywhere! The crown jewel of our city is Riverfront Park and the Spokane River and the falls that run through it. Before Expo ’74, it was nothing more than a railyard, a dirty river, and a rundown downtown. Expo ’74 changed all of that, setting the stage for its recent modernisation that further enhanced its significance and beauty. The river, which only recently enjoyed the reintroduction of salmon, has also come a long way. There is still much work to be done, but progress has been made to honour and build upon the legacy of Expo ’74. In addition to the Park and the River, there are design elements throughout the City of Spokane where the Mobius, the symbol of Expo ‘74, can easily be spotted indicating the lasting impact of this transformative event.

"The Expo '74 ethos is alive and well"

The Pavilion at Riverfront, located at the former United States pavilion, is a popular events venue in Spokane. Image credit: Visit Spokane

Reflecting on the 50 years since Expo '74, how has Spokane evolved economically, culturally, and socially, and what role did the event play in these changes?

Matt Santangelo: More than 50 years ago, a group of citizens stepped up and said, “Why not Spokane?”. I have learned in the preparation for the 50th anniversary that this attitude persists today. In the last 50 years, Spokane has been home to the largest road race in the world (Bloomsday), the largest basketball tournament in the world (Hoopfest), and the greatest story in college sports (Gonzaga Basketball). I believe all those world-class examples share some DNA with Expo ’74. The Expo ethos is alive and well.

In addition, many of our cultural groups have direct ties to Expo ’74. The Expo changed Spokane physically and culturally. The 50th anniversary also provides an opportunity to reflect on some of the cultural challenges of the time. From the immigrant communities that came to the region to build the railroads, then build the Expo site, which ultimately displaced their homes to our Tribal communities that continue to be an integral part of our region. These stories are important and significant; the 50th anniversary allows us to tell them.

"The Expo changed Spokane physically and culturally and the 50th anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on some of the cultural challenges of the time"

Countries from Europe, the Americas and Asia participated in Expo 1974 Spokane. Image credit: Spokane Public Library

Economically, there are countless businesses whose histories were shaped by Expo ’74. Architecture, design, construction, banking/finance, media, and retail, many businesses either started 50 years ago in response to the Expo or enjoyed the boom that it created.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future legacy of the Expo’74 and its continued significance to Spokane’s identity and development?

Matt Santangelo: For me, the aim of this anniversary celebration is to remind ourselves that the Expo ethos is to be passed on to the younger generations. It is about the courage to say we can in Spokane: not only is it possible, we can do it at a world-class level.

The ethos of Expo encompasses true environmental stewardship and sustainability. It also fosters a sense of gratitude for the efforts and achievements of those who came before us, while embracing the challenge and responsibility of working towards a brighter future.

From  4 May to 4 July 2024, the City of Spokane is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Expo 1974 Spokane. For more information, visit the dedicated website.

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