If the World's Fair planned for Chicago in 1992 were a movie heroine, her name would be Pauline. As in perils of . . . .
Drowning, starvation, disfigurement, dismemberment. Name it, and the luckless proposal for a major new international exposition here has faced it. Just like Pauline, the silent-screen character who holds the world's record for being tied to railroad tracks more times by mustachioed villains than any other ingenue.
Just like Pauline, the Chicago World's Fair has become a survivor, far more durable and resilient than its enemies ever imagined. Despite troubles of almost every kind over the last six years, the fair still looks attractive to various suitors. Even multimillion-dollar red-ink baths taken by New Orleans and Knoxville, Tenn., in staging their recent expositions have not drowned all ardor for an extravaganza here.
As first envisioned in the 1970s by civic leaders, a 1992 Chicago World's Fair seemed a perfect way to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, even though he never got within a year's sail of discovering Chicago.
Backers said the effort could unite business, neighborhood and political leaders in a unique enterprise that might even make some money while helping the city to renew some old facilities and build some new ones.
Organizers also suggested that the fair would help the city's 400,000 Hispanic Americans feel wanted despite a political power structure that virtually ignores them and despite the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which tries to find and deport the thousands of Hispanics thought to be illegal aliens.
Honoring the intrepid navigator, the theme is the "Age of Discovery." There are to be three epochs of discovery, divided into five thematic areas with titles that sound as if they were copied from a civics book: "Discovering the World Community," "Discovering the Necessities of Life" and "Discovering Society's Partnership with Planet Earth."
Planners chose for the exposition site a 600-acre tract along Lake Michigan on the near South Side, east of the Loop in the vicinity of Meigs Field, a small lakefront general-aviation landing strip. Several buildings already on the territory, including Soldier Field, the football stadium, are to be incorporated into the fairgrounds.
According to recent estimates by the Chicago World's Fair 1992 Authority, 60 foreign nations are expected to participate, with many erecting handsome pavilions. As many as 55 million visitors, most of them from the Midwest, are expected to attend. Financing is to be public and private, and the operation will turn a profit, planners say.
When the fair idea originated, organizers had little reason to anticipate anything more than a few difficulties. Chicago's history includes two glitteringly successful world expositions: the 1893 Columbian Exposition, for which Mr. Ferris invented his wheel, and the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, which attracted 48 million visitors in the teeth of the Great Depression.
The planners presented the proposal to the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris four years ago, going head-to-head with Miami for the privilege of mounting a new "general world exhibition," the top of the line in fairs. Ignoring its very sensible finding in 1972 that "there have been too many world fairs," the BIE awarded 1992 to the Windy City.
Then the fun began.
First, Mayor Jane M. Byrne, a fair booster, was unhorsed as chief executive by Harold Washington, a skeptic. Washington studied the proposal some more and decided that he liked it, as long as the state of Illinois guaranteed any construction bonds and the city received any profits.
Then, fractious aldermen who have made a career of opposing anything favored by Mayor Washington devised an idea for a fairgrounds. They proposed a landfill in swampy, noxious Lake Calumet on the far South Side, a 12-mile voyage of discovery distant from the downtown Loop area.
"We've got a hometown site here," declared Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak, the mayor's archrival, during a tour of the place last year that almost ended in disaster when the vistors' bus sank hub-deep in whatever it is that comprises Lake Calumet's beach.
Others have said the Lake Michigan site is too big, too expensive, too ambitious. Some propose that it be smaller, moved to some other place, starved of development money.
A reluctant state legislature has voted several million dollars for the fair authority, but the site and size dispute continues. Alderman Bernard Stone, whose support as chairman of the City Council fair committee is considered crucial, reportedly has yet another spot in mind, nearby Goose Island.
Various deadlines said to be critical to the project's success are being missed. The mayor, who once said he supports the exposition "with verve, vigor and gusto," observed recently that the fair will cost a lot and expressed worries about an apparent lack of public enthusiasm.
Recently, the powerful, pugnaciously independent Chicago Park District voiced agreement on a possible compromise plan for the fair that would have enhanced its own holdings at city expense. But other political difficulties resurfaced, and the future remains as clouded as ever.
The fair authority blithely promises that the exposition will be a "unique, profound and lasting cultural and educational experience" for millions.
Meanwhile, the price of land around the chosen exposition site on the near South Side has more than tripled in two years. Much of it is held by trusts, allowing the owners to hide their identities.
Inevitably, this suggests that a somewhat more traditional variety of Chicago-style politics may intervene in the dispute and that, as scheduled, the Chicago World's Fair will open in 1992, on the near South Side.