A World’s Fair to End the Housing Crisis

January 29th, 2020 // By Charly Ligety, Director of Housing Innovation for Housing on Merit // On behalf of The Housing Innovation Collaborative

In our not-so-distant past, America was a truly divided country — far apart not only based on geography and wealth, but deeply conflicted on the most important principles facing our nation. We were at war, in great debt and despair, and riots, mass destruction, and poverty pervaded throughout the country — the future of America seemed bleak.

In that dark hour, a handful of concerned, but nevertheless, optimistic citizens came together to organize a celebration — an exhibition that would focus our attention on innovation, solutions, and progress, helping pull us towards a brighter future. What started as an idea pitched to the mayor, grew into a bipartisan coalition which gained the support not only of the state legislature, but of the United States House of Representatives — it became an act of Congress — with the President of the United States himself getting involved. Only a short time later, they went on to host the greatest world’s fair known to man.

This was Philadelphia in 1866 — a year after the American Civil War had literally torn apart the country. These visionary citizens looked to innovation as the remedy — the power of ingenuity, creative collaboration, and inspirational imagination — to bring us all back together. That collective energy, culminated into the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, known as one of the greatest gatherings of innovation in world history, credited with ushering in a new modern age of science and mass production and kickstarting an unprecedented period of global development and growth, known now as the Second Industrial Revolution.

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Opening Ceremonies of The Centennial Exhibition of 1876

The Centennial Exhibition, the first in the Americas, had more than 10 million attendees over a 6-month period (equivalent to about 25% of the U.S. population at the time), providing spectators and fellow innovators an opportunity to view, showcase, and experience innovations from around the world. It was the first time the general public saw the typewriter, the mechanical calculator, the sewing machine, and where Alexander Graham Bell revealed the first telephone.

Housing innovations presented at the Exhibition popularized cost-saving construction methods, such as balloon-framing, standardized lumber, and machine-made nails, which remain the standards for most residential construction to this day. The Exhibition introduced entirely new architectural styles, including many of the Victorian styles (named after the then-reigning Her Majesty The Queen), which are, also, still in popular demand. The Exhibition helped accelerate the development of affordable middle-class housing for millions around the world and forever changed the shape of our cities.

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Housing displays at The Centennial Exhibition of 1876

The Exhibition brought us together in ways we could never have imagined: a moment of pride, when we needed it the most; a moment of appreciation, when all seemed to be lost, including respect for one another; a moment of reflection, to see our fellow neighbors as equals rather than as something less.

What rang true in Philadelphia in the 1860s rings true today in Los Angeles, and cities across America: we need to focus on creating a better future as one united community. We are amidst the worst affordable housing crisis in the modern era — millions of Americans, who make great sacrifices to keep our cities running and our economy churning, cannot afford to live in the communities they help build. And the divides are only getting deeper.

Our affordable housing deficit is the result, not of any one person or misguided policy, but from decades of negligence, countless factors culminating into a failed status quo — a system that simply cannot keep up with the demands of today’s society. And to turn things around, there is not one leader powerful enough, not one organization big enough, and not one philanthropist rich enough to do it alone.

We can all play a role in building a better home. An exhibition can once again be the gathering place for everyone to start working together towards building a brighter future. An exhibition can bridge old divides and help us collaborate in new ways. It can be the starting point for a whole new generation of builders and community developers. If we empower our best and brightest people and ideas to succeed, we can all help usher in a new age for the housing industry — one that serves everyone.

Let us not shy away from this monumental task at hand — let’s rise to the challenge and use the depths of this crisis as the catalyst for creating a more equitable, more sustainable, and more affordable Los Angeles for all of us. Let us once again use the power of an exhibition to bring us back together and focused on creating a home we can all be proud of for generations to come.

Learn how you can contribute your ideas for The Housing Innovation Exhibition and join The Housing Innovation Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of pioneering people and organizations committed to building a better home, at HousingInnovation.co/.

Written by

I am passionate about helping others live happy and fulfilling lives in fun and creative ways. Currently Director of Housing Innovation at Housing on Merit.

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