Friday, July 27, 2007

It Ain't Necessarily So

It's been quite a month, this July, in the "city" of Niagara Falls, NY, where I live. Two of America's three morning news shows have stopped by the falls to visit, and, by implication, endorse the Falls as a cool vacation stop once again. (Actually, the Falls never stopped being cool. We just lost our ability to appreciate them)

But, all in all, I'm betting some of the "locals" besides myself feel a little guilty about the whole thing. I mean, having grown up around here, we know the Dark Secrets that the Chamber of Commerce tries to keep away from potential visitors:

1. / The View is Better on the Canadian Side. Don't get me wrong. There are some spectacular sights to see on the American side of the Falls, beginning with the park that surrounds it. The Park, or the Reserve, as long-time residents call it, was the first state park established in the United States. Goat Island and its smaller neighbor, Three Sisters Island, are developed enough to make exploring them safe, but not so much that the experience of Being In Nature is lost. And there is no better place to experience the raw power of the mighty Niagara than Prospect Point, the concrete platform shaking with the water's force, the spray from the Falls covering you. But, for those picture postcard images that people love to send home to Loved Ones, the view is better on the Canadian side. To our credit, we residents are usually honest enough to admit this simple fact. Of course, we didn't figure this out just recently. Almost as soon as good roads [and railroads] made visiting the area easy for most of the nation, tourists figured out that the view was...well, you know what's coming next. In fact, until fairly recently, most of the tourism push was on the Canadian side, while in the U-S, companies attracted by the cheap and plentiful hydroelectricity made parts of the city so industrialized [and polluted] that the American side was once famously called, "the witch's end of Fairyland".

2. / With The Best View Comes The Best Attractions. This one comes out of another of those Dark Secrets we spoke of earlier: after about thirty seconds, you've probably seen everything Niagara Falls is going to do. Yeah, they're illuminated by colored spotlights in the evening, and during the Summer (High Tourist Season), there are frequent fireworks displays. But the Falls themselves are water running at a high velocity, before dropping of the edge of a cliff into the [obviously-named] Lower Niagara River. That's it. It doesn't change. This leads to a question: now what do we do? Because the best views of the Falls have always been on the Canadian side, the area around the Canadian Falls has always been a tourist magnet. Promoters and developers, sensing (or seeing) a crowd, were quick to set up attractions to give tourists something to do after seeing the mighty Niagara. With a nearly 150-year head start, the American side is playing an unwinable game of "catch-up". (Most of the major tourist attractions in Niagara Falls, Canada are on, or near, Clifton Hill. The land on this roughly one-block street is divided and sub-divided so as to get the maximum number of attractions, shops, and restaurants into the smallest physical space possible. I don't know if this is still the case, but at least into the 1970's Clifton Hill was private land, with its two owners allowing an "easement" for a street and sidewalks to be built. One side, not surprisingly, was owned by an accountant. The other was the property of a man who had made his fortune when he discovered the largest gold mine in Canada. Seeing Clifton Hill on a busy Summer day, you realize he also found the second-largest gold mine in Canada.)

3. / When Three Casinos Operate Within Five Miles Of One Another, No One Wins But The Owners. This area might be, well, "over-casinoed". There are two gambling [or to use the current industry buzz-word, "gaming"] halls on the Canadian side of the Falls, and one on the American side. (I'm not going to get into a comparison of one casino versus another. I don't spend much time in them. But I will say this; if you smoke, and enjoy a complementary cocktail or two with your gaming, visit the American casino. Since it's operated by an Indian tribe, the land it sits on is considered as belonging to the tribe, and thus is not subject to New York State or Canadian law, like the one that forbids smoking in all enclosed public locations. Just a tip...) For what it's worth, my point is this: too many places to go means no one place is making huge money. It also means more and more special programs to get gamblers...sorry, gamers, to spend their money at your gaming hall. Well, hey, America [or for that matter, Canada] can never have too many gambling-addicted folks dropping their last coins into a town's economy in a last-ditch attempt to keep that locale's head above water. Right?

(By the way, I don't have any moral objection to gambling. Everybody has a certain amount of disposable income to use as s/he sees fit. I spend mine on books and music. And I'm rather proud of the fact that, to date, I've yet to blow my entire paycheck in a book or record store. Although I've been tempted...)

And don't even get me started on the non-user-friendly tourism system on the American side. I'll just say that vital resources for the tourist are either located in the wrong place, or, more usually, non-existent. (Unfortunately, there are also reports that one or more of the several police forces that patrol in Niagara Falls, NY have appeared to make comments or taken action against visitors that seemed to be racially-driven. Again, just a tip.)

Look, we need your tourist dollars. Big Industry left us raped and abandoned by the roadside. So please come to Niagara Falls, NY. But understand that, to see the Falls at their best, you'll have to cross the border [It's really not as complicated as the Federal Government wants to make it, so this may be a good time to come a-callin'].If you bring kids, or if you enjoy the attraction side of touring, Clifton Hill [on the Canadian side] is your best bet. If you happen to be a person of color, we've got the prejudice you probably go on vacation to avoid [you can criticise us later]. But we must be a great tourist site. After all, two of America's three morning news shows have visited this month alone. Right? Am I right?

-Mike Riley


Paul S said...

Nice article!

One thing NF/USA could do to attract tourists more (or at least capture us for a few hours as we Canadians transit through the area on our way elsewhere), is to advertise in the Toronto media some of the attractions available.

Top of my mind :

Goats Island : when I talk of this island to my friends they say "huh? where?". This park is beautiful, and worth a visit. And after a visit there, we can spend our money at...

The Factory Outlet Mall : I have never seen this place advertised here. With the Canadian dollar at a 30 year high against the US$, there are bargains for us here now. Not to mention stores that are not in Canada.

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