A Tale of Two Cities

Let me tell you about two cities lying across the American border from each other. You guess what towns they are.

The first is a relatively affluent place. Not everyone is living great but most people at least have reasonably decent houses in safe, clean neighborhoods. People can park their cars with out undoing worry they’ll be stolen or broken in to and walk the streets and parks without fear of crime. The town is a thriving tourist destination, with travelers from around the world coming to see and experience the local sights. There are numerous upscale hotels and more moderate motels, plenty of good restaurants and even a few nice casinos for visitors and locals to enjoy. There is a good medical system in place and enough business and industry to provide a decent leaving for most. Unemployment and poverty are low. The local and national governments, while not universally beloved, have done a good job over the years of maintaining infrastructure and helping their people to achieve a globally high quality of life.

The other town is, to be polite, a total mess. Unemployment is in double digits with large number of residents living in poverty. Drugs, crime, gangs and violence are rampant. The government has cracked down on the large crime cartels but they still have great sway. One drives with the doors locked and avoids driving through large swaths of the town if at all possible. Walking, even in the public parks, can be dangerous at certain times of day. Housing is in disrepair, with the number of boarded up windows rivaling the number with pane glass still intact. While the town has the same opportunities to attract tourists as it’s neighbor across the border, fear of violence, urban squalor, the general disrepair of roads and neighborhoods has greatly diminished the number of visitors willing to cross the international line. Government is seen as corrupt and incompetent. A general feeling of hopelessness pervades the population.

Okay, what two towns am I describing? San Diego and Tijuana you might think? Not in this case. I’m talking about a tale of two Niagaras: Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York, both of which I just returned from.

I was called back to the Luna ancestral homeland (both my parents are from Niagara Falls, NY and I have second, third, fourth and thirty-eight cousins, most of which I haven’t seen in years if ever, on both sides of the border) unexpectedly last Tuesday. My mother’s 87 year old sister (my Aunt and godmother) had a massive stroke and was on life support. I flew out with my wife to be with her and her son in her final hours. For those of you who have been through it, you know the drill. Lots of grief followed by a whirlwind of funeral homes, relatives, dinners, shared memories, more grief, some laughter, the melancholy of life slipped away, a few new memories and then the journey home. Life goes on.

The most vivid memory I take back with me is just how bad–economically, socially, politically, culturally—things had gotten in Niagara Falls. Back in the sixties and seventies, when my family lived in Pittsburgh, we used to make the journey home a couple of times a year. Even then Niagara was a town in decline, part of the rusting bucket of east coast industrial America. Downtown was looking shabby, the chemical and manufacturing companies that had formed the backbone of the local economy were scaling back.

Now it looks like a throwback to the inner city poverty I remember seeing in the worst areas of Pittsburgh back in the ‘60s. Only it’s the 21st century and it’s pretty much the whole town of Niagara. Block after block of formerly tidy, working and middle class homes now reduced to ruin, residents mired in intractable poverty and unemployment. Good news: you can buy a three story brick house in Niagara within easy walking distance of one of the world’s great natural wonders for around seventeen thousand dollars. Bad news: the house will probably have a boarded-up house on one side from which drugs are being sold and an empty, trash filled lot on the other where the old house had been burned for the insurance money. Given that the median income in the area is less than twenty-thousand dollars, not many locals can even scrape up the seventeen k anymore, anyway.

Oh, and more bad news: if you did try to walk to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders you’d run a good chance of being mugged. That’s what happened to my elderly uncle a few years back when he went to take the same walk around the Falls he’d been doing for eighty years. He seldom leaves his apartment, now.

Industry has largely left the region leaving nothing behind except rotting factory shells, unemployment and toxic wastes from decades of chemical industry carelessness. (It is the land of Love Canal, after all.) The only thriving business is the Indian casino in the middle of downtown (or what’s left of it, Main Street being eight blocks of shuttered, abandoned buildings). Located in what had been the Convention Center, conventioneers long since having given up on the decaying former honeymoon capital of the nation and defecting to the Canadian side or Vegas, the casino’s clientele consists mostly of locals, disproportionately old, spending their welfare, social security and disability checks for the hope of winning a big enough jackpot to maybe get out of Dodge.

My wife and I stayed, meanwhile, on the Canadian side of the Falls, traveling back and forth across the Rainbow Bridge to spend time with my cousin and attend to the funeral preparation and consummation. The Canadian side is not a paradise—there are some ratty areas, particularly where my Great-Grandmother used to live off Ferry drive. But most of the town is in reasonably good shape and the tourist areas are thriving, the hotels beautiful and reasonably priced, even with the weakness of the US dollar, and the casinos are filled with well-healed international tourists. (And, of course, the place is also filled with Canadians, a people so polite that if you ran one of them over with your car they would apologize for having smeared

Barack Obama got into a flap while I was away for having said that small town America is “bitter,” clinging to religion and guns. Senator Obama is wrong. No-one I met in Niagara Falls seemed particularly bitter about the unfortunate circumstances they now found themselves. Depressed and melancholy, yes. Depressed over how plain depressing it was to live in such a depressing, declining place. Melancholy over how much things had changed for the worst over the course of lives that spanned decades. But bitter, no. The one word that best captures the zeitgeist of Niagara is “sad.” Everyone is sad over how bad things are. Everyone wonders how things came to this.

The last time we drove back into Niagara Falls, USA across the Rainbow bridge we chatted with the young INS agent manning a border control booth. After talking briefly about life in San Diego (you mention you are from San Diego to anybody who’s not from San Diego and they tend to have yearning tales of how they’ve been to San Diego once and want to go back that they want to share with you…) we remarked on just how sad things had become in the town. She said, “You know, it’s been down hill ever since they drove the mob out.”

Niagara Falls was actually better managed when the mob ran the place. How does it come to that?

Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child. I say it takes the determined effort of many people – corrupt and/or negligent government, short-sighted business, rapacious criminals—to ruin a once vibrant town filled with hard working, god-fearing, country-loving people.

How you bring back communities like Niagara Falls and all the Niagara Falls across this nation is the most important and least discussed elephant in the national living room of this Presidential campaign. Given the economic storm that is forming, perhaps the candidates for our nation’s highest office—and we, the nation as a whole—ought start fretting more actively over the plight of our Niagara’s, for what happened to them can easily happen to the rest of the villages, towns and cities of this proud Republic.

(And yes, I’ve used the title of this piece before but whaddahey.)