Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies
by Ginger Strand.
Simon & Schuster (New York)
303 pp., $25.00 cloth, 2008
I was in the City of Niagara Falls twice in recent months, both times on business, but I was only lost the first time. It was a wintry night with light snow when I left the New York State Thruway bound for a town meeting in Porter, both the last town on the Niagara River and the first on Lake Ontario’s shore.
It was only about seven o’clock when I got shunted off some closed arterial headed north toward Porter and forced to make my way through a jumble of construction projects, detour signs, craters, and the one-way and closed streets of downtown Niagara Falls. It seemed that the only living presence was the flashing light above theSeneca’s Niagara Casino. Come to think of it, though, that flash was so regular that it must have been triggered by the beat of a water drum, a beating heart, or a metronome. It was like, as a friend used to say, the heartbeat of a “robot.”
At the Porter Town Meeting, several civil but enraged citizens questioned how the Town Board could allow hazardous-waste-bearing trucks to be routed right by the elementary school. Board members sat on their hands. One official said the trucks were scheduled to be processed one at a time at the gates of the facility, but “You know how they are, they like to pack up,” so that the trucks ended up in a line, dripping, outside the gates, waiting their turn to dump. No one had an answer about the school.
The second time, I came in from the north on a spring day after following the Seaway Trail and got off at Main Street. As my destination was City Hall, what better approach than right down the main drag? The event was a press conference by the local congresswoman announcing her sponsorship of a bill to give special funding to the clean-up of shoreline brownfields. She was warmly received at City Hall by the new mayor. In his welcoming address, the well-spoken ex-academic pointed to posters that showed that as much as a third of Niagara Falls has been or could be, depending on your standards, designated as “brownfield” properties, meaning former industrial sites with residues of contamination that make them dangerous to public health, unsellable, and unusable. The mayor was hoping for some relief.
Federal and state funding for remediation of brownfield properties, hopelessly inadequate to begin with, has been allowed to atrophy so that, despite the long lifespan of some of the toxins buried in the ground, it’s more likely they will dissipate or be “eaten” by naturally occurring bacteria than cleaned up by human agency. The new mayor is a native son, boyish and pleasant, but how long his charm and intelligence will survive in the often toxic waters of Niagara Falls politics is an open question.
My visits to the City of Niagara Falls and the Town of Porter were excellent introductions to Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara. One cannot visit this area without wondering how it could possibly have come to be as it is, and Inventing Niagara explores and explains the territory: a scenic treasure that the Seneca loved to show to visitors, naturally attractive to snake-oil salesmen who would go wherever a crowd might be gathered. Such were the Porters, who settled first at Canandaigua, New York, the site of America’s first land office, and then moved to Niagara Falls to be closer to the action as the Seneca were, shall we say, liberated, relieved, duped, or preempted from their land. (Check out Alan Taylor’s 2006 The Divided Ground for more on the mechanisms of theft by any other name.) In the nineteenth century, the incredible power of the falling water attracted a collection of heavy industries to harvest and use its energy, then caught the attention of the most colossal powerbroker of the twentieth century, who made it his personal project to be in a position to capture all that energy, even if it meant turning the falls off entirely. Yes, Robert Moses, indeed. In a single book we are treated to the exploits of the daredevils Blondin and Moses.
Some of the conniving is innocent enough, in the American sort of way that Twain caught perfectly. If billboards on the Ohio Turnpike advertise a tour of the falls, duty-free purchases, and currency exchange at the next exit-—still a hundred miles away from the falls—it’s simple American sales ingenuity in action. Melville’s Confidence Man showed the deal’s underside, but aren’t all sales a matter of confidence?
In the book’s early chapters, Ginger Strand adopts a light and breezy prose style that would raise the hackles of Messrs. Strunk and White. Though her tone suits the atmosphere of sideshow chicanery and braggadocio that she creates and cleverly entertains the reader, it fails at the serious moments. There’s nothing very funny about the Iroquois being cheated of their land, slaves fleeing the country, and the cruel story of the derelict lakeboat crewed by crates of animals dumped over the falls for amusement. So I won’t be “jollied” into thinking that these incidents happened long ago and we humans have been much improved in the interim.
Luckily, as Inventing Niagara gains weight and shadow of substance, Strand’s writing also quits the funny stuff and gives it to us straight. Somewhere near the book’s midpoint, it becomes clear that this won’t be a charming tale that, despite some ups and downs,ends well. That much was already clear from my visits.
The chemical and metallurgical industries attracted by the falls’ power offered good jobs to local residents, created the materials of the physical prosperity that they, and the nation, enjoyed, and left behind mountains and lakes of contaminated land and water. One of my favorite gruesome stories: a Niagara Falls company offers to pay its workers $50 for each barrel of industrial waste that they’d take home. No questions asked about where it went after that. Who could resist such a deal?
The industrial capacity gathered at the falls, then turned to the war effort, helped to win World War II, but the handling, storage, and “disposal”
of the nuclear materials gathered to make the Manhattan Project bombs later exploded at White Sands and over Japanese cities contaminated every step of the process, including the souls of those involved in developing the weapons. Somewhere out there are several hundred thousand animal corpses—dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and mice—injected with plutonium to kill them by scientists at the University of Rochester and buried in unknown places.
Tip of the iceberg. Those radioactive materials are corrosive of everything they touch. I admire a writer who, after her immersion in the stories, community, and place of Niagara Falls, can write: “Those radioactive lab animals obsess the community not just because the image is so gruesome, but because they seem like a symbol somehow. The Niagara region was itself, in many ways, a guinea pig. Its factories were commandeered for a project the public never even knew about, let alone condoned; its workers’ health was endangered without their knowledge or consent, and its ground was contaminated with materials the community—and even the contaminators themselves—could barely understand. Now the land lies ruined and discarded with no one even sure what happened to it. It’s not that the community is naturally mistrustful or rancorous. They were poisoned by the bitter pill they unknowingly swallowed in the midst of their own war feast.”
It is a sad tale. But it’s not sad because of the symbolism (and yes it is a symbol, Ginger). The tale is sad because of the lack of concern, curiosity, and compassion for those caught in the reality of its toils. “Gross indifference” would best characterize the official attitude; Strand generates some outrage. For those interested in the literature of Niagara Frontier outrage, memoirs of very different style but linked by this content are Apologies to the Iroquois (1960) by Edmund Wilson and Catherine Gildiner’s Too Close to the Falls (1999).
In case you’re wondering, yes this is the story of the same Niagara Falls that functioned as the Honeymoon Capital of the United States, and still does. Amazingly, despite the crass exploitation, the cutthroat competition, the spills of persistent toxins (this is why Lake Ontario fish are still unsafe to eat), the ability to shut the falls off andon like a light, the buried radioactive corpses, the bunkered landfills of household and toxic wastes, and the hazardous-waste incinerator just downstream, Niagara Falls remains America’s Honeymoon Destination. Go figure. It turns out that despite all the dirt that Strand turns up about the falls (her subtitle calls them “lies”), the falls aren’t so easily polluted. Though the tourists and the honeymooners may be primarily interested in spectacles staged by the big casinos squatting by the falls, still they must wonder about that roaring in the background.
Steve Lewandowski is the program director of the Lake Ontario Coastal Initiative headquartered in Rochester, New York. He is the author of eight small books of poetry, most recently One Life (Wood Thrush Books).