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Niagara Falls considers a return to its daredevil past

As a high-wire artist requests to take a walk across the falls, the New York city sees an opportunity for an economic lift.

July 27, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • The city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., has struggled for decades. Council members voted 4-1 to endorse a high-wire walk at the falls, hoping for an economic boost.
The city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., has struggled for decades. Council members… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Niagara Falls, N.Y. — There is no shortage of legends surrounding the cat that went over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Some say it survived, proving the barrel was sturdy enough to carry humans down the falls. Some say it died. Some say it rode shotgun with Annie Edson Taylor when she became the first person to survive a barrel roll over the falls in 1901.

Photos: Niagara Falls, then and now

Mark DiFrancesco of Niagara Falls' Daredevil Museum offers another twist on the tale.

"Legend has it the cat was black going over the falls but came out of the barrel white" from fright, he said, straight-faced, as Independence Day visitors eyed the museum's yellowed newspaper clippings, old photographs, bashed-up barrels, tattered life vests and a dented jet ski.

That the legend of the cat lives on 110 years later says something about Niagara Falls' passion for its daredevil past, which seemed as dead as its economy until state lawmakers latched onto the idea of using that death-defying spirit to try to boost the city's finances.

High-wire artist Nik Wallenda approached officials recently with a plan to cross the cataract on a wire the width of a nickel. The performance would be featured in "Life on a Wire," a Discovery Channel show expected to begin airing later this year. To clear the way for the spectacle, legislators last month approved a one-time exemption from a 50-year-old ban on daredevil acts at the falls.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not indicated whether he will sign the bill, which has won support from local tourism officials and most city leaders. Backers say that even though the city wouldn't profit directly, visitors who come to watch Wallenda would spend money in its restaurants and other businesses, and the television show could trigger a long-term surge in tourism.

But not everyone is sold on a made-for-reality-TV event as the solution to the city's economic problems, especially one that could end in tragedy.

"Are we that desperate?" local historian Paul Gromosiak asked the Niagara Falls City Council this month.

Some think so. Council members voted 4-1 to endorse the wire walk.

Once synonymous with romantic honeymoons, burgeoning industry (Nabisco made Shredded Wheat here) and Hollywood glamour (Marilyn Monroe played a murderous wife in the 1953 hit "Niagara"), the Rust Belt city has struggled for decades.

A few blocks from the shady parkland surrounding the falls, dilapidated neighborhoods speak to the city's decline. Crumbling brick and boarded-up windows mar streets lined with once-gracious homes. Derelict storefronts haunt Main Street. Low-slung motels and vacant lots stand in sharp contrast to the high-rises, colorful cafes and manicured gardens across the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls' Canadian sister city.

There, officials spent decades building a bustling tourist industry while their New York counterparts banked on factories and plants — now gone — to pay the bills.

Since 1960, the city's population has fallen by more than half, to 50,000. Though tourism officials say more than 8 million people visit each year, they don't necessarily stay the night. The city's hotel occupancy rate this year is 51.7%, its best in years but still lagging behind the national average of 59%, according to Smith Travel Research. Hotel revenue last year was about $76 million, compared with $420 million for hotels on the Canadian side.

Last month, the city's school district announced a halt to night games for varsity sports teams, to save money on stadium lighting.

"We're very depressed here," said tour guide Michele Brundidge as she led visitors through the Daredevil Museum — actually a convenience store whose heat-and-serve burritos, ice cream bars and cold drinks share space with artifacts left by those who tried to conquer the falls.

When tourists glimpse the Canadian skyline with its giant Ferris wheel and hotels overlooking the falls, they ask, "Can't we go over there?" Brundidge said.

If the prohibition against daredevil acts is eased, Wallenda would have one year to perform his feat, which would take him across the Niagara River in front of Horseshoe Falls. At more than 170 feet high and 2,200 feet wide, it is the biggest and most spectacular of the three cataracts that make up Niagara Falls. The wire would be attached to cranes on either side of the gorge; Wallenda's representatives say there would be no bolts or other damage to the environment.

Some key players — including parks commissions in New York and Ontario, Canada — have yet to embrace the idea. Skeptics such as Mayor Paul Dyster of Niagara Falls, N.Y., worry about copycats.

"We're concerned about that, but we're also concerned about our first responders who would have to go and rescue people," Dyster said.

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