Voices of Niagara: Jim Hill, Niagara Parks Commission, Ontario

Jim Hill of the Niagara Parks Commission, interviewed in April 2018 at Oak Hall, Niagara Falls, Ontario © Alan Gignoux

My name is Jim Hill, I’m the Senior Manager of Heritage, for the Niagara Parks Commission. Our park has been around since 1885 and we’re an agency of the Province of Ontario.  Our mandate is to preserve the nature and heritage along the Niagara corridor on the Canadian side of the river.  When we were created in 1885, there was already a lot of development going on here that people felt was limiting access for visitors to the Falls, or maybe taking away from the experience.   They wanted to get back to a natural setting, and that no-one would interfere with visitors who wanted to see Niagara Falls.

Now that sounds simple today, but at the time local property owners would put up fences and walls, and if you wanted to see Niagara Falls up close you would pay some gentleman a couple of pennies, he’d open up a little slot in the wall, when he figured you’d seen enough, he’d close it.  There were stairwells down into the gorge, and it was often free to go down.  But then you’d pay if you ever wanted to leave the Niagara Gorge.  And there was a bit of a sliding scale: we think pretty much based on how you were dressed – in some cases it was pretty exorbitant.  This very aggressive operation was causing concerns for governments on both sides, American and Canadian.

We were established with two rules in mind: that access to Niagara Falls should be free, and that it would cost the taxpayer nothing.  So that’s the rules we have been operating off of since 1885.

The purpose of the Niagara Parks Commission is still to maintain that parkland, but now it has expanded the full length of the river.  So from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, we have a 56 kilometre parkway, and it’s our responsibility to maintain the natural and historic heritage along the river.  So we have efforts to maintain the watershed along there with natural species, plants and wildlife, and to also care for and maintain historic sites and museums along the river corridor.

The core park area, I think will be preserved for generations to come, because it is just as important to the people who operate the casinos and hotels that this parkland is saved, that these lands stay in the public trust, and that there’s a place for their visitors to relax and enjoy this.  I think they would acknowledge that, in as much as they are interested in visitors coming and staying at their hotel or going to the casino.  They acknowledge that we need this important ribbon of land, to create that green space for visitors.

Geography and geology gave us that better view of the Falls, so most photographs you’ll see of Niagara Falls are taken from the Canadian side of the river.  So people want to recreate that experience.

Because we share the river – the border literally goes right down the middle – the waterfall and the Great Lakes, the Niagara River is a matter of particular concern to people on both sides.  The Boundary Waters Treaty goes back to 1909, so very early on, there was a recognition that something needed to be done to preserve and protect not only the appearance of the river, but literally the health of the river itself – how much water we would divert, for industry, for municipal waterworks, and for hydro-electricity.

Just as they are a State Park (on the American side), we are a provincial park here, but we are very much self-funded – all of the resources basically stay here in the community and with the park.  So that’s, I’d say, a benefit to the community that the resources stay here and are managed by the commission itself.

We employ around 1800 employees, so we are one of the largest employers not only in the city of Niagara Falls, but in the entire Niagara region. We aren’t any expense to the taxpayer, at any level, municipal, regional, provincial, or federal – we have our own police department, so we provide provincial level policing also at no expense to the community or the people who live along the river corridor.

What we are currently doing is looking at the park as a whole, including the (disused) power plants, a sort of strategic overview of the significance of the plants and how they fit into our park.  They are massive structures.  The plants that were handed over to the park are right near the Falls, all of them built, basically in the first decade of the twentieth century, so they are amongst the oldest power plants in the world.

This is the beginning of hydro-electric power, here in Niagara.  So they are significant just because of that history, but also the scale of those plants – when you see those plants down by the Falls, it’s like looking at an iceburg, you’re only seeing a portion of the building.  They go down stories underground, so you’re maybe seeing 20% of the building above ground, the rest of the penstocks and wheel pits, where the power was actually generated, go down below into the ground.

These were massive projects for their time, and changed how both sides of the river developed, which brought that industry here, brought larger populations of people here.  But I think that even as industry was building there was also an acknowledgement that this was a place that people needed to see, and needed to visit, and that all the water was not going to be going through power plants and factories, and that somehow this needed to be preserved for future generations.


Voices of Niagara: Paul Dyster, Mayor of Niagara Falls, New York

Mayor Paul Dyster interviewed in April 2018 at City Hall, Niagara Falls, New York  © Alan Gignoux

In a city that was once an industrial power, that’s lost half of its population over the course of the last 50 or 60 years, economic development is always going to be a great challenge.  There’s a certain irony in that since this was one of the first areas in North America to industrialise at the end of the 19th century.

The physical fact of the Falls was always going to generate visitation because it’s spectacular.  But the sheer physical energy of the Falls, the water going over a cliff, was eventually going to be harnessed by somebody, and, in fact, was harnessed in various ways starting with mechanical power for grain grinding even before electricity was invented.

So there’s been industrialisation here almost from the same time that people started coming to look at the Falls, to paint the Falls and to otherwise enjoy the natural environment.

I think one of the major milestones was in the early 1970s when you had the incident at Love Canal, which was linked to some very severe health problems and caused the evacuation of a whole neighbourhood of the city of Niagara Falls.  This was not just a national, but a global story.  On one level, it was a catastrophe.  On the other hand, it gives us the opportunity to claim that the modern environmental movement was really born here at Niagara Falls.

So, where do we go from there?  I guess that’s the question.

There was a study that was done by our tourism promotion agency asking people what they saw as differences comparing Niagara Falls, New York, to Niagara Falls, Ontario.  Niagara Falls, Ontario, has had much more commercial development or glitzy tourism development for a number of years, and I think it’s given them an advantage in this friendly competition that we have for visitors.

Our research turned up an interesting result, and that is that people felt that Niagara Falls, New York, was the greener side – not necessarily the less developed side, but the greener side: the side with the more extensive park system, the side with greater opportunity to get close to the natural resource.

And a number of people preferred that Niagara Falls to the other, and the younger you were, the more likely you were to prefer the greener version.  So we felt that that was something very positive in light of some of the policy initiatives that we’ve undertaken to try to make this a cleaner, greener place.

A fellow named Robert Moses, who was a development czar in New York State at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, thought it was a good idea to put a limited access expressway all along the waterfront of Niagara Falls, occupying some of the most important real estate in the whole city for a period of 40 or 50 years.

We’re in the process now of removing the Robert Moses Parkway, creating an expanded park, the largest expansion of the park since it was created in 1885, and hopefully restoring  not just the physical, but the psychological connection of the people to the river that, after all, gives our city its name.

Niagara Falls is like a broad-based triangle with the Falls at its apex.  Until recently, you had the Robert Moses Parkway on two sides of the triangle, cutting you off from the river.  On the upstream side the parkway’s gone, and we’re going to cut the ribbon very shortly on a new park called Riverway.  That’s going to expand the park from the brink of the Falls upstream to Daly Boulevard.  And later this year, we’re starting work on a project that’s going to remove the parkway from the Falls downstream along the beautiful Niagara Gorge to meet up with Whirlpool State Park and De Veaux Woods.  So we’re reconnecting the city to the waterfront.

This will be on the cover of National Geographic when we get this done, because millions and millions of people from around the world visit here. They care about the place, and our doing a better job not just to protect, but to enhance the environment here is going to be very noteworthy.

We are building our tourism economy.  It is planned to be, and in reality on the ground it is turning out to be, the most lucrative area for investment and job creation for the city moving forward.

But not everyone wants to work in the tourism industry, so we have to have a more diversified economy than just tourism.  What we are looking to do is to create industries here that are cleaner, greener industries, that are going to be sustainable, and that have both a reality and an image that is compatible with this idea of Niagara Falls as an icon of the natural environment.

So, for example, a few years ago, a Quebec-based company invested almost $0.5 billion to create one of the world’s most modern paper mills here in Niagara Falls.  The paper mill is the length of three football fields.  It’s absolutely massive, extraordinarily high-tech.  And not a single tree is cut down in order to feed this massive paper mill because it manufactures recyclable cardboard shipping boxes, out of recycled cardboard.

We think this is the type of industry that people like Nikola Tesla would’ve been very proud to have seen at Niagara Falls.  Something that is taking advantage of electricity that’s available here from hydropower, a very, very green form of power, to do something that is itself good for the environment.

So this is the type of thing that we’re looking for going forward.  We still want to be an industrial power, but we want to be a green industrial power.

The idea of turning people to the concept that economics and the environment are not incompatible – I think that we’ve been able to demonstrate to people that the places in the world that do the best job taking care of the environment are also the most prosperous. That has required a major psychological shift here in Niagara Falls, but I think we’re getting there.  So that if we’re making efforts to clean up our industries, people don’t see it as an attack on job creation now.  They see it as creating a more sustainable base for economic development.

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on You Tube.

Failed Utopias and Dystopian Futures

Gillette’s was not the only Utopian plan for the Falls – also in the 1890’s William T. Love attempted to raise money to construct Model City, an urban development scheme designed around a canal and a hydroelectric plant,  with housing for more than 1 million people.  Love’s plans collapsed after his investors backed out as a result of the 1894 financial crisis.

While entrepreneurs and visionaries such as Gillette and Love imagined marvellous futures at the falls enabled by the wonders of electrical power, others, such as early science fiction writer H.G. Wells foresaw an alternative future in which humankind’s frenzied drive to harness nature to its own ends results in a return to the savage state:

For a time it had seemed that by virtue of machines and scientific civilization, Europe was to be lifted out of this perpetual round of animal drudgery, and that America was to evade it very largely from the outset.  And with the smash of the high and dangerous and splendid edifice of mechanical civilization that had arisen so marvellously, back to the land came the common man, back to the manure.

HG Wells War in the Air
“The Airship staggered to the crest of the Fall”, The War in the Air, by H.G. Wells, 1908, first ed.

In his dark science fiction novel The War in the Air written in 1907, a few years after the inauguration of Tesla’s hydroelectric power plant, Wells sets the decisive air battle in the sky above Niagara Falls, symbol of industrial progress. Wells feared the military implications of air power and of unfettered industrial progress in general. He was suspicious of the hubris he detected in the prophets of technology and worried about the increasingly unshakeable belief in the ability of man, with the aid of science, to control nature.

While Wells’ vision is extreme, his scepticism is perhaps justified by subsequent events.  Before he was forced to abandon his Model City project Love succeeded in building a section of his canal, known today as Love Canal.  Ironically, this site, conceived as central to a Utopian vision of an industrial future, ended up at the heart of one of the nation’s worst industrial waste disasters.  During the 1970’s Love’s abandoned canal became the site of a 70-acre landfill that was not properly contained, leading to an environmental pollution disaster that affected the health of hundreds of residents.  The local residents’ struggle for recognition and reparations was the first example of grassroots environmentalism and led to the national Superfund clean-up operation.

The entire Love Canal neighbourhood was levelled apart from one or two houses, where residents chose to stay. Overgrown sidewalks, stop signs and fire hydrants mark the location of the vanished blocks of houses.  The site of the former Love Canal chemical landfill is fenced off as part of the Superfund clean-up operation.

Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York, April 2017
Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York, April 2017 © Alan Gignoux




Voices of Niagara: Prabhdeep Sandhu, Zaika Restaurant

Prab Sandhu, interviewed at Zaika Restaurant on Third Street, Niagara Falls, New York, on 7th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Prabhdeep Singh Sandhu and I run the Zaika Indian Cuisine Restaurant.  We took over 8 years ago, and we named it Zaika and we started a buffet type system, where you get a lunch and a dinner buffet throughout the summer.

I’m originally from India, from a small town on the border of the states of Punjab and Rajasthan.  I did my higher education in Canada College and I was working in Canada; then I met my wife and that’s how we decided to move here – because she was from here.  I have a passion for food, and the people who owned this restaurant before, they didn’t want to do it anymore, so I thought, let’s try something out.  I wanted to be in business, so that’s what I tried.

I’ve driven a cab for about three or four years.  Then I drove a truck for 7, 71/2 years – I was on the road, all across the United States.  Then I drove a cab again and then I started doing the restaurant business.  Before that I used to be in IT when I was in Canada, as a network admin.  Once I moved here in 2001, with the slowdown in the jobs and all that, I couldn’t find a job that paid well enough, that’s why I decided to drive a cab and it worked out pretty good.  Then I started driving a truck, it was a pretty nice experience, but I think that being in Niagara Falls and running a restaurant is where I fit in.

Business in Niagara Falls is seasonal, it’s very seasonal.  It totally depends on the Maid of the Mist.  The day the Maid of the Mist opens up, the restaurant fills up, this town is full; the day the Maid of the Mist shuts off, everything is off – the city is dead.  We just relax, stay at home, because we tried running it for three years in a row – in the wintertime, there’s not enough people.  Business in Niagara Falls, downtown especially, is strictly based on tourist customers.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, is the Las Vegas of Canada.  They spend a lot of money there: it’s much better, cleaner, and more activities.  They’ve got indoor water parks, and stuff like that…  Niagara Falls, New York, on the other side, it’s very nice, it’s got the parks right by the river, but large investment hasn’t come in…  There needs to be more activities.  I think money is not invested in the right projects.  If you go to Niagara Falls in the winter time, it’s beautiful, but a lot of people can’t go there because it’s so cold.  Having a covered, heated pathway, sidewalk, would really help Niagara Falls tourism, but I don’t think anybody is talking about it…

I would try to bring in more winter activities, all year round activities, like an indoor water park, a skating rink, maybe some zip lining; the other side has zip lining, we could do the same with the gorge in the summer.  Stuff like that would help increase the business.

Connectivity is one of the biggest issues.  The State Park is very well connected – if you want to visit the State Park, the different gorges, you can just hop on the green bus and it takes you all across the State Park, but it’s not connected to the city or downtown.  If those same busses could connect with downtown, I think it would be much better for business, it would be much better for connectivity, tourists can move around, not just at the Falls itself, but also in the city.

When I moved here in 2003 the casino was pretty new.  That was one of the biggest highlights, but right now you see there are a lot of hotels coming up, a lot of new construction going on, and much cleaner sidewalks have been made, and there are a lot of people taking interest in their community.  They are doing a Niagara clean-up drive, they’re giving out awards to people who keep their businesses clean.  It’s helping, it’s coming back.

Since Governor Cuomo put up the $1 billion dollar plan, a lot of businesses are coming down here, because they have a lot of benefits.  Before, the US customers would go and stay on the Canadian side, because they definitely have a better view, but they also have better hotels.  Now more hotels are coming up so a lot more people are staying on this side.  In the last year two years I think I have seen five new hotels come up.  So that means, even if a hotel is 300 rooms – times five that will be 1500 more rooms.

If people are staying here, they will be walking around more.  Another thing is the Niagara Falls Development Corporation, they’re trying to help out with the empire state credits – if you open up a business they give you the façade credits, they give you some money to make it look nicer.  People are showing interest; on Third Street up until last year there were only 3 or 4 businesses that were running – now you see at least 7 or 8 restaurants, so that’s quite a big plus.  I see more people walking on Third Street now, because of more businesses on Third Street.  So maybe they go for lunch someplace and they might decide walking by they want to have dinner here, so they could do that.  More foot traffic is always better.

There is a big Indian community in Niagara Falls now, there is an Indian temple – I think there are about 150 families or more.  The main reason for settling, for me personally, is I have a lot of family and friends that are in Canada, and similarly, a lot of people I know, they have family and friends living in Brampton or Canada.  So it’s kind of like being close to them, so if you have a family get together or something, it’s just a half an hour away and you can be there.

When we were in school in India, we used to open the books – I think it was general knowledge – and they would tell us Niagara Falls is one of the Wonders of the World, so everybody wanted to go to Niagara Falls.  Another thing, the reason there’s a lot of Indians in Niagara Falls in the summer, is because a lot of the cities like New Jersey, New York, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, there’s a lot of Indian population there, even Toronto.  And whenever somebody comes to visit them, they surely want to go see Niagara Falls.  That’s why they make a day trip or overnight trip to Niagara Falls.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Bandhan Khabra

Bandhan Khabra, interviewed on 18th April at the Sikh Temple in Niagara Falls, New York,

“My name is Bandhan. I ended up in Niagara Falls, because my parents decided to move here from Long Island, to start building businesses, because they thought this would be a great area, because there were not many businesses they were interested in, in Long Island, and it’s easier to make money here.

In Niagara Falls my life is very busy, I’m involved in a lot of things, socially, in the community, and at my school, so I don’t really get a lot of time to explore Niagara Falls, the area, but I’m everywhere, I’m in Niagara Falls, I’m in Lewiston, Grand Island, I’m everywhere you can imagine me to be and it’s a great area to live in.

I go to Niagara Catholic High School in Niagara Falls, and I’m interested in medicine, science and pharmacy.  I play soft ball, soccer, volleyball, tennis and basketball.  Also, I take medical classes at UB – they’re called Step Classes, they’re for advanced high school kids, and I’m involved in those.  I also went to study abroad in Trinidad and Tobago to help out people who need help in medical and dental care.

Originally I wanted to be a neuroscientist, but then when I went to go and study abroad, it really changed me, because it encouraged me to go around the world and help people… so I was thinking maybe paediatrician, because paediatricians can help kids in all sorts of ways like flu shots, we can go around giving them to everybody.

I fund-raised for Trinidad and Tobago, so we could buy dental supplies, so when we went there we could give free dental care to everybody who needs it.  We did bake sales, car washes, free movies if you buy a ticket, this and that.

I feel that there are so many people out there that need help, medical care, dental care, people who are starving out there, who can’t afford to go and get food – but the main big ones are medical and dental care, because I know a lot of people from my school, they’re sick, but they can’t go to a doctor because they can’t afford it.  Their parents don’t have the money for them to go to the doctor and to get their teeth checked out.  So I feel there should be some kind of care for people who can’t afford medicine and stuff for them to go and get checked out when they need to.

Being a Sikh girl going to a Catholic school is not different than going to a public school, because at a Catholic school – not many people are Catholic who go to this school – there’s people who are Jewish, Muslim, all sorts of religions, and people, they’re not very racist towards you, especially kids. They don’t really care what skin colour you are.  They just want to be your friends and always help you out.  Everybody’s always there for each other, the first thing we look at is the inside of a person’s heart, not what colour skin they are.

Every week there’s a different family, who cooks the food at the church, because of a special occasion, and it doesn’t have to be a special occasion, but it usually is – maybe the birth of a new child – because they feel like helping the community will better them in the future.  If they do something good today, then when they need help, God will be there for them because they helped the community with food, donating money, all sorts of stuff.

We’re going to be cooking the food next week, because it was my sister’s birthday. Usually we cook for at least 150 people, I would say, and everybody eats it.  People who come to pray at our church, people who don’t have time to come to church – they come after work and they can just eat, or before work.  We don’t exclude anybody.  Somebody outside, who’s hungry on the street, they can just come in, and help themselves, and go pray.  They don’t have to be Sikh just to come in here.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on video You Tube.


Voices of Niagara: Jim Diodati, Mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario

Diodati new
Mayor Jim Diodati, interviewed on 16th April at City Hall, Niagara Falls, Ontario © Alan Gignoux

“One of the biggest factors driving the success of the tourism industry in Niagara Falls, Ontario, was the emergence of gaming – casinos.  In 1996 we had our first temporary casino open up and then in 2006 we had our permanent Falls View Casino, which was a billion dollar bill.

And when that happened it was a catalyst.  I like to say in Niagara Falls we offer a buffet of fun and excitement.  There’s something here for everyone depending on what you’re looking for.  When the casino came and we brought in a whole bunch of new people, it created a catalyst.  And the private sector stepped up and put in almost two times as much as the public sector.  So we started with the billion from the province and we had upwards of two billion from the private sector.

So there’s that many more rooms, that many more employees, that many more people buying groceries, that many more people buying vehicles.  And it had a ripple effect throughout the economy.  So gaming has been huge and then other industries coming in to service gaming like entertainment, limo businesses, all these different supply chain companies that supply goods and services to the casino.

I think for a lot of people Niagara Falls represents fun.  And whether you are interested in golf, trails, history, culture, restaurants, gaming, we’ve got all sorts of neat attractions: jet boats, ziplines, you name it.  There are so many fun and entertaining things here that I think enhance the guest experience.

Now spas have become popular.  Here in the Niagara region we’ve got wineries, we have distilleries, we’ve got breweries opening up.  It’s an emergence of different markets that are being attracted here and it’s bringing in a different kind of clientele.  So it’s still developing.

Now in recent times there is the emergence of vacation rentals, Airbnb, VRBO and the other types of home rentals that bring in another clientele, who are staying longer. And when you’re here longer you can do more of what there is to do in the region.  We’ve got a long lake area, we’ve got incredible beaches, beautiful soft, sandy beaches all along that area.

But you can never forget the number one reason people come here is because of that water that goes over the rock, the Falls.  One of the great natural wonders of the planet.  And I can tell you I’ve travelled many places around the world and I’ve yet to meet a person or be in a place where they didn’t know what Niagara Falls was.

I’d say Niagara Falls – instant brand recognition.  As a matter of fact, I like to say we’re the Coca Cola of municipalities.  I think as long as we always maintain and enhance the beauty of Niagara Falls and let everyone have that initial experience of getting here and seeing it in its natural state, with the mist in your face, the beautiful, full spectrum rainbow shooting over the top…

Recently we had Nik Wallenda go across on a tightrope.  That event drew a billion person audience in a 24 hour period to watch him walk across the Falls.  A billion people globally.  We had 150,000 people show up on both sides of the border to watch him walk across.  Because when something happens and the word Niagara Falls is in the sentence it has a multiplier effect.  It echoes, it goes further and people listen a little closer.  So we’ve definitely got a brand here and I think protecting the brand is going to be really key for future growth.

I think our biggest challenge is complacency.  Because the enemy of great is good.  Because when things are good you’re OK with what you have.

And the other challenge, of course, making sure that the Falls is always protected and respected in all regards and that it’s not too commercialised up close, that it’s never polluted again as was in the past and taken for granted, that it’s not a sewer, it’s not a dumping ground.  And I think by treating it with respect it’s going to give us the gift that keeps on giving.

Niagara Falls, New York, has had their challenges.  In the 1950s Niagara Falls, New York, had 100,000 plus people living in their city.  At the same time we only had around 20,000 people living in Niagara Falls, Canada.  Well, jump ahead from the 50s to today – so not quite 70 years later – we’re at approximately 90,000 on our side and they’re below 50,000 on their side.  So it’s been a complete opposite relationship in terms of growth and population.

I feel for them because it’s a city built to house 100,000 people, but they’ve only got half of that to pay all the bills, to maintain all the infrastructure.  It’s impossible.  So it creates high taxes, more opportunities for negative things.  Industry in a large way left the area and as a result they’ve suffered over the years.

Having said that, they’re trying to create opportunities.  They do have gaming on their side, as well.  They are trying different things to reinvent themselves but it’s not an easy task.  It’s a very difficult task.  I think they’ve slowed down the slide, and I do think they’ve turned the corner. Certainly, in Buffalo they’ve turned corner and they’re roaring back.

Anything that happens good or bad on either side of the river of Niagara Falls, New York, or Niagara Falls, Ontario, reflects on the other.  So we want to make sure that we take care of our reputation and our image and we keep the brand solid and steady.  So we meet regularly to talk about our opportunities, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  And we try to be proactive and come up with ideas that are symbiotic and ideas that we can work together that’ll benefit both sides of the border.

Downtown Niagara Falls, Ontario, looks rough and it is rough.  There’s good news and bad news.  The bad news is there’s been some missed opportunity.  The good news is there’s huge opportunity.  We’ve worked very hard with our other municipal partners in the region and our partners in Queens Park to secure Go train commuter service right to Niagara Falls.  That alone will be a massive catalyst for our downtown.  The way I describe it, it’s like an umbilical cord plugging into the Greater Toronto Area.

We’re also awaiting federal grant approval for a partnership with Ryerson University to have one of their DMZ’s, digital media zone, in our downtown, which will create an entrepreneurial village, where we’re going to incubate entrepreneurs and we’re going to commercialise ideas.

Those two things happening are both game changers.  Happening at the same time, it’s going to completely re-gentrify our downtown.  This area that everybody has to go through to visit me at City Hall – I’m not proud of it.  I just tell them – watch what we do – because this is one of the last things on my bucket list before I leave this job, I want to make sure the change is in full swing. Because that’s a priority.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Constance Hamilton, Sass Hair Salon

Constance Hamillton
Constance Hamilton, interviewed at the Sass Hair Salon on Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York, on 18th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Constance G. Hamilton and I own and operate the beauty salon.  I do hair, make up, ear piercing.

My father came here from Alabama because there was work.  At the time, there was no work in Alabama, unless you worked on a farm or something; he was having a new family, myself and my brother was born in Alabama, he had came out of the service and there were factories here, so he came here to work.  As a matter of fact, his friend sent for him, and he came here and got a job in a factory, and in turn sent for my mother, my brother and the little one, my baby sister, was on the way…

That was in 1956.  He ended up working at the Carborundum plant¹.  He worked from 1957 until ‘77.  Niagara Falls was a beautiful little place, I can remember the parades at Hyde Park, they used to have the Maid of the Mist Parade.  It accepted a lot of differences – the Maid of the Mist Parade was basically a Native American celebration², and here it is now, in 2018, and we have the Seneca Nation Casino, and they put a lot of money and work into our area.

(Things started to change in Niagara Falls) the minute I got this shop on Main Street in 1993.  I could see a big change.  The stores started to close, Jens closed the week I moved in here, and everything just started to close down…  That was in 1993 and I had this shop here for two years, but I couldn’t open the doors, because I was just working on it.  And at that time period everything changed.  Also, the bridge, to the Canadians, they cut off local traffic going back and forth, and they pushed it downtown. That was Nexus, Nexus was the name of it.³

Then I couldn’t get this shop open, it just seemed like they was pushing everything downtown, and I couldn’t get the shop open, and so I had to close down here, and then I waited for a shop on Third Street that was already open.  In other words, here, I had to build a beauty salon, because it used to be a store here.  When I went on Third Street, then it was already a salon that was done.  All I had to do was put my licence up, do a little bit of work around it.  I went to Third Street for ten years.

My mother had picked this shop on Main Street up in the beginning and I felt like it was time to come back.  Maybe – maybe, some of the other businesses would open up.  The city said that this would be a test business for the change that was about to take place on Main Street, because of the (newly built) police station.

The biggest change in Niagara Falls is that there are no stores, but that’s across the country, isn’t it? There’s no stores.  They used to have beautiful stores here.  You know, there are beautiful apartments above these shops, and a lot of that changed.  I don’t know if they just decided not to have these buildings open, but some of these apartments, like over here, across the street, they have beautiful, old-fashioned windows and things of that nature, and all kind of old, china toilets, where you pull the chain. I used to have a girlfriend over there that rented one… but for some reason they decided not to put the money in our area and they want it downtown.

(To revitalize Niagara Falls) I think first of all they have to accept differences in people, I think they need to accept that everybody is not coming from the same place.  We have Hispanic people, we have Native American people, we have people who are from India, Pakistan, we have black people, we have white people – people mix and understand differences and support each others’ differences, and try to make it with each other.  They try to accept just some people and that doesn’t work.

I would like to say jobs is one of the challenges facing African Americans in Niagara Falls.  But I think if we try to concentrate more on family, and put things into our children – see I don’t have children, but these kids are my children… I think you should pass on the things that you know, and make them do a lot of things.  I don’t know if we are steering our children in the way we should.  I think education is way too high, it’s so expensive, you know, and then they don’t have jobs when they get out.  So if you pass on, like a trade, and you give them something when they come out they can immediately start making money, because they have families they’re trying to support, then maybe we would do better.

But that’s with everybody, I just can’t say African Americans, that’s with everyone.  Back when we were little, you learned how to cook from your mom, you learned carpentry from your father, plumbing, things of that nature. So now we live in a world where they are taking our children, and they put them in schools and they charge them a lot of money and by the time they get out of school they got real high student loans, $90,000 – $100,000,and then they don’t have the money to pay for them.  So how are they going to come back and work it out?

Young people try to leave Niagara Falls, but they come back.  Because along with beauty in this place, they are also finding that some industry is coming back here, not the kind of industry you used to have, like chemical plants and things of that nature, the industry that is coming back here is technology.  They are finding that it’s cheaper to come here.

They just did – on the Grand Island toll – they did Easy Pass where you can go back and forth, because it was actually a nightmare, going from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, when the offices were closing because they had such terrible back-ups.  I’d be trying to figure out – where are all these people coming from?  People are coming back to work in Buffalo, Niagara, Youngstown, places like that…

(The salon) is making a living for everybody, although it’s not like it was back in the day. This is as light as it’s been in months, but the phone is ringing so it’s going to be busy this week.

(Niagara Falls) is a beautiful place.  This is my home town and I am able to work with local businesses and I am able to work with people, who are different; I have all kinds of clients, it doesn’t matter what colour they are, so I am able to touch many people who come to this city looking for something.  I got people coming from out of town, I take them down to the Falls a lot.  It gives them something to go see.  They love it.  It’s funny how people appreciate where you are more than you.  But then, sometimes I get a chance in the evenings to walk, you know I do my miles, I’ll go to the waterfalls.”

¹The Carborundum plant was opened in 1895 in Niagara Falls, New York by Edward G. Acheson.  It manufactured a  man-made abrasive with the consistency and accuracy of crushed diamonds.  The company started with 35 employees, which grew to 6,000 by the 1944.  The company flourished from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s, when it was one of the largest employers in the city.  However, it went through a series of owners during the 1980’s, with the result that plants were closed and workers were laid off, with devastating consequences for those directly affected and the Niagara Falls economy.

²The Maid of the Mist parade ran from 1954 to 1970 or 1971.  According to Andrew Z, Galarneau in the Buffalo News on 8th April, 2005: 

“It commemorates the Six Nations legend of the Maid of the Mist, a young Native American woman — thrice widowed — who tries to commit suicide by riding a canoe over the falls. But before her plunge, she is saved by the Thunderbeings, who heal her in a cave behind the falls.

At one time, the annual summer festival, which included a beauty pageant for young women and a re-enactment of the legend — without the falls plunge — attracted large crowds to Goat Island, where it was presented.

But the event also has stirred controversy among some American Indians because, in an incorrect version of the story, a tribe sacrifices the maiden to the falls to appease a serpent god and save their village from drought and death.”

³A joint program between the United States and Canada, NEXUS allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing through dedicated NEXUS lanes at the designated ports of entry, including the international bridges of the Buffalo Niagara region.  The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge (the nearest bridge to Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York) only permits NEXUS travelers to cross, leading to a loss of traffic from non-NEXUS travelers.

The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Angela Berti, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Angela Berti
Angela Berti, Marketing and Public Affairs Coordinator, New York Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, interviewed at Prospect Point, Niagara Falls State Park on 10th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

The Niagara Falls State Park is in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, on the American-Canadian border. It lines the Niagara River near the Falls on the American side and incorporates the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and a portion of the Horseshoe Falls, as well as Goat Island.  The State Park is a separate entity from the city of Niagara Falls, New York, and is managed by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.  

“Niagara Falls State Park was founded in 1883 by the leaders of New York State.  At that time in Niagara Falls State Park, all along the river were industries that were using the water to create power, so as a result of that, there was no public access to see the beautiful Falls.  The leaders of our state found that to be unacceptable – so they came up here and they took this land through eminent domain from the city of Niagara Falls, and they created what is Niagara Falls State Park today.  It was finally opened in 1885 as a State Park and it’s been operating ever since.  It’s completely free to enter this park and see the Falls – that was one of the founding principles – and so you can come in today for no money at all and see the Falls.

The main principle about the conservation of this park involved keeping it as natural as possible.  We went from one extreme to the other, where the Falls were being used to create power in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and so the thought process was, “Let’s bring it back to that.”  And I think they did a pretty good job.  Frederick Law Olmsted was a renowned American landscape architect, who came here and took a look around, and he left some ideas – he didn’t necessarily design this park, but the design is inspired by him, and that’s a big deal to us, and that’s what we’re trying to go back to, even today.

In the last six or seven years here in New York State we’ve been bringing that vision back.  Over time it’s kind of gotten diluted, and some of the materials that have come into the park, in terms of benches and garbage cans and those kinds of things have moved away from that historical Frederick Law Olmsted influence, and so we’re trying to bring a lot of that back.  We’re bringing native plantings back into the park, and really trying to bring the park back to a uniform, peaceful place to visit.

That contrasts with what we see over in Canada, where they’ve been focusing on this big city, razzle dazzle tourism industry for quite some time now, and we find that it offers people the best of both worlds, where they can come here to the Niagara Falls State Park, be immersed in nature, be right up close next to the rapids and the river, and then go over to Canada and see the beautiful wide view of the Falls and maybe experience some of the excitement of what they focus on over there.

About 50 years ago when the industries started leaving Niagara Falls, USA, we believed that they would come back some day, so we treaded water, deciding what we were going to do until that happened.  At that same time the Canadians were determining that tourism was their future and that’s why you see the disparity between the two cities.  Here in Niagara Falls, New York, we get 8 or 9 million people per year that come to see the Falls and at the end of that experience they are looking for things to do, so we’re really working closely with the city of Niagara Falls, to try to get people out of the park, to spend more time in the city.  It’s a great place, there are wonderful restaurants, there’s a culinary institute, there are other attractions – you could spend days in this area, just enjoying the other attractions.  And so we are working as a community, almost for the first time, to develop that infrastructure and make sure that people that are coming here to see the Falls are aware of the other things to do.

We’re trying to gracefully find our footing, in between the commercialisation of this park and the expectations of tourists, and maintaining the beauty.  It’s a pretty fine line that we are walking, and it also contributes to our relationship to the city of Niagara Falls, where we don’t want to over offer opportunities to eat and to shop, when that can also be going on in the city.

Niagara Falls is where my family is from, and so when I got the job here I remember telling my grandfather and he was over the moon.  He worked for a construction company that built a lot of the stuff here, the Tower and the Rainbow Bridge and the Aquarium, so there’s this history of my family that is here, which makes it even more special to me.  I say a lot of times that people save money their entire lives to come here, to what we have in our back yard, here in western New York, and we take that for granted too often – slowly but surely we’re turning that around.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Joe Hotchkiss, Powercity Eatery

Joe Hotchkiss, one of three owners of the Powercity Eatery, Third Street, Niagara Falls, New York, interviewed on 10th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

Powercity Eatery is located on Third Street, an up and coming street with a mix of cafes, bars and restaurants founded by young entrepreneurs hoping to revitalize the downtown tourist district of Niagara Falls, New York.

“We are Power City Eatery.  We are a New York style eatery and café.  We serve fresh deli sandwiches, we have espresso-based drinks, lates, cappuccinos, things like that.  The people that come in here are very happy to have us here.  We have a nice, large space for people to get together for lunch.  The people that live here deserve good quality food and that’s what we’re doing.  We’re making as much as we can from scratch.  And we’re also giving the community something different that they might not have experienced before.  There’s a lot of pizza places and things like that – we are giving them home made pastrami, fresh bread, home-made bread, we’re giving them good, European-style coffee…

I moved up here, because I was stationed in the Coast Guard, so I lived just north of here for a few years, I met my wife, who worked about 10 minutes away  and I went to school right up the street, at Niagara University, and once I graduated we decided to make this our home.  We purchased a home, we chose this area to open our business.

I think that the people that live here see what this city has to offer, they love the Falls, they love the history of Niagara Falls, the architecture of this city is beautiful.  It’s heart-breaking to see things boarded up, but I think that also gives hope for new growth, that I think the people here are ready for, ready to see.  I would not have picked anywhere else to start up a business.  A lot of people asked us, why didn’t we choose Lewiston, which is a happening area right now, why didn’t we choose Buffalo…  I think that the people wanted this so badly, this little meeting place that provides the things that we have.  I think we got it right, and while the numbers might not show right away, I think, potentially, this space, this business, could be a rock for growth through the city.  It’s made quite a few strides since I’ve been living here.  New businesses have popped up –  apart from myself, there’s a few restaurants, Wine on Third, Third Street Retreat.

The Falls to me represent hope and inspiration.  They’re inspiring to me because of all the people that come here, from different countries, to see the Falls – I hear those stories every day, and it never gets old.  And going and actually seeing the Falls yourself, that will never get old, it’s an amazing experience.  The town itself, the city, to me, represents strength and it’s a large bond that people have here.  Everybody wants to see this place become successful, and it’s just a matter of time before it happens.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Jeff Morrow, The Book Corner

Jeff Morrow, interviewed on 14th April, 2018 at The Book Corner on Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York.

“My name is Jeff Morrow, I own The Book Corner here on Main Street in Niagara Falls.

Our family came into the Falls in the ‘60s and bought this store, the Book Corner, so I grew up locally, living in Hyde Park first, and then moving to Lewiston.  My earlier childhood memories are of spending my Saturdays down on Falls Street, playing, because my dad would bring me with him to work on Saturdays and I looked forward to that.  The book store is now 90 years old, it was created by Marie Fleming, who was a Canadian who had moved to Niagara Falls, New York, because she had married a banker from here, and she had the store until the ‘60s.  My father was working for another book store in Ithaca, New York, and found out that this book store had become available for sale.  He came down here, he bought it, and then I – later in life after college – came to work for him, and eventually bought him out in 2001, so I’ve owned the store for 17 years.

In the later ‘70s and early ‘80s when people became more environmentally aware, they started putting restrictions on the plants that were dumping into the river, and the resulting withdrawal of jobs  was the beginning of the end.   There was also urban renewal at the same time, where they tore down a lot of our heritage buildings downtown, not with the idea of replacing it with anything… and that was the beginning of it, with the loss of population we started losing small family businesses that had existed for years, on Main Street and on Third Street, and as they folded the city sorted of folded around them.

The majority of our buildings are empty and boarded up with not much future in sight with them, they’re deteriorating, many of them need to come down, it’s almost a ghost town that we have going right here on Main Street.

The thing with the store is, I must admit I don’t think about much outside of myself, in terms of what other businesses are going to do, who’s going to come in and who’s not going to come in.  I just concentrate on myself.  I try to create an environment that is both friendly and a home for the community, while being a retail business at the same time.  Since our store is 90 years old, many families have memories from our store, so the store means a lot for our city and also for my family at the same time.  And so that’s one of the drives I have for me to continue the legacy.

I’m an athlete, my wife calls it the Jack mentality, I really set goals for myself, not only for sports because I work out every other day, where I set goals at the gym – but also here at our store, I set goals for myself to achieve more books for the customers, better Amazon sales. We tend to have a lot of sales that way now, so I just create a book store that’s very well rounded, that a lot of people can enjoy.

We try to make (the room upstairs) a community space, so it can be used during the hours of our book store, for anybody to play the musical equipment up there, or just read, write, just relax if they like, and I let people use that free of charge for any sort of social event they want to have, whether it be drama, music, book groups, so it’s nice to have another space to offer free of charge.  We can’t use it as much in the winter because of only being able to heat this main floor, but during the months of June to November, we’ll have a constant open mike for musicians and poets and then the other events are somewhat sporadic, just depending on what we have going on.

The sad thing is I do think this store will end when I retire, which will probably be in about five years, and I’m sorry to say, it takes a lot of drive to do what I do, and I haven’t seen this drive in any of the people that have approached me with the idea that they wanted to buy the store.  My whole family has worked here at some time in their life or other, especially my father, spent over 40 years working here.  I would like to think that the store will be remembered for our family, and not handed to somebody else, where it may not be run with the same customer service orientation we have.

Without the town we would never have had the store.  We know the community has supported us throughout all of this, the ups and downs, so it (the town) will always hold a strong part in my heart, that’s why leaving it will be so hard for me, it’s a large part of my social life, that I’ll be putting aside, and so I will miss Niagara Falls when I retire.  I am very sentimental about this city in that aspect.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on video on You Tube.

The Book Corner