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

 

 

 

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