Human Accumulations: Documenting Niagara Falls

For Human Accumulations Alan Gignoux and Jenny Christensson are documenting the Niagara Falls of today – the waterfalls and the two cities of Niagara Falls in New York and Canada – in photographs and words in the form of interviews.   

Once, at the heart of an ancient forest, there was a beautiful waterfall, whose emerald green waters thundered into a tree-lined gorge…

The story of Niagara Falls, New York is a telling illustration of America’s complicated and often contradictory relationship to Nature.  This story is played out all over the nation every day, but nowhere else is it more polarized or more symbolic.

When the Hudson River School artist, Regis Gignoux, arrived with his sketchbooks in the mid-19th century the two monumental waterfalls at Niagara were celebrated around the world for their natural beauty, awe-inspiring scale and indomitable power. Adopted as an icon of America, they symbolized the young nation’s abundant natural resources, vigour and seemingly endless potential for growth.  The Falls had achieved celebrity status and were to be seen everywhere: on mugs, lampshades, wallpaper, etc.

Niagara Falls was both Nature and America.  And famous for it.

However, the reality on the ground told a different story.  Until 1848 the city growing up along the shores of the river on the American side was called Manchester, reflecting its ambitions to become an industrial centre to rival its British namesake.  No wooded paradise, the waterfront was lined with factories and mills.

On both sides of the gorge the growing tourist industry, which would explode with the arrival of the railways in the 1840’s, was building a system of viewing points, bridges, ladders and walls, designed to extract as much money as possible out of the tourists and control the visitor experience.

The hubris that developed around the Falls was a magnet for entrepreneurs and engineers of the day who poured energy and money into schemes to harness first the mechanical and shortly after the hydro-electric power of the waterfalls.  There were spectacular failures but also extraordinary successes.  Niagara Falls was the site of the first practical application of Nikola Tesla’s alternating current, an achievement that changed the world immeasurably.  The Falls briefly became a hotspot for thinkers planning future Utopian societies.

Fast forward to 2018 and the water going over the Falls is regulated to cater to the competing needs of the tourist and hydro-electric power industries, a fact which is simultaneously impressive and shocking – and then understandable when you learn that the Robert Moses power plant in New York and the Adam Beck power plant in Ontario are both essential suppliers of clean electricity to their respective regions.

The waterfalls on the American side are flanked by a narrow strip of protected land – the Olmsted-inspired Niagara Falls State Park.  Beyond that, the city of Niagara Falls, New York, bears all the hallmarks of rust belt industrial decline: abandoned industrial sites, empty and boarded up houses, a decreasing population.

The ghost of the infamous Love Canal environmental disaster roams the streets.  Five Superfund sites located within the city itself together render 154 acres of land unusable for the foreseeable future. Hundreds of acres of land along the Niagara River are brownfield sites that will take years to reclaim because current owners will not pay to clean them up and are afraid to sell for re-purposing because of potential law suits down the road.

Across the water, on the Canadian side, the skyline of Niagara Falls, Ontario, resembles an amusement park, complete with casinos, hotels, sky wheels and viewing towers.  An entire street dedicated to funfair attractions runs uphill from the riverfront.  It’s not pretty, but it’s profitable.

As on the American side, a band of protected land, managed by the Niagara Parks Commission of Ontario, lines the waterfront.  It is here that tourists pause to take pictures for their Instagram feeds.  The Americans got the Falls, but the Canadians got the view.

Where to from here for Niagara Falls? 

On the Canadian side the strategy is to build on brand Niagara and grow the already vigorous tourist industry.

On the American side, there are efforts underway to expand the state park, develop downtown to support tourism, reconnect the city with the waterfront, reclaim the chemically polluted land and introduce green industries.  Immigrant families and millennials in search of low living costs and business opportunities backed by incentives have already started moving in.

Green shoots.


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