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.

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“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: Jim Diodati, Mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario

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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: Lou Paonessa, Robert Moses Niagara Power Project

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Lou Paonessa, Community Relations Director, New York Power Authority at the Robert Moses Niagara Power Project, 9th April, 2018 ©Alan Gignoux

We interviewed Lou Paonessa about the history of hydro-electric power at Niagara Falls and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Project, New York State’s biggest energy producer.  

“My name is Lou Paonessa, I work in community relations at the New York Power Authority.

We like to say that this is the birthplace of hydro-electricity here at Niagara Falls: folks like George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla, did some of their best work here.  Tesla came and saw the immense power and majesty of the falls and right away saw it as a force to be harnessed and a force for good. A lot of it was mechanical energy at that time – spinning water wheels – but Tesla and Edison were able to turn that mechanical energy into electrical energy through their inventions and their ability to transit electricity, which was done from here to Buffalo and really started a world-wide revolution.

This is the Robert Moses Niagara Power Project.  It’s really two facilities: we have a pump generating plant that allows us to store water like a battery, at our Lewiston pump generating plant.  There’s an international treaty between the United States and Canada that says a certain amount of water has to flow over the falls, because this is a tourist area and we want Niagara Falls to be an important part of tourism for the region.  We take what water is available, after allowing water to go over the falls for tourism purposes, and split it equally among this plant and the one on the other side of the river (in Canada);  so at night when power demands are low, and water may be more plentiful, we pump it up into the Lewiston reservoir so that we can use it twice during the day time, run it through our pump generators, generating a small amount of power, and then a quarter of a mile down to the main Moses facility where we can generate a large amount of power. This particular facility can generate upwards of ten percent of the power demands of New York State, at any one given time.

We’re here for the economy, to be a backbone of power for the State of New York, as well as this region.  One of the main reasons that this power project is here is for jobs; economic development is one of the major features of the mission of the New York Power Authority.  We produce low cost, clean energy that will allow businesses to operate here at a lower cost than other places, because hydro-electricity is cheaper than other forms of energy. Also, taking advantage of the wonderful geography – there’s no better place to build a power plant with the Great Lakes supply of clean, fresh water – but also the landscape, the 300 foot drop which helps to create the energy you need to power a 2600 megawatt power facility.

The New York Power Authority, as part of our federal licence, also has certain standards that it has to uphold: as part of our licence to be able to operate this facility, there are recreational and environmental standards that must be met.

One of our recreational projects is the Niagara Power Project; we also have fishing and other facilities available to the public.  One of the promises that we made was to offer this Visitor Center; because so many millions of people are coming to Niagara Falls, each and every year, and a lot of people are interested in the power plant, the power dam and how electricity is produced; we decided to make this a top notch attraction to help extend visitors’ stay in the region, and therefore increase tourism for the area, which is all good for the economy of Niagara.

The State of New York has high clean energy goals and we’re going to be a driver of that, not only through our hydro- power production, but through solar, wind and other renewable energies.  We want to be a leader in turning around what has been a poor environmental record in this area to make it a strong one.”

Niagara as a Focus for the Future

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Gillette, King Camp, The Human Drift, Plate V (Boston: New Era Publishing Co., 1894. Reprint: Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, Inc., 1976). A circular building designed by Gillette for his Utopian city, Metropolis.

Niagara gripped the imagination of not only travellers and writers, but also of engineers and entrepreneurs.  Many of these “envisioned the fall’s industrial and economic potential as limitless” and “they imagined a colossal, utopian future that would inevitably result from the relentless human drive to subdue and transform nature.” (McGreevy)

In his book Imagining Niagara  Patrick McGreevy argues that the idealization of Niagara Falls and the association of the falls with industrial progress and the future are intimately connected, writing:  “My contention here is that industrial development and idealization are intimately connected.  Visions of the future began as an extension of Niagara’s idealization. The Falls’ industrial development depended upon a host of factors that could be examined through traditional economic and locational analysis, but this development was also a matter of imagination.”

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A multiple exposure picture of Tesla sitting next to his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts. The 7-metre (23 ft) long arcs were not part of the normal operation, but only produced for effect by rapidly cycling the power switch. Source: Wikipedia

Although industrial development of the Falls began already in the early nineteenth century, McGreevy posits that the idea of the future became bound up with Niagara Falls with the beginning of hydroelectric power in 1895.  It was in that year that Nikolai Tesla and George Westinghouse built the first hydro-electric plant in the world at Niagara Falls, harnessing the tremendous power of the falls to generate and transport electricity, marking the victory of the former’s Alternating Current over Thomas Edison’s Direct Current.

Tesla turbines Niagara Falls

Their achievement amounted to no less than a revolution that led to the electrification of the world.  The history of hydro-electric power at Niagara Falls is fraught with controversy, but by mastering the creation and distribution of electricity Tesla improved lives immeasurably, conforming to a positive view of progress that supports the idea of humankind using science to improve the material lives of the many.

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Gillette, King Camp, The Human Drift, Map Showing the Location of Metropolis, 1894

Tesla’s scientific achievement helped to inspire a vision of a future Utopian society located at Niagara Falls in the form of King Camp Gillette’s socialist urban planning vision The Human Drift, published in 1894.  Gillette, better known for his invention of the safety razor with disposable blades, imagined a magnificent city called Metropolis at the site of Niagara Falls, which would be entirely powered by electricity generated by the Falls.  He wrote:

For many reasons I have come to the conclusion that there is no spot on the American continent, or possibly in the world, that combines so many natural advantages as that section of our country lying in the vicinity of the Niagara Falls, extending east into New York State and west into Ontario. The possibility of utilizing the enormous natural power resulting from the fall, from the level of Lake Erie to the level of Lake Ontario, some 330 feet is no longer the dream of enthusiasts, but is a demonstrated fact. Here is a power, which, if brought under control, is capable of keeping in continuous operation even manufacturing industry for centuries to come, and, in addition supply all the lighting… run all the elevators, and furnish the power necessary for the transportation system of the great central city….

Gillette envisaged that electricity would lead to increased mechanisation, resulting in improved efficiency and increased wealth for all;  social progress would naturally follow.

 

Niagara Falls, 1855

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Regis Gignoux, Niagara Falls, 1855, oil on canvas, High Museum of Art

This painting by Regis of Niagara Falls, now in the High Museum in Atlanta, provided the inspiration for our visit to the falls and will be the starting point for Alan’s creative response to this location.  It is a delicately coloured summertime view of the falls with little sign of human intervention aside from the viewing tower at the edge of Goat Island and the two gentlemen in the foreground.  Although the falls appear impressive, the scene is peaceful, conforming more to the picturesque than the sublime, and the two men appear happily engaged in pleasant contemplation of the scene before them.

Already in Regis’s day this scene would have represented an idealized version of the scenery surrounding the falls – with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the introduction of the railways in the 1840s, the previously inaccessible Niagara Falls became a popular tourist site among the well-to-do, who had the means and the time to make such excursions. The falls were also, increasingly, the site of speculation and development for entrepreneurs who sought to harness their power for industrial purposes. Artists, however, often preferred to depict the falls in their pristine state,  undisturbed by commerce or industry; this was possibly because they wished to conform to the aesthetic conventions governing landscape painting in the nineteenth century, which derived from romanticism rather than realism.

It is unclear what purpose the figures in the foreground of Regis’s painting are intended to fulfil.  Are they tourists admiring the grandeur of the falls?  Are they speculators discussing the industrial potential of the scene?  Interestingly, the two men are not facing the Horseshoe Falls depicted in the painting; rather, they are facing towards the left in the direction of the American Falls, which are not featured in the work.  Regis may have used this as a device to expand the imaginative scope of the painting or to overcome the compositional difficulty of including both of the falls in a single image.  Either way, the artist considered it necessary to complete the scene.

On close inspection then, Regis’s 1855 summertime view of Niagara, although is not a representation of the falls as they appeared then; rather it is an illustration of the way in which nineteenth century middle class Americans saw themselves – as a refined and civilized people in sufficient control of the landscape around them to engage in the contemplation of scenery for pleasure or the use of it for industry.

Today, Niagara Falls is known as much for the carnivalesque features that surround it as for the beauty of the falls themselves.  In subsequent posts we will look at the ideas and events that gradually transformed this natural wonder from one of the country’s most revered national symbols to a somewhat beleaguered tourist attraction and a site for hydro-electric power and chemicals manufacturing.