For months Wallenda promised a death-defying feat — "He's conquered fear!" Assemblyman Cerreto proclaimed. But a few weeks ago, ABC, which will televise the walk, insisted that Wallenda wear a harness tethering him to the wire. Wallenda says he'll go along because he needs sponsors to cover his costs, and sponsors generally don't want to be associated with the sight of someone falling to his death.
The dilemma is vintage Niagara Falls, where — because of the competing demands of industry, tourism and conservation — things often are not as they seem. A public power authority carefully modulates the flow of water over the falls, depending on the season or time of day, to suit visitors; the falls themselves, shaped by man as well as nature, are lit at night, sometimes in garish colors to mark an occasion.
From Canada, the view across the gorge is relatively natural. From America, there is a panorama of hotels, casinos, restaurants, pop museums, observation towers and a Ferris wheel.
"There's an Oz-like quality to what happens here," admits the mayor, Paul Dyster. "What's real? What's fake?"
Meeting at Shorty's
Niagara Falls is a sucker for saviors. Nik Wallenda is not the first.
On the afternoon of Feb. 13, 2008, Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York, came to talk with local leaders about how to revitalize the city.
Dyster was waiting when the governor's black Suburban pulled up outside the site of the meeting, Shorty's Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill. The governor's party came in and shook hands, but there was no governor. "He's still in the Suburban, making a call," an aide told Dyster. "He'll just be a minute."
After the meeting, Spitzer invited Dyster to come to Albany to discuss a menu of projects. A month later, Dyster's bags were packed when he heard the news: A federal prostitution investigation had led to Spitzer, known to the Emperors Club VIP escort service as "Client 9."
A few days later, Spitzer resigned.
Soon Dyster learned the rest of the story: Just before the meeting Feb. 13 in Niagara Falls, according to wiretap logs, Spitzer called the escort service for an assignation that night at a Washington hotel. After the meeting, he called again and was told a woman would be waiting. "Great, OK," he said.
"What a disappointment!" says Gromosiak, the historian. "We were so happy we hugged him when he came here. We thought he was the right kind of governor for Niagara Falls."
One of a kind
There is no place like Niagara Falls. The nation's first state park was created here in 1883 to protect the falls from tourists and developers, but the city boomed on cheap water power and heavy industry.
After 1950, as its electro-chemical industry faded, the city began to fold. Attempts to reverse the decline, including the bulldozing of much of downtown and a series of white-elephant urban renewal projects, made things worse.
Then came Love Canal, the dumpsite-turned-residential neighborhood that was evacuated and declared a national disaster area after toxic chemicals started oozing from the ground in the late '70s.
Today, the city is old and poor; two of three residents subsist largely on welfare or Social Security, according to Census studies.