Buffalo Days: What now Niagara Falls?
The crowd watches as Wallenda makes his long-awaited walk
Most had a front row seat in front of their TV sets. The 4,000 tickets for Nick Wallenda’s highwire walk across Niagara Falls sold out in five minutes. Anyone not right on the spot at Terrapin Point wasn’t going to see much. But whether they could see anything or not, visitors flocked to the Falls from across the country, just to be there when the walk happened.
And then it was over. As Stephen Colbert commented, Niagara Falls, U.S. needs a tourist attraction to get people to visit a tourist attraction. What could attract thousands to Terrapin Point on a regular basis? It seems a view of the American Falls and a stroll through the natural beauties of Goat Island are not enough. Wallenda’s walk spotlighted the natural spectacle of the falls, drawing attention away from its shabby urban surroundings. How to do that on a daily basis?
In terms of infrastructure, attractions, and amenities, progress is being made—slowly. New York State is finally paying some attention to this park—the first state park in the nation—with $25 million worth of new railings, repaved paths, restored plantings and repaired bridges to be installed over the next few years. In 2008, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area was declared, and a former 1863 customs house near the Whirlpool bridge has been restored as an interpretative center for Underground Railroad sites throughout Niagara County. Finally, a flashy Niagara Experience Center, larger and more like an interactive museum than the current, relatively modest Discovery Center, is still on the wish list of some Niagara Falls city officials, including Mayor Paul Dyster. (The project failed to receive funding in the last round of state economic development grants.)
With an improved Olmsted park and an emphasis on heritage tourism, Niagara Falls, U.S. retains its claim to the high ground over Clifton Hill’s barrage of Ripley’s outlets and fast food. But it’s probably never going to be enough. The Wallenda vibe—solidly founded in a long history of stunts and thrills over the gorge—needs to be kept going. A big reason for its success was that this was not a wax museum version of a sensational event. It was a sensational event, and Niagara Falls, U.S. has truly sensational beauty—more, in many ways, than its Canadian counterpart.
At one point, PT Barnum was interested in a circus on Goat Island. That’s probably not a good idea, but why not take a dash of Barnum, a bit of Wallenda, and a sprinkle of Johnny Knoxville, and make Niagara Falls, U.S. the go-to site for stunt masters, daredevils, and other foolhardy souls, within reason? The site’s over-the-falls-in-a-barrel past can be played up against a backdrop of well-maintained natural beauty and serious history.
Finding a marketable—and sustainable—way to take advantage of humankind’s innate urge for self-destruction might just be a savior for the falls. Think wild—with tethers.