Friday, January 9, 2015

We can't let Niagara Falls be known as a laughingstock

In a conversation with actress Nicole Kidman about her New Year’s Eve in Niagara Falls, late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon said this about the Cataract City:

“Canada’s side is like lights and it’s almost like Vegas. It’s fun. The New York side looks like a Lemony Snicket book cover. It’s sad. There’s all these trees with no leaves on it. And you go, ‘What happened? Why is that side so much worse?’ Canada’s side, that’s the place to do it. It’s amazing.”

Of course, this got a lot of people in the county all fired up. They took to Facebook and Buffalo news stations to share their disapproval with his commentary.

I guess they haven’t looked out their window in a while.

Fallon was right. Niagara Falls USA is depressing.

It’s even a little terrifying.

One shouldn’t expect – or even want – the New York side to look like the Canadian side. We can do a lot for ourselves if we capitalize on the natural beauty and power that the Falls and Niagara River afford us and the outdoor pursuits, romance (it is the Honeymoon Capital of the world) and economic potential (consider the power project) that come from them.

But that’s tough to do when that world-class beauty is nestled amidst equally world-class squalor and depravity.  

Niagara Falls is in ruins. A once-proud city that exceeded a population of 100,000 now struggles to claim 50,000 and the federal designations that come with that. One quarter of Niagara Falls residents live below the poverty level. There seem to be more vacant properties than there are active homes and businesses. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the state. The crime rate is the highest for any municipality in New York.

It doesn’t really sound like a vacation destination, does it?

That’s what Fallon sees. That’s what the rest of the world sees.

So, why do so few local residents see that?

Everyone might post their social media missives at Jimmy Fallon or yell at the TV, but that does nothing. That’s slacktivism. which Google defines as “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement”.

If you really want to change public perception about our diamond in the rough, get off your butt and do something to change Niagara Falls itself. Don’t put all your hopes on a casino or a few hotels. Don’t let it all fall on the mayor and few developers. Don’t let such a small number of volunteers change the community. Be a part of the solution.

The volunteerism rate in New York is dead last in the United States. That shows in a place like Niagara Falls that needs help and just isn’t getting it. There’s so much that every resident who gives even the slightest damn could do: help a youth organization to put tomorrow’s adults on the right path, volunteer at a housing non-profit and give the city a much-needed facelift, actively participate in a block club or community watch group, join a beautification committee. Niagara Falls’ wants and needs are endless.

I also challenge my fellow employers in the Niagara Region to step up to the plate. Hire, train and give a second chance at life to those who might have started off on the wrong foot in that fair city. Changing the people and helping them to prosper will change the city and help it to prosper, too.  

And don’t think that Niagara Falls’ problems are only Niagara Falls’ problems. They’re all of ours. Everything else that happens in Niagara County (taxes, economic development, housing, jobs) are tied in to what happens or doesn’t happen in the city. If the city was as dynamic as it once was – and could be again – it would be contagious and spread throughout our region. It’s called “Niagara” County for a reason.

You need to do something. I need to do something. We need to do something. If we don’t, the city will remain as fodder for the Jimmy Fallons of the world. Let’s not let Niagara Falls be a laughingstock. Let’s make sure it’s known as a classy destination and a place to work and live. It’s an unparalleled natural wonder and a gateway to our nation; let’s not let that go to waste. 

From the 12 January 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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