Sunday, June 24, 2012

Niagara Falls and the 2012 Conference on New York State History

 Horseshoe Falls, as seen from Goat Island, Niagara Falls State Park, 16 June 2012.

Last week, I spent a couple of vacation days at Niagara University, which hosted the 2012 Conference on New York State History. I realize that an academic conference isn't everyone's idea of leisure, but the Conference on New York State History is a little less formal than the typical academic conference. Moreover, it gives me the chance to see friends and former colleagues who are now scattered throughout the state and to don my historian hat, which doesn't get nearly as much use as it once did.

Frankly, I needed a little time away from everything. Personal circumstances have repeatedly pulled me away from home for the past couple of months, and as a result I've neglected a lot of things (e.g., this blog) as of late. I really needed to spend a little time in a place that was neither Albany, New York nor northeastern Ohio, and the conference's location in the Niagara Falls region -- conveniently situated between the two -- enabled me to combine a brief holiday and a preplanned visit to Ohio.

I initially planned to blog about the conference as it was taking place, but on my way to Niagara Falls I decided that I would focus on absorbing information and catching up with old friends and that I would start pulling together blog posts after I arrived in Ohio. However, once I got to Ohio, I found that other matters demanded my attention. Now that I'm back in Albany, I've finally got the time and the energy to reflect upon what I learned.

I arrived at Niagara University on the morning of the second day of the conference, just in time to attend Session 402, “Upstate/Downstate: Dimensions of a Problematic Dichotomy.” My friend and former boss Peter Eisenstadt (who blogs over at Greater New York) noted that although the precise location of the upstate-downstate boundary has long been subject to debate, it's plain that the distinction came into being in the 1890s and increased in popularity during the first half of the 20th century and that its emergence marks a notable change in New York City residents' conception of their relationship to the state: the term “upstate,” which became common parlance well before its “downstate” counterpart, has always connoted distance from the center. Prior to the term's emergence, regional conflicts were pervasive but tended to die out relatively quickly. However, by the end of the 19th century, conflict between New York City and the rest of the state was sharp and persistent. This situation was inextricably tied to the rise of New York City as a demographic and economic power, and Tammany Hall and Wall Street looked to many outsiders as manifestations of the city's boundless appetite for wealth and power. Moreover, owing to the constant drain of westward migration, many rural New York communities perceived themselves to be in decline.

The upstate-downstate division was initially political. In an effort to contain a city they saw as grasping and unmanageably large, Republicans representing rural areas devised a series of electoral ratios that ensured that New York City's residents were underrepresented in the state legislature; this situation persisted until the 1960s. The city's political leaders in turn articulated the belief that the state was strangling the city, and Tammany and anti-Tammany reformers often made common cause over the city's relationship to state government.

The political divide eventually became a cultural divide, and Eisenstadt asserted that the underlying irony of the upstate/downstate divide is that it came into being just as a series of political changes brought the city and state into closer alignment. Charles Evans Hughes, Al Smith, and other early 20th-century governors articulated a progressive philosophy of government, and the liberal consensus that dominated state politics for much of the 20th century held that the problems of all New Yorkers, urban and rural alike, could be addressed by an engaged citizenry and an active government.

Michael Frisch noted that “upstate” is a proxy term that stands in for a variety of things, including issues of class and the relationship between a cosmopolitan metropole and its rural periphery. He then discussed several instances in which the New York Times's coverage of Buffalo highlighted these issues.

Several decades ago, a group of Frisch's students did an oral history project focusing on unemployment in Buffalo. The New York Times was intrigued by the project and decided to make it the focal point of a Sunday magazine cover story. Frisch and his students were responsible for writing the initial draft of the story, and when Frisch received the edited version of the story, he was stunned by the nature of the changes the editor had made: although the Times's overall stance was, if anything, more politically left than he and his students had taken, it stripped out passages in which the interviewees had reflected critically upon their lives and privileged their emotional reactions and their struggles. The implications were clear: the working-class Buffalonians at the center of the article lacked the ability to comprehend their own circumstances -- and the Times's well-educated, generally affluent readership would assume responsibility for intellectually analyzing the causes of their suffering. Frisch and his students were able to force the Times to accept some editorial changes, but the final version of the article nonetheless flattened the complexities of the interviewees' lives.

The Times's biases of class and sophistication also shaped its coverage of local efforts to celebrate the centennial of the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition. Frisch and other people involved in organizing the event hoped that it would serve as a springboard for a re-imagining of Buffalo's future. However, they found that the local business community wasn't eager to remind people that President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo and that the Pan-American Exhibition depicted African-Americans and non-Western cultures in appallingly racist ways. They also discovered the Times's coverage of the commemoration centered upon the contrast between Buffalo's booming past and its hardscrabble present, not on its efforts to rebuild itself.

I missed the deadline for securing lodging at Niagara University and ended up staying in a hotel in downtown Niagara Falls, New York.  While driving from the university campus to my hotel, I found myself thinking a lot about the ways in which the upstate-downstate divide and class bias shape one's perceptions. I did a little advance reading before I visited the city, and it's plain that it has fallen on hard times. The 1956 collapse of a hydropower plant that made the city an attractive base of operations for numerous chemical companies seems to have set the city's decline in motion; the New York Power Authority built replacement facilities but diverted a substantial amount of the power they generated to the New York City area. The wave of deindustrialization that swept through the Great Lakes states during the last third of the 20th century hit western New York particularly hard. As anyone who's read about Love Canal knows, the now-vanished chemical and manufacturing plants left behind vast quantities of toxic waste, some of it radioactive; most of the uranium that went into the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was refined in Niagara Falls plants, and the city's industrial facilities played a key role in building the nation's nuclear arsenal during the first decade of the Cold War. A catastrophic urban renewal project that gutted the city's historic downtown has limited its ability to capitalize upon its glory days as a tourist destination. The emergence of Niagara Falls, Ontario as a center of tourist activity and the Niagara Falls State Park restaurants and shops that enable day-trippers to purchase food and souvenirs without stopping in the city further further complicate the city's efforts to reorient itself toward tourism. The corruption and desperation that all too often flourish when life becomes a struggle for a piece of an ever-shrinking pie also keep the city from righting itself.

However, after hearing Eisenstadt's and Frisch's presentations, I couldn't help but think that the story of Niagara Falls is just a little more complicated. The city's downtown is charmless, many of the storefronts on its Main Street are vacant, some of its residential neighborhoods are laden with boarded-up homes, and approximately 60 percent of the city's residents receive some form of government assistance, but even a cursory glance reveals the existence of neighborhoods filled with well-maintained late 19th-century and early 20th-century homes, a substantial South Asian immigrant community, and several massive manufacturing plants that are clearly still operating. It's all too easy to take a quick look at a place and conclude that it's beyond salvaging -- and that the people who reside in it lack the ability to think critically about their circumstances. The more I thought about the city's recent history, the more I understood why so many of its residents dislike and distrust New York City -- and Albany and Washington -- and why they have refused to give up hope that their city will once again be a prosperous, appealing place. I also started to grasp why controversial gubernatorial candidate Carl Palladino garnered so much support in this area.

 Rainbow immediately to the north of the Horseshoe Falls, as seen through the artificial rusticity of Goat Island, Niagara Falls State Park, 16 June 2012.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I become something of a shutterbug when I'm on the road. However, I consciously refrained from taking a lot of pictures of the city of Niagara Falls. The city is home to a number of appealing 19th-century buildings and to some cool modernist structures, but so many of the images that I started mentally framing struck me as being perilously close to ruin porn. I like aestheticized decay as much as the next person, but it's one thing to find off-kilter beauty in a psychiatric facility slated for demolition and another to gawk at a community that's carrying on in the face of hard times and leave the impression that the hard times are permanent and irreversible.

American Falls and the Rainbow Bridge connecting Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario, as seen from Goat Island, Niagara Falls State Park, 16 June 2012.

So what did I do? I took pictures of the falls themselves, which may look natural but in fact are shaped and controlled by the New York Power Authority, Hydro Ontario, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Niagara Falls State Park, which was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead. Nothing in or around Niagara Falls is as simple as it seems.

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