I know. It is only a roadway. But that is like saying Gibraltar is just a rock or the Alamo is merely a building.
For years, the Robert Moses Parkway has been a noose around the neck of Niagara Falls. It is hardly the only thing that collapsed the bed of the former Honeymoon Capital. But the high-speed parkway running along the Niagara River and Gorge might as well be a wall, the way it seals off the city from its prime resource.
If the aim was to repel investors, drain population, destroy property values and create a Main Street pockmarked with boarded-up storefronts and battered dreams, then the parkway succeeded beyond imagination. It could have been a Communist plot, it was so subversive.
So it was no small thing Wednesday when state parks officials agreed – after decades of ignoring local pleas – to finally free the city of a two-mile stretch of the asphalt chokehold. Obliterating the section north of the Rainbow Bridge, which should be done in two years, is a giant step toward the city reclaiming its future, by recapturing its natural-attraction past.
Paul Dyster merely smiled when I asked how big of a deal it was. But the city’s progressive mayor was dancing on the inside.
“Nothing is more important to the future of Niagara Falls over the next 20 years than getting this [parkway removal] done,” Dyster told me in his City Hall office. “We have forgotten what it’s like to live next to a great natural resource.”
It brought me back to a chilly December day in 2000. I stood with then-Councilman Dyster, Sen. Chuck Schumer and others at the edge of Niagara Gorge (no, despite the city’s grim prospects, no one threatened to jump). They talked of reclaiming parkland, visitors and neighborhoods by reconnecting the city with its natural-attraction roots. The solution included obliterating the namesake highway of ’60s power broker Robert Moses – a classic case of addition by subtraction.
Twelve years and numerous political roadblocks later, we can see the end of the road.
“There were people in the womens’ suffrage movement who didn’t live long enough to celebrate,” said Dyster, who grew up in the Falls. “We did this in time for the baby boomer generation to see it.”
The ’60s “urban renewal” assault, epitomized by Robert Moses’ empire-building, fueled the city’s decline; the back-to-the-future urbanity of Jane Jacobs and natural-landscape vision of Frederick Law Olmsted will drive its resurrection. From demolishing downtown’s Stalinist-like structures, to reconnecting neighborhoods to the waterfront, Dyster, city planner Tom DeSantis and others have drawn a blueprint for recovery.
The now-doomed stretch of parkway gives drivers a tourism-class tour of urban planning folly. Standing between neighborhoods and the natural wonder at street’s end is not just the highway, but walls, fences and concrete pillars. At the end of one block, enterprising residents years ago cut an access hole in the cyclone fence. Each time the city repaired it, the hole re-appeared.
There are vacant lots, empty buildings and hurting neighborhoods within punting distance of the gorge’s natural wonder. If connected to the nature trails and parkland, instead of sealed off from it, this would be prime real estate. Instead, the city discounts some of the houses for recent college graduates. The need for those sort of lures will disappear, once the parkway does.
As Dyster and others have long understood, the road to recovery is no road at all.