Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Landfills Up Above Niagara Falls

About once a week, for a lot of months now, I have gotten to drive to Niagara Falls, the falls themselves, and take pictures, in winter as easily as the other seasons, without even paying for parking when I've gone at night.

But about once or twice a day, I drive through the city of Niagara Falls to work here at Niagara University, and pass through what seems like a harsh, sometimes nasty contrast:  the stink of methane gas that hangs over the interstate, right by the fashion outlet mall.  It's hard to find any nice way to describe the smell, except that it's over quickly, and I can tell I'm headed where I'm supposed to go when I drive through it.  It's like the rank alloy of smells that I seem to have driven through whenever I've gone by a large scale farming operation--one where there is no natural place for the waste to drain, so the reek of it sits in the air, just like it does on the ground.

In this case, it's in the ground--the landfills that sit just across the highway from that strip of Niagara Falls that holds almost all of its shopping, the factory outlet stores and restaurants that have their mazes of lanes and signs to drive through, where Ontario residents come for apparently nearly everything being cheaper, and it's just one turn to head to the reservation or the military base, two to go to the small, Falls airport that has its metal dome not far from a mostly closed mall.

There, though, on the other side from all of that, is nothing but earth, at least at first sight--hills too tall to see the tops of from the car window if you're driving right by them, with slopes too steep for a casual climb, and even, today, when they are all coated with only white, wet, heavy snow, too treacherous for a good sled ride.  Their forms, though, seem too dominant, and too useless for any particular purpose, to be more than features of nature.  And, when I thought that, they seemed like places to at least imagine mountains, distractions from the smell and hinting at the falls.

Someone mentioned that they were created by people, really by one person, and, really, that person had a vision.  Building landfills up instead of digging them out of the ground might be common, but shaping them into these hills, not even out of sight, but a few blocks from one of the wonders of the world, so that who knows how many tourists take them in on the same trip as it--that is not a plan that just anyone could have come up with.  Though the plan had to have included some aesthetic sense, with each of these mountain structures having that sloped shape, it can't have meant for them to blend in.

A quick look might read "mountain" to me, but however many days now of making the drive has shown me, through just casual glances and maybe a few more oriented by curiosity, that they have what look like pipes protruding from the tops, possibly to let out excess gas, possibly creating that smell.  And it's the smell that keeps them from being anything like beautiful, plus that knowledge of their purpose.  A look up today, when the snow made them all almost absolutely white, showed what seemed like a railing along the top of one, maybe for maintenance.  Nothing in their structures, these pieces of steel stuck into their peaks, or the odor, in its dailiness that comes to seem like a weight every driver by there carries, makes them seem like they will ever fall.

The web searching I've done so far hasn't unearthed (so to speak) the name of any particular architect, and that might be for the best.  It's tempting for my mind to fly right from the little I know about these towering mounds to some dim figure, an easy target for my projections, of someone who doesn't care about the list of things that constitute, for me, a clean and natural experience in this area, or any.  My mind can make this person (inevitably male) into some kind of landmoving mafioso, maybe someone with bodies to bury, figuratively or literally.  It's easy for me to see and smell what I drive by quickly, and might not live near for much longer, with that automatic impulse to label a problem, then the hotly satisfying one of finding someone to blame.

But the other thing that keeps coming to me seems more useful, at least somewhat.  It's been told to me that I tend to stuff things, to hide, if not the facts, then their emotional impact.  That has its use, I think for anyone, and there are probably lots of experiences that can't be taken in, really, all at once.  It is possible, though, to have just that one strategy for dealing with both elevating and devastating things, and any others that have a transformative impact, and to have them build up to a point that can't be sustained.  And nearly every time I drive by those hills, it comes to me that maybe I have built up my own along the way, and that I need better ways to let my feelings out.  Maybe that's the usefulness of those hills for me personally, that they show me at least one way I need to change, in a way that I can't ignore.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Calm Beside Niagara Falls at Night

Since last year, I've been visiting the falls just about every Sunday, alternating between afternoon and night visits, depending on which one was more convenient.  In the afternoon, I was parking by the upper rapids and walking from there, and at night just driving into the parking lot, since parking is free after a certain time, and it didn't seem safe to walk from any significant distance.  That gave me chances to take a number of different kinds of pictures from different angles.  

For the last few weeks, though, construction has blocked the route from where I live to the upper rapids, and I haven't found any other way to get there.  The orange signs lead me through the outskirts of the city, which really are also its downtown, since the hotels push almost up to the falls themselves, and there isn't a built up district anywhere else, except somewhat on Pine Ave., with its Italian restaurants, and Niagara Falls Boulevard, with its chain stores and motels.  So I follow them into the roundabout that leads to the parking lot, where I've been going, and will be going for maybe a while to come, after dark.  

It doesn't seem optimal to that part of me that is always looking for just the right photos for my phone camera, which likes light, and I was also feeling like a better Facebook friend when posting a wider variety of pictures from visits there, instead of what might seem like the same image, or quite similar images, week after week.  Because it seems like part of me, right now, gauges how I'm doing by my response on Facebook.  At least part of that is probably healthy, since it is my way of staying in the most contact with the people who have known me the longest, and part of it might not be.  Either way, I had imagined a kind of mosaic, over however long I have left in this area, of the Falls in different lights and from different angles, not the same shade of dark.  

But that's what has been happening every Sunday evening for a little while now--I park, after passing the two vacant booths to get in, and then walk, largely in the dark.  It's a lit dark, friendly to tourists, which I'm pretty sure I am, but dark enough that the attractions not quite at the falls are inverted.  The gorge where people can look out in the daytime and see seagulls wheel over the blue-green, foam-tufted river, with the rock walls on either side holding nothing but that haze of spray that can be seen from however many miles away--it's a lack, an absence between my side and the glittery cityscape in Canada, with its white-lit ferris wheel and, right now, blue-constellated Christmas trees.  The observation deck, dark steel,  becomes a cut-out also, outlined by Canada's lights which are pixellated by that spray haze.  

The parts that normally overflow with visitors are emptied out, too, and show their emptiness.  The visitor center is lit but locked.  There are no street cars cruising through, just the paths they take empty and illuminated for me to walk.  There may be an occasional police car, and that's almost all-- once, a few weeks ago, an SUV pulled up by me, at that point where the visitor center hides the brink of the falls.  An older man, tired and tight-eyed, asked, "if I keep going this way, will I get to Riverside Drive?"  My surprised reply was just, "that way is the falls."  He and the woman with him didn't seem to understand, so I repeated it, and they turned around.  

Each week of the last few, I walk down toward the brink of the falls, and can see just a few silhouettes of people above it, at the railing, dark between the shining binocular machines that will still show a few views up close for a quarter, at least in the day time.  The people's silhouettes, those machines, and the usually wet pavement by the falls are all outlined and overlayed with whatever colors of light are flooding our side from Canada, rotating, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, from rose to yellow to white.  Because of the water in the air and the focus of their beams, they seem to actually be liquid, as if the light itself were concentrated and spread over us--the few of us there are. 

By Niagara Falls, at night, especially at this point in the year when the wind and dropping temperatures can stir the air and blast it in gusts over us, there are just us few there to take it all in, and to take pictures.  That means I can look out over the railing from right by the visitor's center, to take in that whole, falling wall of the bridal veil with its triangular offshoot, not quite fountain or curtain, and also get a good look at the horseshoe over in the other country, from this distance just seeming to hang there, still, but shimmer a little.  When I go closer, I start to feel that mist on my face, not as individual particles, but like a cool skin on my skin, and to see how the little hill just before the cliff resembles the falls--a short, horizontal stretch, and then sheer, last night snowed over enough to look even more like that white water, or some ghostly afterimage of it.  

Then there's the point at which I'm too close to the bridal veil falls to focus on anything else--it has that endless rumble with no rhythm in it, or any repetition I can hear, so it seems like a message that's being delivered endlessly to me, or as endlessly as I can stay for, that is more meaningful to hear than to interpret, and its cataracts don't seem so much enormous anymore as just all-engulfing, the one thing that is there for and with me, not with its history or how it might look during the day, but just its glittering, shattering ridges and ripples that look at once to be moving and sitting still, changing in ways that my mind can't hold, and helping me, in those moments, to let go of that need for my mind to hold anything.  

That letting go gives me a calm that's not solemn, that's nothing like numb, but charged with the same excitement I get from being in meditation, in another country, or with friends I'm just starting to let myself be surprised by.  And I think I also get it from writing, especially poetry.  It's that space where my thinking can't cling to anything, and I guess that's called the present moment.  

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Protests in Ferguson

Over the last week, I've been reading headlines and looking at photos of the situation in Ferguson, and also noticing just how many people around me seem to be following it, too.  A friend who doesn't talk much about the news brought the situation up to me, and my first thought was, "but this is western New York," as if what's going on there is a local problem.  

Clearly it's not, and the discussion of using National Guard forces illustrates that strongly.  Before that came up, though, the different headlines, the timeline of events on Buzzfeed, the discussion of whether the president would comment, the fact that he did, and a lot more showed that the situation there affects a lot of people, in a lot of places.  Maybe it's partly that the pictures of police in military-looking gear and vehicles dovetails with the discussions of government power and control ramped up by the Snowden leaks, and partly that the townwide clash between police and, I think, mostly peaceful protesters just hasn't happened very often in a long time.  But some of it, maybe the heart of it, comes back to the situation brought forcefully home by the Facebook-shared line drawing of Michael Brown's body with the six bullet holes--an African-American kid shot by a police officer, again, and the strong possibility, again, of nothing being done about it.  

I say "again," but I actually know almost nothing about the history of police brutality, aside from it being an ongoing problem with a very strong racial component.  But I tend to stick with statistics, to scroll down headlines, to shy away from the stories and the portraits that might make these situations hurt more.  And that has a numbing and distancing effect, as the Ferguson police might have known when they ordered media out of the city, and as the Bush administration must have known when they tried to ban images of flag-draped coffins coming back from the war.  The portraits, even of symbols like those, the bodies under them hidden, and the stories behind them, get us, or at least me, to feel for the situation and the people in it, to identify with it to some extent, and to want to do something to change it.  

That also has brought me up short in the last week--the pictures of people, in a time that can feel so dominated by distance, by the hand-held device, and by the safety and convenience provided by both, actually protesting in the actual streets.  And the question of whether that can still have an effect, in a time when distance and convenience are easy to come by, gets answered, for me, by how much it unsettles certain people.  The Fox News anchor interviewing Jesse Jackson suggests that the protests are a distraction from figuring out what really happened to Brown, and what should be done about it.  The predictable depictions of the protests as flimsy covers for looters come up.  And, again and again, images come of the cloudscapes of tear gas, the one with the figure crouching against their billows and the ones of the police as cut-outs, gas-masked silhouettes, marching through them.  The protesting works because it's face to face, because the protesters are leaving their screens behind.  

It's easy for me to get that distance and that convenience, not just from stories far away, but ones closer to home, but, this week, I'm also reminded that the technology in my life has no inherent effect on that, one way or the other.  I can use it to step back from things, but also to move in closer.  I notice the difference when, like the protesters, I feel like I have to reach across to someone, say something, ask why if need be, and make that contact, bring that intimacy that has and needs no screen.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Six Months of Sundays at the Falls

At some point during the long winter, it hit me that I could either spend each of those mostly gray Sundays in front of the tv, which didn't seem to help the winter blahs much, or I could head ten minutes down the road and see if I could see Niagara Falls.  A lot of crotchety, weather-based objections came to mind, but then it hit me that I would rather be watching the falls in that kind of weather than doing just about anything else, and a little cold and wet wouldn't make much difference. 

Since then, just about every Sunday, I've gotten to drive over the bridge from Grand Island, head a mile or so down the Robert Moses Parkway toward the curtains of mist that the spatter of the cataracts casts up, and park on the road that's closed to through traffic by the upper rapids, or just pull into the lot right by the falls.  At night, there's no charge for parking there, and, during the winter, there was almost no one there.  Even when I've gotten sort of used to the spectacle of it, the white water itself and the steady pounding of it, plus how it stretches from close to my feet into another country, it still gets louder than my mind, and I'm learning what a gift that is. 


Also, that quote from Heraclitus comes to mind sometimes when I'm there, that one about never stepping in the same river twice, because the space around the falls, and then the falls within it, seem different to me each time I go.  The sky never has quite the same shapes or shades of cloud, trees change their number and color of leaves, and I can't remember ever seeing the same people there. 

Logically, I also know that I must not be seeing the same shapes, or shattery sorts of patterns, in the water itself, that it must not run the exact same way maybe ever, that each week I come it has a different volume from freezing or thawing or summer storms, and that it has worn a little more on the cliff that makes its shape, to rush with more ease.  All of that seems to trigger the basic recognition that I'm not the same me, either.  But it's easier to see in the falls. 


In the winter, there were at least two or three times when, for at least a couple of minutes, I was the only one standing there, by the rail beside the bridal veil falls, and the park benches and other spaces now flooded with people were only covered with snow.  It did take some wading through slush that ran into my socks, past all of those white-pelted empty spots, and trying with some frustration to take phone photos of the way the snow slanted into and through the fuzzy spheres of light the lamps cast, which, again, something in me reminded me were tiny compared to what I was walking toward. 

Being alone with it, knowing that I was the only one seeing just that fanned path of the rapids the lamps made a kind of luminous gray, and hearing just that hushed rumble from its hurtle and hurtle and hurtle onto the car-sized stones below, I felt held.  I know faith can't just come from the evidence in front of me, but I got some from that.  Of course it couldn't be a moment made just for me by any objective measurement, but if no one else could see or hear or feel it, didn't that make it a special gift?  And who else for? 


Since then, more and more people have poured into that part of the park, and I've been surprised to find myself feeling some kind of ownership, a "what are you doing at my falls?" kind of feeling that makes no sense at all, and that goes away when I think how far some of them have travelled just to see what I get to live by.  There are a lot of women in saris, and people of seemingly any nationality holding up tablets to take pictures over everyone else's heads that remind me of Moses with the ten commandments, plus more and more and more people I might never remember. 

A few weeks back, I was up on the observation deck, waiting to get to the railing so I could take a picture of the falls without anyone in the way, and the man in front of me, who seemed to me to be taking forever, had a yarmulke and a long gray beard that looked like steel wool or something else too strong for a human form, and his wife would come up in her shawl to talk to him with language I knew I probably couldn't understand, even if I could have heard it.  No one seemed to be moving, and my social anxiety was climbing, along with my list of things I could be doing if I had my obligatory picture and was out of there by then. 

Then, because I'd been delayed there, I got to see, along with maybe two hundred other people on the observation deck, and who knows how many along the falls themselves, in New York and Ontario, one burst of fireworks, the kind that really does burst open to show a circle of smoke stalks with sparks at their tips, the reflection bursting even further apart and reforming and maybe shimmering for a moment more than it did, in the falls. 


Each Sunday, I get to go there, and take pictures, and, like Susan Sontag and many others talk about, there's that anxiety that the picture will take the place of my actual experience, dampen it, get between me and it.  And it feels like proof of that that I can't remember many actual moments, other than the ones I've shared above.  But some do come back, which tells me that more are there, and my phone photos help fix them in my memory.  Of the many seagulls that circle in the waves of spray like giant flies or tiny fighter jets, and settle wherever people won't, I got to see one perched right on top of the white sphere on the light pole closest to the bridal veil falls, one Sunday, almost the same color as the light, as if he or she had found and claimed a tiny sun. 

Of the many other visitors I've seen there in whatever weather, I remember the three women who stood right along the rail closer to the gift shop than the falls, each with a different-colored umbrella, bright colors that I want to say were red and yellow and blue, but can't remember for sure.  They stood there not seeming to notice anyone around them, not putting on a show, just holding up those bright spots that matched because they did not. 

Of the many wedding parties I must have missed there, I remember the helicopter I saw rise above the falls a couple of weeks back, that might have held a bride and groom and pastor, since that's one way people get married there--it rose straight up, like it could just keep rising forever, like the falls seem like they will, and won't, but remind me of lasting things, that I can, and must, place my faith in. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Reasons I've Heard for the Poverty in Niagara Falls

I hope to do more research on why the city of Niagara Falls doesn't look like I'd expected, like a bright tourist destination, if and when I have the time and attention span.  When I'm not driving through it or thinking to google it, I'm afraid I tend not to think much about how things are there; even when I'm at the falls themselves, the city beside them seems like an afterthought, a few rough rectangles of steel and glittery light that are the tops of buildings cut off by trees.

But it seems to come up in conversation, mostly brought up by me, as something that finally occurs to me after a few minutes of talking to someone who might know.  It popped up the other day in a comment thread from one of my Facebook friends, who was in the area, and seeing the same contrast, of city versus wonder of the world, that comes to mind for me from time to time.  That brought back the few things I've heard here and there, which are totally anecdotal, but interesting.

There's the business angle, that one friend mentioned.  Since the falls themselves stretch across the border between Canada and the US, with the maybe-more-breathtaking horseshoe on the Canadian side, tourists tend to go there as a priority, unless they can't or don't want to go over the border.  Even what falls there are on the American side can be seen more clearly from over there.  According to this friend, this Niagara Falls mostly made money from industries that are now gone, moved overseas.

Closely related but not quite the same, there's the corruption angle.  One former mayor went to prison for it, and there are maybe the same hazards that can come with any place where large amounts of money, in this case from tourism and the casino, are there to either be spent honestly, or not.  There may still be some lingering traces, or impacts, of the city's corrupt past--the funeral parlor formerly owned by an organized crime figure stands not far from downtown Niagara Falls, still unbought.

Then there's the one, again just passed along anecdotally, that, not from corruption but from disagreement, casino money owed to the city has not been paid.  It might not seem like a big reason on its own, but Niagara Falls is a relatively small city where it seems like targeted redevelopment would not have to cost too much.  Some investment here and there could attract residents, and the ball could start rolling.  More young families might move in, and it could look like I imagine a city by the falls looking.

But, with all of this speculation, I'm, first, immediately aware of not knowing anything specific about the city's situation, then recognizing that I have absolutely no expertise to say anything about it, and, finally, realizing that it might be, more than anything, a tendency in me to want to fix places I'm only passing through, which really is a way of avoiding an intimate connection with them.  If I say, "oh, I know what this city's problem is," maybe I intellectualize my experience here, in addition to probably being wrong.

Here's what I know:  there's a nice ice cream stand called Sullivan's, on Buffalo Avenue by the Niagara River.  It's a little bit of a bumpy, potholed ride to get to, maybe, but, if you're driving away from the bridge and in the direction of the airport, you can pass under an overpass and see it, the pale yellow of a few different great flavors, with light pouring out from under the awnings and just a couple of tables right by the street, so getting one feels like getting treated.  I hope to go there again soon, now that it's warm out.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Driving Through the City of Niagara Falls

Before I moved here, and was looking for places to live, I was told by a couple of people who knew the area to steer clear of Niagara Falls.  Not knowing the city at all, I was surprised, and thought they might just be comparing a fairly nice part of the state with far nicer parts that they'd come to see as normal.  It seemed, and still seems, strange that the city that shares one of the wonders of the world would be struggling.

My first visit into the city to look at an apartment said to me that it was.  I went down a road, maybe Highland Avenue, and saw mostly that gray kind of post-industrial landscape that's edgy metal plus crushed gravel, with not many other colors to go along with that--wrecked cars in a junk yard, fences inside of fences, and then the apartment complexes that seemed to be barely holding on.  The building I looked at was one of those.  The realtor who showed it to me looked like she wanted to leave.  Soon, I did, too.

After a year and a half or so working right next to the city limits, and living not much further away, I've gotten to do a lot of driving around and through it.  There are parts of it that still seem to be thriving, and none of it fits that sensational urban jungle my suburban mind tries to project on anything with a skyline higher than two stories, when I don't know my way around it yet.

But there are lots of parts that clearly are not doing as well as they used to economically.  Pine Avenue is a great example.  There's a nice, new sign reading Little Italy that spans the street, with painted metal grape leaves climbing its arch, and, at that end, the three or four Italian restaurants help validate that name.  The Como has a sand-tan facade free of graffiti, wide windows showing customers and pedestrians to each other, and, in the entryway right by the street, pictures of the celebrities who have stopped there, with the scribbles of their autographs giving an old world kind of charm, and sense of benediction, to the whole area.
Not far down from there stands a pink elephant, maybe twenty feet tall, its trunk raised, a space for its eyes that you can see the sky through, not advertising anything that I can see.  It holds a white metal cylinder on its head, with "Shorty's" painted on it.

Past it is the part where I tend to drive faster, and, if someone walks too near my car, try to lock my doors without making them think I've done it on their account.  Whatever was there before has been turned into the kinds of stores that my mind associates, automatically, with urban blight--a pawn shop, the kind of dollar store where everything probably really is a dollar, and those stores that I never seem to see for what they sell, that have windows filled with different things too bright to be bought.

But I also know my tendency to sensationalize places, like I do people, when they may be a lot more garden variety, and are certainly a lot more varied, than my judgment makes them.  Pine Avenue seems like the many parts of the city that I've gotten to know, at least somewhat, by now:  probably safe during the day, probably safe to drive through, at least fast, at night, and just obviously best to avoid on foot at night.  It's like many parts of many cities, in that way.

But it wasn't that way a few decades ago, from what friends here say.  And, for some reason, I find myself really wanting to know why.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Living by Niagara Falls

Happy New Year!  A couple of friends have mentioned blogs in the last few days, reminding me that I haven't posted on mine in quite awhile, for some reason.  I think it's a combination of busy-ness, fatigue, and being thoroughly devoted to Facebook.  But blogging always helps me to do, and I've got plenty to blog about these days, when the time and energy allow.

One of the interesting things to me about moving to this area has been living so close to Niagara Falls.  I'm so fortunate to be within a few miles of this natural wonder that people come from all over the world to see.  I can drive 15 minutes and see it from the New York side, which is fantastic.  The upper rapids start before the hotels do, and they have this exquisite way of foaming and roaring along, but in the same pattern, keeping to the same, humped and rippling shapes, colored and roughened a little bit like the muscles of horses.  They pass under the bridge to Goat Island, a low stone arch past which you can see them simply disappear, no hint of the Falls, just a sudden absence, with an edge of the world look except for the mist billowing up and dissipating in the wind.

That wind glazed my face numb the other night by the time I got to the edge, but it was more than worth it, as it always is, to see, first, the verge where the water all turns white, blossoming and tattering into foam and the remnants of current, sweeping everything with it for that thousand feet between me and the island on the other side.  The lights from Canada made it a rose pink, a daffodil kind of yellow, and then such a bright white that the water's translucence rendered brilliantly silver, that all seemed accepted and immersed in the falls themselves, that looked, in their pouring over the stones below, not as sheer and forbidding as I would have thought, but more like an enormous shoulder, an outcropping that faithfully, relentlessly, thoughtlessly let its 150,000 gallons a second down that misty space.  That it's done so for 10,000 years now, with only some disruption along the way, I could completely believe.

Somehow that, and the spectacle of it, and the surprisingly comforting, hushing of its roar, dampening other sounds, fit with the small crowd along the railing, from who knows what countries, there for the same reason, maybe thinking, briefly, the same things.  Or, like the falls, thinking of nothing, in that space and that hush so much greater than thought.