By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. – More than a century after stunters, hucksters and daredevils were banned from desecrating the world's most famous waterfall, a Flying Wallenda will walk a tightrope across the cataract in prime time on live national TV — with official permission and support.
It happens Friday night. Nik Wallenda, seventh-generation scion of the first family of the high wire, will try to become the first person in 116 years to walk over the Niagara River, and the first ever to cross so close to the mighty falls' thick mists and gusty winds.
In a testament to the economy's sluggishness and tourism's allure, the USA and Canada granted Wallenda an exception to the no-stunts policy. The supposed beneficiary is this beleaguered city of 50,000, which shares the falls' name and little else.
Once a scenic wonder, industrial colossus and honeymoon capital all wrapped in one, the city has over the past 50 years lost much of its industry, half its population and almost all its glamor. Yet now it's the site of the biggest high-wire act since Phillippe Petit walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.
"We've done it — boom! — a shot heard 'round the world," New York State Assemblyman John Ceretto said when the walk was approved this year. "Somebody might be out there and say, 'I want to invest in this city. They're on the move, they're thinking outside the box.' "
Wallenda himself is on message. "Not even Marilyn Monroe brought the attention here that I've brought," he says, referring to the star of the 1953 film Niagara. "Anyone who says this doesn't help Niagara Falls, they're fools."
He means critics such as Paul Gromosiak, a local naturalist and historian whose books include one on Niagara daredevils. He calls Wallenda's walk a step backward: "It's a distraction from an experience of nature. It reduces Niagara Falls to a backdrop."
In a nation whose basic economy is at best changing and at worst declining, Niagara Falls is one of many communities that have seen their future in the past:
•The legalization of gambling in Atlantic City in 1978 failed to alleviate urban blight in the faded resort. The city is betting on yet another casino, the Revel, which cost $2 billion and opened last month.
•Connersville, Ind., known a century ago as "Little Detroit" because of its importance to the auto industry, hoped to return to prosperity as the site of a plant where 1,500 workers would make high-tech police cars. But this year, the Energy Department denied Carbon Motors a $310 million loan, possibly killing the project.
Niagara Falls' own history includes wire walkers such as the Great Blondin, who crossed the Niagara Gorge in 1859 with his manager on his back. Maria Spelterini (1876) walked across backward wearing wicker peach baskets on her feet. Charles Cromwell (1884) sat on a chair on the wire. Clifford Calverly (1893) raced across in a record two minutes, 35 seconds.
None crossed anywhere near the falls itself. Yet Wallenda, whose wire is strung directly over them, may be hard pressed to enter this pantheon.
For months Wallenda promised a death-defying feat — "He's conquered fear!" Assemblyman Cerreto proclaimed. But a few weeks ago, ABC, which will televise the walk, insisted that Wallenda wear a harness tethering him to the wire. Wallenda says he'll go along because he needs sponsors to cover his costs, and sponsors generally don't want to be associated with the sight of someone falling to his death.
The dilemma is vintage Niagara Falls, where — because of the competing demands of industry, tourism and conservation — things often are not as they seem. A public power authority carefully modulates the flow of water over the falls, depending on the season or time of day, to suit visitors; the falls themselves, shaped by man as well as nature, are lit at night, sometimes in garish colors to mark an occasion.
From Canada, the view across the gorge is relatively natural. From America, there is a panorama of hotels, casinos, restaurants, pop museums, observation towers and a Ferris wheel.
"There's an Oz-like quality to what happens here," admits the mayor, Paul Dyster. "What's real? What's fake?"
Niagara Falls is a sucker for saviors. Nik Wallenda is not the first.
On the afternoon of Feb. 13, 2008, Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York, came to talk with local leaders about how to revitalize the city.
Dyster was waiting when the governor's black Suburban pulled up outside the site of the meeting, Shorty's Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill. The governor's party came in and shook hands, but there was no governor. "He's still in the Suburban, making a call," an aide told Dyster. "He'll just be a minute."
After the meeting, Spitzer invited Dyster to come to Albany to discuss a menu of projects. A month later, Dyster's bags were packed when he heard the news: A federal prostitution investigation had led to Spitzer, known to the Emperors Club VIP escort service as "Client 9."
Soon Dyster learned the rest of the story: Just before the meeting Feb. 13 in Niagara Falls, according to wiretap logs, Spitzer called the escort service for an assignation that night at a Washington hotel. After the meeting, he called again and was told a woman would be waiting. "Great, OK," he said.
"What a disappointment!" says Gromosiak, the historian. "We were so happy we hugged him when he came here. We thought he was the right kind of governor for Niagara Falls."
There is no place like Niagara Falls. The nation's first state park was created here in 1883 to protect the falls from tourists and developers, but the city boomed on cheap water power and heavy industry.
After 1950, as its electro-chemical industry faded, the city began to fold. Attempts to reverse the decline, including the bulldozing of much of downtown and a series of white-elephant urban renewal projects, made things worse.
Then came Love Canal, the dumpsite-turned-residential neighborhood that was evacuated and declared a national disaster area after toxic chemicals started oozing from the ground in the late '70s.
Today, the city is old and poor; two of three residents subsist largely on welfare or Social Security, according to Census studies.
Even the Falls District, next to the state park, is pockmarked by empty lots, closed businesses and abandoned houses. Can Wallenda help change the city's luck? "For a weekend," Dyster says, "the world's attention will focus on Niagara Falls."
The world may not like what it sees, according to Ginger Strand, a cultural historian who has studied Niagara. "Everyone already knows all about the falls, but they don't realize how bad the city is," she says. "An American who arrives there is immediately appalled and embarrassed for the nation and hurries to the Canadian side."
Wallenda's walk will have one bit of unfortunate symbolism. Like many tourists, he'll start on the American side but wind up in Canada.
Nik Wallenda was 6 when he first saw Niagara Falls. He recalls his reaction: "I told my sister how amazing it would be to walk a tightrope across it."
Twenty-seven years later, he's perched on a practice wire 8 feet above a gambling casino parking lot in downtown Niagara Falls, talking about his falls' walk as if it were a fight and the falls was the opponent. "One of the things I enjoy is the challenge of Mother Nature," he says. Not only is he "battling this natural wonder," he says, "what I'm doing is a natural wonder. If not, there'd be 150 people behind me on the wire."
The wire is a 2-inch diameter steel cable, so much thicker than the 5/8-inch one Wallenda usually trods that "it feels like a sidewalk." He wears soft suede shoes made for him by his mother that are designed to grip the wire. He holds a 30-foot-long metal balancing pole.
Wallenda expects to take 30 to 40 minutes to cross the 1,800 feet from the American to the Canadian side of the falls, starting about 200 feet above the churning water at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Officials expect a crowd of at least 100,000. Four thousand free tickets to a viewing area in the state park were snapped up online in four minutes. Most people will watch from Canada, which has a better view of the falls. The Sheraton in Niagara Falls, Ont., has "wire walk packages" starting at $499.
Conservationists such as Gromosiak worry that Wallenda's walk will encourage other daredevils. Several who previously went over the falls in a barrel have indicated an interest in trying again, legally or illegally.
The sponsors of the bill that allowed the walk said it was a one-time affair. Anyway, Dyster says, "If we tried to do this every month, it would lose its special character." Stunting, he says, isn't sustainable — the crowd expects bigger and bigger risks.
The Wallendas are famous for working without a net. Two troupe members were killed in 1962, when a seven-person chair pyramid collapsed, and patriarch Karl (Nik's great-grandfather) died in a fall in 1978 at age 73. Only now it turns out that on Friday Nik will be leashed like a toddler to a parent.
Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson says the public was "duped" and hotels "should offer full refunds to anyone who cancels after finding out the death-defying feat they thought they were coming to see will be nothing of the sort."
No one is more dismissive of the tether than Wallenda, who says he will wear it because he has to, even though "I feel like I'm cheating" and the device invites failure: "If you think you can fall, you're more likely to. You have a different attitude." And it's not what his audience expects: "People don't watch NASCAR just to see a car race."
Of course, Wallenda could be setting the stage for an even more dramatic feat: to detach the tether once he's out on the wire, finish without it and dare ABC to do anything about it. He's said he'd have to be able to jettison the tether if he feels it's compromising his safety. "I have never in my life walked with a harness," Wallenda says. The weight of the tether, he jokes, "makes it feel like I'm dragging an anchor behind me.''
Some are rooting for him to drop the harness, TV contract or not. "I think as soon as he gets out there, he'll take it off," says Freddy Arnold, 49, a construction worker who was one of hundreds who came to watch Wallenda practice in the parking lot. "He can't let television tell him what to do." Wallenda says no. "I don't foresee that happening at this point. I have given ABC my word," he says
Wallenda says he needs the TV money to cover costs such as rigging, insurance and security. He's also trying to raise $50,000 online, offering to have lunch with $5,000 donors and to give a private tightrope walking lesson for $10,000.
But he says he's walking for challenge, not the money. No one ever made a fortune on a stunt at Niagara Falls.
Annie Taylor was the first person to ride over the falls in a barrel. She took the plunge on her 64th birthday in 1901, hoping to get rich or die trying. She failed on both counts, dying 20 years later in the county poorhouse, without enough money for a gravestone.
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