Border Town Design Studio: Growing up in Niagara Falls

There’s a great Toronto-based independent design studio run by Emily Horne and Tim Maly called Border Town that I gave a guest talk in a little while ago. I also helped guide them and their participants through the Niagara Fallses, Canadian and American. I’m sure you don’t write the plural of Niagara Falls like that but I don’t care. I like the idea of Fallses.

They asked me to write something to coincide with their upcoming exhibit in Detroit.
I wrote this in 2011, I think: My story of growing up near the second greatest disappointment in American married life,” Niagara Falls.


Niagara Falls.

“People live there?” Forget living. I grew up there. Like an accident at the side of the road, it’s a place everyone knows about but no one can imagine staying put in.

Most border towns are known as afterthoughts; only a place because there’s been so much passing through. Niagara Falls the town has Niagara Falls the spectacle. It has natural beauty and power which were famous when natural beauty and power were celebrity. Then it was the ˜honeymoon capital of the world” when your honeymoon was the first time you were officially allowed to have sex. Then it became a place to be sure you got a souvenir from. It went from check list box on the to do list of the very cultured and moneyed, to coital, to consumptive. To live beside all this, within the man behind the curtain is to watch us make a place up. You can see the audience see and make the show. Because all tourism and spectacle is brought to the place by the people who visit it.

Meanwhile, The water never changed.

I was the kind of kid who couldn’t wait to get out of my small town. And it was both inspiring and extra cruel that the whole world came to visit where I lived. But they got to leave and no one would take me with them.

They’d ask questions like, “What time do they turn off the Falls?” and How do you say ‘Mother’ in Canadian?

It’s not that the tourists were all that sophisticated. They were just from somewhere else, whether that was Ohio or Japan, and that was enough for me.

Growing up in Niagara Falls, I sometime worked in my grandparents’ variety store on Clifton Hill. Clifton Hill was a steep, near the Falls themselves and lined with The Guinness Book of World Records, The Criminals Hall of Fame and Houdini’s, arcades, fudge shops and Rumors, the one dance club in town.

It was also the place for Cabbage Night partying (the place to get wasted before and after pulling pranks on the night before Halloween) and the place for the annual initiation night for the high schools fraternities and sororities. They’d all drink a bunch, wear crazy outfits and have to do things like put their hands in a toilet while blindfolded and squish up what they weren’t told was actually a banana.

On Clifton Hill anyone could see lights and tourists and the border. For me, there was also Richard, the guy who sold tours from a ramshackle wooden stand outside the store in which I worked. Richard was scrawny and had a mustache that was scrawny too. It went out to the sides and then tried to make it down to his chin. He wore dirty white pants, a little white Captain’s hat and a hook for a hand. He’d come in to buy cigarettes and always ask me to light the first one for him.

To me, Niagara Falls is Richard, Italian bakeries and a big guy in the high school hall cornering you to buy tickets to his cousin Louie’s Semi. Semi-Formal dances that happened at Polish Halls or Club Italia and ended, supposedly, at one of the plethora of cheesy, out-of-the-way motels. At least that’s what I heard. It was all very risky and seedy to me back then, immersed in good girl rule noticing and nerd-hiding at home with a book.

It was a grimy time and place and I felt that most when I recently returned to give a tour to the Border Town project. Everything I remembered most was gone. Where was Cyanamid, the giant chemical plant with the coloured smoke that my Uncle played softball in front of? What about the Shreddies cereal plant? Where was the resentment of small town life you used to be able to smell in the air? Where was the barber who drove a Ferrari and all the other Mafia legends? Where were all the prostitutes at the corner of Bridge and Erie streets? Where were the head shops full of bongs and black and white Rush concert baseball shirts? Where were the .38 Special tunes coming out of someone’s Camaro?

And what happened to downtown? It used to have a department store and lots of shops, many run by merchants in our miniscule Jewish community. But even after the mall on the edge of town took care of most of that, there were at least strippers. Where did they go? They used to be near the train station and the downtown and the river and the border. Now there are casinos and high-rise hotels just down the river road and I guessed theyve zoned it all away.

You see it all around you / Good lovin going bad / And usually it’s too late when you / realize what you had

When I got my driver’s license I would go “over the river” as we called it, but not to drink like everyone else; I went to an even shabbier Niagara Falls to buy the Sunday New York Times.

I would pore through the Arts section. And the Book Review. I wanted to be in bigger world. A more sophisticated one. And I found it. I left and lived in New York, Chicago, LA and mostly San Francisco. I was part of the scene when the web really got going. I traveled. But when I returned to Niagara I was surprised to see that I missed the grime and pollution and seedier stuff the most. Even the legends of mafia look corporate now. It doesn’t seem like the place anymore when you could find out who stole the tires off your car when you went to a local park and then had to buy them back, which happened to us when we went tobogganing at Firemans’ Park with my cousins.

The world has plenty of spectacle. The biggest gift Niagara Falls gave me moves with me. I’m still liminal: Canadian and now American too. I’m not really great at being any one thing. My look, what I do, how I see the world, it all sits on the border with my favourite word: both.