OK. So there’s the crushing poverty, lack of business opportunities, obscene taxes, brutal weather, high crime and crooked politicians. But a lot of places have those things and they thrive, don’t they? What is it about Niagara Falls, specifically, that makes it virtually unlivable?
Certainly not the sausage at the Como, which may be the best in the world, or the pies at Pizza Oven, which are, without a doubt. It’s not the mighty Niagara River, the spectacular Cataracts themselves or the close proximity to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Since the early 2000s Niagara Falls has been blessed with two top notch professionals to run the library system here. While Mayor Paul Dyster has said that he wanted to conduct nationwide searches for department heads that would produce only the “best and the brightest” candidates to help him run the city, the results have more often than not looked as though they were picked from the rubbish bin.
Who can forget Ali Marzban, the unlicensed “city engineer” who signed off on the disastrous Lewiston Road project or Roger Melchior the unemployed “fire chief” with serious medical problems, an attitude toward race that would have more properly fit in the 19th century and a largely invented resume?
But our two librarians, the veteran Betty Babanoury and the younger Michelle Petrazzoullo carried no such baggage. Both were young, possessed of advanced degrees and, as the city’s librarian, each made a high five-figure salary that definitely put them into the monied class. Babanoury owned a two-bedroom condo at the Parkway and Petrazzoullo has a place by the river in Lewiston.
Babanoury resigned five years ago after Dyster, very publicly, called her a liar. Petrazzoullo replaced her, and has since struggled with the same nickel and dime
But the rampant anti-intellectualism, the petty, money based political system and the hopelessness that often leads community leaders to tear each other apart over the most inconsequential trivia imaginable takes its toll, leading Babanoury, Petrazzoullo and who knows how many other rational, thinking human beings to flee the Niagara Frontier as though the place were the center of a smallpox epidemic.
Five years ago, Michelle Petrazzoullo returned to Niagara Falls with high hopes.
Slight and attractive, the single mom’s homecoming was front page news. She’d been selected to head up the Niagara Falls Public Library system.
She’d spent 14 years in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library System in North Carolina before agreeing to take the position following the departure of the popular Betty Babanoury, who said that Mayor Paul Dyster cared less about providing library services to the people of Niagara Falls than any of his predecessors she’d worked under, including Vince Anello, Irene Elia, Jim Galie and Jake Palillo. Her departure was sudden and acrimonious. Big news.
As an incoming department head, Petrazzoullo’s tenure was controversial from the start.
She’d left Niagara Falls to pursue an education that would allow her to work with the one thing that had been a constant in her life since she was a little girl: Books. Petrazzoullo received her master's degree in library and information studies from Greensboro College after obtaining an undergrad degree in psychology from SUNY Albany.
"I grew up on 72nd Street, and I would ride my bike to the LaSalle Library," she said. "I'd sit at the round table by the window and read my books and get lost here for hours on end."
It was while studying psychology in Albany that she made the decision to become a librarian.
“When I was in college, I did a work-study in the library,” she said. “It didn't occur to me that this would be a career. While I always loved books, it was sort of like destiny was standing right in front of me, and I didn't see it at first."
Petrazoullo made up her mind to leave Niagara Falls months ago.
“When I was younger, I swore I would never come back to Niagara Falls, but I had a good opportunity and I took it” she said. “I had a lot of plans to change things here. I feel that I was able to do so in many ways but looking toward the future, I just don’t see myself retiring here.”
The navel gazing parochialism inherent in a municipality that proudly claims petty local politics as its most popular spectator sport made working and living here difficult, Petrazzoullo said.
“Niagara Falls is so self contained and insular,” she said. “They don’t value the library in this community. And then I feel that the Library Board is too political.”
Petrazoullo, exactly the sort of hip, young urban professional Dyster says he wants to attract to the city he governs, is so anxious to get the hell away from her hometown that she’s accepted a pay cut to do so, she said.
“I know, many people here think I am crazy for giving up such a salary. I am taking a big pay cut but, to me, life isn’t so much about money. It’s about happiness,” she told the Reporter.
She will be moving to Eaton, a small town in northern Colorado, and a place where the scenic splendor, booming economy and demographically young population combine to make much of what transpires at the local city hall seem a little less important than it does in a declining cultural backwater like Niagara Falls.
“My plan is to be out in the boonies, taking photographs, hiking the occasional trip to the coffee shop or microbrewery, planting a garden and perhaps raising a few chickens,” she said.
“There’s just so much more positivity in Colorado. I definitely am looking forward to the change,” she said. “A new adventure!”
And the public libraries, those vestiges of civilization in a city becoming increasingly feral, now find themselves on the endangered list themselves.
"I think the city should take a strong look at the libraries and decide if they want them,” Betty Babanoury told the Reporter when she left town five years ago. “Because I think they don't"
Nothing has happened in the five years since to change her bleak assessment.