Jenna stared hard at the decaying sign that at stood at the outskirts of the city line and had to stifle a laugh that so badly wanted to escape into the sad universe where she lived and breathed.
Population: 50,024, she thought to herself. Yeah, right. Maybe in 2011, but today in 2060 you'd be lucky to find half that number of people who called Niagara Falls home, and that's if you counted the whole lot of the crackheads, derelicts and transient grifters that rolled through town like some post-modern tumbleweeds moving along the road to nowhere.
The 19-year-old stood a shade under 5-foot-2 and couldn't hang triple digits on a scale with a pocket full of steelies. Her matted blond hair hadn't felt shampoo in so long that she was in danger of being mistaken for some sort of albino Rastafarian.
The bottom of the sign that once had proudly welcomed visitors from around the globe to the city with the famous waterfalls featured a phrase that, as Roger Waters sang so long ago, was nearly a laugh, but was really a cry.
"The Honeymoon Capital of the World," it read. Man, how times change. Jenna tried to think of a moniker that better captured the city halfway through the first century of the new millennium:
Home of the Desolate and Downtrodden.
You're Not in Hell, but It's Damn Close.
Finally, she settled on a reworking of the old title, one that better captured today's sentiment, while offering a nod to the bassist and singer she considered to be the true prophets of the Earth, Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon Capital of the World
Jenna was the rarest breed in Niagara Falls. She was a young person with ambition and a brain who stayed. Everyone else of her generation in the city -- if you could even call it that, as paltry as the numbers were -- split as soon as they got through the compulsory aspects of school and headed out for other pastures, greener or not.
That was nothing new; it was a trend that had started in earnest back in the '70s of the last century. The difference was that now you were deemed some sort of simpleton or heretic if you stayed -- sort of a new Hester Prynne, only emblazoned with two scarlet letters: NF.
In fact, Jenna only had two real friends her age that she didn't have to communicate with using Skype Hologram. One was her friend LaMarr, who was rich because his grandfather had seen the emerging trend of Hindu visitors to Niagara Falls and his family now owned 19 of the 25 East Indian restaurants that stood on seemingly every corner of the tourism district.
The second was Faith. Faith was more typical of the under-25 resident of the Cataract City. She stayed because she had an elderly grandmother who needed her care. She never knew her father. The only image she had of him came courtesy of the words of her alcoholic mother, "Meeting that man and having you was about the only good thing to come out of a bottle of whiskey."
Faith's mother had long ago traded booze for crystal meth, and her skeletal form currently roamed the burnt-out buildings in the city's North End looking to score just enough to get through to the next sunrise.
All of which left young Faith as the sole provider of care and hope to her poor grandma. At first Faith had tried to get by on the meager earnings from two minimum-wage jobs, but it was a losing battle. Who can make do on $15.50 an hour? Hell, that was barely a gallon of gas, and she could forget about the insane costs associated with popcorn and a movie.
So for the past six months she'd been turning tricks at the corner of Main and Orchard Parkway, the red-light district of the city. The old, beautiful houses there had been some of the city's most prized, but after the last big exodus in '25, most had been turned into flophouses and bordellos that drew what once would have been called the "raincoat crowd."
Jenna would see Faith occasionally getting into a car with plates any color but blue and gold, and she'd have to avert her eyes. She'd lost Faith forever and there was no way to change that fact. Jenna had resigned herself to the notion that her Faith might be gone, but she was going to fight tooth and nail to save the next generation of girls cursed to be born into this tempest called Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Sometimes Jenna was consumed with reliving the past. She would go over the stories heard at her grandfather's knee, tales of a Niagara Falls that hadn't lost hope. Of course, she knew what had done the city in. It was a deadly cocktail of apathy and despair.
Jenna learned more about the city of her birth from her relatives who lived everywhere else than she did from anyone who lived in the 716 area code. They used to come back once or twice a decade.
"You just can't get a beef on weck where I'm at," they'd tell her.
If it was Friday they would substitute the phrase "fish fry" as they delivered the same declaration with gusto. Jenna relived these memories as she drove down the deserted boulevard of boarded-up businesses known as Pine Avenue. She remembered the day from her early childhood when the last Italian restaurant in the city shut its doors for good. Some of the older folks actually stood outside and cried. Most people let it pass without acknowledgment. Hope had been beaten from them for so long they were too tired for tears.
Jenna wondered who was to blame. Was it the politicians who let high taxes and low incomes ruin the businesses? Was it the people who held on too long to the afterglow of the Industrial Revolution and didn't see the shelf-life of the factories until it was too late? Was it those too quick to leave and too slow to return in time to save things while they still could be saved?
It was a combination of all of those things, Jenna concluded as she pulled her electric Honda Accord into her customary parking place in front of City Hall on Main and Cedar. Getting out, the young girl -- barely old enough to drive, just old enough to vote, and two years away from taking her first legal pull on a beer bottle -- squinted into the afternoon sun and drew in a long, deep breath of air.
She was green, but not unable to contemplate all that had been placed on her tender shoulders. Every false move, every regretted moment of inaction, every wrong turn made by generation after generation of the people of the city of Niagara Falls had led to this moment -- one that found a once-proud city on its knees begging for either a savior or a bullet, and not much caring which answered the call.
Two TV cameramen began rolling film as a small crowd waited on the front steps of City Hall for words they hoped would free them from the chains that bind.
A young woman who one day would be revered stepped up to a podium and spoke into the microphone. These were her opening words:
"My name is Jenna Newhope. I know I don't look much like a mayor, but the people have spoken, and I'm what you've got. I stand here today with good news. I have a plan out of this hellhole, and this is how we're going to make it together."
Jenna comes from a reality that is not only possible, but highly probable. It does not have to be our reality, however. Our city needs saving. The new hope is that you'll be a Jenna and get involved. We can choose our own future if we heed the words of the prophet of Jenna:
"So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain?
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?"
Frank Thomas Croisdale is a contributing editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter and the author of 'Buffalo Soul Lifters,' a collection of true stories about the quirky, warm-hearted, generous people of our region. Niagara native Croisdale has worked in the local tourism industry for many years and is a founding member of the grassroots group Niagara Rises. E-mail him at email@example.com.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Sept. 20, 2011|