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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Nostalgia may be the worst thing ever to have happened to Niagara Falls. People who are old enough to remember a different Cataract City -- one that didn't have the majority of residents living below the poverty line, didn't have one-in-five houses vacant, didn't have an exodus of college graduates and didn't have a dearth of hope -- have fond memories of their youth and upbringing here.

That's not the case for most kids today. The children of Niagara Falls circa 2011 are apt to think of their city as some existentialistic prison that they need to escape from or be swallowed whole. They either give in at an all-too-young age and accept a life of altered-state coping, or they grow determined to get a sheepskin and get the hell out.

They want to leave like 50,000 others have over the past five decades. Pack it in, hire a U-Haul and tell their stories walking. They blame the demise of their city on corrupt government, state taxes and a general malaise that they can't quite define, but they know it when they see it.

In part, they're right. The city has had bad government, taxes in New York are crippling, and suffering from acute apathy is the No. 1 answer to the question, "You know you're from Niagara Falls, N.Y., if ..."

But the attrition of the populace has also done the city great harm. Every time over the past half-century a new census has come out, the head count here has dropped more precipitously than the Dow Jones did over the past two weeks. Too many people have left, the majority of whom would have had much to offer the city in terms of intelligence, work ethic and income reinvestment.

A couple recent discussions on the Niagara Rises Facebook site shed interesting light on the dichotomy between then and now, and current residents and former ones.

A question was asked: To what three restaurants would you take out-of-town visitors?

It won't surprise you to hear eateries like Michael's, the Como, Fortuna's, Gadawski's, La Hacienda and the Polish Nook were top vote-getters. If you add sub and pizza favorites like Viola's and Buzzy's, you would have almost the entire listing.

I can't say I would have answered differently -- although Villella's is worthy of a vote, as is the Western Door, a top-notch steakhouse inside the Seneca Niagara Casino.

What was interesting was what was missing. Are you aware there are more East Indian restaurants in the downtown tourist corridor than any other type of cuisine?

Punjabi Hut, Royal India, Majaraja, Crown India and the Bombay all have opened since the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. made a conscious effort to target India with the dollars allotted to them from the casino compact.

I'm not a fan of curry, so the news of a new Indian restaurant doesn't quicken my pulse, but I know quite a few people who are, and they certainly have lots of choices when deciding where to eat.

The point is that the new Niagara Falls is geared toward the visitor from India, and the restaurants that have opened are a direct result of that marketing strategy. It can be argued that this NTCC tactic has been a good one, as hotel bookings are at an all-time high.

The surge in "No Vacancy" signs being lit has coincided with the unprecedented rise in strength of the Canadian dollar, and the parking lots of area hotels hold plenty of Ontario plates, as residents from across the border are taking advantage of cheap and varied shopping opportunities in our malls and stores.

The sense exists that locals feel further removed from their own downtown than they ever have. Raise your hand if you've had family come back for a visit this summer and you've greeted them with the line, "Forget the Como; I just can't wait to take you out to one of the multitude of Indian restaurants that have opened up downtown."

People find themselves nostalgic for the way things used to be here.

The second question that elicited a lot of response online centered on the responsibility of people who used to live here to help in the revival of the city. It is my contention that people need to think of their city as they would the college from which they graduated, their alma mater.

A university will reach out through its alumni association requesting donations. Many people throw those letters right in the trash, but many more take the words to heart and open up their checkbooks. I truly believe that for Niagara to rise again, we need the same sort of buy-in from former residents.

Some could lend a hand using professional skills they honed in larger cities. Others could help by supporting organizations like Niagara Rises, the United Way of Niagara, the Beautification Commission, the revitalization of Main Street, Community Missions or any number of worthy causes.

Most of the former residents online felt they had no responsibility to their old city. In fact, many almost wanted to be praised for clawing their way out.

It's fine with me if you want to forget where you came from. That's your prerogative, and you'll have a lot of company living in that mental motel I'll call "The Amnesia Inn."

But I respectfully ask those people why they are drawn to Niagara Falls-centric sites if they've wiped the area from the bottom of their shoes like a discarded wad of gum? I offer that it is because they do have fond memories of the Falls they grew up in and realize, if even only on a subconscious level, that their city and the education they received here, both in the classroom and on the streets, positioned them to succeed in the communities where they now hang their hats and shingles.

I also respectfully offer that the kids of today will carry no such fond memories or life skills forward into their adult lives. They have been born into a hellhole that masquerades as a destination city of the world. These kids know every four-letter word in the book by the time they reach middle school -- every one except the bird with feathers that goes by the name of "hope."

There are a lot of valid reasons why Niagara Falls finds itself in the sad state that it does today. Neglect, poor government, lack of foresight, suffocating taxes, apathy and corruption are chief among them, to be sure. But there are 50,000 more reasons that share a bit of the blame, but they are also 50,000 potential saviors who can do something to help the city that helped shape them.

Nostalgic for the old Niagara Falls? Sadly, it's gone and it's never coming back. But we can build a new one -- one the kids of today will remember fondly.

The work has already begun, by many people in many arenas. Our hand is stretched out to you, and we need your help to make it a reality.

Won't you grab hold -- for old time's sake?

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 23, 2011