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Falls gets breathtaking night's stand

It was a match made in heaven. At least for one night.

A tethered Nik Wallenda successfully walked Friday night across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Watching the man walk the cable over the rushing water, through the swirling mist, was a breathtaking sight -- and a deeply impressive feat.

It was hardly the first time the natural wonder has played host to a relationship based on mutual need and shared benefit. In a glorious one-night stand, circus act and city came together to create a spectacle witnessed by tens of thousands of local spectators and broadcast worldwide on network TV to millions of voyeurs.

I hope it was as good for all of them as it was, at least temporarily, for the two principals. Both Wallenda and Niagara Falls had something to gain and, frankly, not much to lose. Think of the historic coupling between performer and city as the best of both worlds -- the thrill of a honeymoon night and the glow of the morning after, without the harsher realities of a long relationship.

Wallenda, for all of his daring and skill, is a glorified -- albeit impressive -- carnival act. Performing to a worldwide audience on a natural-wonder stage enhanced his image, increased future fees, cemented his respectability and likely earned him late-night bookings with Letterman and Leno. The back-to-the-future, high-wire stunt elevated him -- at least for a while -- from entertainment curiosity to pop-culture celebrity. Mark him from here on as the 21st century version of Evel Knievel, only with more sense, a better haircut and family-friendly appeal.

The other partner in Friday night's brief encounter was Niagara Falls, N.Y. The struggling border town still is trying to figure out how to make the most of the natural wonder at its doorstep. Reviving for a night the town's 19th century daredevil legacy will not heal its deeper wounds or mark the way out of its economic distress. But its encounter with Wallenda stands as the ultimate cheap thrill. The hook-up with the hooked-on wire-walker (sponsors, thankfully, insisted he tether himself to the cable, lest the story risk a grim ending) brought the down-on-its-luck dowager of a city the attention it craves and the ego boost it needed.

Hotels and restaurants were filled, and the afterglow should linger at least through the summer. The worldwide exposure should enhance the city's attractiveness in the hearts and minds of ever-fickle tourists -- hopefully for the appeal of its natural beauty, not for the memory of a throwback attraction. By stepping onto the wire, Wallenda figuratively followed in the footsteps of the Great Blondin and other tightrope walkers who flocked to the falls in the 19th century.

Amidst the crowds and the circus atmosphere -- people partied through the day like it was 1859 -- wafted the unmistakable scent of desperation. Tougher border rules have hurt the tourist-dependent shops and restaurants on the Canadian side. The U.S. half is desperately trying to keep its head above the 50,000-population watermark, under which less federal aid flows. The only places that need stunts like this are, well, places in need.

Niagara Falls, N.Y.'s recent glimmers of revival are set against a lengthy backdrop of corruption, fleeing industry, environmental catastrophes and hack politicians -- the previous mayor, Vince Anello, ended up in jail. Quick fixes and one-shots are especially tempting after lengthy civic suffering. Unfortunately, they usually do not have a long-term impact -- although some politicians tend to think otherwise.

At the Wallenda kickoff announcement in February, newbie State Sen. John Ceretto, a protege of Republican political force George Maziarz, acted like a kid who just got a bike for his birthday.

"People will again start seeing Niagara Falls," Ceretto hyperbolized, "as the prime honeymoon and tourist capital of the world."

Hmmm. Only if Vegas and Disney disappear into the dust.

Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak had it, I think, closer to right when he said, "This will bring attention, it will bring tourists, it will bring money. But it will not be a huge job creator. We need a better business environment."

In one sense, the Wallenda show was a victory for the short-term-fix folks. The one-shot spectacle was championed by a host of politicians and Roger Trevino, the frontman for billionaire developer Howard Milstein. For more than a decade, Milstein has done little besides lawn-cutting with the expanse of land he controls in the shadow of Seneca Niagara Casino. Meanwhile, urban-progressive Mayor Paul Dyster seemed notably cooler to the stunt. But it is tough to be the figurative hair in the punch bowl when the world -- via network TV -- gets a peek at the party.

As Wallenda's feat underlined, a one-night stand is always more of a thrill than the long, slow process of building a future. Wallenda and the falls soon will part ways. But they -- and we -- will always have Friday night.