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Baby-steps toward Falls revival

I wish it was that easy. I wish that Nik Wallenda's Friday night walk through the park -- Niagara Falls State Park -- made all the problems go away.

Presto, massive buildings sucking the life out of downtown disappear. Whoosh, no-frills hotels pockmarking the city morph into stay-for-days beauties. Shazam, the Rainbow Mall -- a blank-wall throwback dividing downtown from a natural wonder -- is carved down to scale.

That was the problem with Wallenda's high-wire stroll. Niagara Falls, N.Y., got a stuntman. It needed a magician.

One-night stands seldom bring lasting happiness. Wallenda's brief encounter with the Falls is likely no exception. Sure, a worldwide TV audience should translate into an uptick in tourism. But this city -- despite recent giant steps -- remains a long way from recovered.

I visited Saturday, the morning after Wallenda's stroll. Downtown looked the same as it did, well, a week ago. Scattered clusters of tourists lurched between souvenir shops. Massive, soul-sucking buildings -- a grim legacy of the catastrophic 1970s "urban renewal" -- assault the senses and smother development.

"It's like the city in the 1970s won a shopping spree, and filled the closet with platform shoes and bell-bottom pants," said Mayor Paul Dyster, who met me downtown. "That's what we've been left with."

The hoopster-tall Dyster is a rare political species in Niagara Falls -- a progressive, eco-friendly academician whose conversational references range from Roman Empire to John Wayne's "Green Berets." He knows that returning downtown to its walkable, smaller-scale roots -- and reconnecting it to the natural wonder on the doorstep -- is the blueprint for revival. One-shot spectacles are good for a cheap thrill. But successful cities, said Dyster, "are built one brick at a time." Even Rome wasn't built in a day.

Downtown is not the bleak insult it once was. The addition-by-subtraction of the Wintergarden monolith reconnected Old Falls Street -- the main downtown drag -- with the water. Carl Paladino's upscale restoration of the United Office Building -- downtown's iconic 1920s structure -- injected class into a souvenir-stand landscape. A handful of hotel rehabs are finished or planned. The waterfront-blocking Robert Moses Parkway will be partially erased. Huts along cobblestoned Old Falls Street replicate downtown's small-business roots. A coming culinary school will inject life into Rainbow Mall. A loan-payback plan will lure college grads into threadbare neighborhoods.

There is potential. There is progress. There are people in power -- Dyster, development guy Chris Schoepflin -- who know how to exorcise old demons. But reviving a downtown blotted with blunders involves more than stringing a cable across the gorge.

Although recently re-elected, Dyster lost the wind-in-his sails Council majority. The path of progress is potholed by plenty of the Magoo-visioned politicos the Falls is notorious for. The pipeline of casino dollars that had fueled revival was shut down by a Senecas versus Albany dispute, snatching $55 million (and counting) from the city's hands. Streetscape-blotting buildings like the long-empty Falls Street Station and the in-limbo Niagara Center are large-obstacle odes to 1970s Urban Ugly.

Wallenda's walk did nothing to make any of that go away.

"We have done a lot," noted Dyster. "But time matters. Every year that slips by with little progress, you risk losing another generation of young people."

He sounds like a guy who is tethered to reality.