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Vendors, performers contribute to circus atmosphere; Revival of Niagara Falls impresses tourists

If the Nik Wallenda walk showed us anything Friday, it was what the City of Niagara Falls could really be like.

The area around the Falls -- usually dull and lifeless -- was revived, if only for a day.

A three-block stretch of Old Falls Street, between Prospect and Third streets, was turned into a sideshow to complement the circus atmosphere surrounding Wallenda's historic walk over the falls.

Food vendors and merchants lined the street, alongside more than 60 street performers.

The crowd snapped photos of stilt walkers; kids watched the clowns and jugglers.

Carnival music blared from a truck, as workers set up two jumbo screens for the crowd to watch Wallenda's wire-walk.

"I'm excited Niagara Falls has got something going on like this," said Julie Doel, of Lockport, who brought her 11-year-old daughter, Madison. "I think they need to do things like this more often."

Across the border on the Canadian side, merchants anxiously waited for the normally bustling city to get even busier.

At Cuban Cigars, staff was being added and inventory readied for what owner Fehmida Neghani expected to be a banner day.

"We're expecting to have a lot of people, plus a lot of publicity for the future," said Vijay Gupta, owner of Bargain World, which advertises T-shirts for $1.99.

In the U.S., the crowd was a bit sparse early on, but Ryan Coate, general manager of the Conference & Event Center Niagara Falls and Old Falls Street, USA, expected about 20,000 people by the end of the day -- a welcome shot in the arm for a city that needs one.

"For people who haven't been here, the landscape has really changed," said Susan Swiatkowski, director of marketing for the conference center.

For those who hadn't been to Niagara Falls in a while, or at all, the city impressed them.

"I see a revival," said David Nicholson, 80, who was visiting with his wife, Patricia, from Massachusetts. "The last time I was here, it had to be '87. When we walked around we couldn't see anything. There wasn't much here at all. It's great to see all this growth."

Marc Lefton, 50, and Lisa Morano, 49, both of Sarasota, Fla., are friends of the Wallenda family and are in town until Sunday to support the daredevil.

"I've never been to Niagara Falls," Morano said. "And it's actually prettier than I thought."

For the natives, Friday's atmosphere on Old Falls Street was encouraging.

Perry Jost, who was running The Village Inn stand on the corner of Rainbow Boulevard and Old Falls Street, didn't expect to do great business with all the food vendors on the street, but said the event will help the region even after Wallenda finishes his walk.

"It shows people that we're becoming a contender again in Niagara Falls," said Jost, 46.

Spectators were getting ready for the show early in the day.

"I'm meeting people from all over the world -- Russia, Ireland, Poland," said Jean Lowe, of Ransomville, a volunteer guiding visitors on Old Falls Street. "It is interesting that there are a lot of young people coming for Nik Wallenda."

On the Canadian side, some people spent the early part of the day at the Imax Theatre, which includes a small museum of barrels and other contraptions in which people went over the falls over the years.

"We've been planning this for a long time. Our room overlooks [Wallenda's] wire," said Vincent Concra, who drove six hours with two others from Hudson, Ont.

Concra watched the short slide presentation on the 11 high-wire acts at the Lower Niagara Gorge between 1859 and 1897. "I don't know if I'll ever see it again, or anyone will. That's an impossible feat as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Down at the falls, where the crowds seemed about average even near the wire, Lisa Ziegler said she found the dangerous spectacle morbid.

"This reminds me of the 'Hunger Games,' and how we're watching when something very, very bad could happen."

But standing nearby, self-described "circus fans" who enjoyed seeing the Flying Wallendas and had traveled from Chatsworth, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, already were anticipating the rare spectacle.

The drawback, said Anne Thomas, who has gone from Indiana to Peru to see circuses, was that Wallenda would be wearing a harness. "I'm a little [disappointed]. You wait for the train wreck a little bit," she said. Thomas said she was looking forward to the "carnival atmosphere" as the event drew nearer.

email: jharris@buffnews.com

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