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At 87, Niagara woman prevails over legacy of Robert Moses to help change character of parkway

Mamie Simonson wants to make one thing clear: She holds no grudge against Robert Moses.

Others may gripe about the way he barged through Niagara Falls, taking land to build a parkway that has cut the city off from its majestic gorge for half a century.

Simonson, 87, let all of that go years ago. She and her late husband, Si, weren’t afraid to stand up to Moses back in 1959, when his New York Power Authority lowballed them on the two-story house they owned not far from the Niagara Gorge.

Together, they stood on the front porch of their Whirlpool Street home, their young daughters, Sarah and Mary, in their arms, as the state Power Authority moved their belongings to the curb. Their son, Lee, stood by their side. They held on until that eviction in protest of the way the state had handled taking dozens of homes to make way for what would become the Robert Moses Parkway.

And together, they took the state to court, with Si traveling down to Lockport to read up on highway law before representing himself with the hope of getting a fair price for the home they were losing to eminent domain.

They won.

But that’s not the story Mamie Simonson wants you to hear. She does not dwell on Robert Moses, the controversial “master builder” behind the parkway that runs along the gorge. She does not look back at that old house with sadness. Her life, in the decades since the house came down, has been blessed.

The couple raised three children, built up a portrait studio in Lewiston chronicling thousands of babies, christenings and weddings, and turned to civic endeavors. She has planted flowers in the village and helped collect tens of thousands of dollars for area food pantries from the flood of visitors who drive through Lewiston for shows at Artpark. She has never missed a Tuesday concert collection.

Gregarious, endlessly polite and a grandmother of six, Simonson has also never stopped speaking her mind. Which is how, last year, a drive up the Robert Moses Parkway with her daughter Sarah Stokes led Simonson on a letter-writing campaign to change its name.

Stokes, who now lives in Wisconsin, wondered why the parkway was still named after a man better known to students of urban planning and political power than to the millions of tourists who visit Niagara Falls each year.

Simonson agreed and began her latest endeavor the old-fashioned, democratic way. She hand-wrote a letter to the governor, politely penning her request in neat cursive. She spoke up at a public meeting. With the help of her son, Lee, a former Niagara County legislator, she drew up a formal resolution calling for the name to be changed to “Niagara Scenic Parkway.”

The idea caught on. One by one, lawmakers took up her request. Municipal boards approved the resolution. State Sen. Robert Ortt got it passed in his chamber. Assemblyman John Ceretto made plans to introduce a bill. And then, last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to town with an announcement: The Power Authority would fund a $42 million project to remove a 2-mile stretch of the parkway in the Falls to create open space, trails and scenic overlooks, and the state would ask residents to propose a new name for the road.

“It’s now a new parkway; it’s a new day,” Cuomo said to applause last month. “We should rename the Robert Moses Parkway.”

Simonson has not stopped her campaign. She wrote another letter to the governor last week and is waiting for the Assembly to take up the matter. But with the governor’s support, the name change is on its way. A spokesman for Cuomo said the state parks commissioner can make the change once a new name is finalized.

Simonson is adamant that the new name should include the word “Niagara.” For her, it’s more about getting tourists to the right place than getting rid of Moses. “I think people are going to get a boost, because if you live in Niagara Falls, you love the name ‘Niagara,’ ” Simonson said.

She’s right. It’s time to leave Moses behind. He was a model for how a bureaucrat can wield power.

Simonson is proof that a determined citizen can still be a force for change.