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Sean Kirst: Remove the parkway and Niagara's majesty will be revealed

David Brooks wasn't thinking about vindication. He walked down a new stone stairway near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge in Niagara Falls, heading toward water surging in Niagara River green, toward the drama of the rapids hidden in the gorge.

Brooks was transfixed. It was the beauty, not the blunders, that had always been the point. He introduced me to the gorge more than 30 years ago, when he was a planner with the city of Niagara Falls. At the time, the biggest obstacle to sharing that treasure with the world seemed cemented into place, a monument to folly and lack of vision.

The gorge was "walled off," as Brooks puts it, by what was then known as the Robert Moses Parkway. The four-lane thoroughfare stretches for miles, creating visual desolation between a thundering torrent of freshwater and a city estranged from its river for too long.

Two miles of the parkway, over the next two years, will disappear. Removing it will cost up to $44 million, most of it in state Power Authority money. It is possible, by this time next autumn, that the elevated portion near the city's struggling North End will be completely gone, with the area it covered reclaimed as parkland.

The Western New York Land Conservancy intends to transform nearly 200 acres of the gorge, now overwhelmed with invasive species, into a green and flowering woodland filled with native plants. A high-profile section of what used to be the parkway will be redesigned by legendary landscape architect Darrel Morrison.

"What they did with the parkway was a mistake, a tremendous mistake," Brooks said, "but this proves that a mistake can be rectified."

His voice, over the years, was one of many that called for removing the road. Brooks was fired in the early 1990s when mayoral power switched in Niagara Falls City Hall, but he was a civic point man in efforts in the 1980s to open up the gorge.

Brooks is 72 now, a guy who spent most of his career as a teacher. I called him in appreciation. He opened my eyes, decades ago, to the great truth of Niagara: The rapids are as awe-inspiring as the falls.

Landscape architect Darrel Morrison joins Nancy Smith, executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy, on a gorge overlook near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, where invasive species will be replaced with indigenous plants. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

As a child, Brooks was a friend of Larry Krizan, a former development director for the city. They used to descend together into the gorge to go fishing. Brooks vividly remembers the first time he climbed out as a boy and saw construction trailers that signaled the creation of a four-lane barrier.

He makes the same point as Mayor Paul Dyster: The long-shot effort in the city to get rid of the parkway began almost as soon as the first houses were moved or knocked down. It involved thousands of everyday residents who rebelled at the damage, a gut reaction reinforced by a legion of officials and naturalists and planners who for years called for the parkway to be gone.

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According to old clippings at the Niagara Falls Public Library, the entire parkway was built at a cost of $31 million, beginning in 1959, over an 18.4 mile route from the North Grand Island Bridge to Youngstown. Robert Moses, the autocratic planner who dominated 20th century public works in the state, believed in the primacy of the automobile.

At the time, he changed landscapes at what amounted to his whim alone. It hardly seemed possible that a municipality might someday remove part of a road named for Moses himself.

Indeed, state planners at the time boasted about the views from the parkway, views "only previously known to birds and helicopter pilots," as one article put it. Left behind was the intimacy of the gorge itself. Paul Gromosiak, a  Niagara historian, sums up the mistake.

"It should never have been built," he said. "It cut the city off from the river."

By 1978, Bill Cuddahee, an everyday working guy, was writing a letter to the Niagara Gazette that simply said: "Close it."

A portion of the parkway was shut down in the 1970s at the Niagara Reservation, near the falls. By the 1980s, Tom DeSantis, now a senior planner with the city, was chairing a waterfront revitalization committee that called for ripping out the parkway, and Brooks was taking anyone who would listen on walking tours to the rapids.

The Robert Moses Parkway looms over the Niagara River gorge, near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, as a great wall. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Requests to eliminate the section along the gorge were rejected, time and again, because of the sheer cost.

Finally, Rep. Brian Higgins helped shake loose state Power Authority dollars that will pay the bulk of the $44 million for removing two miles of the road. Higgins contends the authority is "legally, morally and financially responsible" for eliminating a parkway that blocks off Niagara Falls from he calls "the greatest river in the world."

Dyster, now the city's mayor, was elected to the City Council in 2000 on a platform built around the vision of yanking out the parkway. He was part of a task force dedicated to that goal, and he said the members drew inspiration from Bob Baxter, a now-retired English professor at Niagara County Community College and conservation chair of the Niagara Heritage Partnership.

Baxter's passionate 1998 essay, "Why I Want the Robert Moses Parkway Removed," was a primer on the movement.

The parkway, Baxter wrote, is "an insult to the city and to the natural world, the environment."

Still, Baxter feels the piece of parkway that really ought to disappear isn't covered by this project. There is ongoing debate about the future of the stretch from Findlay Drive to Devil's Hole, where a rebuilt stairway opens Saturday in the state park, providing access to the gorge.

That area, Baxter said, is the most ecologically sensitive piece of the gorge rim, and thus the most critically important to restore. He said this project offered a moment, a rare opportunity - linked to a groundswell of regional environmental support - for pulling out that entire section.

Removal of the Findlay-to-Devil's Hole piece would be "an asset, a potential advertisement" for the larger idea of restoration, Baxter said, and he described the failure to include it as monumental, a lost chance.

"Bob's a great advocate, and I think he's right," Brooks said. "But for now, I think this is the best they can do."

The final key to the impending removal occurred when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration embraced the idea, going so far as removing Moses' name and calling it the Niagara Scenic Parkway, Dyster said.

The quest to pull out the parkway in the city is an organic movement that began years ago. The sustained emotion explains why the auditorium at the Niagara Falls Public Library was close to full Monday night. Representatives of the land conservancy were there to talk about their plans, how they intend to replace such aggressive invaders as Norway maples with oaks and other trees and plants native to the gorge.

Mayor Paul Dyster: Dreams of a transformed North End of Niagara Falls. (John Hickey/The Buffalo News)

A few days earlier, Dyster and DeSantis had joined Brooks at the gorge. They descended to the old Great Gorge Railway Trail near the base, where luminous green water collided with boulders in a spectacular show of force.

"Who wouldn't want this as their backyard?" Dyster said, before he turned toward the city and laid out the dream.

Get rid of the parkway, that great concrete wall, and suddenly historic buildings along Main Street offer easy access to a singular vista. Imagine the residential potential, Dyster said, for hikers or runners who could drink their morning coffee and then walk out the door to use those trails.

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It has been almost 60 years since excavation and demolition led to what amounts to a great wall. Dave Spiering, a project manager for the land conservancy, said the parkway made it all too easy to forget what the gorge represents, how the Niagara River carries 84 percent of the continent's surface freshwater toward a channel where the river shakes the rocks themselves.

The parkway obscured that majesty for years, and removing it may finally reveal a simple truth:

Until you've walked the gorge, you've never really known Niagara.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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