Why I Want
the Robert Moses Parkway Removed
By Bob Baxter
From downtown Niagara
Falls, New York, you drive into the entrance lane of the Robert Moses Parkway next to the
Howard Johnsons, heading north toward Lewiston. There are four lanes of concrete, two
north and two south bound, that run west of the city along the top of the Niagara gorge
for six and a half miles. Heading north you pass the Schoellkopf Museum, and then
the Aquarium, before you slide past the old growth Deveaux woods to the east, Whirlpool
State Park to the west, and then the houses and yards, and the streets of Deveaux that
dead end at chainlink fence along the parkway, then past Devils Hole State Park, its
gorgetop area reduced by the four lanes to what would be a "pocket" park in some
cities, then past high concrete walls on the right, vegetation to the left a withered
brown of herbicide-kill behind the gorgeside railing, then between high concrete wall and
railing across the face of the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and out into the open
approaching the crest of the escarpment, often called the "hill" locally, and
down into a long sloping drive, the Village of Lewiston with its church steeples rising
below you, the enormous mound of earth between Artpark and the road to the left,
escarpment dropping behind your right shoulder.
Youve made good time
and youve had some glimpses of the Niagara gorge and river winding toward Lake
Ontario as you went and a view across the countryside from the escarpment top before you
started down. On a clear day you might have seen the lake. Its an
enjoyable driveif you put out of your mind that the four lanes of concrete
shouldnt be there in the first place and that the "park way" and the
carsyour cardriving on it have displaced the landscape that should be there,
and that your very presence has devalued the vestiges of the natural environment that
The Artpark mound is
actually a small, man-made mountain, averaging 150 feet in height, with surface contours
of nearly 100 acres. The leveled off top alone is 53 acresthink 128 football
fields. Part of the mound is kept mowed, and part of it provides wildlife habitat,
left natural with long grasses and trees and exposed boulders. Called the
"spoil pile" when the Project was under construction, it was created by huge
Euclid trucks hauling 24 hours a day, dumping the stone and earth dynamited out to build
the underground tunnels, the reservoir, and the open canal that feeds water to the power
turbinesover 26 million tons of it. Upper Artpark buildings, in fact, have
been constructed on the spoils, which were also shaped into the roadbed over which the
Robert Moses Parkway now runs down the escarpment.
Before the Niagara Power
Project was constructed, a two-lane road wound its way down Lewiston hill, hairpinning
under a one-track railroad viaduct. It was a steep road, often dangerous in the
winter. It was a test for an old car: if you made it all the way to the top without
downshifting, your cars engine was in good condition. Things were bound to
change, though. This type of a road wasnt acceptable for a region on the rise.
Robert Moses let us know that, and while some of us regretted losing the character
of the old hill, and much else, we consoled ourselves by saying "Well, thats
progress." And I suppose some of it was.
Pre-spoil pile, the
escarpment side fell steeply into a deep woods and below that, gave way to fading
excavations of an old stone quarry intersected with overgrown dirt roads and trails, grown
up with staghorn sumac and young ash trees, crabapple thorn, brush, grasses and
wildflowers, inhabited by wildlife, deer, pheasant, cottontail rabbit, squirrel, raccoon,
woodcock and other migratory and resident birds, the usual varieties found in Western New
York. It was a secluded, quiet place of nature, vegetation taking over the signs of
past enterprise. Reality, though, must be paid its due: in the center of the old
quarry was a garbage dump where the tin cans, bottles, coffee grounds, soiled diapers, egg
shells, bread wrappers, and other household discards from the Town of Lewiston ended
up. In another spot a local industry dumped chemical wastes. So there was a
worm in the appleit was a little bit spoiled even then.
Those blemishes were easy
enough to overlook for those of us who loved the place, who spent time there, hiking,
trapping, running dogs, and hunting. There, on a late winter day nearly 40 years
ago, I met the future in a way that the truth can be told about it only here. In fiction
itd be too contrived. Id hunted alone for several hours, had shot one
rabbit that dangled head-down from my belt, field-dressed, a long smudge of blood on the
leg of my blue jeans. Angling across the bottomland, I saw that the wooden surveyor
stakes had been replaced by one-inch re-rod, pounded securely into the shale. Those
who wanted to delay the bulldozers couldnt pull those and toss them into the
brush. I headed up the steep escarpment, slipping in the snow, calling the dogs, who
ignored me, working an old rabbit trail.
As I clawed my way up the
last incline to the railroad tracks, grabbing onto brush with my free hand, someone
standing there called down to me. "Any luck?"
I struggled to the
tracks. He was dressed casually, work boots, a light jacket, was about my age, early
twenties, maybe a year or two older. Hed probably strolled down the tracks a
few hundred feet from the pull-off place.
"One," I said,
which had been obvious, hanging from my left-side belt as it was. I wore a faded,
red cloth hunting coat, stained, torn. On the right side of my belt was a Navy
surplus knife, with a six-inch blade in a leather sheath. This was over-kill,
certainly. I could have field-dressed a hippopotamus with that knife.
I called the dogs whose
voices continued to echo from the woods far below, running a ghost rabbit, a dead rabbit,
perhaps the one hanging at my side.
He had a leather-cased
slide rule, longer than my knife, hanging from his belt, and a carried a rolled up
blueprint about three feet long. I had a 12 gauge shotgun, Remington ADL.
better get what you can soon," he said. He swung the tube of blueprint by one
end through the air in a wide arc, indicating everything around and below us. "A year
from now thisll all be gone."
Even back then I was aware
of a dark feeling and I was glad to be so many generations away from my grandfather and
his kin who took their living from the woods and who wouldnt have stood for even a
vague threat to what was theirs, or felt to be theirs, from some stranger.
I cant remember that
we said anything more that winter day, but if we did it wasnt much. I never
went back, that I recall. Hunting season was nearly over and I didnt want to
see the bulldozers and the first trucks rolling in when the blasting started. Later,
I worked on the Project, down in the hole at whats now called the Lewiston Pump
Generating Station, as a laborer stripping wood forms from the concrete after it hardened,
from the interiors of the huge conduits that would channel water from the reservoir to the
generators. When it got too cold to pour concrete, I was laid off and went to
California. Then I got drafted into the Army. When I was discharged and came
home I found that what the young man with the slide rule had said had come to be
true. It was all gone. For me, though, it had probably happened that day
hed waved that wand of rolled blueprint in the air. Itd disappeared that
moment and Id gone home and hadnt returned.
Now, all these years
later, the impact of not being able to go home again (when Id read that novel it
never occurred to me), hits with considerable intensity. The stranger who rode into
town, who laid siege to it, was Robert Moses, and his reward was that we named things
Of course, the Power
Project was necessary. Of course, we needed the Power Project. It provided
jobs to people in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The population soared to over 100,000.
Apartments, hotels, stores, restaurants, and saloons were full for years. Some of us
evidently thought the good times would never end. But they did, of course, and now
the population of Niagara Falls, N.Y., is about half what it was when construction was
booming 24 hours a day.
Many of the places where I
spent time are gone, but not simply disappeared. The open space they occupied in the
world, our topography, our familiar landscape, no longer exists. Below the
escarpment, the space that flowed out of the gorge and through foliage doesnt exist,
where pheasants swept through air, where ferns carved the gentle sunlight, where
dogs voices sounded, where tree trunks and limbs wrote a mute calligraphy, where
even the space a hundred feet above where tall oaks and maples grew is now occupied by
darkness, millions of tons of earth and stone. Its a huge mound, a burial
ground for thousands of dead memories, of dreams, of hundreds of thousands of discrete
events that may have never happened at all, since theres no place left where they
could have happened.
Its worth noting
that a mere few hundred feet from the northwest slope of the spoil pile theres
another mound, ivy-covered, about 10 feet high and over 200 in circumference. This
is a Hopewell Indian burial mound estimated to be 2,000 thousand years old.
Miraculously, it has survived destruction, though a path of ivy has been killed, exposing
the raw earth to erosion, by the tires of dirt-bike riders that pass over it, undoubtedly
in search of amusement. Also at the present time, a scraggly Scotch pine about 12
years old grows from its top, perched there like a silly party hat. Whats that
So part of my desire for
Parkway removal can be dismissed as whining, angry, lachrymose nostalgia for the past, a
refusal to embrace progress, to accept change as inevitable. My problem, Im
told, is that I take all of this personally. Of course I do. How else?
If all politics is local, all insult is personal.
But far beyond the
personal affront I may feel, and even beyond the collective affront of thousands of
others, is the insult to the city and to the natural world, the environment. In
spite of the brilliance of Robert Moses, his determination, abilities, vision, and
accomplishments elsewhere, he was also ruthless and petty, and he surrounded Niagara
Falls, N.Y., with concrete roadways that encourage drivers to skirt the city as if they
were people with shiny shoes stepping around a mud puddle. Main Street, Niagara
Falls, N.Y., resembles a set out of Blade Runner. In the first six short blocks
south from Ontario Avenue, over 30 stores are closed, empty, boarded up. For sale
signs and for lease signs preside over empty and abandoned window displays. Desperate
hand-lettered signs declare "For Sale $500 Down," "For Sale
$850." What happened here?
People in the city are so
bewildered that the usual explanations arent sufficient: the flight of industry,
ill-conceived investments, urban renewal plans that didnt mature beyond the
demolition stage. Rumor says that someone offended Robert Moses when he was here,
and that the Parkway was how he exacted his revenge. He knew what would
happen. Hes somewhere smiling, now. When youre down, these things
And that is how the
Parkway functions. It also insults the natural landscape along the lower river
gorge, its concrete slabs, close-cropped medians and waysides removing over three hundred
acres from the Niagara River Corridor, which the Audubon Society has designated an
Important Bird Area, significant to migrating birds. It slices through parks,
isolating old-growth forests and plant communities. Without it these communities
could be united, forming healthier environments where rare, endangered and threatened
species could enjoy a less precarious existence, where they might be propagated by those
interested in reestablishing their populations. The natural environment already
present in the Niagara gorge would be enlarged and protected. Its difficult to
imagine a more enduring legacy.
Meanwhile, across the
river in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, gambling casinos and high hotels metastasize and
new development promises a five-plus mile monorail, an imported "half mile of white
sand" beach in a theme park, and so on. A 350-room hotel and casino is to be
located on a hill directly across from the American and Horseshoe falls.
"Its a magnificent site," one of the investors said, according to the
Buffalo News. Of course it is.
On the U.S. side, a group
of Parks commissioners lobbies to have an additional $600,000 of State Park money spent
($400,000 spent previously) on illuminating the rest of the American rapids above the
falls in the harsh glare of floodlights, and yet another investment group proposes to
invest six to seven million to run white-water rafting in the lower river from the
Schoellkopf Geological Museum to a site near Stella Niagara. This latter scheme
envisions, at Schoellkopf: a "tram" to get people down to the water, an
industrial museum, facilities for summer concerts, "nature" trails and rock
climbing on a "portion" of the gorge wall. Presumably, the wall for rock
climbing would be artificially constructed, since the actual gorge walls are inherently
unstable. At the lower river docking in Lewiston (where "trolley-like
vehicles" will wait to return people to the point of origin): a fishing station, an
historical museum, restroom facilities, two public boat launches, three shelters, 20
picnic tables, and spaces for 30 boaters. Todd Gitlin had it right when he said:
"We live in a culture in which everything that starts out original turns into a theme
Although the idea of a
"park" embraces a variety of possibilities, such as land kept in its natural
state, ballparks, trailer parks, and amusement parks, its clear that investors and
others typically think amusement park. The natural environment is seen as an
incidental backdrop, as the thing that gets built on or defaced to make money.
Examine this lead paragraph from The Buffalo News:
Imagine checking into a hotel room nearly the
size of most luxury suites, and after lingering for a moment to take in the panoramic view
of the American and Canadian falls, descending through a sunlit atrium into a huge
Theres little doubt that this passage
is meant as laudatory. Theres no irony intended. But the words
couldnt have been better chosen if there were.
Because of all this,
Im a member of Niagara Heritage Partnership, whose aims are clearly stated as
"concerned citizens who advocate the preservation and restoration of the
regions natural environment and encourage socially responsible
development." This group thinks of parks as places set aside for nature.
Its currently proposing the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway from Niagara Falls,
N.Y., to Lewiston and the restoration of the native plants that once grew there.
Initial investigation by the Partnership suggests that over a short span of years Parkway
maintenance costs would pay for its removal. Over five years ago The Niagara
Waterfront Master Plan listed the Parkway as "significantly underutilized" and
the areas population has fallen since then.
If we cant decide,
with the help of civic leaders, politicians, and others who are concerned about our
degraded and shrinking natural environment, to reclaim this piece of what was taken from
us, then the young man with the rolled blueprint was right. And Im not ready,
even after all these years, to admit that yet.
Permission to reprint
or publish this essay is granted. Please inform us by e-mail at email@example.com.
I wrote “Why I Want
... Removed” in 1998. Some pessimists think that the only place the
Robert Moses Parkway
will be removed is in the sentence before this one. They may be right. But the
essay was published in the Alt Press and in the Tonawanda News and then found a
place on the Niagara Heritage Partnership web site. What’s happened since then?
Children born in
the year I wrote it are starting school. Horrific and tragic events continue
worldwide and we continue with our tiny battles here, convinced that
everything’s connected, though we leave making that argument to others. It may
have been the poet Blake who said “Pluck a daisy, alter the path of stars.”
Johnny Cash died.
The Hopewell Mound
now has the suggestion of protective split rails near it, “please keep off”
signs and other “interpretive signage” close by. The pine tree has disappeared
from its top. I don’t take credit for any of this. It was bound to happen
sooner or later. It only took 40 years, or 250, take your pick. A large sign,
white letters on green, now proclaims this to be the “Lewiston Mound.”
Groundcover has been planted on it to prevent erosion. It is, unfortunately,
“Hardy English Ivy,” classified as an invasive alien species that spreads to
choke out native plants and even to kill trees. Good choice.
The top of the
spoils pile at Lewiston, described variously as the Lewiston Terrace, The
Lewiston Plateau, and Plateau Park, has been altered so that half of it nearest
the river has become a wildlife refuge with shallow-pond water features, and the
other half is “athletic fields” with mowed grass. A lot of work was done up
there, with contributions made by various groups and individuals, environmental
and otherwise. The Niagara Frontier Entomological Society was involved, as well
as the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council (nfwhc.org), Pheasants Forever,
and R.O.L.E. Small creatures have already moved into the wildlife refuge,
butterflies, armies of tiny, thumbnail-sized toads, dragonflies. Shorebirds
have been observed at the ponds. Ground nesting birds, killdeer and at least
one Savannah Sparrow have raised young there over the past summers. Bluebird
nesting boxes are in position for spring. Early bluebird scouts will be
arriving in March in search of nesting sites.
So, wildlife didn’t
wait for the grand opening ceremonies before moving in. These ceremonies took
place on 17 October 2003, and the spoils pile was called
Park by then. Wildlife didn’t care about the name, either. A few days before
the ceremonies, Mayor Soluri of
promoted the event by talking about the views from the spoils: “the village,
ROBERT MOSES PARKWAY (capitals mine) and Canada across the river.” A lot of
people probably attended the event just for the view of the parkway. In the
meantime, topsoil from a questionable site had been brought in to level the
athletic fields, and whether or not it was contaminated beyond acceptable levels
has still not been satisfactorily answered.
19 August 2003,
a newspaper article reported that the Lewiston Village Board had voted
unanimously to permit the Niagara Sunday Fliers to fly radio-controlled model
airplanes on the athletic fields next to the wildlife refuge. No environmental
group was consulted. When Mayor Soluri was approached by Dr. Cooper, who
informed him that such activity should not be allowed because it would disturb
nesting birds, Soluri told him to put it in writing and to cite more than one
authority. Cooper, past president of the Buffalo Ornithological Society,
complied with the request on 27 August. We assume the Niagara Fliers group has
been informed that no flying will be permitted on the plateau during nesting
season, between 1 April and 1 September.
The climbing wall
imagined in 1998 has been installed near the gorge at the Niagara Gorge
Discovery Center, formerly known as the Schoellkopf Museum. It’s about 30 feet
wide, 50 high, a prefab hollow shell manufactured by Entre/prises, Climbing
Walls. Thousands just like it are undoubtedly scattered in the malls and
amusement parks across America. The backside of this wall, braced by three
pylons leaning into it, faces Canada like the exposed framework behind a movie
set. Everything is painted black on that side. It’s only right—people on the
Canadian side of the river should have some junk on the gorge rim to look at,
too. The wall is surrounded by a tall black steel fence with pointed upper ends
curving outward. It’s late November, 2003. The place is deserted, fence
padlocked. A short distance away is a food shack, shrink-wrapped in white
plastic for the winter.
In a memorable
newspaper photograph, a smiling Bernadette Castro, NYS Parks Commissioner, poses
halfway up the wall during the formal opening of the new Center. Presumably,
she is up there discovering the gorge. There are no yellow bears in the
photograph. Perhaps they are behind the wall taking a smoke break.
Re Robert Moses
Parkway removal and gorge rim restoration: Fifty organizations with a combined
membership easily over one million support the NHP proposal; about 4,000
individuals who have signed paper and electronic petitions also support it,
1,800+ of these online. These numbers include Ed Begley, Jr., Robert F.
Kennedy, Jr., Ralph Nader, Dr. David Suzuki, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (Erie County)
and your friends and neighbors, residents, former residents, and people from
across the nation and world who value the natural environment and who want to
see it restored along the gorge rim.
Those in opposition
say, “But they’re not from around here!” If all the messiahs and prophets of
the world’s religions suddenly appeared on earth at a great conference at
Niagara to endorse parkway removal, opponents would
repeat the same thing.
In response to
those who asked “What about the parkway lanes across the Power Project. They
can’t be removed,” we proposed a double-tiered, long greenhouse. This might be
warmed by heat generated by the turbines, which is currently released to the
atmosphere. The space could be utilized by area florists and nurseries,
horticultural studies programs from Niagara University and Niagara County
Community College, and to house a facility for the cultivation of the rare,
endangered and native plants of our region. It should also have a
restaurant/snack bar where hikers and cyclists could stop for refreshments, and
an elevator to allow handicapped and wheelchair users access to the trail.
The usual naysayers
immediately attacked the idea. Our answer to them is on the NHP website under “Response
to Greenhouse Critics.”
We have responded
(repeatedly) to every opposing argument for parkway retention with what we feel
are rational, detailed, and compelling remarks. Yet no opposing public or
political figure has demonstrated over the span of six years a knowledge of the
NHP proposal they are so quick to reject—usually in favor of some “compromise”
Compromise” rationale on the NHP web site) or some feeble “make us
like Canada” variation.
The Pilot That
Didn’t Fly: About two years ago part of two lanes between Lewiston and Niagara
Falls was closed to vehicles as a State Park sponsored “pilot” project. The
other two lanes remained open to commuter traffic and hikers and cyclists were
expected to enjoy the closed lanes alongside the commuters. NHP objected in
writing to Tom Lyons, Director of Land Management, in a letter dated
28 March 2001, with over 200 cosigners. It’s
available on our web site. State Parks has announced the
results of the “pilot” study will be released by year’s end, along with
Is total removal as
proposed by NHP to be a genuinely considered option? Will a valuable idea be
denied because it doesn’t fit into the parallel universe of political
realities? Would it be the first time?
freedom of speech and freedom of religion are passionately defended, as they
should be. Equally defended, though not sanctified by the Constitution or Bill
of Rights, is the inalienable right of commuters to shave five or six minutes
off their drive times. This is why the concept of REMOVING A HIGHWAY IN AMERICA
(unless it’s to be replaced with a longer and wider one) is regarded as
blasphemy, sacrilege, evil, a crime against humanity. Thou shalt not remove a
highway may be, in fact, the missing Eleventh Commandment. That’s part of the
objection to the NHP proposal for removing four lanes of that 6.5 miles of
Robert Moses Parkway along the Niagara Gorge rim.
supporters of the NHP proposal do not believe removing a highway is a sin and
have overcome all the traces of highway removal anxiety. We advocate RMP
removal and the restoration of natural landscapes along the gorge rim, where
trees in some areas are allowed to mature into forests, and in other places long
grass wildflower meadows attractive to birds are cultivated. Clearly, we
endorse the Frederick Law Olmsted vision for the gorge rim. We want a hiking or
walking trail (miles of which are already present along the railing) and a
bicycling trail (which needs to be newly constructed) the entire length. We
believe this would be appealing to residents and tourists, especially to a new
population of ecotourists and, furthermore, that traffic using alternative
routes would help the economic revitalization of our region, especially
New York. Vehicle access would continue at gorge viewpoints for handicapped,
wheelchair users and those elderly who require it. That’s straightforward
enough, isn’t it?
We accept the very
large ecotourism market as a given, as do those communities who’ve reaped
economic benefits from establishing parks in place of removed highways. Those
who doubt these realities can check the web. Try this for starters:
http://www.ecotourism.org, under “Research.” (More coming
We contend that
alternative north-south routes could easily handle traffic currently using the
gorge parkway. Hyde Park Boulevard and Highland Avenue are good alternative
from the north, as well as
Further, we suggest that the parkway along the gorge currently encourages
tourists to stay in a “down-and-back-river corridor” pattern that functions to
discourage exploration of what the rest of the region has to offer. A gorge rim
without the parkway and good, regionally focused tourist attraction maps made
widely available would be very helpful in altering this uneven distribution
The NHP proposal
has generated both ignorant and purposeful misrepresentations of its position,
hostility, and desperate fabrications from opponents. Without going into
details here, it’s possible, we conclude, for some people to love a highway
beyond reason, even if it does degrade a world famous natural landscape. The
gorge, carved out by the waterfalls over a twelve thousand year period dating
back to the Ice Age, is an environment worthy of protection and restoration. It
deserves the respect of a reclaimed Olmsted park wilderness which nurtures the
old growth forest at DeVeaux and provides an enduring natural scene in the midst
of an urban area. It deserves to be free of food shacks and other inappropriate
If you agree with
the NHP proposal for a restored Niagara gorge rim, please go to
www.niagaraheritage.org and sign the petition there. Feel free to
leave a comment. Convince family members and friends to sign, also. Thank you!