By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — Though I have not yet had the opportunity to set foot on the celebrated initial improvements in the State Park at Niagara Falls, or to visit the proposed new Maid of the Mist launch pad at the old Shoellkopf site down below in the gorge, I have been hearing some pretty serious criticism of the way some of the work is being done.
Since I trust the judgment of some of the critics, I assume that some of what I’m hearing is true and correct, and that before things go too far, it may be wise to take some time to rationally consider the question; what are the best ways to preserve and protect our precious assets without spoiling them?
The broader question is not new to historic preservationists and historians such as I tend to fancy myself, that is, how do you balance the need for public access to historically important sites with the need to protect both the public and the site?
And in today’s often volatile, sometimes violent political environments, how should safety issues be dealt with in a way that maximizes public safety and security without depriving the people of the best visitor experiences possible?
As Preserve America (preserveamerica.gov) puts it on their web site, “Providing security for operations and personnel located in or near historic and archaeological sites presents unique and sometimes difficult challenges. In some cases, security measures implemented at historic and archaeological sites are obtrusive, lack design sensitivity, discourage public access and threaten the integrity of the resources they are designed to protect.”
It appears that, regarding Three Sisters Islands, some local critics have concluded that, in fact, the “improvements” fail on all of the above measures, that they are obtrusive, lack design sensitivity and, at the very least, “discourage public access.”
One photograph I saw recently seems to show that the most exciting part of the islands have actually been cut off from public access by a fence.
If true, that’s tragic.
As a native Niagaran, I grew up on those rocks closest to the water, some actually in the water, in the serene, peaceful quiet above the falls where, when you are on the ground in some spots, you are level with the water, which from that perspective seems to be touching the sky, pouring ever so slowly out from the clouds on the way to inevitable flight at the brink.
It was the contradictory sense of peace and danger, the slow stream coursing toward the cascading crescendo below which gave that very special place its perpetual reverence.
And it is, after all what makes this side of the international dividing line so special, so uniquely American; we can touch the water, we can feel it, taste it if we care to.
In some places around the Islands, the falls seems to all but disappear as the river, trapped by the gigantic hulking boulders quiets to the trickle of babbling brooks, releasing the calming sound of gently flowing peace.
Having hiked the many trails that line and crisscross the Park from the falls all the way out to Devils Hole, the Islands became one of my sacred refuges, a perfect spot to sit on the very same rocks that had served as resting places for millions of people who had traveled here from around the world for hundreds of years, the same rocks that I sat upon as a child, I could visit again 50 years later, where nothing there had changed since the last time I had visited, until now, apparently.
Preserve America, in addressing security assembled a panel of experts who, in 2006 concluded and recommended, among other things, that communities should consider and implement the following:
• Keep public historic properties open to the public
• Develop risk assessment methods appropriate for historic and archaeological properties
• Incorporate security related provisions into building/site codes
• Design matters: sensitive security solutions must be selected to protect the property’s historic integrity
• Provide information and training to help balance historic preservation with security needs.
In considering ideas for keeping historic properties open to the public, the panel advises safety and security measures consistent with the National Historic Preservation Act that respect the visibility of the site as well as its importance to our nation’s story recognizing that , “For all historic properties, preservation of integrity is of paramount importance.”
They also stress the need to develop risk assessment methods, pointing out that “Historic and archeological properties are unique because they represent our country’s cultural heritage, and are, at the same time, living places fulfilling contemporary purposes.”
Finally, and perhaps most important at this stage of the State Park’s revitalization, and the conversion of the Shoellkopf site, Preservation America strongly recommends the use of “Multi-disciplinary design teams; architects, landscape architects, interior designers, engineers, community planners, archeologists, historians, and security experts- should be selected for their experience and expertise, ability to be collaborative, talent and passion for creating lasting designs that meet the security requirements yet are compatible with a historic setting.”
To that, I might add this cursory suggestion, one that matters more to me because of my personal relationship with the park that served as my childhood playground.
If it really is true that a fence has been built to keep the people away from the water and the historic rocks at Three Sisters Island, I say, in the words made famous on June 12, 1987 by one shouting United States President about another barrier, “… tear down this…”FENCE!Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org