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By Bill Bradberry

Bags packed, I was headed to the car to load up for the long ride back to South Florida's scattered remains. I had left the Sunshine State nearly six weeks earlier after enduring nine days of no electricity, no air conditioning, no cable, no computer -- the result of four hurricanes in six weeks. Like hundreds of thousands of other hurricane refugees, I fled. I ran home like a scared cat, afraid of my own tail. I arrived back in Niagara Falls just as the long, wet summer was finally giving way to the brisk, bright, beautiful arrival of fall, my absolute favorite season here.

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As I was about to pick up another overstuffed, black, faux-leather travel bag, I turned to look out the window. The bright red leaf-covered branches on the tree outside my bedroom window were dancing, twisting madly as the wet, wild wind quickly brought back flashes of what I had seen down there before I left. Video-like images of the destruction I had witnessed are still fresh in my memory, running constantly like an endless loop, over and over again. The demonstration right outside my window was enough to remind me: Mother Nature rules; respect her or suffer the consequences!

I put the bags down, sat on the side of the bed and stared out the window while I reflected on my voyage and the impending journey home. It was one of my longest visits since I left here over 30 years ago. This time I saw a lot of people I had not seen since I originally left home to go to school. This time I went to places I had never been when I lived here way back when. I finally made it to Chautauqua, where I was mesmerized by the stunning beauty of the place, the charm of the people and the dazzling shock of deep orange, purple and golden hues against the royal blue sky, a memory now burned forever into my consciousness.

No matter how many times I do it, I am always stunned by the view of the falls. The majesty of that everlasting explosion of raw power always humbles me. In all her glory, Mother Nature is as terrifying as she is beautiful. Her energy can be used, when harnessed, to create as well as to destroy. Bearing witness to her displays in both cases, I have nothing but respect for her, as she is a reflection of only a tiny morsel of the universe's unknowable power. God's will is done on earth as it is in the heavens. As mere mortal men, we have nothing more than the ability to observe and obey the rules, to act as caretakers, stewards of that which we are privileged to use while we visit during our short lifetimes.

I ventured across the imaginary line that divides us from Canada. Having been born and raised here on an international border, I grew up seeing the river, the lakes and everything around them as a whole. It was not until later, perhaps in some geography class while a student at Our Lady of the Rosary in the late '50s, that I began to understand the concept of sovereignty. Tommy, my best buddy then, and I often scaled the gorge walls, defying gravity and as many other laws of physics and of men as possible in our eternal quest to touch the ground around us. It held for us a spiritual magic, a spellbinding fascination that kept us coming back, summer after summer and after school, whenever we could, looking for our connection to the history of the place. Over the years, we found it. I am still bound by it. I suppose that, no matter where I go on this ever-shrinking planet, I shall be forever bound to this place, my home.

Canada now seems far different. Twice I went there to meet with like souls, who are working to move our two nations in unison toward some level of recognition of what Tommy and I and no doubt thousands of others like us discovered a long time ago. The water, wind, air, birds, fish and other animals, including a few rare humans, see both lakes and the river that joins them as one ecosphere, undivided, with liberty and justice for all.

Of course, the border serves a purpose. Sovereignty matters. Thank goodness those 40,000 escaped slaves who found their way across the border knew the significance of the difference. But the care and custody of the fragile system must be better protected, lest we risk ruining the very things that create the beauty we treasure. Thank goodness there are binational organizations that are looking at the bigger picture, with a full understanding that what happens on one side of the border can have an impact on the other.

As the commemoration of the War of 1812 draws ever closer, more and more Canadians and Americans will find ways to cooperate instead of competing. Right now, there is a sense that Niagara Falls, N.Y., must compete with all of the pricey development that's going on across the bridge. I found myself lost more than once over there, as giant skyscraper hotel/casinos have cropped up seemingly overnight. So much has changed over the years, I barely recognize the place. Suddenly Niagara Falls, Ont., is the place where Las Vegas-like developments are springing up all over. But not everybody who lives there likes what is happening to their city.

One outspoken critic, Jim Brown, a local council candidate and avid environmental activist, opposes the "overdevelopment" of the area. He says residents feel as if they are being left out of the planning and development process.

"They are destroying our city, ignoring the neighborhoods, and not delivering the kinds of jobs the people need to sustain a healthy economy," Brown says.

He says the money being generated by the gaming casinos is not staying in the city. "The owners are not from here, they don't live here and they could care less," he says.

Too often, I have heard American Niagarans complaining that the Canadian Niagara Falls is "better" because it's being "developed," while things on this side seem to be at a standstill, if not actually going backward. I'm not so sure it is better. It is different, and that's OK.

This may be a good time for us as a community to rethink our values. While "over there" might be a good place to work or own a tourist business, would you really want to live there?

Quality-of-life issues are as important as the big, new, shiny buildings people associate with progress, as one participant observed at the recent binational confab, Sustainable Cooperation: Cross-Border Forum on Environment and Development.

In fact, one of the judges, Shirl McMayon of the International Awards for Livable Communities Conference, going on in Niagara Falls this year, told the group that cities often misunderstand what makes a city a great place.

Cities from all over the world are represented at the conference to show off what makes them livable.

"Green space, good clean water, healthy parks, local government and mayoral involvement together with a sense of a collaborative spirit go hand in hand to make our cities wonderful places to raise our families and live a good, healthy, safe and clean life," she said.

It seems clear to me that there is a vibrant new confluence of awareness among our people here and others scattered all over the country, many of whom want to come home and help put our broken city back together again.

The former head of the Niagara Falls Equal Opportunity Coalition, Bill Bradberry is President of the Palm Beach Public Law Institute and President of the Niagara Movement Foundation. You may e-mail him at ghana1@bellsouth.net.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 9 2004