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Andrew Rice on narrative and Niagara Falls: “It’s hard to believe that next to this natural wonder, there’s this amazing poverty”

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We talked this week with Andrew Rice, whose “The Fall of Niagara Falls” is our latest Notable Narrative. Rice’s career has included stints at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Observer. He has also written a book, “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget,” about a son’s search for justice for his father, who disappeared during Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda. In these excerpts from our talk, Rice elaborates on domestic vs. international reporting, what makes Niagara Falls different, and how at every length, the nonfiction pieces that have the greatest impact “have those same elements of storytelling, of character.”

Had you been to Niagara Falls before you wrote the story?

I’d never been to Niagara Falls before I did this story.

How long did you spend there?

I think about two or three days.

You have a lot of characters. When you’re talking about something as amorphous as economic development, how do you get a handle on what to include and what not to bring into the story?

This is of course, always a difficult thing to figure out in the editing process. My habit tends to be that I do a lot of reporting on all sorts of things, and a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. In this particular case, a lot of it grew out of Niagara Falls has been quite notable in New York state for some time. I was lucky in that there has been a lot of previous research done both by daily news, like the Buffalo News, and the Niagara Gazette, which are the two local daily papers there.

And also quite a lot of work done by SUNY-Buffalo and the Urban Design Project at the University of Buffalo. They had done very detailed investigations into the issue of economic development in Niagara Falls. And so the reports that were prepared by that group – which is run by a man named Robert Shibley – were really helpful in orienting myself before I ever went up there.

Finally, in terms of the issues with the Niagara Falls Redevelopment Company, there had been quite a few reports done in the local press over the years, but there had also been a report done by the New York state comptroller’s office, which had been an investigation of the city’s contract with Niagara Redevelopment, which basically laid out the whole history of conflict between the city and Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

So I’m thinking as a storyteller, you have all this history, all these pieces of information. How do you make them into a story that’s accountable to the facts but which keeps things moving?

This happened to be the sort of story where it originally grew out of a discussion between myself and my editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, Sheelah Kolhatkar, an excellent editor and someone I’ve known for a long time. She’s a really good writer herself, and she also happens to be from Canada. When we started talking about this idea of writing about urban blight somewhere in the United States – I can’t recall who came up with Niagara Falls first, but it made a lot of sense to her, because it was someplace she visited a lot growing up in Toronto. She said she had been on the Maid of the Mist like 20 times with various relatives.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that she gave me a lot of license to go up there and see what the story was. So I went up there for several days. I made arrangements to meet with local officials and got in touch with this fellow Mike Hudson, and was able to find a number of people who were willing to give me some time. Once you go up there, the story sort of opens up to you. Areas of the city are really beyond belief, if you’ve never been to a place that’s had this hollowing-out process. It’s hard to believe that next to this natural wonder, there’s this amazing poverty and hopelessness and burned-out buildings.

And so I think after spending a couple of days there, it became clear that the story was not so much a dry recitation of economic development statistics, but really about the people involved, people who were all in their own way involved in this question of “How do we reinvent Niagara Falls?” but who obviously did not agree with each other on the correct way forward.

You’ve written about economics and about Idi Amin’s tragic rule in Uganda and some of the legacies of that. In what ways do you approach those things similarly or differently? Do you have a constant way of approaching a story that bridges newspapers, magazines and books?

Every piece is different, but I think that there’s a slightly different way that you go about doing pieces overseas, which is just a function of the lack of good communications and structures, and the fact that really when you go to do a story overseas, you kind of get one shot at it. So you have to do a ton of advance preparation, and even then, after your preparation, things will never really turn out quite the way you expect them to. You generally have a limited amount of time before you get back on your plane and go thousands of miles back home.

With a story like Niagara Falls, it’s easier, because first of all, it’s a lot easier to call people up and to do a lot reporting prior to ever setting foot in the place. And second of all, once you leave it, it’s possible to do follow-up reporting. In a way when you’re doing a story that’s domestic, the stakes are a little lower in terms of getting everything you need out of one particular trip.

Ultimately, the thing is that it’s harder to do advance reporting for overseas stories, but in a way it’s more important to do advance reporting for overseas stories that maximizes your potential to get the things that you need once you get there.

In your work that I’ve read, you seem to favor a narrative approach. When do you think that storytelling approach works best?

Well, I guess I’m biased in that I think that narratives are the things I most like to read. I like telling the stories that can be told as narratives, so I guess it’s a little bit self-selecting. These days I try to direct myself towards finding articles or subjects that I think can be told through a narrative of one person or another. Of course, when I worked at a daily newspaper and when I moved on to the New York Observer, which is a weekly, I had a different approach. But I do think that even in newspapers, the stories that are the most interesting and have the most impact have those same elements of storytelling, of character. Those stories might be 15 inches or 20 inches, but it’s amazing the amount of narrative you can pack into that as a skilled journalist. I was lucky when I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then the New York Observer, to meet people who had been able to develop the ability to tell a real story in the constricted form of newspapers. If you can pull that off, then the longer stuff really comes naturally.

Are there any writers who inspire you?

There are many. I think that probably the first writer that really inspired me in terms of the overseas writing was a guy named Blaine Harden, who was at the Washington Post. He wrote a book called “Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent,” which I think is out of print now, but which is one of the most outstanding examples of overseas reportage that there is. He’s somebody that I read before I ever went to Africa, and who I tried to model the work that I was doing there on.

He was kind enough to meet me before I went to Africa, and he gave me a piece of advice. He said, “Try to write just one story. If you can write just one story to tell out of this, try to seize on that and focus on that.” That piece of advice eventually became the germ of the idea for my book. So Blaine Harden is somebody that I respect a good deal.

There’s a guy I worked with at the Philadelphia Inquirer named Ralph Vigoda. He could use daily journalism to tell a good story on 15 to 20 inches on a five o’clock deadline. He was a lot older than me then when I first started out, and I think he was a mentor to a lot of young people who have gone on to great success. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago.

In terms of people that I admire from afar, I’ve always loved Mark Bowden’s stuff. He’s also a former Philadelphia Inquirer guy who went on to great things. David Grann, who is somebody I crossed paths with very briefly when I worked in Washington. His work for the New Yorker has been incredibly inspiring, and I admire it because he has a real knack for picking unexpected subjects and subjects that aren’t necessarily related to each other and telling wonderful stories about them.

That kind of versatility is something I would aspire to emulate. Philip Gourevitch’s work on Africa has been very inspirational to me and is something that I’ve since tried to emulate to some degree what he’s done. And another person whose work is really fantastic is Nick Paumgarten, who was an editor of mine at the New York Observer. He’s now at the New Yorker as well. He’s also somebody whose work, every time I pick it up, I really enjoy it. There are so many other people.

Is there anything else you want to say about the story?

The Niagara Falls story is one that’s been hiding in plain sight for some time. I was really surprised to find that the plight of the city had gotten relatively little attention. Well, there was an excellent book by this woman Ginger Strand –

You mention her in your piece.

Yes. So it’s not that no one had paid attention, but I was sort of surprised that it had gotten as little attention as it had, and I think that it speaks to the fact that there are many communities like this that have been forgotten and have been wasting away for a long period of time. Even when the rest of the country was in prosperity, these places were still suffering.

One thing that was really striking that the mayor told me was that Niagara Falls had a hard time qualifying for some of the stimulus programs because they had hit bottom so long ago they didn’t really meet some of the criteria in terms of being able to show a recent decline in response to the recession. The suffering of Niagara Falls has been hiding in plain sight for so long. It was fascinating to go and spend a little time talking to people about it.

I hope one thing that comes through is that the place has great deal of potential and that our government should be looking for ways to harness this natural potential, this majesty of the falls, to make life better for people in that area.

Niagara Falls, of course, is a singular kind of place, but its story isn’t uncommon. So many places have been struggling a long time. How do you keep that story compelling and engaging?

Niagara Falls itself is just interesting. I think Ginger Strand is the one who said it, but the place draws these people who are inherently interesting. Paul Dyster, the mayor, was an international relations professor at Catholic University, and an arms negotiator for the Reagan administration. Here you’ve got this guy who faced down the Soviets but still can’t quite manage to face down city council. I thought it was telling. And Mike Hudson, the editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter, was the lead singer in this seminal punk band the Pagans. Here’s this extremely salty and voluble fellow as a kind of tour guide to the seamy underside of Niagara Falls. Maybe if you went to Flint, Mich., or Youngstown, Ohio, you’d find a cast of characters like this. But in a way I think that Niagara Falls has a magnetic attraction to interesting people.




3 comments

  1. James Hufnagel
    posted December 15, 2010 at 4:58 pm | permalink

    Mr. Rice states “…our government should be looking for ways to harness this natural potential, this majesty of the falls, to make life better for people in that area.”

    However, nowhere in his article or this interview does he reveal that 80% of the waterfront of the City of Niagara Falls is owned and operated by New York State. All tourism revenue from the Niagara Falls State Park flows to Albany and select contractors like Maid of the Mist and the Delaware North Corp. Tourists on average stay for a few hours and then go elsewhere, usually without even setting foot in the City, thanks to the Robert Moses Parkway that provides a quick escape route from downtown.

    How can any city trhrive, or even survive, when it is denied the benefits of 80% of its own waterfront, settling for the crumbs off the table from one of the world’s premiere tourist attraction? In all fairness, maybe no one made that point to Mr. Rice, but it’s so glaringly obvious he should have seen it for itself.

  2. richard d smith
    posted December 16, 2010 at 11:07 am | permalink

    I agree with Mr. Hufnagel With the state owning almost everything and not giving anything back to the community,it is hard for anything to be accomplished. Our city government puts the blame on the Community Devlopement dept, the planning board etc for nothing getting done. We can pass everything in sight but not force anyone to put their money in our city. We are mostly held hostage by NY Stae and the land speculators from NY city who just pay their taxes but DO NOT have any projects on the table to move forward.We need NY State to let go and let us use our governing bodies to run things

  3. Roger Spurback
    posted December 30, 2010 at 12:29 am | permalink

    What everyone is forgetting ,…is the fact that after 40 years of decline,….Nf’s is in phase II of a phase V resurgance.

    Everything takes time. getting the right people in place,….the correct synergy, the demolitions, rebuilding confidence in neighborhoods,….reality ! confidence in nationally recognized establishments,…gang re-radication, no – grafitti, less crime,
    less demographics dependant upon government handouts,…less slumlords,…better inspections,…increased road reconstruction,…more homegrown businesses,….more cultural activities,…It’s a whole of it’s sum. Don’t you agree ?

    Roger Spurback

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