law and urban order (2.4)

Temple upon the Niagara Frontier.
Temple upon the Niagara Frontier.
One of several cult temples upon the Niagara Frontier.

Niagara Falls is Toronto’s Coney Island. Where Rem Koolhaas described Coney Island as the appendage of New York City, a Manhattan in miniature, Niagara Falls is the flaccid member of the City of Toronto and even Southwestern Ontario. The Falls swell during the day to impress the throngs of tourists that flock to its frothy shores. At night, the pressure on the shafts of hydroelectric turbines strengthen with increased intake. Sublimated, the energy is transmitted throughout the region – powering tremendous industry. Beautiful gardens adorn the immediate public space around the Falls with nature’s finest flora and fauna as if begotten by the mist of the Falls.

The narrative of this proud member is statesly – it represents a country even a continent with full pride in postcards. The best sign of law and order in North America. But seediness lingers physically and  is further up the belly above the nipped-and-tucked line marked by a ridge. Up here, as if against the supernatural, are interiors of uncanny memory and artifice: casinos, horror houses, museums of the weird and the waxed. Despite all the windows, these places are oriented inwards – the focus on the ephemeral and spectral possibilities afforded by the Falls.

You see the Falls, but it is the distended stomach that unsettles in the city’s embrace. On the one hand, the binary of urban existence is clarified. The Falls is natural, the City is artifice. The Falls and gardens are respectable and orderly while the City is naughty and subversive. Both emphasize the supernatural in human affairs – one the wonderful design of nature, the other the uncanniness of human objects and memories. Both images furnish a model of law and order, a representation of a sprawling metropolis in miniature.

By the 1800s, the Falls was the City of Toronto’s primary source of electricity. One company held the monopoly on this utility. The name of that company was Toronto Electric Light Company and as anyone dealing with a company that holds a monopoly over a utility has experienced, service was not quite up to expectation.

The head of Toronto Electric Light Company, Henry Pellatt, built for himself the largest house in the country. The famed abode, Casa Lama, was designed by the same architect as the generating station at Niagara. The conceptual unity of Henry Pellatt’s home and power station, separated by 130 kms, was asserted by the similar revivalist architecture they shared. But the gesture failed to secure the economic monopoly.

The physical distance between the citadel and the monopolized resource was too great. Exurban manufacturers shrugged captivity. As the story goes, small and mid-sized manufacturing businesses from across Southwestern Ontario teamed up, found legislative champions in Adam Beck and William Peyton Hubbard, and transferred the monopoly to the province. The baron and his revivalist architecture challenged by a veneer manufacturer (Beck) and the son of a freed slave (Hubbard).

Notable Toronto electric grid events compared with population growth over time.
Notable Toronto electric grid events compared with population growth over time.

“The deliberate establishment of a monopoly, economic and political, has been one of the prerequisites for the rapid growth of the city,” writes Mumford. What role did electricity generated at Niagara Falls contribute to the rapid growth of Toronto and Southwestern Ontario? Rapid growth in Toronto appears to occur after the public power commission starts generating its own power and running a single integrated system.

The Niagara Frontier is about regulating a world of the known and unknown, not as a line between the United States and Canada, but rather as a line between the supernatural and supranatural. A difference marked by changes in elevation, in platitudes, and in potentialities.