From model suburb to danger zone

Little remains of the suburban neighborhood that former residents called idyllic. But back in the 1960s and '70s, Love Canal was the picture of middle-class suburbia. With two new elementary schools and blocks of affordable housing only a few miles from downtown Niagara Falls, it seemed to many the ideal neighborhood for living out the American dream. ``We called our friends and told them to bring the kids,'' former resident Joann Hale says. ``It was such a great place to live.''

The neighborhood was formed in the mid-1950s when the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation - now Occidental Chemical - sold a former dump site to the city's Board of Education. The site was named after a failed hydroelectric canal built here by an entrepreneur-dreamer named William Love. Houses sprang up around the schools the city built and the neighborhood was born.

But 20 years later, after several years of heavy rain, area residents began to notice a smelly black sludge oozing into basements and up through their backyards. The substance was linked to the 20,000 tons of chemical waste that Hooker had deposited in the canal between 1942 and 1953, and many believed it was responsible for the deteriorating health of neighborhood children.

The State of New York intervened in 1978, bolstered by funds from the federal government, and recommended evacuation of homes immediately surrounding the dump site. Homeowners were offered fair market value for their houses, and most left.

But about 10 percent of the Love Canal residents have stayed - choosing to keep family homes and paid-off mortgages despite uncertainty about health risks they face. For many - especially those who found 1978 interest rates too high to start over again - remaining was an economic choice.

And some say living in Love Canal isn't so bad. Mary Garrow, whose backyard shares a border with the fenced-off meadow that once housed more than 200 homes, says she likes the quiet. ``It was really ghostly when the houses were still standing and deserted,'' Mrs. Garrow explains. ``But now it's kind of nice - like living in the country.''

Though she still won't grow vegetables in her yard, Garrow says she's not very worried about health risks. ``They come and test two times a year,'' she explains. ``They test our air and they test our water. We're OK.''

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