25th Anniversary of Uncommon Park

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Eye from Albany
October 2002

25th Anniversary of Uncommon Park
By Paul M. Bray

Let me share some thoughts about a very different type of park I helped create 25 years ago. The park is Riverspark, a heritage area or urban cultural park, encompassing all or parts of the Hudson-Mohawk communities of Troy, village Waterford, Cohoes, Watervliet, Green Island and Colonie. It was called the park of the future 25 years ago and perhaps the future has yet to come.

Urban, State and National Parks that are mostly associated with greenery, beautiful vistas and water bodies have provided almost all of us with personal enrichment and are part of our collective consciousness and national heritage. Parks like Central Park in New York City are the lungs of the city. Great National and State Parks like Yellowstone National Park and Letchworth State Park preserved natural treasures.

In effect, our parks have been like museums, areas of land set aside for protection and recreational purposes. We have liked it that way, but we are learning that we have to move beyond this comfortable notion of parks. The last three decades of growing environmental awareness has taught us to consider the total environment if we want to maintain healthy environmental quality both within parks but in our home communities.

Vegetation and water quality in the Adirondack Park, for example, is impacted by acid rain created by power plants in the mid section of the country. Maintaining a healthy wildlife population in Yellowstone Park depends as much on conditions outside the Park’s borders as it does on the environment within the Park.

We are also slowly turning to an expanded notion of parks to make our cities more livable and therefore competitive as places to live, work, shop and recreate. In the 19th century, park maker Federick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux introduced the notion of the pleasure ground or country in the city park like Central Park and Prospect Park. These parks helped ameliorate the unpleasant conditions of the crowded, noisy and dirty cities that were thriving at that time.
Today we can adapt the park idea to enrich and make the overall urban environment more interesting and desirable. In part this is about reviving what Lewis Mumford called the main function of cities, their “function as an agent of human continuity”. He wrote in The City in History that the living memory of the city visible in part in architecture and patterns of development once bound together generations and centuries. With the disposal nature of our society, the continuity function had become expendable and is being lost.

In the early 1970s, leaders in Lowell, Mass. turned to the idea of the city as a park to revive the continuity function and turn a deteriorating 19th century industrial city from a place were everything was perceived as dull to a city were everything was interesting. Lowell became the first National Park encompassing significant portions of a city preserving an important chapter in the nation’s industrialization.

Transforming the idea of a park in the city to the city as a park was furthered by the realization that the conditions of a park could be woven into the fabric of the city. Qualities of place are important. Urban park historian Galen Cranz wrote that Lowell opened eyes to “the assumption that all parts of the city-its work spaces, living quarters, and connecting streets (in Lowell there was a canal system)-have equal aesthetic and recreational potential, that the city was in fact a work of art worthy of appreciation and objectification”.

These are the currents of thought and actions that lead the political and civic leaders of the then six and now seven neighboring Hudson Mohawk cities, towns and villages to dedicate in 1977 their common landscape, called by some “the birthplace of the American industrial revolution”, an urban cultural park. The Park ponderously called the Hudson Mohawk Urban Cultural Park (HMUCP) was guided by an inter-municipal commission made up of the Mayors and Supervisors of the member communities led then visionary Cohoes Mayor and now Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari.

The twenty-five year history of the HMUCP has been one of successes and many unrealized opportunities all taking place below most people’s radar. The Park belongs with a number of other gems we call best kept secrets. The Park’s name has changed to Riverspark (were water ignited a revolution) and it now classified as a heritage area rather than an urban cultural park though both terms mean the same thing.

Amongst the achievements of a quarter century have been setting the model for the creation of what now is a 17 unit State Heritage Area System (stretching from Long Island to Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario), development of state of the art Riverspark visitor centers in Cohoes and Troy, mapping and signage for a 26 mile heritage trail running throughout Riverspark, leading the campaign for designation of the Harmony Mills in Cohoes and the Kate Mullaney House in Troy as National Historical Landmarks, facilitating the protection and development of the Schuyler Flatts Historical Park in Colonie, supporting the establishment of the annual Canalfest in Waterford to celebrate the opening of the State Canal System and many smaller projects in furtherance of the Park’s intersecting goals of preservation, education, recreation and sustainable development like adaptive reuse of older buildings and heritage tourism development.

On the drawing board are plans for the AFL-CIO to acquire one half of the duplex Mullaney House for the establishment of a labor history study center with the other half to be a National Historic Site under the National Park Service to celebrate the woman who lead the creation of the first woman’s labor union.

How many readers of this column have heard about or are familiar with urban cultural parks or heritage areas? I doubt that many have grasped what these parks are about. This little public awareness reminds me of what Adirondack historian Alfred Donaldson wrote not long after the first quarter century after the establishment of the Adirondack Park in 1892. Donaldson lamented about the loss opportunities for the Adirondack Park to be a great public pleasure ground it could be due of the “supine indifference” to the Park when he wrote about the Park in the 1920s. At the time of the Adirondack Park’s centennial in 1992 a writer commented that the Park was still in the painful process of becoming a park.

New York State has a great park tradition including Olmsted urban parks, the first state park system in the nation with world class state parks like Niagara Falls and Letchworth, the forest preserve (the only constitutionally protected wilderness in the nation) and the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. When it comes to parks New Yorkers have been innovative and farsighted as it has been with heritage areas and cultural parks. But only time will tell if these parks will be able to realize their promise for our cities.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com