Eye from Albany
A Beneficial Perfect Storm
by Paul M. Bray
Last January when I was in Los Angeles there were reports of a gathering perfect storm. Torrential rainstorms were battering southern California and storms where approaching the USA from the north and the Gulf of Mexico. The prediction was these three storms would meet up in the Midwest and end up battering the northeast.
This climatological perfect storm didn’t happen but we should take note that another perfect storm, a chronological and beneficial one of state, national and international importance, has come together in New York State. The amazing thing is how oblivious our leaders and we the people have been to this once in many generations occurrence.
If you ask, what is this perfect storm, let me give you a hint. It has to do with where and how the America we know began. (Let us not forget that Native Americans inhabited the territory that is New York State for 1000s of years before the European arrived.)
As historian Kenneth Jackson points out, America began in New York rather than those other places, Massachusetts and Virginia that have succeeded in capturing in the public mind rights to being considered the birthplace of America.
We New Yorkers can rightfully assert our claim to the birthplace title during the occurrence of a perfect storm of commemorations rooted in New York State of the French and Indian War anniversary, the American Revolution 225th Anniversary and the Champlain and Hudson 400th anniversaries.
This is big time (like in the potential of billions of dollars of revenue that is much cleaner than the gambling money we are counting on) or at least should be. Following Hudson’s exploration of the river named after him, New York organized trade and settlement in New Amsterdam and New Netherlands. This happened before the Pilgrims saw Plymouth Rock. Read Russell Shorto’s book Island at the Center of the World and you will learn how New Amsterdam spawned American notions of diversity, tolerance, municipal governance and commerce. So, why has this history been eclipsed by other colonies?
The French and Indian War, also known as the 7 years war, was a war for empire between the French and British, the super powers of the time. Historians consider this war to be the crucible for the American Revolution and “War College” for George Washington. New York was the “cockpit” of the war for empire and “pivot of empire” in the 1750s. New York has more historic sites revealing the exciting story of this war that also spanned what has come to be 14 states.
The American Revolutionary War is having its 225th anniversary commemoration from 2000 to 2008. A goal of the commemoration is to “enhance public understanding of the various meaning and enduring legacy of the Revolution”. Again, New York was the centerpiece with critical events like the fall of General Burgoyne at Saratoga and the encampment of George Washington in Newburgh. Washington understood that the Hudson Valley was the key nexus of population, industry, agriculture, commerce and communications for a new nation.
These occurrences are not small stuff and they overlap. So, what is New York doing to blow its own horn and capitalize on its heritage. The answer, sadly, is not enough.
After an inexplicable veto of legislation to establish a Temporary State Commission on the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, a Commission law was enacted in February 2002. Not much has happened since that time, not even a Governor’s press conference to rally the citizens and communities of the State to participate in planning anniversaries that should be momentous events. (As this column is about to be posted, there is word that the Commission’s Director, Don Kasperzak, is resigning as of June 8th. Another sign the Commission has failed to get off the ground.)
In 2004 a French and Indian War Commission was created last year in New York but it is still waiting for appointments necessary for it to be constituted. Fort Ticonderoga is ready to commemorate the French and Indian War and Champlain’s exploration, but there is so much that could be done that isn’t happening.
Various New York organizations including the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor, the Hudson River Valley Institute and the Governor’s own heritage trail program are giving attention to American Revolution as it unfolded in New York, but it would be hard to claim that they have stirred up much attention either in the State or beyond our borders.
On the other hand, look at what others are doing. Virginia has been planning and organizing since for the 400th anniversary in 2007 of the founding of James town. (See, www.Jamestown2007.org) With national and state commissions and millions of dollars invested, the relatively modest Jamestown settlement looks like it easily is going to trump New Amsterdam in attention.
Quebec is will spend millions of dollars to celebrate the 400th of Champlain in 2008 and more than $60 million is being spent at the province and national level in Spain to commemorate the publication of Don Quixote 400 years ago. Our neighboring state of Vermont is up and going with its Champlain planning and is expecting to “generate $200 million in additional revenues in the Champlain Valley over the next eight years” from its Champlain commemorative activities.
Back in 1909 the Hudson Tri-centennial was fittingly world class. It looked back to the earlier exploration of America but also looked forward being at the beginning of the age of airplanes and electric lighting. It also helped spark the scenic preservation of the Hudson Highlands. Lincoln Diamant write in his book on the 1909 celebration that “An important result of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration was the manner in which it swelled local pride in the valley’s history. It was the precursor of the civic and conservationist efforts that followed”. He even attributes the Hudson River Valley Greenway created in 1993 as reflecting the “ideas and actions of a group of dedicated men and women whose thinking was inspired by the great 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration”. Torches were lit on the riverfront of communities up and down the Hudson River from Troy to New York City. Those were the days.
Is New York going to gets its act together to take advantage of this perfect storm of heritage? If so, we have miles to go to catch up with the planning and organizing, for example, of Jamestown and the currently ongoing Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. If not, blame should be placed for the jobs we didn’t get and the pride we failed to enjoy because of historic amnesia.