Getting the State’s Heritage Act Together

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Eye from Albany
September 2001

Getting the State’s Heritage Act Together
by Paul M. Bray

The development of a ‘heritage industry’ or the ‘commodification of the past’ is an internatinal phenomenon. Nations, regions and cities around the world are acting to protect and market their heritage for quality of life and tourism purposes.

For some inexplicable reason New York State with its vast reservoir of heritage from its Native American inhabitants, European settlement through landmark events in the 20th century has not been able to get its heritage act of national and international renown together.

Many goods acts have been done by many to preserve and capitalize on the State?s heritage and culture. The State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation manages 34 historic sites and administers programs like the state and federal register of historic places through which thousands of historic sites and districts throughout the State are designated. In partnership with scores of municipalities, the State Office has responsibilities for a seventeen area System of Heritage Areas as an expression of the State’es heritage in urban and regional settings stretching from Northern Long Island to Buffalo and Sackets Harbor. More than a dozen visitors centers have been developed in the heritage areas with $30 million in state funds since the 1980s. This has been estimated to have spured $75 million of additional public and private investment. Yet, these wonderful heritage that make urban settings and regional landscapes into classrooms giving people a chance to connect with their heritage are often in the best kept secret category.

In recent years Congress has designated the Hudson River Valley and the Erie Canal, respectively, as National Heritage Areas which are the same model as the State’s heritage areas.

There are also many private preservation efforts like Historic Hudson Valley that owns and operates a number of historic properties like Montgomery Place and the Tenement Museum in New York City.

One can go on and on about the good heritage efforts taking place in the State. This makes it all the more ironic when it comes to how often we are missing the heritage boat.

Take Albany for example where this column is written. Our Capital City and second continuous settlement in America has a Mayor that has shown callous indifference to heritage as 4 nationally significant archeology sites have been be revealed and then entombed by parking garages and state office building during the last 5 years.

In the Capitol building itself the Governor has in each of the last two years vetoed bipartisan legislation to plan for the forthcoming Henry Hudson 400th Anniversary in 2009 making Hudson?s voyage of discover. For the 300th in 1909 celebrations were held in communities from New York City to Albany and the Dutch sent over a replica of the Hudson?s Half Moon.

It is interesting to compare the vetoes with what the State of Virgina is doing for its 400th Anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown in 2007. Virginia started planning in 1997 and has actively engaged the people of Virginia as well as reaching out to the nation and the world to commemorate exploration of the new world. Congress acted last year to create a National Commission to participate in the planning for 2007. Archeological work is taking place and educational and visitor facilties are being development that will support heritage tourism for decades after 2007. Sure one can bet there will be a big party in New York with Tall Ships and all to celebrate the Hudson 400th, but it will come and go without leaving the heritage infrastructure that Virginians are so systematically taking advantage to develop.

The problem in this New York State of heritage abundance is more than missed opportunities like the Hudson 400th. Our major short fall when it comes to heritage is that we lack leadership to connect the dots and be systematic when it comes to caring for and capitalizing on our heritage treasures. Our State tourism program, for example, seems to be in another world when it comes to effectively marketing the our heritage attactions like state heritage areas. Despite the local creative energy that has gone into individual heritage areas like the ones in Saratoga Springs, Seneca Falls, the Mohawk Valley and the three city Susquehanna heritage areas, the State has failed to provide the system features like a system website, up-to-date system brochures and other system marketing and technical servcies that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

There are signs in Albany that leadership from the Governor is at least a possibility. In February the Governor established The New York State Heritage Commission by executive order. Could athis be the long awaited step in the direction of getting the State’s heritage act together?

On the positive side is the fact is that Governor Pataki is showing his interest in heritage issues and that the Commission finally creates a focal point that the diversity of heritage initiatives can look to. The Commission will have a very experience Director, Richard White-Smith, who has 20 years of experience as former Director of the Riverspark heritage area and the New York Parks and Conservation Association. He knows what is out there and what needs to be done when it comes to making connections and how to make good investments in heritage infrastructure.

But a closer look at the Executive Order also raises doubts as it addresses specifically heritage trails and the state?s historical collection rather without calling for the long term strategic heritage planning and coordination needed in New York. Why did the Governor establish a new entity rather that turn to the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and its intrepid Commission, Bernadette Castro, that already has substantial heritage responsibilities to take the lead?

Only time will tell whether the State will really take it up a notch or two in fully recognizing, preserving and capitalizing on our unique.