Through the Eyes of the Young: State’s Heritage Assets

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Eye from Albany
January 2004

Through the Eyes of the Young: State’s Heritage Assets
by Paul M. Bray

As I have grown older, so has my realization of the value of maturity and experience grown. Yet, I have to admit there are times when the young see things with clearer eyes than their elders.

I thought about his after attending a presentation at the Rockefeller Institute in Albany by a dozen graduate students from UBuffalo’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. The students presented a study entitled “Upstate Heritage: Developing Identity and Creating Connections in New York State” from a Graduate Studio under Dr. Ernest Sternberg. Revealed were the awesome extent of New York’s heritage resources, their potential value to the declining upstate region and the regrettable contradiction of the failure of the State on the one hand to capitalize on these resources while on the other hand being in some respects a national leader in heritage planning.

The students paraded a wealth of information about upstate heritage to those assembled in December at the Rockefeller Institute. Using the format of a dozen heritage themes like Upstate Iroquois, Military, Freedom, Agriculture and Literacy, the rich upstate New York story unfolded.

When it comes to the formative history of America, so-called “birth place of America” states like Massachusetts and Virginia pale in comparison to the role of New York State.

The Iroquois theme is a case in point on the depth and breadth of the State’s heritage. The Iroquois Confederation covered much of New York State as early as the 16th century and today there are reservations in almost every portion of the State. The students pointed out, “The Iroquois had a significant role in the development of democratic principles in North America and the ideas and concepts of the Iroquois form of government influenced the development of the Constitution.” They concluded by declaring, “An Iroquois tour across Upstate New York would be unmatched in telling the Native American story anywhere in the entire United States.”

The National Park Service’s Civil war battlefields have high national recognition and are major attractions. Much less well known as the students reminded us “Three of the most influential wars of the late-colonial and early-federal time periods were fought in New York State. Without New York’s contribution in these wars (French and Indian War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812), the United States as we know it would not exist.” It is possible that more citizens of Germany for whom the books of James Fennimore Copper are required reading are familiar than Americans with the battles of the French and Indian War in New York. Military sites are found across upstate from Fort Niagara to Sackets Harbor, Oriskany, Fort William Henry, Ticonderoga to Governor Pataki’s favorite, Fort Montgomery, in the lower Hudson Valley.

The military history in New York goes beyond the War of 1812. It is said that the horses of the Union army galloped to war on shoes made at the Burden Iron works in Troy, New York and the iron for the Monitor was rolled in Troy. Cannons since the early 19th century have been made at the Watervliet Arsenal north of Albany. Today, troops formerly stationed at Fort Drum near Watertown, New York are in Iraq.

Despite the fact that agriculture is a leading part of the State’s economy, we often loose sight of agriculture as part of the State’s living heritage. The past and present come together with a growing consumer interest in “heirloom” fruits and vegetables formerly grown and now are being replanted on farms across the state.

The students went on to talk about the “Upstate of Freedom” including the underground railroad and the women’s suffrage movement. The upstate heritage of freedom is, in fact, so broad and deep even the students missed some key events and sites like the formation of the first women’s labor union in the collar and cuff industry of Troy in the 1860’s. It was led by Kate Mullany whose home is now a National Historic Landmark.

To make heritage work for Upstate New York, the students stressed the importance of transportation connectors that that we have in abundance and range from waterways like our canal system, recreational connectors like hiking and bike trails, rail connectors and road connectors like heritage routes and scenic by-ways. Yet, our fragmented political and administrative system is not so well endowed with connectors.

The driver proposed by the students to capitalize on heritage is a proposed publicly and privately funded “Upstate Heritage Foundation” to implement a heritage agenda including development of heritage sites and attractions, funding and/or sponsorship of special commemorative occasions like the quadricentennials in 2009 of Hudson’s and Champlain’s explorations and the bicentennial of the War of 1812, support for agri-tourism, organization and sponsorship of special tours and development of world class interpretive facilities on subjects like electricity spanning the State’s role in the development of electric light and energy.

Why is heritage so important? The pragmatic answer rests with the upstate economy. Tourism is the second largest industry in New York State employing 750,000 people and generating $39 billion a year in revenue. Heritage tourism which the students pointed out is expected to grow by 15% annually into the distant future is a key underpinning to our tourism industry.

Speaking of the Niagara region, Brian Akley, Deputy Commissioner of Empire State Development said, “We need to make better connections with the 20 million people who visit this region each year. We need to provide them with activities and events that will keep them here for two days, three days or longer.” In other words as people travel more, they want to know what is special about where they are visiting and will be attracted to places with the riches heritage.

Dr. Sternberg believes “reasserting heritage is a needed confidence builder” for Upstate residents who saw their economy decline even in the boom of the 90s. Heritage offers a lifeline to rebuilding the Upstate economy.

The irony of the UBuffalo student’s presentation is that they missed the fact that New York State has a law and some basic infrastructure for capitalizing on the State’s heritage. It also seems that state officials are oblivious of their own program.

A State System of Heritage Areas was enacted in 1982. Since that time at least $30 million of State funds has been invested in visitor centers and other heritage projects. Guided by ten themes in a plan prepared for establishment of the state heritage system, 17 areas ranging from areas of cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, the vast area of the New York City Harbor and three corridors, two along the Erie Canal and one in northern Long Island, have been designated by the State Legislature as representative of one or more the system themes.

Heritage areas have been called partnership parks because they involve state and local government and the private sector in furthering the intersecting goals of conservation, education, recreation and economic development. Each designated heritage area is required to do an extensive management plan that includes a full inventory of heritage resources and a program for implementing the area’s four goals. The plans are prepared by local governments and must be approved by the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The 1986 Environmental bond earmarked $20 million dollars for state funded visitor centers in heritage areas with approved management plans. Development of the visitor center in each of the initial 14 heritage areas (with the exception of the New York Harbor Heritage Area which is tied up in dispute) has been the major achievement of the heritage system.

For the most part the State has left the heritage system to founder. While the heritage areas were designed to be managed by local government or institutions, the viability of the system depends on the State playing an ongoing partnership role especially in overall promotion and marketing of the System that has yet to happen.

As the students discovered, it is easy to overlook the existence of the state heritage system. The students found the Buffalo Heritage Area visitor center located in the City’s theater district to be a literal sleeper that told them very little about the program of that particular heritage area or information about the state system of heritage areas. Buffalo was designated to celebrate the heritage associated with the “flowering of culture” theme.

There is no website for the heritage system and the document they relied on by the students for the State’s activities in historic preservation, the State’s Historic Preservation Plan, contains nothing about the heritage system despite the fact that the system should be a significant means to preserving the State’s heritage. It is classic case of one program office of an agency being completely out of sync with related programs in the agency.

What does this mean besides revealing the State’s blundering failure to capitalize on its heritage assets? Perhaps we should think about how Governor Pataki announced that the consortium of semi-conductor firms, Sematech, is going to do some its research at the University at Albany. The Governor said the State’s support for high tech development was on a par in economic impact with opening of the Erie Canal. Here, heritage is being used rhetorically to convey the importance of the State’s investment in high tech research. That is not enough.

In fact, the State is betting 100s of millions of dollars to fund high tech research facilities across upstate New York in order to build a job rich high tech economy. But no matter how valuable the research product from the facilities there is no guarantee that the intellectual product will lead to production in upstate communities. Given the increasingly down at the heels conditions including declining population and increased crime in cities like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo on top of being a high tax state, why would production take root here?

What I am getting at is simply that upstate New York needs more than state of the art high tech research; it needs serious investment in a complete make over drawing from all of its inherent assets. Investing in heritage as the students suggested through a Heritage Foundation is a great place to start. It not only can be a much needed “confidence builder”, as the State’s tourism official proclaimed, heritage tourism offers the potential of being a money maker for upstate communities and the State.

Let us hope that UBuffalo students represent something more that an excellent academic exercise, but also signify an awaking about how our State’s important heritage assets and heritage area system can serve us in the future.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is