The Riverspark Story: Partnerships Making a Real Place into a Living Park

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June 9, 1995

The Riverspark Story: Partnerships Making a Real Place into a Living Park

by Paul M. Bray

Riverspark, a locally created and state designated urban cultural park encompassing seven neighboring cities, towns and villages at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, has been called a “live-in, learn-in park” and a “partnership park”. Its natural and cultural features are associated with the story of industrialization and of the American worker including the conflicts which spawned the American labor movement in the 19th century. As a living park, it also speaks of the deindustrialization of America and birth of the partnership park.

As the notion of park has broadened to encompass inhabited special places, partnerships have become integral to all aspects of park development and management.

Riverspark had its origins in the early 1970s when a local preservation organization, the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway, made studies and sponsored red lectures and tours to bring to light the rich 19th century industrial history of the area. The Gateway recognized that protection of the natural and cultural resources of the multicommunity area depended upon enlisting the support of the local governments.

In 1977, the farsighted Mayor of the City Cohoes, forged a partnership with three other Mayors, one Town Supervisor and a City manager to establish the intermunicipal Hudson-Mohawk Urban Cultural Park (HMUCP) Commission and designated the overall grouping of communities to be a new idea of park, an urban cultural park. The sources were the work of the Gateway, developments in Lowell, Massachusetts and trends in the environmental and historic preservation fields. A seventh municipality, the Town of Colonie, was added to the Commission recently.

Former Mayor Canestrari, today ‘a State Assemblyman, set in motion a process of recognition, celebration and capitalizing upon a unique American cultural treasure. He began the institutionalization of a living or inhabited park and the building of a widening circle of partnerships that continues to grow.
Riverspark represents almost two decades of park and partnership making. A milestone for Riverspark, the popular name for the Hud sonMohawk Urban Cultural Park Commission, came in 1982 when the statewide Heritage Area System was established. Riverspark was the model for the System which today has 15 units. In New York State, the names heritage area and urban cultural park are used interchangeably.

The New York State Heritage Area System is a partnership between the State and locally created-State designated heritage areas. For Riverspark, the partnership brings State recognition, technical assistance, linkage with other State de designated heritage areas and eligibility for both capital project and program grants. A feature of the System is a mechanism to foster coordination and consistancy between a wide range of State programs including transportation, tourism and education and the goals and activities of heritage areas like Riverspark.

Riverspark is guided by an extensive State approved management plan which includes a natural and cultural resource inventory, designation of a 26 mile heritage trail linking most of its resources! theme attractions like the Watervliet Arsenal Museum and the Erie Canal Lock #2 Park, interpretive and recreational elements and a preservation strategy. Significant historic sites and districts are protected by local preservation ordinances. Two visitor center have been opened, one each in Troy and Cohoes. The original Commission, now a public benefit corporation, is the planning and programming entity while the member communities and private entities are responsible for individual Riverspark facilities.

The development and operation of Riverspark is an ongoing tale of partnerships. For example, the Riverspark Visitor Center in Troy was the result of a partnership of many property owners doing fasade restoration projects on Troy’s main street with the City making streetscape improvements. Riverspark was able to package this project in a manner that got a 10% matching grant from the State Heritage Area Program. This grant was for $800,000, the total cost of developing the Riverspark Visitor Center in Troy.

Riverspark partners have included the corporations who help underwrite the cost of Riverspark festivals like the annual Canalfest and nonprofit museums and preservation organizations for whom Riverspark has been able to obtain State grants. The aforementioned Gateway was designated to be Riverspark’s tour organizer. A shared vision and well thought out plans connect many diverse partners with Riverspark’s intersecting goals of preservation, education, recreation and economic development.

In recent years, the Commission, in partnership with entities like the New York State AFL-CIO, has undertaken a long term effort to commemorate, celebrate and encourage the story of working life withing the seven communities of Riverspark.

The transition from an agrarian to industrial society in the Riverspark communities produced examples of dramatically different relationships between workers and employers. On the west shore of the Hudson River, the city of Troy was a breeding ground of union activity. The Troy union of iron molders was the largest local in America at one time and the Trojan laundry workers organized the first female union in the nation. “Troy is the banner city of Americans upon the trade union sentiment… declared William Sylvis, National Labor Union President in 1866.

A short distance to the north on the east shore of the Hudson River, the Harmony Mills Complex, America’s largest complete cotton mill, made the city of Cohoes into a company town. In his book on Troy and Cohoesp Worker City, Company Town, historian Daniel Walkowitz points out that, “Harmony Mills paternalism was distinquished by its thoroughness pervading almost every aspect of working-class life.” The company employed all 4,808 cotton workers in Cohoes in 1880 and owned 800 tenements available for Mill workers at reduced rents, boarding houses and a company store. Its managers frequently doubled as bank directors and even as Mayor of Cohoes. However, its control over its workers unraveled in the decades preceding a major strike in 1880 after Irish and French Canadian workers had time to develop associations on the job and in the community that were necessary to sustain an extended strike.

The story of workers in Riverspark was one of first decline and then rebirth after 1900.

Reindustrialization occured because of factors including labor problems, the Depression, changing sources of raw materials and consumer patterns and decline in the water and rail transportation network that once had made Riverspark a strategic location at the head of navigatin on the Hudson River. The Harmony as a textile mill and many of the Troy collar shops ceased operation during the 1930s and the Burden Iron Works which made the horse shoes for the Union Army during the Civil War and developed the machinery for making spikes for railroad ties was in receivership in 1934.

Yet, other industries and institutions whose origins were in the 19th century continued to contribute to the economy of the Riverspark communities. The Watervliet Arsenal begun in 1813 has continuously produced ordinance, cannon and weapons for the US Army in every national conflict except for the Revolutionary War. A cast iron building at the still functioning Arsenal is used as a museum. Rensselear Polytechnic Institute was founded in 1824 “for teaching the physical sciences with their application to the arts of life.” The first engineering school in the nation continues its long tradition of providing leadership and technical excertise for industries at the local and national level.

Much of the 19th century physical fabric of Riverspark has survived in a remarkably well preserved condition. For example, the Harmony Mills Complex stands intact with a variety of economic uses taking place in the Mill structures and the worker housing continues to be used as residences. Sites were workers congregated and formulated strike plans like Druids Hall in Troy are in excellent condition. The Iron Molders International Union met there beginning in 1865. The Kate Mullaney residence in Troy where the leader of the nation’s first women’s labor organization lived has, like the Harmony Mills Complex, been nominated as National Historic Landmarks. The Mullaney house is in a neighborhood that retains the working class character of the 1860s and 1870s.

The Commission undertook a feasibility study in 1989, Champions of Labor, which identified the resources chronicling worker life in Riverspark and recommending National Park Service designation of worker landmarks. It also called for creation of a labor study Center to be located in Riverspark. The New York State AFL-CIO then passed a resolution recognizing that Riverspark was “uniquely rich in the history of organized labor and working-class culture” and endorsing the recommendation for a labor study center.

Another outgrowth of the feasibility study was the of Public Law 102-101 calling for the Department- of Interior a labor theme study identifying nationally significant places in American labor history. This law was sponsored by Congressman Michael McNulty, the former mayor of the Village of Green Island and Riverspark Commissioner, and Senator Patrick Moynihan.

This study has led to steps towards National Historic Landmark Nomination for the Harmony Mills Complex and the Kate Mullaney House. The Commission is considering the creation of three interpretive districts: the Harmony Mills area to focus on the company town experience; the area around the Mullaney House to focus on the story of the story of what was the only “bona fide female union in the country” and the related movement to create a cooperative laundry and South Troy to focus on the iron molders. Much of the physical fabric from the 19th century has survived in these areas where people continue to live and work.

The Commission is looking forward to broadening its circle of partners to include the National Park Service in its efforts to preserve and interpret the resources associated with worker history. Models for partnership approaches like the National Heritage Corridor as well as Riverspark’s own unique experiences with partnerships can be drawn from in providing a partnership approach for national recognition for the nationally significant resources in Riverspark

Riverspark’s experience with partnerships reveals the Park as a focal point for an ongoing process where everyone with a stake in and its resources can benefit by participating in one way or another thereby advance the common good. This experience shows no precise formula for partnership parks other than the value of applying alot of thought, planning and commitment to the resources that make a special place special.