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RIP The Path Through History Taskforce

Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales begin, there was a New York State Path through History Taskforce. Some of you may even remember it. August 28, 2015, marked the three-year anniversary of the failed project and since the NYS Historian who was a member of that taskforce has resigned, it is beneficial to examine the fate of this taskforce for the lessons it teaches about what happened. Will we learn from the past or are we condemned to repeat it?

At the kickoff event for the Path project, attendees received two glossy, multicolored booklets. One had a list of the “iconic highway signage” which was to be produced; the other had the conference agenda, a description of the regions with a listing of the selected sites, and the taskforce bios.
According to the Overview on the first page:

“Local participation will be the key to this program’s success. Just as the Regional Economic Development Council relied on the local experts who knew their economies best, the Path Through History program will rely on local leaders, historians and tourism experts to design a plan that best suits their region. Public participation will help New York be a leader in heritage tourism and better promote the regions’ [sic] history to a larger audience.”

Admittedly it is difficult to read this passage without busting a gut laugh at its absurdity. How many regional Path through History plans have you seen? When was the last time the history community in your region even met to design a Path plan?

Andrew Cuomo Path Through historyI suggest we should apply some critical thinking to this primary source document rather than simply to dismiss it as a blatant hoodwinking of the New York State history community. A better approach is to consider the possibility that whoever wrote this text genuinely believed and/or expected that this is what would happen. In other words, consider the likelihood that this document was created under the auspices of the Taskforce as a blueprint for how the project would be managed.

One critical observation is that the Path and Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) were depicted as parallel operations with separate funding streams. Economic proposals would go to the REDC and Heritage Tourism proposals would go through Path. The Path project would receive its own funding. If that is not what was meant, then the text is poorly phrased at best. I prefer to believe that the Taskforce had the rug pulled out from under it.

Here are the members of the Task Force, and what became of them.

Mark Schaming, Director of the New York State Museum gave the opening and closing remarks and is identified as the co-chair of the Taskforce. Doesn’t that suggest that this history program was to run under his leadership in some way? Have you heard his name mentioned again on the project over the past three years? He also chaired the Capital Region session during the breakout.

Ken Jackson, Columbia University, was the featured speaker. That was his last public action with the project.

Lisa Keller, Purchase College, is a former student of Ken Jackson and active in the New York State Historical Association. She chaired the Mid-Hudson region session during the breakout session.

Harold Holzer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a nationally-renowned Lincoln scholar who has since left the Met for Hunter College. He delivered the keynote address. He was the other co-chair of the Taskforce. He also chaired the Central Region session during the breakout. Have you heard his name mentioned again on the project over the past three years?

Tom Chambers, Niagara University, chaired the Western Region session during the breakout sessions. He has served on the host committee of the annual Conference on New York State History.

Robert Harris, Cornell University, chaired the Finger Lakes Region breakout session.

Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel
is the founder of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI) based at Hyde Park. He had no formal role in the Path through History conference.

Robert Weible, now former New York State Historian, chaired the North Country Region session during the breakout.

Rose Harvey, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) Commissioner – chaired the New York City Region

Ruth Pierpoint, NYSOPRHP Deputy Commissioner – chaired the Southern Tier Region session.

Andrew Beers, NYSOPRHP Deputy Commissioner – chaired the then soon-to-be eliminated Mohawk Valley Region.

I have been sending nearly all of these folks my posts in the New York History Blog about the failed project the Path became but I suspect they all knew it anyway.

It is easy to see why the history community left the conference excited about the prospects for the Path project. It seemed like a real effort with strong history leadership focused on the NYS Museum and NYSOPRHP and with close academic ties.

How wrong we were.

As we know now, the project soon came under the purview of I LOVE NY, an organization with zero history expertise which was not mentioned in either of the two booklets distributed at the conference.

For months Mark Schaming, Taskforce co-chair, had appeared to have the lead only to have it yanked away. The Taskforce quickly faded into oblivion and the project became a mockery of its promises. It’s not that we were lied to, it’s that the history community lost the political turf battle for control of the project.

All that could be salvaged was for NYSOPRHP was to place one of its own, Mark Castiglione, as the public face of the project to the history community. But he had no voice, no authority, and no power. I LOVE NY ran the Path through History project until it became the non-entity it is today, branding events on a weekend or two in June as Path events and reciting the logo at tourist conferences.

How pathetic.

The retirement of the State Historian provides an opportunity to revisit the turf battle. With the past three years of superficial accomplishments as a guide, this is the right time for a more vigorous State Historian to gain control of the Past through History project working with I Love NY to fulfill the vision distributed at the Path launch.

This is the right time to recreate a History Task Force (and to combine it with the proposed NYS History Commission with the addition of the municipal historians, social studies teachers, and archaeologists).

Odds are, none of this will happen. Bob Weible’s retirement is an opportunity to have a full discussion about the place of New York State history in state government… except that there is no venue to have this discussion.

Cuomo’s “Dear Friends” letter in the conference booklet ended with: “and I look forward to working with you to return New York’s heritage tourism industry to the national forefront.”

Who will tell him that didn’t happen?

Who will tell him there is more to history than tourism?

Will anything change?

9 thoughts on “RIP The Path Through History Taskforce

  1. Peter – You are 100% on the target in this summary piece. I was an active member of the Finger Lakes Region PTH Task Force. In the first year we completed a plan and secured our $100,000. We partnered with a Team at Rochester Institute of Technology. With our money, they designed an interactive software application for the Apple iphone…it was actually pretty cool. The test software was rolled out to twelve sites in the Finger Lakes Region. Since the Region contained 10 counties, two counties managed two sites. Here in Wayne County we were awarded one site (Historic Palmyra). I recommended to the Task Force that we attempt to track the experience and use at each site. If the experience was successful, I recommended that for the second year we do two things: 1) expand the software to include android based phones and 2) add more sites in each county across the region. My suggestions seemed to be noted. During the year, our project was featured at the RIT Center for Innovation with many for the REDC’s big wigs featured speakers. At the end of the year, I Love NY wanted each region to send their project to be represented at a big event planned at Grand Central Station. The Task Force met and overwhelmingly selected our NYS Historic Site at Ganondagan (an Iroquois – Seneca Village interpretive center in Victor, NY). Apparently, Ganondagan did not meet I Love NY vision for the event and we were told to pick a site with a “women’s rights theme” which was done without reconvening or consulting with the Task Force. That episode was the last official act of the Finger Lakes PTH Task Force which was something like two years ago. I continued to push for a meeting of the Task Force to plot a path forward but was repeatedly ignored and nothing has happened since that I am aware of. As far as I am aware, Historic Palmyra is still using the iphone interactive app with visitors but I have no knowledge of activity at other eleven sites around our region.

    Peter – that is the whole story in a nutshell per one member’s point of view. I had great hope for the PTH concept. Most small local museums, historical societies and historic sites and buildings had a source of state funds prior to the institution of the REDC Consolidated Funding Application process. Now these organizations are almost completely frozen out of the funding process. I had real hope that the PTH initiative would re-vitalize a funding stream for these local historical resources who for the most part had no paid professional staff. I am greatly saddened.

    Peter

  2. Bob Harris retired & left Ithaca for the DC area (where a daughter & grandchildren live) several years ago. No wonder you’ve not had contact with him. I think that was about the time he left, or soon thereafter, but not before.

    You tell a sad but not surprising tale.

  3. I hear you loud and clear, but this is typical of what happens when we rely on govt entities.
    I wish you well on the revival efforts, but I have found that combined grassroots efforts and volunteerism gets more done than the Govt. Finding ways to give workshops/hostels etc to elementary and social studies teachers—IF they are allowed to organize/attend what they really want to do b/c they know their kids need it to be well-informed citizens –is also another avenue. THAT is the one I was involved with, esp with the Lowell Nat’l Historic Park for my Masters Thesis and public and teacher workshops, events sprang up as a result.
    Just a thought from this out of stater, who still LOVES the HISTORY and HERITAGE of New York.

    Bonnie Wilder

    PS How are Hamilton tickets going? I met a bus driver whose son auditioned for percussion for the H. show, but did not make the cut, though he does many other NYC shows. They are from the Philly area, and the bus driver would LOVE to take a bus load in from there.

  4. I worked for NYS for 30+ years, now retired. What I found to be most successful was to forge ahead with a concept or stated goal, developing a solid framework and workable end- product for my area (region), regardless of what happened at the state level. Many times what we developed became the basis for state-wide implementation. A plus was: the system that went state-wide was an interpretation you could live with and met your region’s needs.

    Sometimes timing wasn’t right for the state-wide effort or, more likely, it was that sea of priorities getting in the way (enter the shortcut). It takes passion for your job, your subject matter to move this stuff ahead, as you know. A “region” could task on the PATH, directly request (or suggest) a chair person, tell the State you want to move this ahead , have a couple of state reps from I NY + other areas assigned, request some funding, put it together following the booklets you mentioned and present it as an example. Are the players in the Mid-Hudson Valley up for doing that kind of thing? Would they be willing to sign-on in a letter to Cuomo or whomever to say they are committed to doing this? The state would love to be able to provide positive progress for this initiative = the accomplishment of a prototype in a region (no matter how they get it – and as long as there are state reps attached, it is still “state”), the next step from I NY.

  5. While I applaud your efforts to get NY moving along its mapped path, I fear that government may not be the right engine. As usual, once government takes hold it all becomes the path of least resistance. Is there any private organization or foundation that would help?

    Vivian
    Vivian Yess Wadlin
    About Town of Ulster County

  6. Vivian, that is a good point. Government moves too slowly and is often paralyzed by struggling to decide what is politically expedient. Peter had suggested a couple of years ago forming our own paths through history on a local level as my town is not on any of these major corridors (at the time we actually thought something would be happening ON those corridors). I was not able to drum up any interest on the part of my local government so I got together with historians from neighboring towns and in less than a month we had put together a quad-fold brochure and a web site. I look at it now like a train as I propose new ideas and am seldom taken seriously by government…the train is going to stop at the station, but only pause briefly. I am not going to hold the train while government decides yes or no to getting involved…the train is going to move forward, with or without them. There are others out there willing and perhaps better equipped to support our efforts. Dutchess Tourism, Greater Hudson Heritage Network, local historic societies….lately even my town’s government has gotten on board and proven helpful. So, onward and upward!

    Val

  7. Peter,
    Congratulations! Finally someone who speaks up to the absurdity of so many of the Empire State Development/I Love NY programs and the way they are operated (Gavin Landry must love you)! The only thing more dysfunctional than the programs they create is the entire bureaucracy that runs ESD. Last year, Ken Adams (top dog), Charles Imohosen (newly appointed COO), Margaret Tobin (newly appointed CFO) all went out the door in 5 minutes. How many millions were spent advertising StartUP NY! a biggest loser of all programs but not before $59 million ad dollars were spent to create a handful of jobs? This organization is created to keep a handful of political cronies employed with high paying jobs and positions to run around the state and dump grant dollars in to hopeless projects that go nowhere.
    One of my favorites in the Capital District/North Country Region was the Lakes to Locks smart phone app that was going to save the world and a year later all of it was scrapped and google is now building an app but nobody mentioned how much money was burned on this project and how ineptly it was handled. Ever been to Whitehall NY and some of the places on the Champlain Canal and asked yourself why in the world would you want to stop there?
    http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/author/pfeinman/
    Keep up the good work (although your ihare website needs work).
    All the best,

    Bob

    Bob Dillon
    You Can’t Fake REAL!

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