The Erie Canal to the man on the moon was an extraordinary period of achievement for humanity, America, and New York. However, symbolically, even as Kennedy was pledging that we would have a man on the moon before the end of the decade, the tide had turned. In 1963, the once-magnificent now-run-down Penn Station in New York City was demolished. The giant leap forward in the 60’s was matched by a wretched step backward as we watched a wonder deteriorate into a ruin that soon was put out of its misery. And many New Yorkers have been miserable since over the travesty which had occurred. Who would save the city? Who would renew the vision? Who would boldly go back to what we had been before?
“We have to think bold.
We have to think big.
We can do it.
We are New Yorkers — there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Governor Cuomo expressing New York values, January 5, 2016
In his State of the State, Governor Cuomo proposed a new, daring vision that he claimed would make Rockefeller jealous. The specific area I wish to focus on here is his transportation vision, not his history vision which was conspicuous by its absence. But even though New York State history is not part of his vision, there is the potential for it to be a beneficiary of the fulfillment of Cuomo’s proposals.
Consider the magnitude of what has been recommended in his 14 Signature Proposals.
PROPOSAL 2: Launch a comprehensive plan to transform and expand vital infrastructure downstate and make critical investments in the region. Most notably, the proposal includes a major expansion and improvement project for the Long Island Rail Road.
PROPOSAL 5: Invest in Upstate transportation infrastructure including a tax credit that cuts tolls in half for the New York drivers who utilize the Thruway most often.
PROPOSAL 6: Transform Penn Station and the historic James A. Farley Post Office into a world-class transportation hub. The project, known as the Empire Station Complex, will dramatically enhance the travel experience.
PROPOSAL 7: Dramatically expand and improve the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to stimulate the regional economy.
PROPOSAL 8: Modernize and fundamentally transform the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, dramatically improving the travel experience for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the metropolitan region.
PROPOSAL 11: Launch a $200 million competition to revitalize Upstate airports. The proposal is designed to enhance airports throughout Upstate New York, and promote new opportunities for regional economic development and partnership between the public and private sectors.
“Dramatically” seems to be a critical term that must have tested well with focus groups.
In addition, there is the current construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the promise of a rebuilt La Guardia Airport to transform “the third-world airport” into a 21st-century one, a new tunnel across the Hudson to New Jersey to break the bottleneck and help create a train corridor for the 21st century, and a proposed study to break the Sound barrier between Westchester and Long Island.
“What happens tomorrow depends on what we do today.
Let’s be as bold and ambitious as our forefathers before us.”
Governor Cuomo expressing New York values, January 6, 2016
Did you catch your breath? Forget about the exact details of what these projects would entail. Forget about the funding needed to fulfill this vision. For the moment, let’s just consider if all this came to pass, what would it mean for the history community, especially upstate.
Most of the proposals deal with New York City – moving people in and out of the city on a daily basis as commuters or in and out of the state or country as tourists or travelers. The one destination site mentioned is the convention center in New York: how to make it a world class venue. The Signature Proposal for upstate involves various airports. Undoubtedly that is good news for Delta and Jet Blue who are committed to New York State tourism/travel and who attend the Tourism Advisory Council meetings.
Let’s consider now what wasn’t included. How about upstate rail service? A high-speed train along the northeast corridor has great benefits for the country but outside New York City, it would only traverse Westchester in New York. Westchester County, especially along Long Island Sound, is not an area that promotes or even wants history tourism. The history sites on the Sound Shore as with many communities throughout the state are local in nature. They are not designed to handle a continual stream of buses or cars nor would the residential communities in which some of them are located welcome an onrush of tourists. Playland Amusement Park where Tom Hanks became “BIG” is enough, thank you very much.
The current train service upstate doesn’t match European, Japanese, or Chinese standards. It would be hard to duplicate Jason Bourne’s train journeys on the New York train lines. This means the Mohawk Valley and Erie Canal Corridor, the Champlain Valley and the North Country, and the Hudson Valley and the Capital Region. Nothing in the State of the State was said about improvements to train service to these regions. Apparently they are to be considered flyover regions for people who land at the state-of-the-art airports in New York City and elsewhere. Similarly the new Penn Station is more for commuters from Long Island than tourists from the heartland headed upstate.
Let’s talk seamless travel. Suppose an intrepid tourist traveled by Amtrak (or in some instances by Jet Blue or Delta) to
in the Hudson Valley: Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff, or Hudson
in the Capital Region: Albany/Rensselaer, Saratoga Springs, Fort Edward-Glenn Falls
in the Champlain Valley: Whitehall, Ticonderoga, Port Henry, Westport, Port Kent Plattsburgh, Rouses Point
in the Mohawk Valley: Schenectady, Amsterdam, Utica, Rome
in Western NY: Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Niagara Falls
what would the tourist do when after disembarking from the train?
Are there seamless paths through history that can meet the tourist in New York City and escort them to these destinations where the train stops?
Are there seamless paths through history at each or most of these stops so a person doesn’t need to wonder where to go once getting off the train or the plane?
Has there been a state-wide initiative to foster development of such tours?
How many familiarization tours for tour operators at all the Amtrak stops have their been?
Is there more to upstate than wineries and recreation?
Does New York State history matter?
There was no mention of New York State history in Cuomo’s bold vision in his State of the State. Yes, there was mention of tourism and of course recreational, alcohol, and food-based tourism but nary a word about history tourism. In the past, he at least would mention the Path through History weekend events but perhaps he or someone on his staff has been reading my posts and they now realize that those events are local activities and not tourist events and are best left unmentioned. That left him with nothing to say about promoting New York State history so he said nothing.
This absence of emphasis on history was reflected in the REDC grants. There was one and only award to a Path through History applicant. Since it is Phase Two of a bikeway in the Mohawk Valley, it overlaps between recreational tourism and history tourism.
At the New York Times Travel Show this January 8-10, one would have to look hard to find even the slightest suggestion that there was a Path through History. The batting average of people in the New York State exhibitor booths who were familiar with the Path project was too low to gain admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now imagine if Cuomo extended his enthusiasm for the transportation infrastructure to the celebration of New York State history by creating sustainable paths through history at these Amtrak locations after they arrived on the enhanced travel system…or is that a pipe dream?
“Was Robert Moses a pipe dream?”
Governor Cuomo expressing New York values, January 5, 2016
On the other hand, people representing the various counties are very interested in developing such programs including those at the Travel Show. I have had the opportunity to talk in person with people from Delaware, Lake George, Oneida, Oswego, and Saratoga among others. Lori Solomon with whom I formerly worked when she was Director of Tourism Development and Marketing at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor now has created Akiba Travel to develop such history tours. She was the person who worked with Markly Wilson, I Love NY, on the Dutch familiarization tour last September which I wrote about. In other words, there are people in the history community, county tourist offices, and vendors willing and able to create Paths through History. If only there was some mechanism to put the people together. If only there was some way to create an ongoing working group of educators, community leaders and historians to discuss how we can harness history as a means of engagement within our communities and across the state. If only we could create a group to create an agenda with “asks” of our elected officials at a New York State History Advocacy Day in Albany…or is that a pipe dream too?