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State of New York State History

Park/History Advocacy Day: Who Advocates for History?

On March 13, I participated in Park Advocacy Day. These advocacy days are part of the annual budget ritual in Albany. Groups of people representing different issues converge on the capital to meet with and lobby state legislators on behalf of their area of concern. Such people are physically identifiable due to their tote bags, t-shirts, or in our cases, green scarves signifying the green of the parks.

Parks Advocacy Day targets legislators on behalf of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP). Technically the government organ is responsible for both parks and historic sites. In some cases an historic site may consist of grounds and therefore serve as a park as well. As will be seen, the emphasis in the advocacy is on the parks side of its domain more so than the historic sites. The number of parks and the visitation totals to the parks far exceeds those to the historic sites. A similar situation exists with the National Park Service. One notes both entities are called parks departments, no one ever refers to NYSOPRHP by name as the “History” department.

The non-government organization responsible for advocating on behalf of NYSOPRHP is Parks & Trails New York and secondarily the Open Space Institute. According to its website, Parks & Trails has a staff of 11 people (including one intern.). It is located at 29 Elk Street, Albany NY 12207 | (518) 434-1583. It is an organization of over $1,000,000 each in assets, annual revenue, and annual expenses. It is dedicated to lobbying on behalf of parks. PTNY Executive Director Robin Dropkin is an occasional reader of my posts. NYSOPRHP Commissioner Rose Harvey is a regular reader of my posts.

What is the history community equivalent to Parks & Trails New York?

In addition to PTNY, there is a government commission dedicated to the NYSOPRHP. As defined on the NYSOPRHP website:

The State Council of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation consists of the Commissioner of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, Chairs of the eleven Regional Parks Commissions (including a representative of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission), and Chair of the State Board of Historic Preservation. The Regional Commissions are charged with acting as a central advisory body on all matters affecting parks, recreation and historic preservation within their respective regions, with particular focus on the operations of the State Parks and Historic Sites.

The chair of the commission is Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky. She participates in advocacy day sometimes on behalf of the Taconic region where she lives and sometimes as representing the entire state. She is a dedicated reader of my posts.

There are 11 regional commissions within this framework each which has at least five members. These divisions do not correspond with the divisions of I Love NY, REDC funding, or the municipal historians (APHNYS). I do wish to stress that these state and regional commissions are all an official part of the government.

What is the history community equivalent to the NYSOPRHP commissions?

During the morning presentations each speaker talked about their own experiences. The talks tended to focus on parks they had visited in their own youth, on trails, summer camps, hikes and so forth. No one really spoke about a seminal encounter with state or American history. Then again, this was Park Advocacy Day, not History Advocacy Day.

After lunch, which was provided free as part of the program, it was off to lobby the legislators. In the vernacular of lobbying this actions involves “asks,” as in we are asking the legislators for something specific. We are not there to discuss our inner-Thoreau or exclaim on the wonders of communing with nature. We are there to ask for money (or possibly a regulatory action). In our case the asks were:

1. Support the proposed $120 million capital budget for state parks and $50 million for DEC.

A list of the capital projects was provided in our packets. The items overwhelming were for parks and not historic sites. Jones Beach was the largest with $10,000,000. The next largest was for $4,500,000 for emergency repair for a collapsed slope along the Croton Aqueduct. Although it is an historic site, its primary use is as a flat trail through multiple communities along the Hudson where people jog, bike, walk, and stroll alone and with families. Similarly the Walkway over the Hudson, an old railroad bridge, would receive $3,525,000 in two grants in the budget including to build a visitor center. As with the grounds on many estates along the Hudson, these historic sites function as parks like Central Park in Manhattan. I mention these items not to disparage them or to suggest they are improper, but to highlight the funding for the recreational side of the NYSOPRHP department.

2. Support continuing the level of funding for the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) at $300 million.

3. Support $500,000 for the Park and Trail Partnership grants for local Friends groups.

The Friends groups were the subject of an earlier posts on Friends with Benefits. The Taconic region requests close to 50% of the amount. The region includes Olana which was the subject of my earlier post and two representatives from the Olana friends group were part of the Advocacy participants. These friends groups also appear on the NYSOPRHP website as part of the page for each individual site.

Each legislator is left with a packet of information about the asks.

What would be the asks of the history community if there was a history advocacy day?

What would the history community ask of NYSOPRHP?

What would the history community ask of I LoveNY?

What would the history community ask of the Office of Cultural Education?

One readily observes here the dilemma facing the history community. One might think that the New York State Historical Association would serve in the same capacity for history as Parks & Trails does for parks. NYSHA has not performed in that role and no longer defines itself even on paper as organization with state-wide responsibilities.

After my last post on the New York State History Advisory group which State Historian Devin Lander has created, I received two emails, the first from someone at a college history museum and the second a regional APHNYS historian:

Thanks for this. FYI, the New York State Historical Association (Cooperstown) no longer exists as such – on March 13, the Board of Regents approved changing the legal name of the organization to “Fenimore Art Museum.” This change reflects a long-term evolution of purpose that has been underway for at least 25 years (and in many ways, since 1939, when Stephen Clark invited NYSHA to move to Cooperstown from Ticonderoga). See the official press release (http://www.fenimoreartmuseum.org/about_us/press_room/press_releases/fenimore_art_museum_amends_charter) for further information.

and:

What’s happening at NYSHA in Cooperstown? They stopped printing their quarterly New York History journal and now is only online. I’m having trouble reading it and one time I could only go to page 8.

In today’s [newspaper] an article said NYSHA was changing its name to Fenimore Art Museum. I’ve heard that NYSHA was having some financial problems. I sense a trend from history to art and much southwest Indian artifacts. I never understood why NYSHA accepted such a large collection of Indian items from the southwest???

This could be a topic for one of your posts.

At the just concluded annual conference of the Museum Association of New York (MANY; to be the subject of future posts), John Warren, editor New York History Blog informed me that he had just posted a blog on the topic

NYSHA Defunct: New York State Historical Association Is No More

Clearly there is void with no private organization even pretending to represent the voice of the state history community.

So what should be done? Here are my asks.

1. We need a friends of history group comparable to the Park & Trails organization.
2. We need NYSOPRHP
(i) to designate one person in each of its 11 commissions to be the history representative for the history sites in those regions
(ii) for those 11 people to meet periodically with the chair of the commission.
3. We need the Office of Cultural Education perhaps at the request of the Regents and its Cultural Education subcommittee to create a history commission comparable to the parks one at NYSOPRHP.
4. We need a representative of the history community to join the Tourism Action Committee just as there is a member of I LoveNY on the history advisory group.
5. We need a representative of the New York State history community to join the board of the New York State Council for the Social Studies.
6. We need to develop an agenda or lists of asks in the areas of capital projects/funding curriculum, programs including anniversary funding, and tourism.
7. We need to include National Park Service historic sites in the discussion.

The above points are an ambitious vision and there should be no doubt that even if people reading this post are nodding their heads “yes,” that is a long way from any of the asks actually happening.

10 thoughts on “Park/History Advocacy Day: Who Advocates for History?

  1. Get this one:

    Back about 2000 I paid a visit to Kitty Hawk, NC to see the Wright Bros museum and flying field. Very memorable visit. They told us then that by 2003, the entire museum was to be redone in anticipation of the 2003 100th anniversary of powered flight. I realized a return visit was in store for me.

    Now 2017, 14 years after the 100th Anniversay, I just made a return visit. To my surprise, all that is now on site are a bookshop, a bathroom, and the closed and roped off old, and empty, museum building.

    I spoke with a Ranger on site. It was all politics. As soon as they had emptied the museum and put stuff in storage, the building itself was deemed a historic property and could not be demolished. Then funding dried up. It all stopped dead in its tracks. All the great displays are STILL in storage. The “new” plan calls for a reopening of the old site by “2018-2020”, but she didn’t seem convinced it would happen.

    How could this country have let the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flight go unnoticed in the world’s eyes ? So sad. And all those great displays now in dead storage out of public view. Really a screw-up of major proportions ! A great example of govt mismanagement here.

  2. What really bothers me about the NYSHA debacle is that for years they actively solicited donation of primary materials from people in Otsego county, business, organizational, church, family records, etc. for research and preservation purposes. The idea being that people could donate what they had bouncing around their homes or barns or sheds to NYSHA library and the materials would be kept safe from harm. By all appearances few out here see the ramifications of the charter change.

    Thanks for all, Leigh

    Leigh C Eckmair, Historian/Archivist
    The Local History Collection
    The Gilbertsville Free Library

  3. Peter, thanks for this.

    Obviously, the big ask for the benefit of those who own and save historic structures is money that helps in doing that. A bigger, better grant program would be the key. Old buildings only get older.

  4. History is an important part of New York State and should be preserved. Herkimer home is still up and running but for how long will the artifacts still remain for visitors to view? The little historic churches and cemeteries need to be preserved not only to honor our foe fathers and patriots who helped preserve our freedom but to be visited by descendants looking for their heritage.

  5. Hello Peter,

    Been a while since we have corresponded. Life gets in the way sometimes of our interests.

    I write to share my reaction to your excellent explanation of the dual role of NYSOPRHP and from afar what seems to be malign neglect of the historic preservation aspect of that organization.

    I had been involved for a while with Spike Herzig at NYCHTN — family concerns compelled me to drift away. But during my short association I renewed my long interest in the rich history of this state.

    The context of your piece of April 6 is the now lapsed requirement by NYS Regents that a history course be successfully completed to matriculate from high school. That announce you may recall was made about 2 weeks prior to the Gov’s announce of the Path through History initiative.

    I am probably out in left field to think that NYS will ever pay proper attention to its historic nature and to preserve the artifacts of the rich past of our state when it is not even a requirement to learn about.

    Thanks for all you do to promote interest in matters NYS historic. Best regards.

  6. No doubt history is taking a backseat to parks and recreation in NYS. A first step in increasing visibility could be designating a New York History Advocacy Day (or Empire State History Day) with red, white and blue tote bags, t shirts, whatever. Include regional reps, set up meetings with each senate and assembly member, and make sure media is included.

    1. It makes sense that there should be something visible to easily identify the day. You certainly are right about the media coverage and political involvement. You just gave me an idea: what a perfect time to lobby our legislators locally in the home districts for local and state history.

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