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A Rose by Any Other Name Is Still the Tappan Zee Bridge

What can we learn from the controversy over the naming of the Tappan Zee Bridge? What lessons can be drawn by looking at the larger picture? Let’s examine the data and see if we can put the pieces together. Start with the above-the-fold headline in my local paper on August 31, 2018:

Cuomo or Tappan Zee: Names Feed Identity Crisis by Frank Esposito, Rockland/Westchester Journal News

The article recounted the ongoing struggle to preserve the historic name of Tappan Zee Bridge in contrast to the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. The former bridge could be located in one and only one place; the latter bridge could be located anywhere in the state. Confusion continues given the signs to the Tappan Zee Bridge which still exist on the highways and byways, in the internet, and in our minds. The article ends with a reference to the son in the gubernatorial debate when he, too, referred to the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The article on page 3 on the same day is entitled “Cuomo Pressed on Tappan Zee Name, Toll” by Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau. The moderator asked the candidate if he is open to renaming the bridge.

By coincidence, earlier in the same month, Tappan and Rockland County resident Steve Dunlop wrote an opinion piece for the same newspaper entitled ’Tappan Zee’ Played Pivotal Role in American Revolution (8/5/18). Dunlop was referring to the “Tappan Sea Skirmish” using the British name (“zee” suffered the same fate as “New Amsterdam” when the British replaced the Dutch). The skirmishes were on August 3 and 16, 1776, in attacks on the five British frigates anchored near where the current bridge is located. Dunlop declares that the unexpected resistance offered by the Americans served to inspire other Americans along the Hudson Valley and put the British on notice.

Pushing back to June, the headline in the local paper was:

Tappan Zee Bridge Name Supporters Deliver Petitions to Andrew Cuomo (6/7/18). The article also was by Jon Campbell who has chronicled the violation of federal regulations with Cuomo’s I LoveNY highway signs (see below). The article reported the delivery to the Governor’s office by ten members of Save Our Tappan Zee of a two-foot high petition with over 108, 000 signatures asking for the change of the name to the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Tappan Zee Bridge.

The previous day an article Tappan Zee Bridge Name Change Awakens a Grassroots Movement that Cuomo Can’t Stop appeared in the local paper by the aforementioned Steve Dunlop. I imagine the title was crafted by the newspaper and not the guest writer. Dunlop described the process of the name change by Cuomo as follows:

The vast majority of New Yorkers don’t pay attention [to Capital politics]. Gov. Andrew Cuomo knows this well. A master of statecraft, he exploited that very somnolence when he snuck the name change at the close of the 2017 legislative session, then stuck it in the session-ending reconciliation session. He did it with no fanfare, and not even a token attempt to muster public support. He did it because he could. And he could because no one was looking.

Dunlop reports on a growing grassroots effort by the history community, especially in Rockland County, to advocate for something specific in Albany. Remember the advocacy motto: No “asks” means “No gets.” Now the history community is asking.

How much of Tappan history do you think the Governor knew before making this change? Do you think when the Governor was contemplating changing the name of Tappan Zee Bridge he ever inquired into the meaning of that name? Do you think he inquired of the New York State historian how it came to be that the bridge had the name that it did? Do you think he inquired of the scholars who have written about the building of the bridge or the development of Rockland County after its completion? Has he documented any connection between his father and the Tappan Zee Bridge sufficient to warrant the name change? Did he do his homework?

By now it is not surprising to realize that our Governor has a sincere but superficial interest in New York State history. Over the years, I have had the unfortunate honor to write numerous blogs about the failure of the once-promising Path through History project. I also had the unfortunate honor to write about the still ongoing violation of federal regulations with the highway signs that included the Path through History. I will not repeat that information here.

But as I tracked the shortcomings in the Path through History project, I wondered if the Path project was unique in this development. Was it a one-of-kind failure or was it symptomatic of multiple programs? Historians know that unique is not a pattern that one should not pass judgment on the whole based on the example of the one.

As I result I began to notice other new programs which had been created recently. I wondered how they were working out. I am not referring to the 80% of life which is showing up, of maintaining the current programs which exist on their own momentum. Instead, I looked to the new and unprecedented to compare their execution with that of the Path through History.

The first new program I noticed was called Start-Up NY. Cuomo launched he program in 2013 effective in 2014. It allows businesses to move into tax-free zones on or near college campuses and pay no taxes for 10 years. Shortly thereafter, I began to notice articles that suggested the Start-Up initiative was an even bigger failure than the Path was. Here are a sample of some headlines from my local papers that I accumulated over the years.

2/6/15 Report: Agency Generates Few Jobs by Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
4/22/15 Facing Criticism, Cuomo Defends Start-Up by Joseph Spector
5/15/15 Jobs Effort That Cuomo Vowed Would Fire Up Economy Is Slow to Take Hold by Susanne Craig and Jesse McKinley (NYT)
5/27/15 Corporate Welfare Fails to Deliver the Jobs: The Sad Case of Start-Up NY
by Lawrence S. Wittner, Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany on Start-Up NY and SUNY. Because the author had been a history professor, the article received some traction in the history community (History News Network).
1/20/17 Cuomo Changes Name and Focus of Jobs Effort by Vivian Yee (NYT)
The article reported that the program that cost nearly $50 million in 2014 to produce 76 jobs and $53 million in 2015 to produce another 332 jobs would henceforth be called Excelsior Business Program. These numbers appeared in other articles as well.
2/2/17 Lawmakers, NY Economic Czar on Job Growth by Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
Without meaning to, Howard Zemsky, Empire State Development President and CEO, implied that changing the name is a good thing given the previous failure associated with the name by the media.
4/3/17 Start-Up NY created 757 Positions in ’16 by Jon Campbell
5/28/17 How Business “Partnerships” Flopped at America’s Largest University by Lawrence Wittner, writing two years after his earlier foray (History News Network).
8/26/18 Cuomo’s Jobs Record: The Good, Bad, and Ugly by Jon Campbell
Under “The Bad,” the first item is Start-Up NY. No one seems to call it Excelsior Business Program. Changing names is not so easy. The English actually had to conquer New Amsterdam to make that change work!

I do not claim to have made an exhaustive story of the Start-Up NY program. I can say simply as someone trying to be an informed voter, the optics for the Start-Up NY program are pitiful. From an historian perspective, what is interesting is that as with the Path through History, Start-Up NY was a government initiative that comes across as a failure to anyone not dependent on the state government.

With that thought in mind, let’s briefly turn to the Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) funding better known as “hunger games” in political circles. In a scathing analysis of its shortcomings and failures by Riley Edwards, research associate at the Citizens Budget Commission, he concludes:

Rather than pursuing headline-grabbing projects in which taxpayers are the ones on the hook when a deal falls through, or providing excessive, narrowly targeted tax breaks, the state should consider approaches that provide more widespread benefit. Investments in infrastructure, workforce development, and higher education, as well as a more competitive tax system, can improve New York’s ability to attract and retain employers.

Along the same lines, Stephanie Miner, Democrat and former Syracuse mayor running for governor as an independent, has called for the state to cease operating a host of economic development efforts. She says, they waste taxpayers dollars and fail to live up to the hype (Former Syracuse Mayor Calls for End of State Economic Development Programs by Tom Precious, Buffalo News, 7/31/18). Miner said the billions of dollars directed to economic development projects for which both Democrats and Republicans take credit should be earmarked for a massive and well-defined infrastructure improvement effort for public transit systems, water and sewer projects, decaying bridges and pothole-strewn roads.  “Government should not be in a position of picking winners and losers,’’ she said of the programs. She highlighted such efforts as the Buffalo Billion, which she said has failed to live up to early job prediction estimates and was the subject of a recent bid-rigging corruption trial that ended up with the conviction of longtime Buffalo businessman Louis Ciminelli and others.

While some of these comments can be attributed to electioneering, the general thrust seems valid. Government should focus on infrastructure and not picking winners and losers. That’s for the market to do. On the other hand, when Cuomo responded by touting his development plans underway at LaGuardia Airport, he did not disclose the name change for the renovated facility.  Once again, as someone seeking to be an informed voter, the optics for “Hunger Games” seem pitiful.

How about those I LoveNY signs? They cost over $8 million much of which went to out-of-state vendors. This government initiative still faces a September 30 deadline for removal. The penalty is $14 million loss in federal highway funding for New York. Three headlines in my local paper tell the story of the Governor’s thinking:

NY’s Plan: Swap I Love NY Signs with Similar One by Jon Campbell (2/15/18)
I Love NY signs likely won’t come down by summer as promised by Jon Campbell (6/6/18)
Millions on Line in Spat over Signs by Chris Carola (8/7/18).

A Governor willing to risk $14 million in funding is not going to be swayed by 108,000 signatures on a petition to change the name of a bridge.

One last headline:

Cuomo Had the MTA Waste $30M on Tunnel Vanity Project by Danielle Furfaro, Lois Weiss and Nolan Hicks (New York Post, 7/22/18).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the cash-strapped MTA to waste as much as $30 million on his latest vanity project — retiling two city tunnels in the state’s blue-and-gold color scheme — instead of using the dough for desperately needed subway repairs, The Post has learned.

The boondoggle began soon after the taxpayer-funded agency ordered white tiles to reline the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels after Superstorm Sandy, documents show.

The governor got wind of the plan — and insisted that the cash-strapped transit agency add stripes of blue and gold, thinking nothing of the additional $20 million to $30 million cost, according to sources and project documentation.

Is there a commonality to these government actions?

Instead of considering the Path through History in isolation from the other initiatives…

Instead of considering the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in isolation from the other initiatives…

look at all these other projects together. Maybe it should be no surprise that the Path through History project failed or that vanity trumped history with the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Make New York State History Great Again

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport (https://kybourbontrail.com/)

On August 28, 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared his intention to make New York State history great again. The occasion was the launching of his Path through History project. I attended the program in Albany and still have the materials and souvenirs from that day. The program was intended to generate revenue (and jobs) through the telling of the history of New York to tourists.

The plenary address was given by Ken Jackson, Columbia University, Mr. New York State History. In his address, Ken spoke of the ways in which New York had been a national leader over the centuries. He recounted various events, named various people and places, and highlighted the prominence of the Empire State. He also noted how much better other states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were at touting their own stories than New Yok was. You would never know that George Washington spent more time here than in any other state over the 1775-1783 period.

In the years to come, the Path through History quickly became a joke and embarrassment. Instead of being a revenue generator, it became a project of signs, a scarcely used website, brief programs not during the tourist season that historic sites already did anyway, and no paths. The best that could be said for it was that it created a logo and phrase for I LoveNY and history sites to use as a brand. It did nothing to fulfill its original promise that had brought hundreds of people to Albany six years ago to expectantly witness its birth.

As a result, Ken Jackson morphed from plenary speaker to critic. He criticized the program in a letter to Cuomo. He criticized the program when speaking at subsequent conferences. He criticized the program in private conversations. The program certainly has garnered its share of critical columns here in this history column. All to no avail. The Path through History mocked the idea of making New York History great again through telling its story to tourists.

Perhaps the most egregious exposure of its shortcomings occurred in the AMC cable series “Turn” (for example, see AMC Mocks the Path through History). The nationally-shown program was about America’s first spy ring, the Culper Spy Ring, based in Setauket, Long Island, in New York. Although the show was filmed in Virginia, the story was a New York one. Who advertised on the show to visit the historic sites of the American Revolution? If you guessed Virginia, you are right. Come see where it happened. In Virginia. One might think New York would make that claim since the scenes were in New York, but no, it was Virginia that marketed its history to the national audience. Perhaps it was just as well. If someone had flown into JFK or LaGuardia to see the American Revolution sites shown in the series, no American Revolution Path through History itineraries had been created. Make New York State History great indeed! New York had been handed an opportunity on a silver platter to reach a national audience and did nothing.

The South has continued to show up the Empire State. As reported in previous posts, the southern states collaborated to produce a Civil Rights Trail (for example, see The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism). It opened January 1, 2018. That effort involved creating teams of people from the tourist, economic development, and academic sectors to cooperate and collaborate to produce the trail. New York State had talked the talked of doing that when the Path through History was launched but it hasn’t happened. To add more insult to injury, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail has attracted interest even in New York publications (for example, see In the South and North, New (and Vital) Civil Rights Trails, Learning About the Civil Rights Era Through Travel, and On a Civil Rights Trail, Essential Sites and Indelible Detours). When was the last time you read about someone following a Path through History trail? Even the events listed on the path website on Father’s Day and in October are of short duration intended for people within a 50-mile radius as a daytrip.

Speaking of trails, let’s not overlook the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. New York may have its wineries, but Kentucky has its Bourbon Trail. The Trail is complete with maps, mugs, t-shirts, history booklets, an itinerary and a passport. The website provides a suggested seven-day trip with an optional eighth day. It explains how the passport can be obtained and used. Seen any Path through History passports lately? Is there a winery one? Puts New York to shame. Sad.

By these comments, I do not mean to suggest that nothing has happened. We now do have a fulltime state historian but that is not due to the Governor. The New York State Museum has exhibits in recognition of the two centennials – women gaining the right to vote in 1917 and New York’s involvement in World War I – but they are not due to the Governor. The New York State Barge Canal has begun celebrating the Erie Canal bicentennial from the beginning of construction on July 4, 1817, to the completion with the Wedding of Waters on November 4, 1825.  The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation still operates but the parks and recreation take precedence over the historic sites under its administration, just as they always will. So, yes, things are still happening at the state level related to history.

I operate in the basis of the 80% rule. As a New Yorker, not Yogi Berra, is said to have said, 80% of life is showing up. The issue is not whether the bureaucratic momentum continues to grind forward on a routine basis but of leadership. What about the extra 20% that requires more than just showing up? In baseball terms, this is known as wins over replacement (WAR).  One analytically examines what a player contributes above and beyond just showing up, just being a replacement. Does this player add to the team value? Will the team win more?

For example, next year is the centennial of the state requirement for municipalities to have an historian. Sometimes even our Governor has mentioned this law as a sign of New York State’s commitment to its history. The law is often honored in the breach. Too many municipalities have no historian. The responsibilities are ill-defined especially given the new technologies available for the storing and dissemination of information to the general public. When the position does exist, it is often disrespected or minimized. There is no training. All in all, it is easy to see why there are no plans to celebrate the centennial – it would only highlight the shortcomings which need to be fixed.

So here are some suggestions as to how a governor could provide the leadership to make New York State history great again. They are offered in the hopes that the victorious candidate will rise to occasion and set New York on a great path through history. One should note that the implementation of these suggestions requires the assistance of the Regents and the Legislature as well.

MUNICIPAL HISTORIANS

1. Celebrate the centennial in 2019 of the legislation creating municipal historians in the state.
2. Enforce compliance with the legislation in all municipalities.
3. Define the responsibilities of the municipal historians based on the population of the municipality.
4. Extend the law to include creating a New York City historian.
5. Extend the law to create community district historians in New York City.
6. Establish a one-week training program for municipal historians starting with the county historians. The program should be based in Albany and include presentations by the New York State Archives, the New York State Education Department, the New York State Library, the New York State Museum, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation including a visit to the Peebles Island facility and I LoveNY. The program should conclude with a reception at the Executive Mansion.

Municipal historians should provide the local infrastructure for the creation of history tourism programs throughout the state.

I LOVE NY

1. Allocate $1 million of its REDC funding to the Path through History project or $100,000 for each of the ten regions.
2. Create teams in partnership with the New York Historian for each of the themes in the Path through History following the format of the southern states in creating a U. S. Civil Rights Trail.

NEW YORK STATE HISTORIAN/MUSEUM

Establish a $1 million REDC funding pool for history projects to include what used to be done through member items, for anniversaries such as the Suffrage Centennial, and for other history projects.

STATE SENATE AND ASSEMBLY

Create a Senate and Assembly history caucus. The caucus would aim to provide a forum for members to share their interest in history and to promote an awareness of the subject throughout the state. Start by calling for a history roundtable meeting since it has been years since the last one was held.

EDUCATION

1. Offer courses in state and local history throughout the community and four-year SUNY colleges.
2. Require teachers to take such courses as part of their certification process and/or for professional development.
3. Include field trips to the local historic sites as part of the courses.
4. Revise the curriculum to include links to the local historic sites.

New York does have great stories to tell. New York does have great stories to tell that are directly relevant to the issues confronting and challenging the country today. New York has people dedicated, committed, and eager to tell these stories. What New York does not have is the leadership and support the history community needs. Let’s make the telling of New York State history great again.

Signs of the Times: The $14 Million I Love NY Signs

Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau , Gannett

The I Love NY Interstate Highway signs are back in the news and for all the wrong reasons. I first reported on the construction of these illegal signs back on December 5, 2016 in the post

Signs of the Times: Follow the Money and Not the Cuomo versus Federal Government Showdown

The subject were the signs erected by the Department of Transportation in defiance of the Federal Highway Administration. The 514 out-of-state manufactured signs were hurriedly installed requiring overtime just prior to the July 4 weekend in 2014. The Governor found the funds he needed because that’s what the Governor can do when he wants something done.

The situation did not go over well with the FHA leading to on-and-off meetings between the state and federal organizations. The threat to the state was the loss of funding from the federal government if it refused to comply with federal rules. It would seem as if the state didn’t really take seriously the threat of any loss of funds over these 514 signs.

I next reported on the situation on February 5, 2017.  The Albany Bureau of Gannett led by reporter Jon Campbell had obtained additional information regarding the costs using FOIL requests.  The funding had been done through “emergency contracts” because as everyone knows what better qualifies as an emergency than I LoveNY signs. In the post I wrote:

Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the state Associated General Contractors, [said] this usage was “’not typical.’” Elmendorf’s words bear notice. He is a critic of the signs and said the money could have been better spent.

“I think the bigger concern is using capital dollars for something that certainly has no benefit to infrastructure and, I think you could argue, has negligible benefit for tourism, because they don’t really tell you anything.”

Exactly right. Cuomo has paid millions to market the Path through History concept but no money to create actual paths through history. For a person who wants to be president of the United States in a time of great national division, it is astonishing that he would engage in alternative facts and be so dismissive of the local and state history that helped make America great in the first place.

So I wrote one year ago.

What has happened since then?

The following articles by Campbell appeared in my local paper as well as a variety of papers throughout the state that are part of the Gannett chain.  I used the titles from my paper which may vary from the title used in other papers. The dates are from the website and not the publication dates which often were the following day.

February 15, 2017: ‘I Love NY’ Signs Cost More Than State First Claimed

The total cost was $8.1 million including about $3.6 million for materials and $4.5 million for installation. This figures compares to the $1.76 million originally reported for the 514 signs.

February 28, 2017: Cuomo Defends ‘I Love NY’ Signs

March 20, 2017: Feds, State Battling over Replacing I Love NY Signs (print title)
Feds say no, but NY replacing wind-swept I Love NY signs (website title)

The article refers to Mother Nature (temporarily) removing some signs through a wind storm that Cuomo refused to remove. The article concludes with a quotation from Assemblyman Stephen Hawley (R), Batavia: “Only in New York can you use taxpayer money in plain sight to fund illegal activities and no one bats an eye.” Naturally he was taken to task for his comment by those who champion the prowess of the federal government.

June 1, 2017: Feds Press NY on ‘I Love NY’ Signs

July 19, 2017: I Love NY Signs Aired at Congressional Hearing

September 28, 2017: Up or Down? Feds, State Continue Battle over I Love NY Signs

October 6, 2017: I Love NY: ‘Almost time’ to Change Signs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo Says

The Governor’s words were more suggestive of a change because after they had been up for over three years, they had served their purpose so perhaps something new was in order. There was no suggestion that they would be removed because they were illegal. He may have been laying the groundwork for the face-saving words he would use once he was compelled to remove them.

I had been clipping these articles from the local paper the old-fashioned way with a scissors waiting for the right time to write another blog about them. I didn’t know when that might happen but sooner or later something had to give. This month the signs hit the fan.

February 1, 2018: New DOT Chief Weighs in on ‘I Love NY’ Signs

Paul Karas, head of the state DOT, said on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, that his agency was not submitting a plan to the feds in the coming weeks to resolve ongoing issues over I Love NY highway signs. The agency did four days later. This item is a video of Karas being interviewed and not an article. As it turns out the coming weeks ended up being the coming days.

February 1, 2018: State Docked $14M for Violating Law – Installing I Love NY Highway Signs

Cuomo’s prediction comes true. He was right when he said the federal government would not take down the signs. Instead it ordered the state to do so by September 30 and withheld $14 million to force compliance. So add the cost of removing them to the $8.1 million cost of installing them.

This action attracted attention.

Newsday published an editorial Finally, New York’s useless highway signs will hit the road writing

the federal government is forcing Cuomo to take down the 514 nearly useless eyesores, which cost about $15,700 apiece.

The Post tactfully proclaimed: Cuomo Finally Signals ‘surrender’ in Highway-sign Fight

The gov’s minions don’t have much choice but to do as he orders. But it seems Cuomo found that “my way or the highway” doesn’t work with the Highway Administration.

The Poughkeepsie Journal delicately phrased Cuomo’s surrender this way:

STATE BLINKS: I Love NY Signs to Come Down by Summer to Avoid $14M fine

WARNINGS IGNORED: New NY highway signs are illegal, feds say

The counterpunch anticipated by Cuomo last year was that the signs had worked but had now outlived their usefulness and would be replaced by new signs and slogans which the FHA may or may not approve.

2018 is of course an election year and the governor position is on the ballot. Senator John DeFrancisco (R), Syracuse, as expected, criticized Cuomo for his actions and defiance (video).

He has called for hearings on the subject.

Naturally Cuomo is fighting back. DOT spokesman Joe Morrissey said: “Since it began, tourism has increased 18 percent and the economic impact of tourism jumped more than 20 percent. DOT makes road signs and the Senator should know that since this program was included in the budgets he voted for. We know he’s running for Governor, but this sort of nonsensical grandstanding should be left at the door.”

That claim led to the following counter-response by DeFrancisco:

The Governor and his DOT Commissioner are delusional. They must think that New Yorkers are morons to think that they would believe that illegal signs costing $8 million increased tourism by 20%. He just can’t admit that he’s wrong. Clearly, Andrew hasn’t learned any lessons from the Percoco trial.”

Let the games begin. Imagine if they catch on that the Path through History touted on those signs has been a joke and subject of ridicule for even longer than the signs!

Interestingly the Republican charge that the Democrat chief executive from Queens acted above the law in the state capital was eerily similar to the Democratic charge that the Republican chief executive from Queens in the national capital operates the same way.

P.S. For the history signs that actually are needed see my post from November 8, 2016: History Signs: Pathway to the Past.

How about taking all the millions the governor can find when he wants and spend some of it on the history signs themselves. Let’s take an inventory of the signs we do have, the corrections and repairs which are needed, and determine the signs we should have that we don’t.

P.P.S. It is time to look at the awards granted by I Love NY for the 2017 REDC funding for the Path through History touted on the signs.

The Battle for New York State History: Representative Paul Tonko versus Governor Andy Cuomo

The State of New York State History

On April 12, 2015, Representative Paul Tonko received the Legislative Leadership Award from the Museum Association of New York (MANY). He was a co-winner with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of the inaugural award by MANY.  The award recognizes exemplary leadership in support of museums and cultural institutions in the state. These two elected officials were cited for their work in Congress in support of funding the Office of Museum Services within the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Representative Tonko appeared in person in Corning to receive the award at the annual MANY conference. During the reception in the glass-blowing exhibit area, he spoke to the attendees. Unfortunately, I took no notes and did not record what he said. In general terms, I was impressed with what he had to say, with his vocabulary and choice of words on behalf of local and state history. As I recall, he never once mentioned them in conjunction with economic development or job creation. It was all about the civic and social importance of local history in the community.

On April 2, 2017, Representative Tonko was present in Saratoga Springs at the MANY conference when Regent Roger Tilles was the award winner. As a member of the Culture sub-committee, Tilles deals directly with the state Archives, Library, and Museum. He received the award due to work in support of the Museum Education Act. During the reception, Tonko addressed the audience. This time I paid more attention to his words. At times he seemed to be channeling my blog. I do not know him and I doubt he has read them, nonetheless one couldn’t help but wish when it comes to local and state history that he was governor. He is well aware of the of the importance of a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community and the importance of local history to the social fabric and civic health of a municipality. Once again, there was no mention of economic development or job creation as primary responsibilities of local and state history organizations.

It is hard to imagine Governor Cuomo ever winning the MANY Legislative Leadership award unless it was a crass political move as a quid pro quo in his quest to be President. Let’s look at some of the key actions which have occurred during his tenure.

1. Member items have been eliminated. Given the chronic corruption in the state government, one might easily applaud this attempt to rein in the endemic misuse and abuse of taxpayer money. Unfortunately, the action threw out the baby with the bathwater. Many small non-profits seeking comparatively small sums of funding turned to their local legislator and/or senator (as I did) for support. Larger scale funding often was a bureaucratic challenge. Starlyn D’Angelo, executive director Albany Shaker Heritage Society and current MANY Board of Director, raised this very point at the History Roundtable chaired by State Legislator Steve Englebright on May 29, 2014 with Regent Tilles in attendance (see Report from the NYS History Commission Roundtable). It was Devin Lander’s last day as a legislative aide before becoming executive director of MANY, his position before becoming State Historian.  While there is some funding in Republican Senate districts as Fort Niagara availed itself of, there is no state-wide mechanism to address the small-scale needs of the history community (see January History News).

2. REDC funding has now begun a new cycle of funding application for the 2017 awards. To some extent, the funding simply includes the types of funding that history organizations directly applied to NYSOPRHP and NYSAC for in the past. In general terms the local history organization has no place in this process. The Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) are interested in economic development and job development. Imagine if the local library had to request funding based on those standards…or the police department!

The game is rigged against the history community. At the recent MANY conference, Ross Levi, Marketing Initiatives for Empire State Development for I Love New York and the public face of the Path through History, spoke in the “Partnerships for Progress: Museums and Tourism” session.  The theme of the session was the ways in which museums and cultural institutions can partner with I Love New York to promote their organizations. I will more to say about this in future posts taking into account the Tourism Advocacy Council, the plenary address at MANY, and related materials.

In the meantime, I wish to report on a question asked from the audience to Ross about the local tourism representation. At the second Women’s Suffrage conference last October 7, (see Women’s Suffrage Centennial), Rick Newman, Seneca County TPA, distributed a list of the Tourism Promotion Agency (TPA) from every county. By law, I Love New York works through these agencies and not directly with local history organizations. Ross suggested that the local history organizations contact the TPA in their county. These TPAs could be an advocate for the history community in the REDC funding process.

I take Ross at his word. While I do not know him well, I think he genuinely believed what he was saying was sound advice with real world application. Here we have a classic example of the disconnect between the Albany-Manhattan bubble and that real world. While I can only comment anecdotally, I have heard multiple incidents from people in the history community about TPAs who don’t give them the time of day. TPAs are interested in wineries, recreational tourism, and sites that bring head to beds. TPAs often are non-government organizations, that is, chambers of commerce, working to do what is best for its members. The members rarely are small non-profit history organizations and are even if they were or became members, they are not likely to carry much weight. There is nothing wrong with Chambers of Commerce actively promoting economic development, but once again it means the history community is left high and dry with nowhere to turn in the funding process.

3. Speaking of nowhere to turn, let’s turn to the great failure itself, the Path through History. It will celebrate its fifth anniversary on August 28, 2017. What does it have to show for itself? I attended the kickoff meeting for the HV region on January 25, 2013 (see A Fork in the Road on the Path through History).  Of the ten regions originally created and recipients of $100,000 grants from the State, how many of those regions are still functioning? If they are functioning, what do they do? If they aren’t functioning, what replaced them? Was there ever any additional funding?

Historic sites are ranked by revenue/budget for tourist purposes. Within the Hudson Valley region where I live, there are five over the $1,000,000 threshold I Love New York uses to calculate the crown jewels for tourism. I don’t know what they are in this region but some possibilities include Historic Hudson Valley (multiple sites including Kykuit), Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt library and homes run by the National Park Service and National Archives, and the Culinary Institute. Approximately 70% of the organizations in the region are under $50,000 in revenue meaning they are below the radar where anyone in the state gives a dam about them.

In my blog after the initial meeting, I recommended that the $100,000 be used to hire people who would create paths. Years later, I recommended that there be funding through the REDC process to hire PATHFINDERS who would create the paths that the TPAs and I Love New York would promote (see Create Pathfinders in Your Region). One region tried and it was rejected – there is no place for cooperation and collaboration no matter what jargon terms are used at conferences and meetings. Once again the history community is left high and dry.

As it turns out there are people at the grassroots level who can and have created paths through history. Generally these are conjunction with a conference. I will be writing about these examples in a future post. Of course, these are created without state support or promotion.

The cost to New York State of the failure to respect the Tonko model is enormous if difficult to quantify. The stakes for the country are even larger. It goes to the heart of what it means to be an American and resident of one’s community. In a recent op-ed piece entitled “America’s Political Disunion” by Robert P. Jones (NYT 5/2/17), he cited British writer G. K. Chesterton’s observation after he had visited the United States that unlike European countries we did not rely on ethnic kinship or cultural character to create a shared identity. People of any race, any ethnicity, any religion can and have been American. Once upon a time in New York, German Palatines, the English, the Dutch, the French both Huguenots and Catholics, Scotch-Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, were people of different “nations” and types. Today they are all Americans and lumped together as white. And anyone who thinks all the Haudenosaunee nations live together in a two-dimensional kumbaya relationship as one Native American people should think again or think for the first time.

We are a storytelling species. We’ve lost that story feeling. We’ve lost the narrative. Can we tell a shared story of our history at the national level, at the state level, at the community level? Can we tell a narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history? What is our shared narrative in our community? What is our shared narrative in our state? What is our shared narrative as Americans?

For most of the past 400 years, America did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story.

The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of Egypt and building a new Jerusalem….

During the revolution, the founding fathers had that fierce urgency too and drew just as heavily on the Exodus story….

Frederick Douglas embraced the Exodus too….

The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land…

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders drew on the Exodus more than any other story (David Brooks, “The Unifying American Story, NYT 3/21/17).

There is a unity in the story from long ago in lands far far away to boldly going where no one has gone before.  There are stories to be told in every community throughout the land from Ice Age to Global Warming about the people who lived there and the people who do live there. There are stories to be told about how all the different peoples of the Mohawk Valley became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the peoples who arrived at Castle Garden became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the peoples who arrived at Ellis Island became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the people who arrived at JFK Airport became part of We the People.

There are stories to be told if We the People are to survive as a nation, to long endure, to not become Syria, to not become Yugoslavia, to not become Iraq. We don’t even celebrate the birthday of our state or the anniversary of when we constituted ourselves as New Yorkers.

Brooks ends his op-ed piece with a call to leadership for We the People.

What’s needed is an act of imagination, someone who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.

Neither of the candidates provided such a vision in 2016. They didn’t even try. Will anything be different in the 2020 rematch? Maybe Tonko should run for president instead of Cuomo.

 

New York State Historian: The Weible Years

A Fitting Title for the Situation in Albany

New York State now has a new historian. In some ways that should seem like a routine announcement since the State is required to fill that position. However as people in the history community well know, the State, like many counties, cities, towns, and villages does not always comply with regulatory requirements. There is no penalty to the State for the failure to comply either and only a trivial unenforced one at the municipal level.

Even when the State and the municipalities do comply with the letter of the law, they don’t necessarily comply with the spirit. The position is often disrespected and/or disregarded excluding some ceremonial occasions and is not taken seriously when the real decisions of government are involved. The diminished State position sets a poor but accurate example to the county executives, mayors, and town supervisors that local and state history really aren’t important regardless of any lip service at the press release level. How often is the voice of the history community actually heard in the REDC funding process [which is now beginning again for the 2016 cycle]. How much funding is there for collaboration in the Path through History project regardless of how often the jargon is spoken? Message received.

On the other hand, how often does the history community make its voice heard? Does it even have one? How often does the history collaboratively ask for anything?

With these thoughts in mind, let’s consider the latest chapter in the story of the New York State Historian: the Bob Weible years. Just to put things in perspective, here are some excerpts from the press release by the NYS Museum on February 4, 2008, announcing Bob as the new state historian. According to the State:

Weible was selected following an exhaustive search that began in 2006 as soon as funds became available for the position. Following the budget crisis of the 90’s the Museum has faced an uphill battle to obtain the funds necessary to rebuild capacity as several key positions were vacated due to retirement and other budgetary factors.

The heroic State Museum persevered against all odds and finally prevailed despite the adversity.

However, Bob paints a different picture in his post to New York History Blog on Former NYS Historian Weible On State Ed Bureaucracy, Responsibilities on February 22, 2016:

State Historians subsequently fought through various internal reorganizations to meet external as well as internal demands, but the position lost support and became vacant in 2001. And it remained so until 2008, when pressure from county and municipal historians persuaded the State Education Department to fill the vacancy.

Note the different in emphases in the two versions: budgetary concerns versus a degradation of the position until the grassroots history community forced a changed. The State Museum versus the State Education Department. What really happened? Here is an interesting historical challenge for historians of public history in New York to investigate.

Turning to the individual who would fill the long-vacant position, the press release stated:

A native New Yorker and nationally recognized historian, who has held various leadership positions on the state and national level for the past 28 years, has been appointed the new chief historian.

“Robert is a public historian who has built strong partnerships throughout his career with diverse community groups, universities, cultural organizations and local historical societies,” said Museum Director Dr. Clifford Siegfried. 

Siegfried specifically cited him “for the renewal of the Museum galleries and the transfer of our extensive history collection to a new storage facility” which gives a pretty good indication of what his real work would be along with the new exhibits in the Museum.

The press release went to state that the new historian “also will work with local historians and academic and cultural institutions to increase the public’s understanding of New York State history and its role in U.S. history.”  In English, this meant about 25% of his time.

The tricky part was in the second “also”: He will also oversee management of the Museum’s history collections and help develop content for public programs and teacher workshops. Public programs and teacher workshops?? I know I initiated a couple of them in the New York State Museum with Bob, but I would say overall this is an area that needs serious work.

Here is how Bob described the situation in his February 22, 2016, blog:

But the decision to combine two very different positions into one was really a kind of bureaucratic sleight-of-hand: the State Historian position may have been officially filled, but as was made clear to me, the Museum’s institutional priority had remained the same: research and collections care.

Bob generously acknowledged the budgetary constraints on the state government in general and added his own perspective:

But it is true that without proper leadership and public support, bureaucrats can easily lose sight of the larger social goals their organizations were created to achieve and become nihilistic, self-serving careerists dedicated simply to perpetuating their positions and authority.

By referencing proper leadership and public support, Bob addresses the two sides of the dynamic: leadership from the top meaning the Governor and advocates from the grassroots meaning the history community. While it’s easy to fault our Governor for his lack of support beyond signs and fixing roofs, it is also true that the history community doesn’t ask for anything beyond signs for its own site and fixing the roof of its own site. The requests of the history community tend to be small and local, lacking in statewide vision and ignore the necessity of civics for the health of the social fabric.

During his tenure as State Historian, Bob had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues.

On March 17, 2014, in Saratoga Springs at the annual meeting of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) in his State of the State’s History address, Bob called for the need to cooperate. He challenged the attendees with the declaration that if we can learn to work cooperatively with each other we can find out how powerful we are. He said that history is what unites us as Americans, as New Yorkers, as members of our local community. He equated a community that forgets its past with a person with Alzheimer’s. A community’s memory is important for identity, for pride of place, for a strong sense of place. Advertising is not enough for quality heritage tourism. Civics needs to be taught in our schools. With these thoughts, the State Historian had raised important issues about:

  1. the dysfunctional organization of the State
  2. the funding or lack thereof for state and local history particularly for cooperative and collaborative projects
  3. what the history community can contribute to the economic growth and social wellbeing of the state.

But like the proverbial tree falling in woods that no one hears fall, Bob’s words in Saratoga Springs were not heard in Albany.

One year later he returned to some of these issues in his State of the State’s History address on April 10, 2015, at the APHNYS conference in Corning. He spoke about the history markers, a favorite topic of his, about the lack of a state database of history markers, about how they promote tourism and the way people think about their own community. He spoke of the underutilization of heritage resources and the lackluster historical presentations on behalf of heritage tourism. He called for innovative and engaging history storytelling that would reinforce community identity and attract visitors seeking an authentic experience. But once again he was the proverbial tree falling in the woods that no one hears fall. Bob’s words in Corning were not heard in Albany.

On March 30, 2016, Bob tried to make sure he would be heard in Albany. In an article published in the Albany Times Union entitled New York State’s Former Chief Historian Warns the Bureaucracy Is Putting History at Risk, Bob spoke publicly now that he was free of bureaucratic constraints and the necessity to know his place and mind his business. His tale of woe included the observation that “The state once led the nation in creating and supporting institutions that ensured the survival and use of historic documents, artifacts, buildings and sites.” Times changed and now “New York has also witnessed the dismantling of a unique network of historians that had long enabled both classroom and lifelong learners to become informed, more active citizens.”

He repeated the charge he levied in his February post to New York History Blog on how the grassroots push was the driving force behind the State finally complying with Stare regulations and filling the position of state historian. Then with the exquisite subtlety of a maestro at work, he gently said:

The bottom line here is that, without proper leadership, New York’s entire history community has for decades been compromised in its ability to live up to its public service responsibilities.

Again there is the juxtaposition of the State and the history community with the abdication of the State of its responsibilities as the primary problem. He then asked:

Can the situation be reversed?

Bob even provided a solution to the problem:

In 2011, the Board of Regents approved a plan to investigate the possibility of reinventing the Office of State History. Unfortunately, internal opposition has kept that from happening. And after my recent retirement, the museum even announced plans to downgrade — and further undermine — the state historian position. Not surprisingly, this idea has raised serious questions within the state’s history community.

Bob is more optimistic than I am. While I prefer to be optimistic I have zero confidence that the State on its own initiative will do the right thing after decades of dismal neglect. Nothing in the REDC process or the Path through History project as they have operated so far suggests any serious interest in nurturing, developing, and promoting state and local history for the health of the social fabric or the growth of the economy. I also have grave doubts over whether the history community itself can make its voice heard and advocate in Albany. Nonetheless, some people are trying to be heard in what the AAA calls “Albany’s Alice-in-Wonderland environment.” Those efforts related to the State Historian position will be the subject of a future post.

CNYSH

Bob Weible’s Swan Song

New York State Heritage Areas: Real or Not?

New York State has heritage areas – 19, scattered around the state.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) defines these areas on its website: Continue reading “New York State Heritage Areas: Real or Not?”

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. Continue reading “RIP The Path Through History Taskforce”

Andrew Cuomo On The State of New York Tourism

Just before the July 4th weekend, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a press release on the state of tourism. The release covered tourism in its totality and did not address specific sectors like adventure tourism, winery tourism, historic tourism, and LGBT tourism, the four pillars of I Love NY promotions. It also did not differentiate between business, vacation, or shopping travelers. (Macy’s chief executive Terry Lundgren in 2013 called Macy’s “ a tourist place” with roughly 6,000,000 tourists a year).

That being said, the number of travelers to the Empire State from elsewhere is impressive and the economic impact is substantial. Continue reading “Andrew Cuomo On The State of New York Tourism”

Inside New York State’s History Tourism Bubble

The Albany-Manhattan bubble is a term I use to describe the alternate reality in which the New York State government operates regarding history tourism.

Recent events in New York, Albany, and Corning (The New York Times Travel Show, Tourism Action Day, a Tourism Advisory Council Meeting, and the Museum Association of New York Annual Conference), and the presentations and comments I heard from by the inhabitants of the Albany-Manhattan bubble, demonstrate a disconnect with the real world and little hope that anything constructive will be done to bridge that gap. Continue reading “Inside New York State’s History Tourism Bubble”

Governor’s ‘Opportunity Agenda’ Passes Over History

Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued his “2015 Opportunity Agenda”.  While there is no mention of the Path through History nor are history, historic sites, heritage tourism or historic preservation listed as targeted areas, it’s still of interest for those interested in the state of history in New York.

Governor Cuomo is not known for visiting the state’s historic sites and they are not included in what he sees as “opportunities” for 2015.  It would appear that cultural heritage tourism involving historic sites doesn’t really rate high with Governor Cuomo. Continue reading “Governor’s ‘Opportunity Agenda’ Passes Over History”