The more things change the more they stay the same; the story of heritage areas and the state park agency in New York State

Heritage areas came on to the scene in New York State in 1977 under the name urban cultural parks. Urban cultural park was a tough name for the public to grasp especially for a notion of park that could encompass whole cities or regions. Even the more than century old Adirondack Park without an entrance gate and with a bit more than half its territory being in private ownership was called a “park in the painful process of becoming a park” on its centenary in 1992. So, to call the neighboring communities of Troy, Cohoes, village and town of Waterford, Watervliet and Green Island an urban cultural park was a stretch.
Yet, in 1976 the young, newly elected Mayor of Cohoes (now Majority Leader Ron Canestrari of the NYS Assembly) bought into the notion of urban cultural parks as a way to capitalize on the heritage resources of multiple neighboring historic communities. By 1976, the tear it down notion of urban renewal was a clear failure. Then Cohoes Mayor Ron Canestrari organized his neighboring mayors and supervisors to designate their collective communities the Hudson Mohawk Urban Cultural Park (HMUCP) and establish an inter-municipal commission to realize a vision of communities capitalizing on their 19th century industrial heritage.
Knickerbocker News editorial editor Duane LeFleche got the idea including an appreciation for the name. It was simple wrote Duane in an editorial. Take the name urban cultural park apart and you have urban meaning a settled area, culture meaning man’s attainments (more than the arts) and park meaning there is coherence and identity to the settled area including a shared story of the attainments of its residents over time. The coherence of the HMUCP was the shared story of the industrialization of America including iron and cotton in the 19th century.
Some state legislators also got it and in the 1977 legislative session state legislators like Assemblyman EC Sullivan from Manhattan and Senator Joseph Bruno from Troy introduced two pieces of legislation. One simply designated the HMUCP as a state urban cultural park and directed the state to plan a heritage trail to connect its industrial landmarks and assets. The other took the notion of a city or region as a park and directed the State Parks agency to prepare a plan for a statewide system of urban cultural parks. It was intended to promote preservation, education, recreation and economic development simultaneously through state-local and public-private partnerships. At the time, a planning effort was going on in Lowell, Massachusetts to develop a plan for Lowell to become a national urban cultural park. (It ended up as the Lowell National Historical Park within the National Park System.) Assemblyman Sullivan liked the idea but wondered how you could have a “park” when; for example, the urban cultural park community of Waterford had a McDonalds in it. On the other hand, urban cultural parks could also encompass whole state parks and historic sites.
The executives in the state park agency were not happy about the urban cultural park legislation. A Deputy Commissioner told me this was only a back door way for distressed communities to get the state to pick up basic municipal costs. For state park officials, state parks were public estates, some with scenic beauty and others with golf courses, swimming pools and campgrounds. Unlike The New Yorker magazine that did a “Talk of the Town” on the NY Harbor urban cultural park, they could not see how the conditions traditionally associated with parks could be found in urban settings. They probably much preferred going out and about the state visiting state parks and taking their golf clubs.
Those in the State Parks Agency were perplexed. They didn’t know which of the two urban cultural parks was worst for them. If the HMUCP bill passed, they feared it would become the care taker for distressed cities. Yet, the thought of a statewide system of urban cultural parks might be even a greater threat to their peace of mind and golf outings.
At one point during the legislative session a group of State Park Executives including Fred Rath, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation, asked to meet with the legislators sponsoring the urban cultural park bills. Meet they did.
Mr. Rath started the conversation by almost poetically saying the urban cultural park notion would be the highest realization of the historic preservation ideal. It would go beyond individual features and even historic districts and encompass the entire narrative of communities and regions. The legislators were impressed. They had hit upon something more significant than they ever imagined.
But then Mr. Rath lowered the boom by declaring there was “absolutely no way the state parks agency would be able to administer a program of the magnitude of urban cultural parks”. Yes, Deputy Commissioner Al Cacese affirmed that is so.
It was too late for the state parks leadership. The cat was out of the bag and there was no way the legislators would be deterred from passing the urban cultural park legislation after hearing Rath extol the urban cultural park idea. Both urban cultural park bills were passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Hugh Carey.
The state parks agency never had enthusiasm for urban cultural parks, but doing nothing was not an option. To keep some distance from the emerging urban cultural parks, it hired Lane and Frenchman consultants who worked on the City of Lowell urban cultural park and were able to generate interest in many communities in New York.
Outreach to communities across the state from New York City to villages like Sackets Harbor along Lake Ontario and a pilot grant program led to 13 communities doing feasibility studies on their qualifications to become part of a statewide urban cultural park system. A comprehensive plan for the UCP System was published. Implementing legislation led in large part of enthusiasm of state legislators like Assemblymen Sullivan, Maurice Hinchey and Oliver Koppell was enacted in 1982 and 13 communities including the HMUCP went through the arduous process of preparing their management plans that the state park agency adopted. A driver for the UCPs came in 1986 when Assembly Hinchey got $20 million dollars in the a state environmental quality bond act to be used to pay 100% of the cost of visitor centers in each of the then 14 UCPs.
On the national scene regional national heritage areas took off in the 1980s. They were established on the basis of individual Congressional legislation and were under the wing of the National Park Service. But like the NYS urban cultural parks, they were treated as orphans and not accepted into the National Park System. The National Park System and the NYS parks agency had something in common in their arms length approach to heritage areas. Yet, one can say that National Heritage Areas thrived, there being 49 National Heritage Areas that includes 4 in New York State.
The leadership of the state parks agency was never happy with urban cultural parks a.k.a. heritage areas. Despite the fact that now the state has a comprehensive heritage area law on the books, 21 state designated heritage areas and 4 National Heritage Areas in existence, the state parks’ executives including the retired Spitzer appointed Commissioner Carol Ash and her current successor Acting Commissioner Andy Beers washed their hands of heritage areas without consulting with the other state and local heritage area partners. Their excuse was that they couldn’t afford to participate, even though participation was essentially only the part time services of two state employees. (Heritage areas as partnership parks receive most of their support from state agencies other that state parks, local governments and the private sector.) State-local partnership was never high on the list for the State Parks agency.
A feature in the state heritage area law establishing an advisory council was recently amended to include representatives from the four national heritage areas in the State as members of the Advisory Council. Assemblyman Steve Englebright, Chair of the Assembly Parks and Tourism Committee, replace Carol Ash as Chair of the Advisory Council and there are signs that bringing together the state and national heritage areas on the Advisory Council (which also includes numerous state agencies like the Department of State, Transportation, Environmental Conservation, OPRHP, Economic State Development and Agriculture and Markets as well as the Canal Authority) will help fill the state partnership role. The Department of State, for example, has been very forthcoming in funding management plans required for state designated heritage areas like the Concord Grape Heritage Area to become part of the state system.
At the time this column is being written the future of the state park agency is in question. Prospects of increased closure of state parks and elimination of the state parks agency itself (with its functions transferred to another state agency) are being talked about. In some ways, the leadership of the state parks agency may have brought this on itself. Perhaps their indifferent approach to heritage areas as partnership parks, in part, made the traditional state park system vulnerable to be picked apart by the Executive Branch and the Division of the Budget.
Additional articles on the history of heritage areas: (The heritage area phenomena) (Evolving policies and laws for governance of urban protected areas: New York State’s Landmark Heritage Area System, Ane Books, New Dehli, India, 2003. Paul M. Bray) (The possibility of parks unbounded)


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