Through several initiatives and statements, Governor Andrew Cuomo has become a highly visible proponent of New York State history. Taken together, his projects constitute evidence of vision, interest, and support. Cuomo sees history as something that can be used to deepen understanding, provide perspective, and help guide us into the future.
Cuomo keeps reminding us that New York stands out from the other states. New Yorkers are exceptionally energetic, innovative, and determined. “At every difficult moment in our nation’s history, New York has emerged as a leader,” he said in his 2011 State of the State Address “ As we transform our State we will reclaim its status as the progressive leader in the nation.” In this year’s State of the State [pdf], he asserted that “in New York, we may have big problems, but we confront them with big solutions.” He cited the Erie Canal, social reforms and other historical milestones as examples.
He has a portrait above his desk of Al Smith, one of New York’s most progressive governors who reorganized and streamlined state government, something Cuomo is trying to reprise. His Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission is inspired by Smith’s Reconstruction Commission on Retrenchment and Reorganization, established in 1919.
Cuomo is fond of quoting another governor, Theodore Roosevelt, a proponent of activist government. When TR became governor in 1899, construction of the Capitol had been going on for thirty years, with a planned dome and other enhancements threatening to extend the work indefinitely. One of his first acts as governor was to simply declare the work complete and cut off the funding. Cuomo inherited a Capitol restoration project that had been going on for a decade, with four more years to go. One of his first acts as governor was to set a firm deadline of one year for completion.
As part of the restoration, he installed a display of historical artifacts and documents, (in cooperation with the State Museum, State Library and State Archives), a historical timeline, and restored paintings in the “Hall of Governors.” Using history to make a point, he said at the unveiling ceremony last January that “the restoration of the Capitol is a symbol of our efforts to restore confidence and performance in our state government.” The Capitol will “once again be a beacon for all New Yorkers, welcoming them to be a part of their state government – present, past, and future.”
Since then, he has also sponsored special exhibits in the Capitol on prominent New York women and prominent New York African Americans. “History continues to be made and the exhibits displayed here are designed to make the Capitol a living museum to educate visitors about New York’s extraordinary legacy,” Cuomo says.
His “Hall of Governors” history website is a growing source of material on New York State history. It includes information on New York’s governors and online exhibits on “New York During the Revolution,” “From Seneca Falls to the Supreme Court: New York Women Leading the Way,” “New York State: Birthplace of Memorial Day”.
In March 2012 he announced a “Path Through History” initiative to include information kiosks at Thruway rest stops, customized tours on state history topics, and improved signs to encourage visitors to visit local historical and cultural sites. It will “support tourism and economic development and highlight the state’s historic past,” he noted.
This initiative has great potential. New York has approximately 532 chartered historical societies, 149 historical museums, 48 historic preservation organizations, 94 historic house museums, 37 state historic sites, 20 heritage areas, several “historical trails,” and numerous federal historic sites. Many of these outstanding historical resources are located in the New York-Albany-Buffalo corridor, the Thruway’s route and one of the most historically important corridors in the nation.
It will expand heritage tourism, already a big business in New York but one that should be much bigger, given our historical and cultural attractions. A recent national report showed that 78% of all U.S. domestic leisure travelers – about 120 million people each year —- participate in cultural and/or heritage activities while travelling.
A 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce Cultural Heritage Visitor Report [pdf] documents a surge in visitors from overseas who are. interested in cultural heritage. They tend to be more first-time travelers, stay longer in the United States, and visit more destinations than the average traveler. New York is already a prime destination, but we are in competition with other states, particularly California, Florida and Nevada.
A report commissioned by Parks and Trails New York [pdf] a few years ago estimated that state parks and historic sites produce $5 in benefits (jobs, tourism spending) for every dollar in costs.
But Governor Cuomo has an even broader vision: boost state pride by recalling state history.
The advisory committee on the “Path Through History” initiative is co-chaired by Mark Shaming, Director of the State Museum, and Harold Holzer, a renowned historian who has written about Lincoln and New York’s role in the Civil War. Reflecting the Governor’s enthusiasm, Holzer said “it was not, after all, an accident that New York became, as George Washington had predicted, the ‘-Empire State,’ or that the tiny settlement in lower Manhattan became the ‘-Empire City’ and the capital of the world. No other place – not Massachusetts, not Virginia, and not Pennsylvania – even comes close to the Empire State when all things are considered. New York State was the leading contributor of men, manpower, and funds to save the Union and end slavery during the Civil War. With the Governor’s leadership, sustained effort, determination, and hard facts, we can convince our fellow citizens that today’s America took shape in yesterday’s New York.”
The committee also includes Columbia University history professor Kenneth Jackson, a long-time champion of New York history.
Cuomo has also provided financial support for historical programs even in tight budgets, including $89 million in this year’s budget for infrastructure improvements in state parks and historic sites and funding for the New York Council on the Humanities to support War of 1812 commemoration initiatives.
The governor and legislature agreed on a $4 million increase in the appropriation for the Council on the Arts, which provides grants to many historical programs.
Several of his regional economic development councils drew on regional history to shape their strategies and a few history-oriented projects received funding. For instance, funds were made available to restore the historic Oliver Bronson house in Hudson and the Strand Th
eater in Plattsburgh. Geneva received a grant to design and construct a Finger Lakes Boating Museum.
More grants are available this year for parks, historic preservation, and heritage area projects through the grants program of the state Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
Governor Cuomo understands that history is a public resource, ready to be put to work for the people of the state.
The state’s history community needs to acknowledge, encourage and take advantage of the governor’s interest.
Some possible initiatives by interested individuals and organizations might include:
- Write the governor to acknowledge and thank him for his support of history and initiatives to strengthen the historical enterprise here in New York.
- Provide examples of what individual local historians, historical societies, and other historical programs are doing to advance state and local history
- Ask the governor to support improved cooperation and coordination, e.g., through appointing a State History Council.
- Urge him to support expansion and strengthening of teaching of state and local history in New York’s schools.
- Suggest other topics that might be featured in historical exhibits in the Capitol and the governor’s online “Hall of Governors” site.
- Suggest other initiatives that the governor might take
Photo: NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo inspects ongoing restoration of the State Capitol.