It is time for me to put up or shut up. My previous two posts have been about the Path through History project. I said the conference was a good first step but that the project was at the proverbial fork in the road. Many people in the historic community have witnessed these periodic forays into the world of cultural heritage tourism and our leery about another such effort no matter how sincere. I have pointed out some of what has been done already by different organizations throughout the state and raised the issue of where this project fits in given what has occurred.
What are the stories New York should tell about its history? This is an important question because as I see it the k-12 curriculum now under review as part of the Common Core project should incorporate them, college and adult education classes should teach them, professional development and cultural heritage tourists should travel the paths that express them, and historic sites and regions should define themselves through these stories. So here they are, roughly in chronological order.
Theme 1: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Iconic Image: The Statue of Liberty
New York has been the story of the melting pot from William Johnson’s Mohawk Valley to New Amsterdam to the Lower East Side and to the sanctuary cities today of Buffalo and Utica. We have been the place where peoples struggle to become We the People and e pluribus unum struggles to become a reality. New York has the opportunity to become a national leader in telling this story of our past so we can learn from it building our future.
Theme 2: Object of Great Importance
Iconic Image: West Point
New York was the pivot point for the American Revolution. Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are better at telling their stories but the reality is that George Washington, the father of the country and of all the peoples who become one in Theme 1, spent more time here because he knew exactly what the British knew: if we lose the Hudson we lose the war. The valleys Hudson, Champlain, and Mohawk are all part of the story of the birth of this country. That birth is most prominently celebrated with immigrant Macy’s fireworks over the iconic Statue of Liberty on the Hudson. This is America’s story and New York has the opportunity to become a national leader in telling the story of the birth our country, of singing its praises and traveling its paths.
Theme 3: The Course of the Empire State
Iconic Image: The Course of the Empire by Immigrant Thomas Cole
When New York became the Empire State and supplanted Philadelphia and Boston, beginning that rivalry a century before the sale of Ruth, it launched the city on the path to becoming the nation’s capital. It was a time of art, literature, science, finance, sports and warning about what was being lost in the rush to modernization. In the time post-War of 1812, fought extensively in New York, America came of age on the path to a manifest destiny (a New York created phrase). Was everything OK as Old Kinderhook said or should we Panic? Were we booming or burnt over? This was an extraordinarily interdisciplinary time when we began to forge our own identity. New York has the opportunity to become a national leader in telling the story of the creating of the American identity when we began to stand on our own two feet without always looking over our shoulders wondering what England was going to do next.
Theme 4: House Still Divided
Iconic Image: New York soldier’s grave at Gettysburg
New York contributed more soldiers than any other state in the Union to the cause and is full of underground railroad sites, draft riot stories, graves of soldiers, and visits by Lincoln. But in many ways we also are a country which has not healed and still fights the war. We need to more than simply travel the paths of the Civil War sites of the state, we need to think outside the state and reach out to other states. Our Governor should invite the Governors of the Confederate states to participate in an exchange program – we will visit the battle sites where our soldiers fought yours and you will visit the communities in New York from which they came. In a time when America remains divided, New York has the opportunity to be a national leader in bridging the gap and healing the country.
Theme 5: We Stand at Armageddon and Have a Rendez-vous with Destiny
Iconic Image: Teddy at Mount Rushmore (since everyone knows Luigi del Bianco of Port Chester was the chief carver) and the United Nations
At the very time when the world, at least the European and Chinese world, came to us, we were becoming the capital of the world. In this time of urbanization, industrialization, unionization, bureaucratization, immigration, technological advance, war, the belief that the world was coming to an end or that the best was yet to come, everything was in a state of flux. If Rip had gone to sleep in 1850 and awakened in 1900 he would not have understood the change. It was a Titanic world where all seemed possible until the war to end all wars didn’t and we roared and became depressed before fighting again to make the world safe for democracy. In one presidential election not only were both candidates from New York, they were from the same county. In the time of the Roosevelts, New York took a leadership role in the country and the world. Are we ready to abandon it? As we travel the paths of what we once were, they can remind us of what we can become again.
Theme 6: The Age of Aquarius
Iconic Image: the Woodstocks
It is a frightening idea when events from when one was alive become historic. The sad reality is that it is over 30 years since the Woodstock Nation didn’t trust anyone over 30. The hippie counter-revolution has become a nostalgia tour. In the larger sense, social movements have been part and parcel of the New York story. The story of change through the political process is an ongoing one. Civil War John Brown is part of the fight against slavery today. While all these movements may not be as colorful as Woodstock or have quite as much music, they do have stories to tell, songs to sing, and ideas to think about. Teddy called Chautauqua the most American thing in America. That format of bringing people together still works in Chautauqua today and in similar gathering elsewhere in our colleges and conference centers where people gather to reflect, ponder, and exchange. If we offer venues to think about the issues of the day, people will come.
Iconic Image: Hollywood Sign with the Big Apple
We should not omit the media from our travels in New York. Movies, TV shows, and plays abound in the images of New York too many to be mentioned. In a time when one of the popular tourists spots in Italy is the site where the Twilight movies were filmed, let’s not forget that the Twilight Zone was born here. Stories can be told in many forms and formats. We should use all of them in creating our paths.
Theme 8: If You Build It, They Will Come
Iconic Image: King Kong on the Empire State Building
New York has been a state of great building. From the Erie Canal to the Croton Aqueduct to rural cemeteries to Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge to buildings that scraped the sky to Yankee Stadium to Robert Moses to Rockefeller’s Edifice complex, we have dreamed big and succeeded. Although our dreams are smaller now and our vision diminished there once was a time when even the sky wasn’t our limit. From the hollowed ruins that litter the rivers and highways of our state to the population transferred to Florida to the anguished hole from Osama’s assault on humanity, we have shrunk in our goals, our hopes, and our ambitions. What are the paths we will travel to renew our state? Where can we see the future being born? Tourism isn’t only about our past. Let’s see what out there.
So did I put up or should I shut up? Let me know.
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.
5 thoughts on “What’s Our Story? NYs Paths Through History”
You’ve given me a lot to think about here, and to absorb; I think the Clsoe Encounters theme is right on, and you’ve articulated the needed points beautifully. I hope you’ll be visiting this issue again, because not enough smart people are working on it!!!
Peace, Mari (from Buffalo)
I would like to put in a plug for the origins of western New York (17th and 18th Centuries)when we experienced the clash of Empires that began with the quest for the beaver and tailed off at the treaty of Big Tree. Seneca … French … Dutch … English … General Sullivan, Oliver Phelps… The Empire State. The Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua will be opening a long term exhibition in December that explores this early period in the state’s history by exploring the desires of those who shaped this important region of the State.
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This is fun! I nominate the D&H Canal as a new trail to the west.
Peter Feinman puts it out there so everyone can see it. His points on NYS stories and what we have to be about resonate clearly. I hope the SS core currick include his practical timed events. All of which lend themselves to student visits in real time to our culture rich state. By the way we must close and entomb Indian Point Nuclear Power Facility so we don’t destroy the key USA historic district the Hudson valley, if an accident occurs with all the spent fuel rods.
You’re creating the New York State of Elation. Talk about a beautiful mind! It’s difficult to focus on your facts. Tether this spirit to a mulberry root and the project could have tangible and lasting results.
Olivia from Woodstock