Peter Feinman: Cuomo’s ‘Path Through History’ Project


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Our Governor’s father, also a Governor, was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. The son wants to make history as the first President of Ellis Island origin. He has gained a reputation as a passion advocate for the restoration of the Capitol, so much so that he was said that he seemed “at times more like its chief historian—or at other moments, its chief architect, interior decorator and custodian” (New York Times).

His quest for historical accuracy should resonate with readers of this online history magazine. Cuomo sought “to demonstrate that the state can actually get something done, and that even in scandal-addled Albany, government could be a source of pride.” He reached out to Harold Holzer of the Metropolitan Museum, a noted Lincoln scholar and friend of Mario, for decoration advise. The results were boffo at the box office, praised by Albany historian and state legislator John McEneny who is retiring this year.

Then there is the sign project. The “Path Through History” initiative designed to highlight New York State’s history and bolster tourism and economic development was announced March 8, 2012. It seemed like exciting news: an activist Governor with muscle had decided to take a stand on behalf of the local historic sites in state. Uniform signage and kiosks would tell the story New York’s historic contributions. No longer would the Empire State take second place to Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas in bragging about its importance in American history.

The press release said all the right things.

” ‘This initiative will use New York’s rich history to encourage tourism, local economic development and serve as an educational tool for all New Yorkers,’ Governor Cuomo said.”

“The initiative will foster cooperation and coordination among institutions and regions and focus on the entire state, highlighting that critical events, historic buildings, and important movements have added significance when they are interpreted within the entire state and nation’s history as a whole. The initiative is designed to drive “heritage tourism” in New York, boosting local economies across the state, and supporting the state’s many communities with historic sites and cultural exhibits.”

What more could you ask for? (Funding?) It was a dream come true. Heritage tourism! An educational tool for all New Yorkers! Maybe even the infamous Core Curriculum would include a place for New York history, for the very local history these signs and kiosks would mark! After all the same Governor did create an education panel to investigate school reform. How could it not recommend including New York history in the classroom? The same Governor created economic regional panels to rethink the local economy and to compete for grants. How could heritage tourism not be part of the development plans for each region? Hadn’t the Governor telegraphed his interest?

There’s more. The press release said there would be “Customized ‘Path to History’ tours on such topics including Industry and Technology; Women’s Rights and Civil Rights, New York and Independence; Civil War, and Scenic Wonders.” How about in geographic areas too, like the Hudson Valley, the Mohawk Valley, the Champlain Valley, and elsewhere. The project wasn’t just about the signs, it was about creating programs as well based on the historic sites in the state, places people could visit as cultural heritage tourists, places teachers could study as part of their training, places municipalities could champion as part of developing a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community among its residents. The signs would even be for the 21st century with a web-based interface that allows Thruway travelers to learn more about key historic sites in the Thruway corridor and to follow “Path to History” routes. The iconic blue signs with orange that have proliferated throughout the state and which sometimes still can be seen when the vegetation around them has been removed have become historic items themselves. Welcome to the cultural heritage tourism of the 21st century. What a great project. What an opportunity. What potential.

An Historic Corridor Task Force was established to steer the project to conclusion. All looked good. Nancy Lutz, communications manager for Dutchess County Tourism called the project a win-win for tourism and local residents: “By putting these signs up, it’s helping the tourism industry and helping to create new jobs and keep jobs. But it’s also helping residents and visitors find great things to do close to home.”

That was in March; now June is drawing to an end and vacation season is upon us and prospective members of the task force or the committees who will do the work. So what has happened in these 3-4 months?

Previously I had written that I had delayed reporting on the Path through History project until I had something to report. I thought, based on a direct face-to-face communication that May 21 was the date for a meeting in Albany that would extend beyond the designated members of the task force identified in the press release out to the cultural heritage community. I didn’t know exactly what was supposed to happen then but I was willing to wait until I attended that meeting before reporting on anything in a post. As the date drew nearer and nearer and travel plans needed to be made and nothing was said, I inquired as to the status of meeting. I was informed that it had been delayed and would be held in June at a date to be determined.

With June filling up first with a Civil War conference in Albany and then the NYSHA conference in Niagara Falls (yes, I did see Wallenda in person cross the falls until the mist swallowed him up; and the editor of this online magazine did have a media pass!), I inquired again about the meeting both via email and in person to various individuals on the task force or associated with it. Some people hadn’t even heard about a proposed June meeting; some heard July 11; maybe that would be postponed to later in the month; maybe it was becoming hard for certain people to attend as vacation time began. I tried to find out who was invited to this meeting meaning not just by name but by the types of people from the different sectors of the cultural heritage community. I tried to find out what the agenda of the meeting would be. I tried to find out exactly what the doables or action items of the Task Force were. No luck on anything and the sense I got was that no one really knew until the Governor decided what he wanted. It is as if the all the work to restore the Capitol was a fleeting exercise in competency to immediately be replaced by business as usual with the press release of March 8 being the primary accomplishment so far.

I know there is more to the story than this. I know there are people who genuinely want to make this project work. I know there are tremendous benefits to be realized from a successful project. I know that this is a good project for the State. There is a saying that a journey begins with a single step. The Path through History project took that first step on March 8, 2012. Now we await the second step.

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.

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