Saturday, October 31, 2009

What do we value?

In October 1986, New Jersey Monthly published Tom Dunkel's eye-opening article, "A State of Ruins," asking in subtitle, "Is New Jersey committing historical suicide?" So here we are, twenty three years later, checking for vital signs.

Ever stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg? Or at New Bridge? Princeton? For our generation, the question remains unanswered: Is anything sacred? What stories, persons, places and events are worthy of memory? On the other side of the equation, looking beyond the spiritual and emotional returns, history sells! Many communities around the globe thrive as heritage destinations, albeit not always tastefully or respectfully. Truly, well-managed and well marketed, heritage tourism contributes to prosperity.

Up until the 2008 economic downturn, the tourism industry grew by leaps and bounds. In 2006, tourism generated $37.6 billion for New Jersey's economy, up from $24.6 billion in 1996. Seventy-one million visitors came, creating jobs for one out of every nine workers in the state. Atlantic City casinos and the Jersey shore, however, are by far the biggest draws, while a majority of other destinations attracted fewer than 10,000 visitors annually. Smaller attractions lack the infrastructure, staff and visibility to compete in the metropolitan marketplace.

Obviously, we need to strike a balance: Some places and objects are to be valued, not merely for the revenue stream from souvenirs they generate, but for the hard-learned lessons of history they illustrate? So where does New Jersey stand? What do we value?

The difficulties with preserving significant reminders of our past in such a densely populated state are manifold. Under the myth of "open space," myopic bureaucrats acquire more and more land, but lack the interest or ability to maintain significant historic features upon it. They race developers to erase notable landmarks from the scenery. Pointing fingers at everyone other than themselves, they throw money at the crisis du jour to buy off negative headlines. As soon as other concerns divert public attention, demolition by neglect sets in. Demolition by neglect is very much an act of cultural vandalism and economic suicide.

I also encourage you to examine credentials---all too often, it seems to me, those in charge would probably not even visit a historic site unless they were paid to manage one. Placing the State owned and operated Historic Sites in the NJ DEP's Division of Parks & Forestry has had disastrous consequences. On the Federal level, the EPA oversees environmental issues but not parks, forests and historic sites; likewise, we must free our most important heritage destinations---natural as well as historic---from the death grip of both an environmental regulatory agency and the recreational parks bureaucracy. Most importantly, we must place this cultural legacy in the hands of those who are caring and qualified to protect and promote them.

Come meet our Waterloo. The yellow tape, reading "Do Not Cross," appropriately marks this as a crime scene. Tens of millions of dollars in public money invested in tourist infrastructure once made this one of New Jersey's popular cultural destinations. Now it rots away. This is historical suicide at its most sensational.

Thirty years ago, when I began my career as an historical interpreter at Waterloo, the village slept indolently among the hills, awakening only rarely and grudgingly to acknowledge the jab of modernity. The air of authenticity was often chilling and visitors sometimes complained of rude ghosts inhabiting porches and garden paths. The story of Waterloo's remarkable rise and decline through an era of turnpikes, canals and railroads captured the eye of the curious beholder.

According to the "State of Ruins," Waterloo received "a line appropriation of $500,000, plus $400,000 in DEP preservation money, as well as a $405,000 grant from the State Council on the Arts" in the 1986-87 state budget alone. That was almost a quarter century ago. How much public money is invested there? Who knows. Most visitors were blissfully unaware the State of New Jersey owned most of the land and buildings. The state also employed a maintenance crew. Over the years, the Waterloo Foundation embodied one of the most highly powered and apparently successful public/private partnerships in the state. But it all crumbled into ruin. How? Was it a lack of professional oversight? Was it a hopeless mismatch of goals?

Today, not only is the historic fabric of the place passing beyond salvation, but an expensive public investment in restaurants, conference centers, concert facilities, gardens, paths, snack bars and bathrooms is rusting and rotting into oblivion. The DEP complains of its burden and invites private interests to ride to the rescue. Dedicated volunteers and an irrepressible church congregation keep the lamp of life burning. But I ask: Is New Jersey the only state in the Union not to have a professionally managed system of publicly owned Historic Sites?

A picture is worth a thousand words. Caution! Put on your hardhat and visit some of the historic sites owned by the people of New Jersey as administered by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Parks & Forestry. Included are scenes depicting the barns on the Rutherfurd-Stuyvesant estate and a rare example of an English stone house in Allamuchy Mountain State Park, High Breeze Farm in Wawayanda State Park, Crill's Log Cabin in Stokes State Forest, and the fading village of Waterloo, complete with a latrine dug into an ancient burying ground, where both Native North Americans and Revolutionary War veterans are interred.

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