Don't Tread On Me!
by Don Rittner

"Only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past." -
Sigmund Freud

I almost fell out of my armchair after reading the op ed piece penned this past weekend by Cornelius Murray, Chairman of the Albany Parking Authority. His attempt to justify destroying the 18th century rum distillery with a garage reminds me of the boy who gets caught with hands in the cookie jar and proclaims only to be counting the cookies.

There is no justification for destroying this important archeological site other than the city made a very large mistake. They gambled and lost. If they knew beforehand that there were chances of finding significant archeological finds, as he states, then they should have had a redesign cost just in case. I don't know anyone who called him an arrogant philistine, as he claims, but I do think he clearly doesn't understand the significance of this find.

Mr. Murray states, "what was found lacks the drawing power of Noah's ark, the Rosetta stone or Tutankhamen's tomb." The history of this distillery is just as important to Albanians as King Tut is to the Egyptians. Besides, he misses the point. Someone knew enough to save the Rosetta stone and King Tut's tomb when it was found. If the Ark is found, you can bet that will be saved too. Some folks know how to do the right thing.

This distillery site is an important part of Albany's industrial and economic heritage. Add the fact that it was run by Daniel Hale, Secretary of state of New York, from 1793-1801, 1810-11, and you have an interesting local and state connection.

No drawing power, he says? Those 4000 people that viewed the site on a weekend past must have been a mirage. Let's see how many 'mirages' flock to admire the parking garage!

Perhaps part of the problem is the city's reliance on their "Albany Plan'' initiative established by Mayor Jennings. This plan estimated that the parking deficit in the city was approaching 3,000 spaces and needed new parking facilities, says Murray. For what? I fail to see new businesses downtown that would attract shoppers? Or is it to fill the need of those commuters that drive from the suburbs so their cars can have a nice place to rest for eight hours.

I wonder if an environmental impact statement was prepared for the Albany Plan? Did it not point out the likelihood of archeological remains being found amidst all this new construction? Why wasn't mitigative measures incorporated into the formula for preservation if found? And what was the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation thinking when they told Mr. Murray "considering the amount of funds already expended in planning, environmental and archaeological investigations, a decision to abandon the parking garage at this point would be financially irresponsible." I thought OPRHP's business was making decisions to "save" history not make economic excuses to destroy it.

This whole mess reminds me of the Pine Bush preservation efforts of the 70's. While everyone, even Texas oilmen, knew the significance of the Pine Bush ecosystem, the city of Albany approved development after development destroying the Pine Bush in a piecemeal fashion. Save the Pine Bush, an environmental organization, successfully sued the city and stopped many of these developments because the city was not looking at the "cumulative" effect on the endangered ecosystem.

I suggest the city is doing the same thing with its historic and archeological resources. They are ignoring the cumulative impact of each of these new parking garages and office buildings. Each new project finds significant archeological remains and then destroys them. In the past five years we have lost about a dozen important pieces of our history. The city's response is to save a few artifacts and maybe some day have a museum to display them. Don't hold your breath.

Mr. Murray ends his piece with this projection: "Had we decided to abandon the project we would have been subjected to equally virulent criticism from others accusing us of caring more about preserving our past than ensuring our future." . Sure, and crowds would have circled city hall shouting "CARS HAVE RIGHTS TOO," or "MY CAR IS A HISTORIC SITE." Or, perhaps irate commuters would waive placards held high with "MORE GARAGES, LESS HISTORY." Give me a break! If parking garages are our future, our future is bleak.

While it appears citizens of Albany have lost another important part of their history, one thing is apparent. There's a growing movement and underbelly of discontent with the way things are. That's how paradigm shifts begin. Perhaps, SciFi writer, H.G. Wells said it best when he wrote: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."