In my last post, I suggested that our county could benefit from increased public participation in the debate about our declining demography. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Hamilton County Historian's Office will help to facilitate that participation during 2016, the year of our County Bicentennial.
The Historian’s Office is excited to announce that it has won a grant from The Common Good: Humanities in the Public Square to fund a project called “The Arcadia Factory: A People’s History of Hamilton County.” The grant (in the amount of $149,517) will support public programming in cultural institutions across the county encouraging a broad public dialog about the challenges and opportunities created by our changing demographics. The idea behind the Public Square is simple but powerful. The humanities disciplines - history, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, ethics, literary studies and all those fields of knowledge that explore what it means to be human in a particular time and place - are not just for scholars in ivory towers. They offer critical perspectives on the problems of real-world communities like ours, not least through the development of concepts and methods which help us to understand those problems in historical and cultural context.
“Arcadia” is a good example. Arcadia is both a real place and a myth, an administrative unit of the ancient Peloponnese peninsula in Greece whose name has come to stand for a mythological paradise where people live in harmony with nature. Arcadia, in short, is a by-word for utopia, especially a pastoral utopia where human beings overcome their often antagonistic relationship with the natural world. The Adirondack Park has earned an Arcadian reputation through its billing as a triumphant ecosocial experiment, a place where for over a century, people have made peace with their environment through the successful preservation of what the New York Times once glowingly proclaimed “a Central Park for the world.”
And yet, the myth of the Arcadian Adirondacks conceals as much as it reveals. The Adirondack Park is a produced paradise, a manufactured wilderness whose experience for the visitor depends acutely upon the labor of the year-round local population. The Adirondacks are not a place where wayfarers sign in at the gate and take their chances against the elements of nature, red in tooth and claw. To be sure, for those who seek to escape the grind of urban and suburban life, there are vast Adirondack spaces to which to retreat without seeing another human being for days, even weeks. But make no mistake: the Adirondack Park is a full-service forest where workers make that wilderness accessible through their labor in the constellation of our Arcadian industries: recreation, accommodation, construction, sanitation, health, education, emergency services. There is, too, a more subtle labor at work in the sharing of local stories, histories, dialect, knowledge, our very way of life. This project is called The Arcadia Factory to draw attention to that labor and those who perform it, a process and a people all too often lost in the grand myth of “America’s first wilderness.”
Who are these people, and what kinds of work do they do? They are road crews who burn the midnight oil through the long Adirondack winter on our lonely highways; they are waiters and waitresses and bartenders who serve hot food and cold drinks while seeing their incomes fluctuate through the vagaries of the tourist season; they are teachers, librarians, aides and other educators who nurture our intellectual life; they are carpenters and plumbers and electricians and roofers and caretakers who build seasonal housing and keep it standing under the weight of the Adirondack climate; they are paramedics and EMTs and nurses and firefighters who stand ever at the ready to rescue those who lose or hurt themselves in our formidable wilderness; they are check-out clerks and gas station attendants who keep the commerce of Arcadia running smoothly; they are janitors and septic workers and cleaners who safeguard our public health at the most basic level; they are commodity producers who turn the Adirondack forest into everything from firewood to maple syrup in a sustainable manner; they are rangers and conservation officers who stock our streams and monitor the health of our forest; they are mechanics and machinists who keep our equipment running; they are artists and historians and guides who interpret our wilderness in the interest of enlightenment and education. They are, in short, the population that makes the Adirondack wilderness experience fundamentally different from that of a national park and all the better for it. While all communities have such workers, in the Adirondacks, we do these things not only for ourselves, but for the millions of visitors who pass through our lands on an annual basis.
In Hamilton County, as in the North Country overall, this population is dwindling. But while the demographic data are clear on this simple fact, the question of why is the subject of heated debate. Some lay blame at the feet of New York State and its stringent ecological regulations; others point out that rural populations are shrinking across the United States and indeed the globe, even in places where such regulations do not exist or are ill-enforced. The history of Hamilton County - and particularly the last fifty years - is key to understanding this problem. The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed monumental changes at least the match of those that occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth, particularly in terms of development and regulation with the advent of the Adirondack Park Agency and the State Land Master Plan, the seasonal home development boom, and the broader national context of deindustrialization and capital flight. Accordingly, the outcome of this project will employ another concept from the humanities, that of a “People’s History,” to tell this story from the perspective of those who lived it.
How will it do this? The Public Square grant will fund a series of forums across the county during the year 2016, our County Bicentennial, where our community can gather to share their experience of demographic change. Some events will focus on the collection, digitization and display of relevant material culture - photographs, letters, journals, all the stuff of history typically stored in people’s basements, attics, shoeboxes and cupboards - which document community change. Some will focus on oral histories, the sharing of stories, memories, experiences, hopes, triumphs and defeats. Some will foster dialogue between different groups within our community, such as older and younger generations, year-round locals and the seasonal population, new residents, longtime resident and ex-residents. Some will provide opportunities (through film, literature and other media) to learn about how other rural American communities are struggling with similar issues. The results of these events will be documented on a website entitled “The People’s History of Hamilton County,” where users may not only peruse these materials, but continue to contribute to them over time, thereby building a truly collective, ground-up history of our community. The Public Square grant will therefore fund both a collaborative process and a concrete outcome: The Arcadia Factory will provide a space for the public to come together to discuss, debate and document the changes our community has witnessed during this crucial period; The People’s History will employ the resulting resources to develop publicly-accessible educational materials, especially digital, for further exploration.
These events will take place in partnership with our community’s impressive array of cultural institutions, including our historical societies, public historians, schools and libraries, the Adirondack Museum, Great Camp Sagamore, Indian Lake Theater, Blue Mountain Center, Office for the Aging, and Adirondack Architectural Heritage, all with the assistance ROOST, our nonprofit Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. Indeed over thirty such community partners as well as the county Board of Supervisors and our county staff provided invaluable assistance to the Historian’s Office in the preparation of this application, and its initial success is a testament to our county’s energy, resourcefulness and community spirit. Specific events will be announced on this blog, as well as new Twitter and Facebook pages devoted expressly to the Arcadia Factory project, so please watch these spaces!