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Archive for the ‘African American History’ Category

I’ve just come from a remarkable event. This evening at Nyack Library, a documentary film by Director Tina Traster made its debut before a packed room of enthusiastic history buffs, both professional and casual. The film is appropriately and succinctly titled “THIS HOUSE MATTERS”.

An important film for preservationists everywhere, it features Nyack’s own John Green House, and the John Green House Preservation Coalition extensively, while also highlighting other Rockland County historic structures recently lost to the wrecking ball, others in peril of destruction, and those fortunate enough – like the Green House – to have found a respite from oblivion.  

Traster’s engaging and instructive film was prompted among other things by the loss of a Historical Treasure. See, you might not know that  the historically significant “Lent House” in Orangeburg – built in 1752 -was completely demolished last year on the weekend of Easter with almost no fanfare. The home was built by a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the signers of the Orangetown Resolutions (discussed in its own post on this blog). Though some minor and ultimately ineffective attempts were made to save the structure, nothing materialized and the financially cash-strapped owner (with some mild regret) allowed the beautiful Dutch Sandstone Colonial to be bulldozed. 

As a Realtor, I understand better than most the rights of property ownership and the amount of an individuals financial wealth that is tied up in any property owned. I could not blame the owner though it pains me to say so. As a Historian, this was a Crime Against History, and truly, I cried when I came upon the ruins of the structure unexpectedly last Spring. Full disclosure, as Village Historian I do appear in the film both in interviews, and some candid discussions.  The loss of the Lent House spurred local preservationists to action to prevent this from happening to other important structures. One of them was Nyack’s own John Green House – contrary to popular belief not the oldest house in the village, but the second oldest – it is however the oldest stone structure currently standing in the Village of Nyack, but the home of a man extremely important to the history of Nyack, Rockland County and for that matter, the entire Hudson Valley.

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The John Green House, circa 1900. Photo: Nyack Library Local History Collection

SO WHO WAS THIS JOHN GREEN?

John Green was an merchant, entrepreneur, speculator and developer in Nyack in the early 1800s. He arrived in Nyack shortly after the turn of the 19th Century from New York City where a fire had cost him his business and all of his belongings. He began work here as a common laborer and eventually saved enough to open the area’s first lumber yard. By 1812 he had amassed enough to become one of the original founders of The First Methodist-Episcopal Church of Nyack. Built in 1812-1813 of the same Dutch Sandstone the John Green House would use in its construction, we now know it as the Old Stone Church, Upper Nyack’s oldest structure. 

Using similar materials – reddish brown sandstone from the quarries in Nyack and Grandview, Green built his own three story home on lower Main Street, completing it in 1819. This was one of the last, if not the last, Gambrel-roofed Dutch Sandstone homes built in Rockland County in a style that was very specific to one place in the world, the lower Hudson Valley Communities in what are now Rockland and Bergen Counties.  This particular style are large solid homes, with brown rough cut sandstone walls as much as 27 inches thick, and with a Gambrel for a roof (that’s a roof, much like a barns that is shallow peaked at the top and on each side takes an abrupt sharper downward slant halfway between the peak of the roof and the roof line. Further distinguishing OUR Dutch Sandstone Colonials was the “flare” at the edges of the roof where today you would find rain gutters. This brilliant innovation was significantly better than what we currently use in shunting water away from a house’s foundation.

As he continued to prosper, Green saw a bright future for Rockland County and Nyack. Already, wind-driven sloops were bringing our contributions to the growing metropolis of New York – stone from Nyack’s quarries, ice from Rockland Lake, iron from the Ramapo mountains and Suffern, and what produce grew in our rocky, hilly county.  Green foresaw a need to get the products to New York City faster, and became the major sponsor of the Nyack Turnpike in the 1820s, a turnpike road that would connect Nyack to Suffern directly and cut hours off the trip.  Green also began to build a seaport for Nyack, and he began the first steam ferry and cargo runs from Nyack to New York City. He and his partners began construction of ‘The Orange’ (originally ‘The Nyack’) in 1826, not even 20 years from when the world’s first successful steamboat – Fulton’s ‘Cleremont’ first docked in Nyack. By 1828 ‘The Orange’ – or as some nicknamed the ungainly looking craft ‘The Pot Cheese’ was dutifully steaming back and forth to New York City daily carrying both freight and passengers. This only spurred more commerce, more boat and ship building for Nyack, our burgeoning textile industry and more. Green is truly one of the architects of the prosperity and development of Rockland County. 

John Green House 1984

The John Green House, circa 1984. Photo: Nyack Library Local History Collection

BUT WHY SAVE A WRECK?

Trust me when I say that as a Historian I saw the significance of John Green in Nyack and the County’s history, but as a Realtor – and a realist – I was not convinced the structure could be saved or if so, the cost could be justified.  I actually rented an apartment in the house to a young lady getting government assistance in 2004, it being the only apartment in the Village her stipend could pay for. The house was in tough shape THEN. It was purchased shortly after with intentions of renovation on the new owner’s part, only to be met face on with the housing crash. The owner could not renovate and put the house on the market. I believe I may have been one of the last Realtors to show the home before it was foreclosed upon. By that time, deterioration had accelerated significantly and a portion of the north east wall was beginning to collapse into the structure, and we dared not climb the almost non-existent stairs to the third floor. Shortly thereafter, the home was condemned and labeled dangerous.   

This is the picture I had in my head when some local historians and preservationists approached me as Nyack Historian and asked me to support the project. I was very reluctant to do so, because I feared the structure was too damaged to repair, or at least that such repair would be so prohibitively expensive that Nyack would wind up with another unfortunate circumstance like the old Helen Hayes Theater, which was land-marked, but could never raise enough funds to be repaired and so symbolically if not literally collapsed around itself and was lost, along with all the monies dumped into owning it and allegedly restoring the theater. 

However, the folks who would become The John Green Preservation Coalition were not pie-in-the-sky dreamers, but a determined group set out to do things correctly. Structural and engineering reports, work estimates, funding needs, timetables, possible usage outlines – all were presented professionally and efficiently, and slowly but surely my mind changed, and now I became convinced that the strengthening and restoring of the property WAS possible and not at an astronomical cost. I was thrilled that this looked like a project that would save something historically significant and actually work.

Wonderful things began to happen. The Coalition was able to acquire the foreclosed property after Rick Tannenbaum, an attorney and one of the group’s leaders, completed a complicated negotiation with Ocwen Loan Servicing, an Atlanta-based mortgage company. The result was that the bank GIFTED the house to the organization. This is unprecedented. Though very rarely banks will gift a foreclosed property, those gifted properties are always to municipalities, and generally for the purposes of creating additional affordable housing. Gifting a historically significant structure to a group of preservationist just had never been done before. I will however, lay heavy bets other groups around the country will be watching us closely and will attempt similar negotiations on other significant properties that have defaulted.  Not a single Nyack tax dollar was used or will be used on this project. The home is owned by the Non-Profit Coalition, not by the Village of Nyack.

Other wonderful things included support from local politicians like State Senator David Carlucci, Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, Mayor Jen White and many others who it seems also found the destruction of the 1752 Lent House a wake-up call for our historic communities. Local businesses have contributed time, labor, materials, or in the case of my own company’s ‘Rand Community Fund’ made needed financial donations to the restoration. And with some melancholy, the destruction of the Lent House in a way will help preserve the John Green House. The Coalition was permitted to glean the original reddish brown sandstone blocks from the Lent House to rebuild the collapsing area of the north east wall of the John Green House. It’s almost like as it died, the Lent House gave an organ donation to save the Green House.

All this has come to pass on nothing more than the dedication and determination of this extraordinary group of historians, history buffs and history nerds who said with one voice “enough is enough, let’s do this”.  Folks like Upper Nyack Village Historian Winn Perry and local contractor Ken Sharp can be seen at the house doing backbreaking labor, volunteering their time (and probably blood, sweat and tears) to keeping this House alive and present in the Nyack Community. The day the official ceremony of donation was held in front of the John Green House, I was present (as you can see in the picture below) and the mood was astonishing… such a feeling of triumph, of hope, of accomplishment glowed off these folks that it was absolutely contagious. 

John Green House gifted to Preservationists

Gifting Ceremony, Summer 2015. Photo: Ken Sharp collection.

The John Green House is a success (knock wood) in the world of local history and preservation, a success that appears to come too infrequently recently. Tina Traster’s excellent documentary beautifully documents the lost, the saved, and those still in peril.  Look for its next screening near you, and don’t hesitate – make sure you see this call to action that reminds us that Nyack and all of Rockland are really special places indeed.

If you want to get involved with the restoration, or if you want to contribute, contact: THE JOHN GREEN PRESERVATION COALITION:  http://www.johngreencoalition.org/contact/ or http://www.johngreencoalition.org/donatesupport/ 

To watch the trailer and find out more about the film “THIS HOUSE MATTERS” by Tina Traster, go to: http://www.thishousematters.com/

 

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A series of coincidental events led me to write about a traumatic event that happened in Nyack and wound up with far-reaching consequences for the entire nation and its police departments. We’ve just learned that not unexpectedly, a Grand Jury did not indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner, following on the heels of the refusal of another Grand Jury in Missouri to indict Darren Wilson (now a former Police Officer) in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Mixed in with this is the news that Judith Clark, one of the perpetrators of the Brinks Robbery and Shooting in Nanuet and Nyack in 1981, is seeking clemency on her conviction – like her fellow convicted and now released member of the Weather Underground, Kathy Boudin.

What does a crime from 30 years ago have to do with current events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island? Much, actually. You see, when Ms. Clark and Ms. Boudin and their group finished their shopping trip to Nyack and the Nanuet Mall on October 20, 1981 they left in their wake two dead Nyack Police Officers and one dead Brinks Guard. And, sadly, the reason that African-American Police Officer Waverly Brown and Irish-American Police Officer Edward O’Grady were dead was because Kathy Boudin emerged from the get-away van with her hands up, begging the Officers to put down their guns because she was unarmed, knowing full well when they did her comrades would ambush the officers from the van, firing round after round into the two soon-to-be dead officers along with Officer Artie Keenan who was badly injured. They continued firing into Officer Brown’s body after he was down and as a final farewell ran over the body of Officer O’Grady.

Police Procedure changed Nationwide that day. Officers O’Grady and Brown died because they had compassion that day, a horrible state of affairs that has resulted in the laws and rules we have today. These grant to Police Officers a broad scope of reaction to what they perceive to be life-threatening situations – which sometimes turns out not to be as threatening as the split second “blink reaction” may have led them to believe. When the Officer is correct, they’re doing their jobs; when the decision is incorrect or less sure, tragedy can occur.  But it is interesting to remember that this breadth of protection and trust under the law came about because of events right here in Nyack, and oddly, BECAUSE someone whom the police BELIEVED put her hands up and said “Don’t Shoot”.  And it is also typically Nyack in that both the Weather Underground and the Nyack Police groups were each composed of a racial mix…

We all also need to remember that it is the LAW that determines whether a person can be either indicted, or if so convicted on a charge of murder. There are people who feel that Wilson murdered Brown and Pantaleo murdered Garner. There are people who feel that Boudin and Clark murdered Brown and O’Grady and Brinks guard Peter Page. And to add one more law vs. ethics controversy, there are people who feel that George Zimmerman murdered Treyvon Martin. And in each of these cases, it appears there are just as many people who feel that Wilson, Pantaleo, Boudin, Clark and Zimmerman did NOT commit murder in any of the cases.  And the law agrees with them, no matter how wrong or unfair a situation may appear.  Whether or not that is a good thing, and the value of the laws in question are what should be addressed.

The law, because of what happened in Nyack, allows for the Police to respond to situations they feel are life-threatening with deadly force and so without evidence of any premeditated intent both Panteleo and Wilson could not be indicted. Despite knowing what their comrades intended, Boudin and Clark did not pull the triggers, and so by law, could not be charged with murder, only accessory to. And due to Florida’s ambiguously worded “Stand Your Ground” laws, Zimmerman could not be convicted of murder.

Whether or not our individual opinions and ethics feel that any or all of these cases are murder or any or all are not, does not matter legally. I have my own opinions on each, but whether I agreed with the law or not, I knew that each of these decisions would likely (and should likely) turn out the way they did because of the laws that applied to each. If American Citizens feel that the LAWS need to be changed or adjusted or modified (or in the case of Florida State Law, clarified) then THAT is what WE THE PEOPLE must address. We can’t apply laws variably with public sentiment on a particular case determining whether we pay attention to the law or not. In each case, we should examine the laws determining what is murder and what is accessory, laws on police procedure and training, and stand your ground laws and if needed adjust them or change them or if it is determined to be the best we can do and the way to cause least harm, leave them be.  THIS is what we should be doing if we feel there is injustice – not taking it out on the accused who is determined by law to be innocent of the charge involved, but examining the laws themselves to see if any improvement or refinement is needed.

For those not familiar with the Brinks Robbery of October 1981, I am reprinting a post of my that describes it – some from my own perspective, as I was present that day, oddly its not just Nyack History, it is also part of my personal history. This was my post of October 20, 2010…

Scarier than any ghost story were the events of October 20, 1981 – the day true terror came to town in the guise of a group of radical revolutionaries from several domestic extremist groups. In Autumn 1981, I was a sophomore at Fordham University in the city and living down there during the week to return home on weekends. On that day, when the Weather Underground and their buddy groups opted to hold up a Brink’s Armored Truck at the Nanuet Mall and leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake, I had taken the 9A bus up from the city after classes to practice a solo with George Bryant for that Sunday’s mass.  We practiced in St. Ann’s Church and finished by late afternoon.  I went out onto Jefferson Street to wait for my mother who was going to pick me up, take me home for dinner and then I’d walk and catch the bus back to the city that night or early in the morning.  Despite it being a lovely autumn day, I started to notice that (1) no one else seemed to be around ANYWHERE nearby; and (2) there were lots of sirens in the distance.  A Nyack Police cruiser turned onto Jefferson and I’ll never forget hearing “John, get inside the rectory NOW and STAY THERE!” Needless to say, I followed instructions, not having a clue what was going on.

Inside the Rectory, the priests and staff were trying to figure out the same thing. Remember, this was before the internet, before cell phones.  We eventually pieced together that just before 4:00 there had been an armed bank robbery and people were shot.  The chaos continued outside, sometimes nearer, sometimes further, but it was a long time before things would calm down.  My mother never did get to me that afternoon, as all the roads were closed and she returned home – after being frantic about each other for a bit, we connected over the rectory’s phone.

At 3:55 pm that day, a group of armed men and women stormed Brink’s guards Peter Page and Joe Trombino as they carried bags of money from the Nanuet Mall to their armored vehicle – they fired shotguns, M16s and various other weapons at the men.  Page was hit multiple times, Trombino managed to get off one shot before hitting the pavement for good.  With $1.6 million dollars the attackers fled in several different cars and a rented U-Haul van and headed east on Route 59 intending to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge and escape.  The van was blockaded at the Thruway Entrance in Central Nyack by the McDonalds.  Kathy Boudin (paroled in 2003!) pleaded with the police to put their weapons down – that there was no need, when the guns were lowered at Ms. Boudin’s request, her six companions (in body armor) jumped out of the back of the van and opened fire.  Nyack Police officers Waverly Brown, Edward O’Grady and Artie Keenan were struck and down.  Officer Brian Lennon, uninjured, was trapped in his cruiser by the weight of a fellow officer’s body.  After firing several rounds point-blank into downed Officer Brown and running over downed Sgt. O’Grady and crashing the truck into Lennon and the Police Cruiser, the attackers took off on foot and several carjacked a motorist in an attempt to escape.

One of the cars sped right through St. Ann’s neighborhood (the reason I was sent inside so forcefully) and crashed when they could not make the abrupt turn onto Broadway. South Nyack Police Chief Alan Cosley held them at gunpoint (alone!) until assistance arrived.  Others were caught on foot all over the area.

When the madness cleared, Nyack Police Officer Waverly Brown and Guard Peter Paige were dead at each scene.  Sergeant Edward O’Grady died later at Nyack Hospital – Officer Keenan healed from his wounds.  Ironically,  Guard Joe Trombino recovered from his severe wounds only to be caught in the September 11 attacks in 2001 and be killed by another group of extremists while at the World Trade Center.  Kathy Boudin who tricked the officers to death, but admittedly did not shoot, used her father’s influence to get a shorter more lenient sentence (the rest got 3 consecutive 25-Life terms) and was released at her third parole hearing in 2003, supposedly remorseful and rehabilitated, having worked with HIV and AIDS patients in prison. Many of us who lived here at the time are extremely bitter about this turn of events, and feel that justice would have been served had she continued her HIV/AIDS work in prison with the rest of her companions.  She HAS since published in the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s journal Fellowship, at least lending SOME verisimilitude to the possibility that she is indeed remorseful for her past.

The Thruway Entrance in Central Nyack now shelters a memorial to the slain officers, and a historical marker has been placed at the spot.  The Nyack Post Office was officially renamed in honor of Sgt. O’Grady, Officer Brown and Brink’s Guard Paige in May 2004.  A ceremony will be held today honoring the slain and keeping their memory alive.

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So this week it happened again, torrents of water came rushing down Nyack’s East/West Streets and Avenues gathering speed and strength as several inches of rain overwhelmed storm sewers, picking up sidewalks and pavement while filling basements and even first floors from Franklin Street to the River.  It may seem to some residents that downtown has been flooding several times a year just in recent years; however the downtown area has had issues with flooding for over a century.  The frequency of the flooding does seem to be on the rise, but it is likely that Nyack’s original water issues are being exacerbated by three additional stressors: Blocked Culverts, Loss of Tree Cover due to development Upslope, and worldwide climatic change.

              Mayor Jen Laird-White has been actively seeking abatement solutions to our flooding issues since well before this last storm, and in fact, requested that I write about the history of flooding in Nyack the very day she swore me in as Village Historian.  So far, real solutions come with large price tags in the $15 million or more range. Of the three additional factors mentioned above, obviously Nyack can only actively work on the first and regulate the second, the third can only be addressed by higher levels of government (if at all).  Nonetheless, we have inherited an issue that is long-standing and these additional stressors are only showing up the problems in our water management.

              The culprit is a culvert. Though that is actually an oversimplification, it really does get to the crux of the matter.  There is a running body of water known as the Nyack Brook that runs from the hills of Central Nyack right down through Nyack’s downtown and out into the Hudson near Memorial Park.  Its course is basically parallel to Main Street but you can only SEE it in a few select locations, as it has been covered over and confined to culverts since the late 1800s.  It runs north of Main Street from the area near the northbound Thruway entrance near High Avenue past the new Walgreens and the Catherine Street Firehouse.  For several blocks it runs between Main Street and Catherine Street, and you can see it above ground and cross it with a footbridge by the Tappan Zee Florist at 176 Main Street.  From there it once again dives beneath ground and runs under a number of buildings while heading for Franklin Street. When I was a teenager in the early 1980’s I had several friends who worked at the Coven Café (now Café Barcel) who delighted in pulling up a trap door in the floor of the restaurant to show me the Nyack Brook flowing by between the two segments of the building’s basement!  Originally, the Brook meandered south around Bridge Street where there was, no big surprise, a bridge spanning it. If you look at some of the older published maps of Nyack (like the one at Village Hall) you’ll see that bridge at Main and Bridge Street.  In the early 1900s someone decided that it would be a good idea to divert the brook before it got that far east and created a series of tunnels that turned it at Franklin Street.  That would be planning mistake number one.  One of Nyack’s first major flooding incidents occurred in 1903 just after this was done, no surprise there in hindsight.

1903nyackmainstreetflood

1903 Downtown Flood – from the Nyack Library Archives

Those temporary tunnels were replaced with concrete by the WPA during the Urban Renewal project of the 1960s that razed the business buildings on the east side of Franklin and the south side of Main Street to replace them with a parking lot, the Cinema East theater (now the defunct Riverspace) and the Nyack Plaza housing community. The brook flows beneath Main and Franklin, below the M&T Bank and the parking lot and pops up again briefly just west of Nyack Plaza south of DePew.  It goes to ground again beneath parts of Nyack Plaza and surfaces for a while in the gorge that lies south of Hudson Street and west of Broadway. You can see the brook and the charming tree filled area around it by looking out the back window of the Strawberry Place. From there it goes below Broadway to emerge from under the east side of Piermont Avenue and then flows along the side of Memorial Park and into the Hudson.  The brook is hemmed tightly in some sections and any kind of blockage by expected debris like broken branches; and unexpected like lumber, cinder blocks and unbelievably, shopping carts! There are many local business people who feel that the really severe flooding downtown experienced in 2011 was exacerbated by construction materials and the like that were blocking the culverts.  It has yet to be determined if those objects added significantly or not to the damage; although the timing of the storm brought the floodwaters just when the downtown curbs and sidewalks were being replaced meaning there was very little to funnel or channel water that wound up above ground and flowing down the surface of Main Street.

              The Nyack Brook may also have a special place in history – it may have been one of the “signposts” on the Underground Railroad, as the home of Nyack’s station keepers, Cynthia Hesdra and her husband, was located on the Brook near what is now the corner of Highland Avenue (9W) and Main Street (see my article about Cynthia Hesdra and the Underground Railroad on my At Home In Nyack blog: http://bit.ly/Z5CRMX ).  If this is true, it is a shame that there are so few places where we can actually see with our own eyes a geological feature that was part of such a dangerous and needful endeavor.  In addition to powering several mill wheels over the centuries, the Nyack Brook had for many, many years collected in a pond created by the Lydecker family for their ice business near where the Best Western motel now stands.  There are still Nyack residents who recall happy winter afternoons on what was for so long called “the skating pond”, an annual wintertime joy for many residents.  That pond and another no longer existent smaller pond just east of the main pond were outfitted with floodgates by the Nyack Water Company in 1891.  According to Jim Leiner, our local expert on Nyack’s residents, Tobias Justrich who lived between the two ponds was the volunteer who raised and lowered the gates during storms to prevent the flooding further down the hill – Jim states that when Tobias passed away around 1930 no one took over the job and much more flooding occurred downtown as a result – planning mistake number two.  A July storm in 1948 raised the brook by 9 feet in one afternoon! The construction of the Thruway in the 1950s filled in the Skating Pond, which became planning mistake number three.

1930s flooding from the Nyack Library Archives

1930s flooding from the Nyack Library Archives

Village History shows an uptick in downtown flooding during the 30’s after the floodgates were no longer operated, and more so after the construction of the Thruway.  Without the skating pond, there was nowhere for water to collect along the slope from 9W to the river with one exception – the level area in the center of downtown between Franklin Street and Broadway, where there was already an issue due to the forced migration of the stream into the tunnels that turned it prematurely south.  Note that all the water that collected in this last storm was in that section, the same being true for the flooding event in 2011 that filled the Riverspace Theater with water up to the stage and above the seats.

              Nyack’s location on the tidal section of the Hudson River can be a crap game when it comes to an East Coast Hurricane – even if a storm is only labeled a “Tropical Storm” rather than a “Hurricane” when it reaches us, if it strikes during high tide, the results can be devastating – Superstorm Sandy was just the latest of the named storms that have caused us issues – 1954 brought two storms within a month of each other, Hurricanes Edna and Hazel brought severe flooding to downtown and destroyed several riverfront businesses.  Hurricane Donna in 1960, Agnes in 1972, T.S. David in 1979, Gloria in 1985 and T.S. Floyd in 1999 all brought their special form of misery, flooding downtown and eliminating marinas, docks, and other riverfront businesses.  And of course, in a reflection of 1954, the year 2011 brought us two major events – the flash flood in June followed by Hurricane Irene later in the summer, culminating with Sandy last year. 

              The frequency does appear to be increasing (other smaller events have happened throughout the 2000s – one in 2007 being most significant).  Locally there’s not much we can do regarding the increased strength of storm events as our climate changes, they are not in our control.  However increased vigilance would likely help in keeping the culverts of the brook as clear as possible and in assessing the effect of development in the area in regards to water drainage issues.  When Oak Hill Cemetery clear cut a large swath of its property along Highland Avenue (9W) a few years ago, there were no longer trees to catch runoff and as a result Nyack Hospital now has flooding issues it did not have before and more runoff heads downhill to downtown.  Housing developments above 9W in South Nyack/Upper Grandview and just below 9W in Upper Nyack clear-cut their trees as well with the result of increased flooding in the neighborhoods below them.  These were likely unexpected consequences that no one doing the development considered, and in the future, we must make sure that any similar development is done in a more sustainable manner without full clear-cutting. 

              In the end, there is some flooding we simply can’t avoid – we are a River Village on a very large tidal fjord, and our one tributary stream to the Hudson is by necessity culverted.  Diligence and intelligent planning will aid in lessening the blows of flash flooding, but can never eliminate them completely.

 

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It’s after midnight, and one hour into December 24, 2011. For me, Christmas Eve has begun and I’ll be singing my heart out at two concerts and two masses later today at St. Ann’s on Jefferson, culminating in Midnight Mass 23 hours from now. Other local friends have been steeped in Latkes and Apple Sauce (even a bit of Sour Cream now and then – which is sacrilege I know, but some just don’t know what’s right and proper!) while lighting candles and spinning dredles for a few evenings now. A Pagan friend seriously lucked out this year as her annual sprint below the solstice moon with ‘nothin’ but the radio on’ had to have been relatively balmy this year compared to last, and I’m sure the Yule Log is now merrily crackling in her hearth. All over the village and the companion areas, old traditions are celebrated and new ones born… because it’s Nyack, and so we somehow manage to be over-the-top traditional and cutting-edgy all at the same time!  Though our individual traditions can occasionally bruise the toes of another’s traditions, for the most part they co-exist side-by-side relatively well and even find new and innovative ways to celebrate together or even combined… and always in our own unique, and frankly, quirky ways.

I’ve tried to explain to friends and colleagues who’ve never been here, that even in the worst of times, Nyack at Christmastide through the Nights of Chanukah and the Festivities of the Yule and the Principle Seeking of Kwanzaa still has a *suspicion*, a little frosting as it were, of pure unadulterated magic. All through the Season we light our homes and even the sky on New Year’s Eve with joy, with fellowship and with fun. Give Nyackers yet another reason to celebrate through the dark days and they’ll take it. Which is why you’ll find Haitians celebrating Sint Niklaus Day and Irishmen munching Latkes while a Russian Jewish lady puts ornaments on her friends’ Christmas Tree and an Italian Teen hangs with his bros at the Nyack Center listening to the Principals and a Catholic Nun joins her friend at a Sacred Oak.  Cause it’s Nyack. And we truly LIKE to share some of our fun with our neighbors who celebrate something else… and because we’ve never EVER done things the way any other place does. And that’s why only Nyack could have had these folks pictured below come by to help us celebrate the Winter Holydays for so many years… who knows, maybe some future December, Santa’s sleigh will once again be drawn by Elephants in the Snow…

Photo from the Bernard Collection, Hudson River Valley Heritage

Mom, Juno and Babe out for a frolic in the snow!

photo from Bernard Collection; Hudson River Valley Heritage

Back home for some Cocoa… by the gallon!
 
And so to all of you – in my tradition – a Very Merry, Very Nyack Christmas! May you have a Bright and Blessed Season no matter what you celebrate! Hold close to your friends and your family and remember THEY are the true gifts of the season… cherish them and it, and may all your holidays be Nyack-y! 

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It sure is political season, isn’t it? Seems you can’t turn around without bumping into some reference to this year’s local and state elections and – enough already! – NEXT year’s presidential election. Since everyone is talking about this week’s mayoral debate at the Nyack Center, while serendipitously Nyack Library chose the following as its local history picture of the month, I’ve decided to discuss a very famous man’s political speech not 100 feet from where the candidates debated on Wednesday.

photo: Nyack Library History Collection

The photo shows the Doersch Brothers Grocery, which was located just steps away from the current Nyack Center in the building that would come to be known as the Broadway Theater, then the Tappan Zee Playhouse.  Currently the closed Chef’s Market occupies the spot – a spot that began as a warehouse and closed, became a Grocery and closed, then a movie theater that closed for 27 years, then a live theater that closed, then rebuilt as a Grocery… that closed.  One of the topics in the mayor’s debate was the economy and the state of downtown businesses, and on September 1, 1868, Horace Greeley stopped by to make a political speech discussing very similar issues and 1500 people filled what would become the Tappan Zee Playhouse while another 300 had to be turned away. Greeley opposed monopolies and the vast accumulation of wealth by real estate developers who bamboozled the public with schemes that seemed to promise wonderful things for everyone but at heart were nothing more than ways to line the developers’ pockets. His own paper The New York Tribune, opened up the closed doors of congress and the railroad barons and openly opposed government subsidies for the already profitable railroad barons and real estate speculators, along with the vast wealth being acquired by a very few while jobs were lost all across the country. His speech would discuss his insistence that the federal and state governments should be instituting high protective tariffs and sponsoring internal improvements and infrastructure support for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than creating laws and regulations that benefited a tiny few.

Sound familiar?

Horace Greeley was a fascinating, quirky and sometimes self-contradicting figure – no wonder all of Nyack turned out to see him, he must have fit in perfectly! And by the way, he never said: “Go West Young Man”… that’s a never uttered paraphrase ranking right up there with “Play It Again Sam” and “Beam Me Up Scotty”.  Born in New Hampshire, he moved to New York City in 1831 and by 1834 was involved with the publishing of The New Yorker joining his name to political reforms along with such luminaries as William Seward (who’d become Lincoln’s Secretary of State and purchased Alaska for the USA).

He established his daily New York Tribune and its’ weekly national version The Tribune in 1841.  He was a great supporter of workers rights and his own business reflected that: excellent work conditions and hours, a profit-sharing plan, organization of his workers and cooperative groupings. His paper garnered great respect for its higher tone, lack of sensationalism, cultural additions like book reviews and straightforward reporting. It also gained him a large following to whom he could present his views and causes.  He espoused Women’s Rights and suffrage and opposed Slavery – though he bemoaned both the political machinations and the sometimes violent behavior of some Abolitionists.  He supported the Temperance movement to a point. He opposed the Mexican War feeling that it only benefited the slave owners of the south.  He was appointed to fill a Congressional vacancy in 1848 but only served 3 months as he continually reported on what REALLY went on behind closed doors in Washington and his editorials strongly condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act (effectively opening the possibility of additional slave states in the northern prairie territories – resulting in rioting, death and political upheaval in “Bleeding Kansas”) would prove to put a gulf between Greeley and his former friend Seward. Greeley’s support of a gentleman named Abraham Lincoln over the Republican Party’s chosen frontrunner – William Seward – served to clinch Lincoln’s nomination and Seward’s everlasting hatred.

Though he supported Lincoln, Greeley was not one to let things rest when he perceived what he believed was injustice or political posturing. He was tough in Lincoln and initially argued that we were better off without the South and should let them secede. He did eventually come to Lincoln’s way of thinking regarding preserving the Union as a whole, but stridently criticized Lincoln for not freeing the slaves immediately. He was not one to wait for change to come, he demanded it now, and did everything he could to become part of the change himself. Perhaps that passion was what brought so many people (a very large crowd for Rockland County in the 1860s) out to listen to him speak.

Oddly, after the Civil War, Greeley supported amnesty for Confederate Officers and angered many Northern supporters by posting bail for Jefferson Davis!  He did continue his support for universal suffrage for all races and for women, and the rights of workers. He was not an avid expansionist, but rather recommended an orderly westward movement. What he really said was “The best business you can go into you will find on your father’s farm or in his workshop. If you have no family or friends to aid you, and no prospect open to you there, turn your face to the great West and there build up your home and fortune.”  He was frequently misquoted in his lifetime too, and once quipped, “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers; what I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.”

He was a man of diverse and sometimes odd interests that ranged from literacy to election reform to spiritualism to phrenology – and really, advocating Women’s Rights in the mid-1800s? He was never seen in public without his full-length duster coat and his bright shiny umbrella even on the hottest and sunniest of days.  And yet, even after his public gaffe with ol’ Jeff Davis, he remained immensely popular. In 1872 he would become the Presidential Candidate for BOTH the Democratic Party and the then existent Liberal-Republican Party. In his acceptance speech of the Liberal-Republican nomination, he said “The masses of our countrymen, North and South, are eager to clasp hands across the bloody chasm which has so long divided them.” But a Greeley Presidency was not to be – he lost steam and all interest in the subject when his wife tragically died, and he foundered without her, dying of a broken heart and loneliness just a few weeks after the election to which he paid such little attention. He had garnered 44% of the popular vote and his electoral college votes were posthumously assigned to three candidates of minority parties.

Horace Greeley was a real American Character, and one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received was from someone who called me ‘Horace Greeley, Jr.’ intending it as an insult.  For Horace Greeley firmly believed that the USA’s best times were ahead, and that only by joining together – North and South, Male and Female, Worker and Employer, Democrat and Republican, White, Black, Native or any other ethnicity – would we find our best destiny and fulfill the dreams of our Founding Fathers.   I’d like to think that those were precisely the reasons that on that day in September of 1868 so much of Nyack turned out to listen to a political speech.

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At a time when it seems that selfishness and partisanship often appear to be the rule of the day in all levels of government, I thought a Nyack story about a public figure devoted to fairness, justice and the spirit of “All Men  Are Created Equal” was in order. Many of us have seen the movie “GLORY” but may not realize that Nyack shares in that glory…

Daniel Ullman (sometimes spelled “Ullmann”) was born in April of 1810 in Delaware, and moved to New York City after graduating Yale University in 1829 (you’ll note, he was all of 19 years old!). He passed the bar in New York and began a law practice.  Also something of a minor politician, he ran for Governor of the State of New York in 1854, gaining 26% of the vote.  When the Civil War began, he volunteered and was made a Colonel in the 78th New York Infantry. In August of 1862 he was captured at Cedar Mountain and became a prisoner of war at Libby Prison.  He was paroled in October, and immediately went to Washington to speak to President Lincoln about an idea he thought would help save the Union, and represent just what our Nation was supposed to be all about.

The idea was the inclusion of Black Soldiers – free and those freed from bondage – as regular members of the Union Army. Not servants, not support or camp followers. Soldiers.  A somewhat radical idea for that time period (despite the numerous African-American soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War) President Lincoln was at first cool to the idea, concerned with how some of the top brass of his own troops might feel about the concept, AND the fact that his own coup – The Emancipation Proclamation – was due to become law on January 1, 1863. Too many “radical” ideas at once might break the remaining states of the Union apart.  After that stunning proclamation, Lincoln called Ullman back to D.C. further discuss the idea.

photo: public domain

 

In January of 1863, Ullman was promoted to Brigadier General and sent to Louisiana under the command of General Banks, where his orders were to raise five regiments of African-American troops, given the designation of Corps D’Afrique, though commonly nicknamed Ullman’s Brigade.  Despite this victory for Civil Rights, all was not smooth sailing for Daniel Ullman and his troops.  In a letter to General L. Thomas dated May 19th, Ullman would bemoan the lack of respect for his troops – the tendency of lower level officers to attempt to use his troops as nothing more than ditch diggers and drudges and those officers’ reluctance to believe African-American troops would be “capable” under fire – and the overall lack of competence of the white junior officers assigned to his command.

Vindication for Ullman and his recruits was just days away – the troops would see their first major action on May 27, 1863 when they advanced over open ground in the face of devastating artillery fire.  Ullman’s Brigade, made up almost entirely of men born into enslavement, desperate for the freedom our Constitution promised all men, stormed the Confederates at a place on the Louisiana shore of the Mississippi River ironically named PORT HUDSON!  They would not win this military battle.  Many of the soldiers desperate for their freedom found their freedom that day only through the boundaries of death. The battle they won, however, was mental and moral. General Banks would write in his official report of the Battle of Port Hudson that: “Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves…in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”  Another “cherished” myth – that African-Americans could not effectively fight as a unit – was laid to rest.  For really, who had more of a stake in the outcome of this conflict than men for whom victory meant liberty and defeat continued bondage?  Amazingly, the display of courage shown by the Corps D’Afrique in the Battle of Port Hudson actually spurred more enslaved men to escape their masters and join the Union Army.  Please note that the more famous assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina – chronicled in the movie “GLORY” – and fought by the African-American freemen of the 54th Massachusetts occurred several months AFTER Ullman’s troops made their history at Port Hudson. And recall, while Colonel Shaw of “Glory” fame commanded African-American freemen – tradesmen, scholars, artisans and professionals from New England – Ullman commanded former slaves fighting for their very existence.

Ullman’s Brigade was officially renamed “The United States Colored Troops” and served with distinction through the seige of Mobile in early 1865.  However, in February of 1865, Ullman was detached from his command and sent to New Orleans for “rest”. For at heart, Ullman was a thinker and advocate, not a warrior.  The stress of a command constantly plagued with prejudicial suspicion and distrust, and the constant uphill battle for equal treatment had worn him down.  By the spring of 1865 he had developed a serious alcohol problem and was mercifully taken off the front lines, and out of the command structure he’d had to constantly buck for two bloody years.  He was mustered out in August of 1865 and given the rank of Major General.

After the war, where else would he retire to but Nyack-on-Hudson?  He spent the Reconstruction years with literary and scientific studies – and speaking on tolerance and his assertion that “equality of education and universal suffrage” was the right of all citizens of this country, and would be the only means towards healing in the South. Unfortunately, his dreams of equality and suffrage would not bear fruit in the South for almost a century.  Daniel Ullman – Lawyer, Statesman, Scholar, General and Civil Rights Pioneer – died peacefully at his home in Nyack on  September 20, 1892 at the age of 82.  He is buried on the slopes of Oak Hill Cemetery in view of his beloved Hudson. An adopted son of Nyack, perhaps, but so welcome in the diverse tapestry that is our history. Heroes, real heroes, are in short supply in any century, and I’m proud to claim this hero as one of “ours”.

The Friends of the Nyacks will be conducting one of their semi-annual walking tours of the Oak Hill Cemetery on Sunday, May 1st at 2pm.  Meet at the Main Gate of Oak Hill Cemetary on US 9W, the donation is $5.  Take a walk through the magnificent burial grounds and offer your respects to General Ullman’s grave, along with the other celebrities, authors, artists and politicians making up Nyack’s “permanent” population.  For more information, the Friends can be reached at 845-358-7910 or www.friendsofthenyacks.org.



photo: J.P. Schutz

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In February of 1879 a remarkable woman passed away here in Nyack.  She was born right here in Rockland in 1808 to John and Jane Moore of Tappan – her father was well-known all over Rockland and he owned the Mill on the Sparkill Creek. He was one of the wealthiest men in the area at the time, and invented an improvement on the Mill Wheel that was utilized all over the Hudson Valley. He was proud to have his Mill producing blankets for the Union Soldiers fighting the Civil War.  It is frighteningly unclear how this freeborn young lady wound up enslaved but kidnappings of free african-americans were not unknown at the time and despite her father’s notoriety and community support it appears her family was unable to liberate her from her bondage in the American South.

photo: Nyack Historical Society

She would meet her husband during her period of slavery – Edward Hesdra was the “mulatto” son of  a white Jewish Virginia planter and a free black woman from Haiti.  They would purchase her freedom and flee north, settling first in Greenwich Village where she began a laundry and a money lending business.  Through hard work and smart investment, she soon owned (in her own name, it appears her hubby was not so industrious) her own home, and a dozen other properties on MacDougall, Sullivan and Bleecker Streets.  Having established the beginnings of her personal fortune, she moved herself and her husband to Nyack for its’ healthier environment.

Here she would again establish another laundry business and another money-lending business while continuing to operate her businesses and manage her properties in Greenwich Village.  Soon she would own additional properties in Nyack and nearby Bergen County along with her local and city businesses and properties. By the standards of the time, she was quite a wealthy self-made woman – by today’s standards a multi-millionaire.  She and her husband were also quietly helping others still in bondage in the unrepentant South – by opening their home as a station on the “Freedom Trail” – the mysterious and legendary Underground Railroad.  With the night sky’s constellations as their guide and the threat of torture or death behind, intrepid men and women slipped away from plantations and farms seeking the north and freedom meeting helpful “station keepers” – both white and black – on their dangerous journey to freedom.  (A new sculpture in the center of Frederick Douglass Circle at Central Park West and W.110th Street shows the constellation “map” used by the fleeing slaves – drop by and check it out!)  Though many chose to run the tracks all the way to Canada and away from the United States, some of the fugitives would choose to stay in Nyack – led there by the constellation map and the Nyack Brook – or in New York City where they could lose themselves in the large free-black community.

At the time of her death in February 1879, Cynthia Hesdra had acquired quite a fortune, and her death sparked a precedent setting and much publicized court battle by her heirs, including her husband.  Previously unknown Wills, additional falsified wills, unknown relatives and fraudulent heirs all marked a battle that played itself out in the Courtroom and in the Papers, until 1890 when it was finally all settled.  The New York Times of June of 1890 would sum up the contentious probate battle in a series of stories called “For An Ex-Slave’s Fortune”.  The case would mark the first application of a new law in New York State that allowed for comparisons between known and disputed signatures.

The historically significant Hesdra House stood at the corner of Main Street and 9W but was torn down to build the utterly charming and well-utilized tan and brown building on the corner that formerly held a pet supply center and a rug store.  You may sense my sarcasm here, and though even though as a Real Estate agent I am in favor of development, I consider the loss of a historic structure without a significant reason and well-researched development plan to be nothing short of sinful.  We have so little left in the area that is significant historically, let alone significant to our long-term African-American community, and I wish that there had been some responsible thought in maintaining a home that played a pivotal past role to so many people alive today.  Granted, there is a historical marker in place on the corner – but in a final insult to a woman who went from freedom to enslavement to self-made real estate tycoon, the home is listed in her HUSBAND’s name on the marker, despite the house and the fortune coming from HER industrious nature.  If you cross 9W from the marker and walk down the hill to the Provident Savings Bank, you can see one of the few places where the Nyack Brook is not culverted, but still open to the sky – the same sky that led fleeing slaves to the Brook, where they would follow its’ banks to a safe haven in Cynthia Hesdra’s corner home.  A local resident recently proposed that the brook property be acquired and a Village Park established with historical markers to explain the significance of the site, and benches to allow one to sit and appreciate an untouched part of Nyack’s original environment. I would like to heartily second that wonderful suggestion!

photo by Michael Herrick

If you want to find out more about Cynthia Hesdra, Dr. Lori L. Martin, a Dean at John Jay College in NYC and a Nyack native has written a book that like the New York Times series of the late 1800s is called “The Ex-Slave’s Fortune”.  Local and significant history at its finest.  Look for it on Lulu.comhttp://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-ex-slaves-fortune/3889603

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