By Anne Pyburn Craig
When you think of “land trust,” what comes to mind? Habitat, farmland, and open space preservation? Conservation easements?
It’s largely due to the hard work of land trusts, their affiliates, and fans that the Hudson Valley has stayed as lovely as it is, with drop dead gorgeous vistas and farm fresh food aplenty. Land preservationists have been fighting the good fight since the 1960s; as sprawl started to worsen, more people started to pay attention, and though constant vigilance is still important, much progress has been made.
Scenic Hudson Land Trust is the preservation arm of Scenic Hudson, created in 1963 by six people who wanted to protect Storm King Mountain. Since then, they have preserved over 40,000 key acres in nine counties, created or enhanced more than 65 parks, kept another 13,000 acres of land in agriculture, and have been on the frontlines in countless environmental initiatives and battles.
Membership has grown to 25,000, and there are some 90 locally based land trusts operating across New York State. Scenic Hudson is also finding that its expertise is invaluable in preserving, protecting, and enhancing the human habitat in the Hudson Valley’s urban centers.
A Box of Bones
Back in 1989, archaeologist Joseph Diamond was hired by the City of Kingston, using state grant funds, to perform an archaeological survey in the city. He documented several hundred prehistoric sites, but one in particular cried out for action.
Historic documents indicated the possibility of an African American burial ground on Pine Street, and on the last day of a walking survey, Diamond and city historian Ed Ford were looking for evidence. They happened to strike up a conversation with a neighborhood resident out sweeping the sidewalk, and told the man what they were looking for.
It turned out they’d spoken to the right person. The man produced a box of bones he’d found in his basement in the course of plumbing work. The bones turned out to be those of several individuals of African-American heritage.
With that evidence combined with historic records and maps, Diamond was convinced that he had located one of the earliest, and possibly largest, such burial grounds in the Northeastern US. On private property, with a house built on it. Diamond wrote to the mayor in 1993 urging that the cemetery be protected. There were sparks of community interest, but nothing definitive was achieved.
The Kingston Land Trust (KLT) was founded as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2008. If anyone had wondered just what a land trust would be doing within city limits, they didn’t have to wonder for long. In 2010, the group christened its South Pine Street City Farm; in 2011, they held a rededication ceremony for the Mt. Zion African-American Burial Ground on South Wall Street, final resting place of (among others) Civil War veterans. Later in 2011, the group bid on and won eight parcels of vacant land that allowed them to create a riparian buffer zone along the Esopus Creek.
From 2011 to 2013, the organization was directed by musician/songwriter/activist Rebecca Martin. For four years after that, it operated as an all-volunteer organization. In February of 2017, enthusiastic board member Julia Farr was hired as executive director—just in time, as it turned out, to rescue the burial ground Joe Diamond had found from oblivion.
“I was the first paid staff in a long time, so I started just looking through everything,” says Farr. “And I said, ‘Hey, so what’s this African American History Committee that’s inactive?’ and found out about the burial ground. It turned out to be stalled in foreclosure. The bank couldn’t locate the property owner.”
The out-of-town corporate bank proved inattentive to the concerns of the KLT and of the Harambee Coalition, but when the news came that the property would be auctioned, the two organizations partnered up and started fundraising “like crazy,” Farr says. This time, they had in hand the results of a study performed with ground penetrating radar that definitively indicated many people had been buried there before the ground had been privatized and developed as a lumberyard, and “people were overwhelmingly supportive,” says Farr.
On May 29, 2019, KLT was able to announce that the property had been purchased for protection. “The coming together of people of the community and surrounding areas makes this journey even more powerful,” said Tyrone Wilson, executive director of Harambee. “We are creating a coalition of people from all ethnic backgrounds to come together and right these wrongs. We are displaying a better opportunity for our children to see and understand what a community working together looks like and what we can achieve by working together.”
People and organizations who came together include 250 individual donations as well as sponsorships from Episcopal Churches of the Mid-Hudson Region, Ulster Savings, Woodstock Land Conservancy, Mid-Hudson Jews for Racial Justice, Open Space Institute, Radio Kingston, Rupco, Central Hudson, Hudson Highlands Land Trust, The Anchor, Rough Draft Bar & Books, Earth Designs Cooperative, John Hallstein Carpentry, Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center, Metal House Cider, Hudson Valley Current, Bard Center for Environmental Protection, Miron Wine & Spirits, Bailey Pottery, R&F Handmade Paints, City of Kingston Common Council, and Ministry of Maat Inc.
The KLT dedicated $40,000, and saw its contribution matched by $40,000 from Scenic Hudson. “It’s not typical for land trusts to get involved in burial grounds,” says Farr, “and we’ve been getting national recognition. Tyrone Wilson and I proposed a presentation on what we’re doing here; we’re co-leading a panel at the national conference of the Land Trust Alliance this fall entitled ‘The Land That Binds Us: Socially Responsible Conservation.’ We already presented it at the state level and there was a lot of interest. It’s pretty cutting edge.”
The KLT and Harambee are still fundraising, hoping to gather the funds to renovate the house on the property as a cultural and research center. (Donations can be made at Harambee and Kingston Land Trust events, as well as at donorbox.org/protect-pine-street-african-burial-ground, or checks can be mailed to Kingston Land Trust: PO Box 2701, Kingston, NY 12402.)
“Now that we own the site, we have a lot more opportunity,” says Farr. “We hope to activate it even before restoration is complete. Plans are in the works and we’ll hopefully be working with a youth organization on the restoration, and we’re looking to start the educational process, convene people on the land while the work is in progress.”
At a Gratitude Celebration held at the site on June 15, 130 people came together to honor the ancestors. “It was beautiful, powerful, and heavy,” says Farr. “Everyone cried. It brought some closure and made space to open a new conversation.”
Joe Diamond, says Farr, is “enormously relieved.”
Keeping Cities Livable
Kingston is the only Hudson Valley urban center with a dedicated land trust within city limits, but Scenic Hudson is at work in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, strategizing with partners to enhance livability, and protect important environmental and cultural resources.
“As the larger regional convenor and connector, we provide information and resources to other organizations, not that they don’t do an enormous amount on their own,” says Steve Rosenberg, executive director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust. “The Pine Street Burial Ground is an example of something we felt was critically important and compelling. With precious few exceptions, most of our work has not been in urban centers—it’s a long list of parks and gardens. But we’ve been realizing the importance of thinking more about land use in urban centers, to insure that all people benefit from our work in the most direct way possible.”
In Poughkeepsie, efforts have been focused on the city’s north side, where a third of the population lives at or below the poverty line. “There is a tremendous need for investment and organizing and listening there,” says Rosenberg. “The Fallkill Creek runs through the north side and comes out right under the Walkway; it’s why a lot of industry once located on the north side. We’ve been convening the North Side Collaborative, which is a group of 25 organizations, institutions, and advocates organized around the creek. We worked closely with the city on funding applications and we have several projects going. Stakeholders are coming together around issues of water quality—there’s a perception that it’s unsafe, but not a lot of data–and to make stretches of the creek more accessible and open so it’s not a back alley. “
In Newburgh, says Rosenberg, “Our efforts had focused mostly on the waterfront. We had a long period of outreach, getting to know the stakeholders and organizations. We don’t want to come in, ever, like ‘we have all the answers.’”Working with partners ranging from Newburgh Free Academy and Mount Saint Mary College to the Newburgh Urban Farming Initiative, Newburgh Land Bank, and Habitat for Humanity of Newburgh, Scenic Hudson has been moving the needle, reestablishing public access to city-owned Crystal Lake, creating a hiking trail to the top of Snake Hill, and putting together a green space steering committee.
We’ve been pulling together a group from all three cities on a regular basis, people who have been working incredibly hard on issues in their own communities and know that others face similar issues but have rarely had the chance to get together and strategize,” says Rosenberg. “Six people from each community form a group that gets together monthly—they’ve taken the name River Cities Coalition, and they’re working on the early stages of a shared platform and list of priorities. Moving forward, hopefully, they’ll be able to communicate shared interests as one voice.”
“We’re striving to find the best intersection between our skills and capabilities and urban needs and desires: green space, access to food, affordable housing, parks, and recreation. We hope to be of use in helping leadership and other residents make the cities even better places to live and work.”
One of the best things about urban life has historically been the ability to get where you need to go without having to rely on fossil fuel. In the last half of the twentieth century, car culture came to dominate American life in urban centers as well as in outlying areas, and walkability took a big hit. Urban planners didn’t give it much thought for a while, and city dwellers and businesses suffered as a result.
In the Hudson Valley, our primary urban centers have recognized that walkability and livability are inextricably bound and both are key to prosperity.
Here’s a quick look at urban trail work under way in the region:
• One of the primary projects undertaken by the Kingston Land Trust, the Kingston Greenline is a collaboration with the City of Kingston and the county to create a system of trails, linear parks, and complete streets that will offer pedestrian access to the city’s natural, historic, cultural, and commercial assets. It will create an urban hub connecting regional trails such as the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, O&W Rail Trail, Hudson River Valley Greenway trails, and the under construction Empire State Trail. Substantial parts are already open; for maps and project updates, visit kingston-ny.gov/kingstongreenline.
• In Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County and Scenic Hudson are collaborating to plan an urban trail system, utilizing CSX rail line property in the City and Town of Poughkeepsie. It will link to the popular William R. Steinhaus Dutchess Rail Trail as well as provide connections to the waterfront, parks, businesses, educational institutions, major development projects (including Hudson Heritage), and tourism destinations such as Walkway Over the Hudson. Permitting is underway, and Scenic Hudson is currently in contract to purchase 2.5 miles of rail line from CSX, which it will then turn over to the city.
• Newburgh, without a crosstown rail line to work with, needs to get creative to craft walkability into its inner city. Newburgh does, however, have transit assets such as a ferry and an international airport that other places lack. A lively Newburgh Transportation Committee has been formed and is addressing concerns such as bus transit, fairness for the West Shore in dealings with the MTA, and bike lanes. A Critical Mass Bike Ride is held the last Friday of each month, and city council members regularly take to the streets on bicycle listening-and-looking tours to get a handle on the situation. Find them on Facebook.