An Open Letter:
Many of you are deeply involved with addressing the unprecedented consequences of Hurricane Sandy and its negative impact upon ourselves and so many of our neighbors. I do not mean to distract you from the proper focus of your attention, but I am sharing information on the storm's destructive consequences upon our proud heritage, which is what truly bonds us into a community. While actively engaged in fundraising for a museum on the Bergen County Historical Society's own lands at Historic New Bridge Landing, thousands of historic artifacts and documents, comprehending several centuries, were stored in leased space in a warehouse. Although the facility had no previous record of flooding, it was overcome by the storm surge, which pushed 40 inches of water through the building. The consequences for our heritage are dire and the outcome of recovery uncertain. No matter what we do, there will be heartbreaking losses.
The Bergen County Historical Society does have flood insurance and is prepared to pay the $15,000 deductible. We are presently engaging a flood-remediation company to remove the damaged artifacts from their storage location as soon as possible and to restore them to the best possible condition through processes that we hope will not add further damage. Fortunately, the finest pieces of Bergen County furniture, quilts, pottery, basketry, and fine arts, as well as our library and rare document collections, are stored elsewhere and did not suffer harm. As overwhelmed as we are with this disaster, we are understandably worried that this may be the future for our past and that, sooner or later, the remainder of Bergen County's heritage will fall to the same or a similar fate.
For those who may not be informed, the Bergen County Historical Society is not a government agency, but a private, nonprofit historical association, founded in 1902. We are the largest private landowner at Historic New Bridge Landing in River Edge, New Jersey. When the State of New Jersey restored the landmark Zabriskie-Steuben House in 1939, the former State Historic Sites Commission invited the Historical Society to occupy this Revolutionary War landmark as its museum headquarters. Sadly, the former Historic Sites Commission was abolished under the revised State Constitution in 1947 and its responsibilities transferred to an Office of Historic Sites in the Department of Conservation and Economic Development, predecessor to the modern DEP. Though it still exists, this Office of Historic Sites was never allowed to function as the "administrative unit" envisioned in law and the State Park Service assumed "management" of our state-owned historic sites, including several Revolutionary War battlefields. This probably explains a large part of New Jersey's perennial "identity crisis" and its absence as a player in the regional and national market for heritage tourism, despite being the so-called Crossroads of the American Revolution.
The Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission was founded by state law in 1995 to "coordinate and implement federal, State, county, municipal, and private development policies and other activities relating to the historic preservation and recreational use of the property under the commission's jurisdiction." One of our most important goals, from the outset, has been to "construct a visitors’ center, including a permanent exhibit gallery, library, classrooms, meeting space, storage facility, rest rooms, and museum store" for the desired purpose of removing artifact collections from the danger of floods and effectively preserving and displaying them for educational purposes. To this end, $2 million dollars in property acquisitions was achieved and an auto salvage yard reclaimed, thereby opening the view of the historic park to 44,000 passing vehicles daily.
The Zabriskie-Steuben House was the best attended state-owned and operated historic house museum until April 2007, when the DEP's inability to recognize the threat of flooding and its refusal of volunteer help in removing artifacts to safety led to a unanimous bipartisan supplement to the original law, transferring administration of the state-owned lands and buildings to the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission. Furthermore, the law clearly requires "any State funds appropriated to the Department of Environmental Protection or the Division of Parks and Forestry in the department specifically for, or related to the administration of, the Steuben House or the Historic New Bridge Landing State Park shall be reallocated to the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission for the purposes of the administration of the Historic New Bridge Landing State Park." This has not happened and even in the face of an unprecedented natural disaster, the DEP Commissioner's designee on the Commission does not even return phone calls to coordinate a response to the threat to state property and an irreplaceable piece of our heritage.
In truth, we are at an impasse because government bureaucracies have mightily resisted any and all recognition of the Commission's statutory jurisdiction. Instead of making progress towards our common goals for the public betterment, we are instead entangled in pointless distractions and territorial squabbling with a petty and petulant beadledom. With the approach of each new crisis, we more clearly realize the consequences of deliberate inaction and governmental paralysis. Who suffers these consequences? Only the public.
Let me say plainly, in the wake of this latest catastrophe, that the Bergen County Historical Society cannot carry this great burden alone, especially while having to continually fend off self-described "partners with resources", whose intentions at the site do not seem to correspond with either the greatest public good, the wise expenditure of public moneys, or the protection and public enjoyment of a significant piece of American history. As I have said before: we are not trying to save the world, just a tiny corner of Bergen County's illustrious past. Our every attempt to do good has been rebuffed by bureaucratic intransigence.
For example, though saddled with the heavy moral and financial burden of protecting our land and collections and making them available to the public through quality programming, we were denied even a penny in general operating support when we applied to the New Jersey Historical Commission several years ago. The exact comments from one NJ Historical Commission grant reviewer were: "Fundraising efforts are good grassroots---such as pennies campaign and video---but suggest they go after major gifts/individual donors as they are in one of the wealthiest (if not the wealthiest) counties in the state." The reviewer made this comment despite our inclusion in our grant narrative of a recent $72,000 bequest to BCHS as well as a full-color fundraising brochure and professionally produced fundraising video (Forward To The Past), made through the efforts of local schoolchildren. In fact, all we do (including underwriting all programming on state property), we do through private donations! In the past year and a half, we have raised $100,000 toward construction of a museum, despite a poor economy. I thought the comment unfair and uncalled for at the time and I still believe so. I was particularly concerned with another reviewer's comment, which reads: "Suggest they try and get more professional staff and more young people with less ego onto the Board." Since we did not include the age of any of our board members in the application (nor any description of the size of their egos) and since many of them are professionals, I found such commentary frankly inexplicable. Honestly, in my opinion, it smacks of agism---the stereotype of the white-haired historical society, without checking the facts. Our board is actually quite young. So what is going on here?
We are not asking for a government handout, but we do seek a cooperative realization of state law for a worthy end. In reality, Bergen County taxpayers sent $1.1 billion more in sales and income taxes to Trenton in fiscal 2010 than the county received in state aid and we deserve to be treated better than as an ATM for the rest of the state. We ask you to investigate and remedy this ongoing insult, not only to Bergen County, but to every American who thinks understanding the lessons of history are crucial to a better future. The history of America's premier suburban county----and most contested battleground during the Revolutionary War---should not be sitting in warehouses, unavailable to a generation of schoolchildren, and exposed to harm. Most importantly, it should not be lost to future generations. I am telling you that the burden is more than we can bear alone and, in truth, it is not one we should have to bear alone.
I have been through several floods in my lifetime and I know the anguish. In this instance, my heart goes out to everyone who suffers loss, but this too matters. Please help if you can.