Saturday, July 15, 2006
NYC National Parks Sites to Close - Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace threatened
Six sites administered by the National Parks New York office are under threat of closing, for budgetary reasons. They are: our own Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace at 28 East 20th Street, currently open Wed-Sun, 9 to 5; also, Castle Clinton at the Battery, Grant's Tomb on Riverside Drive, Federal Hall on Wall Street, Hamilton Grange in Upper Harlem. The last four are open seven days a week; the Grange is temporarily shut, for repairs. (The sixth site is in Yonkers, St. Paul's Church.) These sites operate with a $2.8 million budget, and have annual attendance of 3.5 million, mostly at Castle Clinton, while the crowds wait for the Statue of Liberty ferry. Our TR house, which has a real museum and library and is the only one to charge admission, $2, has only 20,000 visitors annually.
The closings were announced by Bruce Babbit, Secretary of Interior, advising the National Parks offices that budget constraints will shut 200 of the 369 National Parks sites. The budget for 1996 may be impacted. Optimists hope that there will be an advisory commission, similar to the one for the closing of military bases, that may delay the process.
Under threat is also the huge Gateway National Recreation area, covering Brooklyn and Queens (Breezy Point, Fort Tilden, Jacob Riis, Floyd Bennett Field, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge), Staten Island (Miller Field, Great Kills Park) and Monmoth County (Sandy Hook) locations, reducing beach access for New Yorkers. And Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Theodore Roosevelt's home.
I guess Teddy, an insurgent Republican, whose two sites are endangered, is not our current generation's favorite. He should be, given his history of bootstrapping himself as a sight-impaired and asthmatic child into an athlete, sportsman, hunter, horseman, Western rancher and explorer, meanwhile keeping up the intellect. He started writing books fresh out of Harvard (1880), while at Columbia Law School, and never stopped, with over 50 titles listed. After law school and some unsuccessful politicking he moved to a Dacota Badlands ranch, to come back to run US Civil Service Commission. He was then appointed to clean up NYC police, and, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to build up US naval strength. Next, he became a war hero as he charged up San Juan Hill at the head of his volunteer Rough Riders against the Spanish in Cuba (1898). This brought him to the NYS governorship, then the Vice Presidency, and Presidency, at 42, when President McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, in Buffalo (1901). TR was a conservationist, he subdued big business (trust-busting, ICC, Pure Food and Drug Act), and a peace activist (Nobel Prize). Alas, he also developed the imperialistic "big stick" policy in dealing with Latin America, creating our client state Panama. After retirement from the Presidency in 1908 and one abortive comeback attempt, when his progressive (Bull Moose) party lost the 1912 election, TR continued exploring and writing. His four sons were in WWI, and one died.
We heard about the Parks closings when visiting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Library and Home National Historic Site in Hyde Park last month. We found out that the home of his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, at nearby Val-Kill site is to be closed, as is the Vanderbilt Mansion, a mile North.
Eleanor, TR's niece, spent time at Val-Kill (built for her by FDR in 1925) to get away from her tyrannical mother-in law, Sara Delano. She developed a furniture factory, with her two friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, to teach the locals some skills, and it was operational until 1936. As to FDR, he graduated Harvard in 1904 (he ran, rowed and edited the Crimson), married and started a family while still at Columbia Law. Four years out, he was elected to NYS Senate from the Republican Dutchess County, and moved, continuing the familiar TR pattern, to Assistant Secretaryship of the Navy and a Vice Presidential candidacy. He lost, with Cox, against Harding's "normalcy" promises. He was struck by polio in 1921, but bootstrapped himself to walk, with aid, and won NYS Governorship in 1928. With the help of capable and devoted advisors ("brain trust") he undertook relief measures to help the victims of the depression. Elected President in 1932, the first act of his "hundred days" (March 9 - June 16, 1933) was to declare a bank moratorium, after which he pushed through an Emergency Banking Act, which reopened many bankrupt banks; took US off the gold standard; established a Civilian Conservation Corps (jobs); passed Federal Emergency Relief Act (allocating $500 million to help the unemployed); Agricultural Adjustment Act (provided benefit payments for reducing production); National Industrial Recovery Act (shorter work week, more jobs); Glass-Steagall Act (controlled banks' activities, established FDIC). Social Security came later, in 1935. Reelected in 1936 and 1940, FDR unsuccessfully appealed to Hitler and Mussolini for peace, only to be drawn into WWII when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec 11, 1941. He was reelected in 1944 and died on April 12, 1945, before the war was won. His four sons also served in the War.
FDR gave the 16 acres for the Library to the nation in 1940, and the family home with 33 acres in 1943. The Library was built with private donations. Eleanor lived at Wal-Kill while writing her daily column, representing the US at the UN, lecturing and receiving kings and presidents who came to sit at her knee in the modest cottage. After her death in 1962 the house was rented out and her belongings auctioned. The property was bought by concerned citizens after 1970, and many buyers of the effects returned them for the museum. (The Roosevelt sons, particularly FDR Jr. and Elliott with five marriages apiece, were always strapped for funds. The family also sold off most of the 1500 acres of Roosevelt land in Hyde Park.)
The life stories of the Roosevelts on 20th Street and particularly at Hyde Park provide, in words and pictures, an unforgettable insight to the ideals, upbringing and spirit that made them, TR and FDR both, such heroic figures. As Lincoln said of General Grant, when someone accused him of being an alcoholic: "Find out what he drinks, and send a bottle to my other generals." If we could only match up, like the seekers of Dalai Lama's successor, the characteristics of our potential leaders that will produce wisdom, bravery and compassion! Unfortunately, we value glibness, quick wit, good looks and ability to change with the winds.
But I digress. The NYC national parks sites will go down the drain, particularly the TR birthplace at 28 East 20th Street, unless we call. Call your congressperson's office, protest the closing. Make the visit to the site, bring friends. If you are 62 or older, buy a National Parks lifetime passport that will get you through all National Parks ($10, good for a couple, plus children), and come frequently. Note that the under 62 folk can get an annual passport for $25. (Incidentally, for NYS parks there is an $30 annual Empire Pass, for your car.) Our current national leadership would like us to be business partners with our schools, parks, highways and homeless shelters. Very well, but the Parks Administration should open up to volunteers, more than before. The $2.8 million Parks budget for the limited interest NYC attractions could be reduced considerably. The Parks sites with volunteer guides that I recall are the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and the FDR Library, where wonderful ancient WWII survivors relive old glories, and show their medals to the kiddies. There could be more of that, right here in River City.