November 30, 2022

NEWBURGH, N.Y. — All was calm on a recent morning in Downing Park, a pastoral landscape of rolling lawns, winding paths, majestic trees and a placid pond in which ducks were paddling. But tensions have been simmering in this city on the west bank of the Hudson River some 60 miles north of New York over plans for some new additions to the park.

Ever since 2008, a group of residents here has been searching for a place to build a memorial and reinter the remains of African Americans whose nearby burial ground was taken over by municipal projects. After other sites didn’t work out, they identified a serene spot here, high on a hill overlooking the Hudson. The City Council approved the selection in May.

Not everyone in this city of about 28,000 is happy with the plan.

Downing Park is a landscape of significant cultural and historic interest — the only one by two generations of Olmsteds (the famed Frederick Law and a stepson who helped carry on the firm) and two generations of Vauxs (Calvert, who partnered with Olmsted on New York’s Central Park and other notable projects, and a son who likewise went into his father’s profession). The park, which opened in 1897, was the last collaboration by the elders Olmsted and Vaux and was created in honor of a Newburgh native, Andrew Jackson Downing, an influential author, designer and horticulturalist who was a champion of public parks.

The place is not in tiptop shape — Newburgh’s fiscal struggles have taken their toll — but preservationists and longtime park stewards are keen to protect its original design.

“There have been hundreds of celebratory stories about Olmsted this year, but everything isn’t rosy,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, the group’s chief executive and co-author of a new guidebook to Olmsted sites. “There are some landscapes designed by Olmsted and his successor firms that are unfortunately slipping through the cracks.”

In the case of Downing Park, Birnbaum called the selection of the interment site “plop and drop” and “disrespectful of the original structure of the landscape.” But he is hopeful that the memorial can be sensitively designed and its location within the park shifted slightly.

Still, the situation raises difficult questions about who public parks are for and what preservation causes should be prioritized. And it is unfolding as Americans reckon with a history of racism that includes many instances where African American cemeteries have been paved over, built on or divided up and sold as private property — effectively erasing them from the landscape.

There is also the fact that the group advocating for interring the remains mostly consists of people of color while the park stewards are mostly white. (The population of Newburgh is 24 percent Black and more than 50 percent Hispanic.)

Between 1830 and 1870, an unknown number of African Americans were laid to rest on a property that was then on the outskirts of Newburgh.

Then, the growing municipality ran a road, Robinson Avenue, right through the site despite it being clearly identified on a city map. Next, the Broadway School — a grand, columned edifice — was built on another portion of the land. In both instances, some remains were exhumed and relocated to nearby cemeteries, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Many others were not.

That became clear in 2008 when the school was being converted to a courthouse. As contractors dug into the ground to set footings for an addition to the building, they discovered human bones.

The firm Landmark Archaeology was called in to excavate part of the property for the construction project, uncovering the remains of 106 individuals.

Most were lined up in tidy rows, but the earlier municipal projects had inflicted damage: bones stuck out from the building’s foundation where concrete had apparently been poured right over graves; gas lines ran through rib cages. Skeletons lay mere inches below sidewalk paving.

“It was horrible,” said the Rev. Dr. Benilda Armstead Jones, a Baptist minister who was one of Newburgh’s religious leaders summoned to say prayers over the remains as they were removed.

The remains that could be extricated from the dig site were taken to the State University of New York at New Paltz. There, Prof. Kenneth C. Nystrom, the chairman of the anthropology department, has kept them — each set of bones wrapped in acid-free tissue paper, inside plastic bags, in numbered banker’s boxes, on shelves in a locked storage room — while Jones and others on a committee convened by the city have sought a safe and dignified place to reinter the remains.

The search has taken 14 years.

At first, representatives of that committee thought the bones should return to the courthouse property, where there are likely many more graves around the building — as well as under Robinson Avenue, said Derrick J. Marcucci, a co-owner and a principal archaeologist for Landmark Archaeology. They envisioned a memorial and museum display there. But the city engineer flagged structural issues with the site.

A plot next to a historically Black church later came under consideration. Then the representatives, working with city officials, explored a spot by a monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. near the waterfront, but they ultimately deemed it noisy and inaccessible. Some suggestions coming from other residents of Newburgh — interring the remains in a pauper’s portion of a cemetery, sending them to a graveyard outside the city — would have added insult to injury, they felt. Some cemeteries were rejected because they were the very sorts of places that did not welcome Black Newburgh residents back in the 1800s.

The idea of white residents controlling access to public sites has played out in the discussions over the plans for the memorial at Downing Park.

“We don’t want to wait for the key from a gatekeeper who’s an old white guy,” said Gabrielle Burton-Hill, a community activist who recently joined the quest for a burial site. “We wanted to be able to come and go freely.”

As for the spot identified in the park, Burton-Hill said: “It’s a beautiful space. Our loved ones deserve it.”

Built on 35 acres of farmland, the park possesses many of the picturesque features that have made Olmsted’s landscapes so beloved.

But the city has made changes to it over the years, including adding a pergola built on the foundation of an old farmhouse that Olmsted and Vaux had left on the elevated portion of the property. And other memorials have cropped up, including one honoring firefighters.

As new features were added, original ones were lost. In the 1960s, when a road was cut through the northern edge of the park, an observatory designed by Calvert Vaux’s son Downing — named for his father’s role model — was demolished.

By then, Newburgh had begun a fiscal decline and the city cut many municipal services.

In 1987, alarmed by the park’s deterioration, local volunteers formed the Downing Park Planning Committee to steward the property. In the early years they brought their own lawn mowers to the park to keep the grass clipped and commissioned a master plan for capital improvements.

The city’s department of public works does the mowing now. But while the park is lovely overall, there are a number of issues. Its paved paths are cracked, and the crumbling pergola is scarred with graffiti and surrounded by signs that warn parkgoers to keep away. Trees are encumbered with dead branches and vines. Drainage issues are currently being addressed but the installation of new pipes and sidewalks has left construction debris, while the pond is only half full.

“Here’s a park that is incrementally dying a quiet death,” Birnbaum said.

The park planning committee had made it clear that interring the remains in the park was out of the question, recalled Pamela Krizek, who, like Jones, has been involved in the search for a burial place since 2008. The two, joined by Burton-Hill and the educator Ramona Burton, another Newburgh resident, make up what is now the African American Burial Ground Committee.

But Burton-Hill zeroed in on the hilly part of the park where the pergola stands, in part because Effie Smith, a former enslaved person on William Smith Farm, worked in the building that predated the decorative structure.

Burton-Hill and her colleagues walked the area with city officials before the site was put to a vote.

“From what we’ve been told, it’s a done deal,” said Kathy Doyle Parisi, the president of the park planning committee’s board. “We just hope that whatever monument they put in is designed in such a way that it will respect the people whose remains are there as well as the historic nature of the park.”

In July the city issued a request for proposals for bids from landscape architecture firms interested in designing a “memorial park and reinterment area,” identifying an 85-by-50-foot plot adjacent to a circular turnaround at the end of a drive near the pergola. In an interview, Alexandra Church, the City of Newburgh’s director of planning and development, referred to the area — about one-tenth of an acre — as “just grass.”

But the grassy area was part of the original design scheme, preservationists say.

Birnbaum’s group has instead proposed the footprint of the pergola, a feature in the landscape in Olmsted and Vaux’s time. It already went from being a farmhouse foundation to a park pavilion and would undergo “a third transformation” as an interment and memorial area, Birnbaum said.

“If they looked at working within the bone structure of this pavilion, you could restore and rehabilitate that,” he added. “It’s an iconic feature in need of renewal.”

The landscape architects selected for the project will work out design details in consultation with members of the public and stakeholders including the park planning committee, Church said.

Jones and Burton helped the city vet applications from landscape architecture teams. The winner will be announced in November, Church said.

The city, which is in better fiscal shape these days, has allotted $75,000 for the design contract. The design phase, expected to take nine months, will include survey work and cost estimates. Once plans are in hand, construction funds will be sought.

“The city is absolutely committed to getting this built and we will find the money,” Church said.

Some involved in the saga say they look forward to a resolution — and to healing.

“I think there will be a lot more peace in the atmosphere when this is handled,” Jones said.

Birnbaum said he hopes that the project promotes dialogue among people in Newburgh, as well as a revitalization of the park.

“If this project goes forward, which people want desperately, it could foster a new era for the park’s future,” he said. “Then everybody wins.”

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