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Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham

Posted: March 10, 2010 10:44 AM

When I was a child, I lived in the rectory of Grace Episcopal Church in Millbrook, New York where my father was a priest. The house and the yard did not belong to us or any individual but to the church. The property was clearly communal with people dropping in on various errands at any time, not just Sundays. Several times a year, everyone got together to work on maintenance. The kids had the special job of painting the rocks along the driveway.

Next door to the church was an abandoned estate known as Wings Woods. It had a gate house with a turret that looked like it was made of candy and gingerbread and, much deeper in, a mansion (surely haunted) that was slowly falling down, creaky board by creaky board. This property was posted with signs in large forbidding letters: NO TRESPASSING. The Episcopalian version of The Lord's Prayers asks God to, "forgive us our trespasses," which caused me a bit of theological confusion. Later I speculated that Episcopalians used the word trespass for sin, because many of their members came from the landowning classes.

I longed to trespass in that wood (and did before my father eventually secured permission for us to walk there). To this day the Wings Woods remains in my memory an enchanted place. It no longer exists anywhere else. The land was sold, and the magical wood turned into upscale condominium development. Although walking in a state park does not hold the thrill of trespass, I have always been deeply grateful that once private estates like Mills, Vanderbilt, Clermont, Roosevelt, Olana, to name a few near me, now belong to the state, which is to say: me, my family, my neighbors, the community.

Last month Governor David Paterson proposed the closure of 41 parks and 14 historic sites, and service reductions at 23 parks and 1 historic site to help make up a state deficit of $8.2 billion. The NYS legislature may be able to mitigate some of these closings and reductions of service by approving a measure that would allow $5 million to be spent from the Environmental Protection Fund. If you are a New York State resident, I urge you to write and call the Governor as well as your assembly member and senator. The lawmakers have an April 1st deadline for voting on the Governor's proposal.

There are many economic arguments to make against park closures, such as the resulting loss of tourist revenue, the vandalism and decay that would follow and cost more later. In this time of increasing clamor for privatization of so many services, I want to put in a plug for the common good. If we lose our public land, we all become trespassers, except for the wealthy. Or we will stay inside our little boxes, our apartments, our tiny back yards, if we even have them.

On Sunday I visited the newly opened Walkway over the Hudson. It was thronged with people of all ages and all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Signs along the bridge gave information about natural and historic features of the area. People weren't just out for a stroll; we were taking in where we live -- and with whom.

In our State Parks, we are not trespassing. We belong. Let us support our land in every way we can.

 

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