Two weeks ago I posted my initial interview with noted travel writer and blogger Carol Cain. That column set a record for comments here at the Almanack. My own reaction to those comments taken as a whole is that they persuasively demonstrate the need for this conversation (fortunately the off-line discussions that have been spurred by this issue are leading to some productive initiatives… more on that in the future).
Subsequent to my first interview with Carol I asked her a series of of follow-up questions. I share her answers today. These questions were formulated previous to the posting of the first interview, thus not influenced by the tone and content of the comments. However her answers, written after the comments, speak powerfully for themselves.
(In the previous interview, with respect to her own love of the Adirondacks Carol had said “We have found that the beauty of the area, the natural resources and ability to get lost in nature is what keeps bringing us back.”)
How do you see the value of being able to “get lost in nature?” You have written elsewhere about why many non-white cultures do not share that value, for example camping in “primitive” surroundings . Do you see that as a deeper cultural issue or simply a lack of exposure to the outdoors, particularly in a wilderness context? What would make others who might not be able to envision themselves in the woods change to the point where they too would seek to “get lost?”
If you could market the park and provide avenues for urban New Yorkers to experience the park, what kind of marketing approach do you think would be effective? What messages do we want to send?
Being one with nature is a great part of our heritage and history, albeit a deeply buried one for a lot of us. If I were to focus on my own heritage, I can speak to the traditions of using natural resources for medicinal, religious, and farming purposes, and I don’t have to go very far in my family lineage. The history of farming and preserving the land is deeply threaded in the black history of this country, and now in the Mexican and immigrant communities in rural areas of this country. It is deeply threaded in the Adirondacks’ history though forgotten due to the changes many had to make when moving to more urban environments by choice or by force.
Access is a problem, but not just access to transportation (though that is an expensive problem for many). Access to a connection, a cultural bond to the area that can do wonders in inspiring others to be a part of something that is their history as well. Everyone I have ever met who values the land, advocates for it, and cherishes it, feels a sense of emotional ownership to it. Few outside of it understand the roles their families played here as well, it’s a history that has been ignored. The history that many are aware of is the dangers once faced as a person of color in the area and the great lengths taken to exclude them. Some may say that things are different now, things are better, and I believe that it is true. The fact that this conversation is even happening is proof of that. My own experiences when visiting the area have shown me that. But, it wasn’t that long ago that this wasn’t the case. And that’s a difficult reputation to erase.
So whether it is through school group trips, or reforestation programs, or tourism efforts or incentives for small business owners in urban areas, or home ownership incentives for families of the same, the reality is it has to be a conscious and focused approach to lure people in. And then, will they be welcomed? Will they feel safe? I’m not sure. That is a community-wide effort and a commitment that has to be taken on so many levels. Especially since history is not really on your side.
Do you know about the strong historical connection between the Adirondacks and the abolitionist movement, specifically Gerrit Smith, John Brown and the settlement of Timbuctoo? Did you know that John Brown’s farm and grave, a New York State Historic Site, is in the park just outside Lake Placid? Have you been there? If so, was that a significant experience for you and give you a different connection to the area? If not, would it interest you now?
Do you think this history is well known to people of color living elsewhere in New York? Do you think it would be seen as important and help to foster a connection to the region?
I know a bit about the history of the Timbuctoo, and I know about John Brown’s farm, but have never visited. I think that highlighting historical elements in an area is always important in preservation and education, and it does raise interest, for sure. But I think ultimately, the connection I may feel to any place, and that visitors may remember the most and want to return for is really in the community that is there. When people ask me about a destination they usually want to know three main things: Were people nice? What is there to do? How do you get there/how long of a drive is there? What usually “sells” a place is a few great restaurants, a welcoming and friendly sense of community, and a range of activities that don’t break the bank. Obviously safety is up there as well. So again, history is important and matters, but what brings people back are the other people who are there now and we meet along the way.
How – if at all – do the Adirondacks seem different in terms of diversity compared to other wilderness areas you have been?
Well, the Adirondacks is less diverse than say the Catskills or Hudson Valley, and more diverse than the Finger Lakes. At least, that has been my experience. I think a lot of it has to do with proximity to the city.
What I have also seen is that as the cities become more and more expensive, people are fleeing in search of affordability and quality of life. So, I can walk into a local diner in the Catskills and meet a chef who was once celebrated in NYC, but chose to change his life and bring his business there. Or a once struggling artist, who decided to start a school in a smaller town. Or a city couple who decided to leave the rat race and open a B&B. These services attract more people with different skills and talent who then make a community more desirable and valuable. I see it happening across the country, and the areas most receptive to change and diversity are doing incredibly well and slowly getting on the map as must-see destinations.
(In the first interview Carol had said “Funny you should mention the prisons, as I remember it being points of references for some of my city friends (regardless of race) when I would share tales of my adventures…”)
Do you think these city friends might choose not to visit the area because of this prison reputation?
You know, with my friends, the narrative isn’t so much focused specifically on the topic of prisons, though the general premise as it relates to race and fears is the same. We know that we can be seen as a threat (note my response on it being safer because my husband is white). We know that we are associated with a lot of negative stereotypes and generalizations (as proof, I refer simply to the comment board of our previous interview). We know that “minorities” and “diversity” translates to some as illegal immigrants, who bring chaos and destruction, who come to steal jobs and suck the social services system dry. That we come to commit crimes, burden the infrastructure, and wreck havoc. We know that the levels of interaction with people like my friends, who can be of color, gay, of different faiths, and non-European foreigners are limited and rare. We know this. Some of us come prepared and can move past expectations of discrimination, others would rather avoid it all together.
I am a travel writer. I am a New Yorker, daughter of immigrants. I went to college, have an MBA, speak three languages, and have seen and experienced different parts of the world. Many of my friends come from similar backgrounds. We are not looking for government assistance…we are looking to spend our money and invest it. We are looking to provide our children with a great education, a happy life, and a safe environment. We are consumers with disposable income. Sure we might eat rice and beans and have the names Juan or Antoine or Lee…but many of us are the successful fruits of the labor invested by our immigrant families who came to this country to give us what we now have. Just like the many other immigrants before them.
So, no. Prisons aren’t a part of the conversation we have when we think of whether we want to spend and invest our money in the Adirondacks. It’s whether there is an incentive to do so there…or whether we should choose a place where there is more tolerance and acceptance for who we are. The disparity of race in prisons is a concern for sure, but we are more concerned with how those who live around these environments perceive and treat minorities in general. If we don’t feel safe or welcomed, we’ll just spend our money somewhere else where we are. Our conversations are really that simple.
I love the Adirondacks. I promote it a lot through my profession and through word of mouth. We spend a lot of money when we go there, even when I come on assignment. I have never experienced any negative reason to not return, nor have I ever witnessed anything that would change my mind. But, as I said before, perceptions are hard to change, even when the reality is so different. It is not something that can go away just because we will it. It takes a committed effort by many, both on the political and social level. I think the parks deserve the fight of preservation and conservation. But there are many other parks that do across the country. There’s a large part of the population that can help, through various means – exposure, investment incentives, etc., but it doesn’t come without some change. I guess in the end the question is whether that is something the Adirondacks is willing to do.
Photo: John Brown’s Farmhouse, from the Timbuctoo era. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.