The Newburgh City Council unanimously approved the resolution on Monday, November 28 for the city manager to execute a design services agreement with Studio HIP Landscape Architecture, PLLC and PUSH Studio, LLC, for the design of the Newburgh African-American Burial Ground in Downing Park.
In 2008, human remains of men, women and children were discovered by construction workers conducting work on the current City of Newburgh Courthouse that sits at the corner of Broadway and Route 9W. The city courthouse once served as the Broadway School, first constructed in 1908. Records indicated that the site where the school was built on was once a burial ground for African Americans. The human remains have remained at the State University of New York [SUNY] at New Paltz since 2008 and other varying locations but are now a step closer to returning to the city. The project had been led by residents Ramona Burton, Dr. Benilda Armstead-Jones, Gabrielle Burton-Hill and Pamela Krizek for a number of years.
City of Newburgh Planning and Development Director Alexandra Church presented the resolution with a brief overview during the city council work session on November 21:
“In May of this year, this city council approved a location for the reinterment of the remains that were removed from the site under the Broadway courthouse, the old Broadway school,” said Church. “The city staff went out for an RFP almost immediately after that, a request for proposal specifically for landscape architects. We received nine responses, which was a great response.”
According to Church, two changes were made to the initial proposal for the site redevelopment. In the amended proposal, Charles Birnbaum, President and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation [TCLF] was replaced by Dr. Joseph Disponzi as the designated architectural historian for the team.
Church provided clarification for the personnel change in the proposal: “There was some controversy regarding some remarks that he made in the press and his organization made in the press,” Church said.
“The proposal team immediately had a conversation with him and asked him to withdraw.”
In late October to early November, TCLF, an education and advocacy organization, released a report titled Landslide 2022: The Olmsted Design Legacy. This specific report focused on landscapes associated with Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr that were identified as threatened and at-risk. Downing Park was included in this report. Climate issue concerns, insufficient park funding and maintenance, parkland confiscation, natural diseases and the lack of recognition were included in the landscape report.
Birnbaum was contacted for comments following his dismissal. Instead, Nord Wennerstrom, Director of Communications for TCLF, addressed the inquiry and clarified via email that Birnbaum is not an architectural historian and responded with the following statement in his email: “The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s concern from the outset and the reason Downing Park was included in Landslide 2022: The Olmsted Design Legacy was the location within the park selected by the City for a memorial and the City’s seeming disinterest and/or inflexibility in considering an alternate location within the nationally significant Olmsted-designed park, such as the currently dilapidated pergola, which Charles suggested in his interview with the New York Times.”
Church said additional changes were made to the survey area and boundaries which could lead to discussions about additional remedial measures to the area, such as the road and turnaround near the site. Church also announced that a historical marker is to be placed at the city courthouse site on December 4 with more information forthcoming and invited the council to take part in this marker placement.
“They [the bones] were done a great injustice,” said Councilman Anthony Grice. “We can’t go back in history and erase it, but we can do the best that we can to rectify it. This [the chosen spot] is a great place for them.” “It’s wonderful to see this project moving along,” said Councilman Robert Sklarz.
“It’s moving forward. I’m happy, I’m excited,” said Mayor Torrance Harvey.
Councilwoman Giselle Martinez raised the point about the conversation of returning the remains to the courthouse site where they were originally found, but the park was discussed as the more appropriate location that would limit any future disturbance. Councilman Omari Shakur shared to the council that he was not in favor of the proposed name “Colored Burial Ground” and requested it to be changed to specifically recognize those buried at the site prior to the vote.
According to online project schedule documents, a conceptual rendering is anticipated to be seen by the summer of next year with completion by June into September of the same year but project funding will need to be discussed going forward.