A Century Later, New York Activists Honor the Descendants of Those Displaced by Ashokan Reservoir

Violet Snow January 22, 2018

Polly Howells of Radical Joy for Hard Times presents a book of photos to Florence Giuliano and Sheldon Boice, descendants of two of the families which lost their land and homes when the Catskills reservoirs were constructed.

On an Octo­ber week­end in 1917, New York City sched­uled an event to cel­e­brate the arrival of drink­ing water to all five bor­oughs from the Ashokan Reser­voir — 15,000 school­child­ren lined up in Cen­tral Park to watch a pageant dubbed The Good Gift of Water.” The pro­gram hon­ored Chief Ashokan,” although we don’t know if there was such a per­son. On the day of the pageant, the skies opened up, and pour­ing rain caused the can­cel­la­tion of the event.

They hon­ored Native Amer­i­cans in a sen­ti­men­tal way,” says envi­ron­men­tal activist Pol­ly How­ells. But they had no inten­tion of hon­or­ing the peo­ple who lost their homes when their land was flood­ed to form the reser­voir. We’re try­ing to undo that legacy.”

As offi­cials were con­tem­plat­ing a cel­e­bra­tion of the reservoir’s 100th anniver­sary, How­ells helped orga­nize Raise a Glass to the Catskills,” in which New York City res­i­dents were pho­tographed rais­ing a glass of city water in grat­i­tude to the upstate com­mu­ni­ties, where the trau­ma of dis­place­ment is still felt. On Oct. 14, 2017 at the Ashokan Reser­voir, How­ells pre­sent­ed a book of the pho­tographs to Shel­don Boice and Flo­rence Giu­liano, two descen­dants of fam­i­lies who had to move to make way for the reservoir.

Many of the descen­dants feel their fam­i­lies have been for­got­ten,” says Helen Chase, pres­i­dent of the Olive His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, which hosts an annu­al pic­nic for descen­dants of ear­ly town res­i­dents. The city paid them for the land, but they lost farms and com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions, and you can’t pay for those.”

They were liv­ing on fer­tile riv­er-bot­tom land,” says How­ells, with orchards and farms, and then they had to move up to this rocky land.”

On the oth­er hand,” says Chase, the reser­voir is a beau­ti­ful resource, and they kept the area from get­ting overdeveloped.”

The Raise the Glass” con­cept came from Rad­i­cal Joy for Hard Times, a world­wide net­work of peo­ple whose mis­sion is to find and cre­ate beau­ty in wound­ed parts of the earth. Founder Trebbe John­son lives in Penn­syl­va­nia, in frack­ing coun­try, and works as a wilder­ness guide. Since the group’s found­ing in 2009, mem­bers gath­er on the sum­mer sol­stice for a Glob­al Earth Exchange, tak­ing a med­i­ta­tive walk at a place that has been dam­aged and shar­ing sto­ries of the feel­ings that come up. Then they make a piece of art out of found objects from nature and leave it there, cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful as a gift for the earth. The group’s heal­ing activ­i­ties have includ­ed singing and danc­ing at mines and frack­ing sites in the Unit­ed States; lying on the ground in a human wreath on a mono­cul­ture farm in Ger­many; cre­at­ing a per­ma­cul­ture gar­den in Afghanistan in response to a ter­ror­ist attack.

How­ells, a par­tic­i­pant in Wood­stock Tran­si­tion, Pachama­ma Alliance, and Bioneers, is on Rad Joy’s board of direc­tors — called by mem­bers a band” — that meets annu­al­ly at her home in Glen­ford, N.Y. For the 2015 Earth Exchange, the band took a walk along the reser­voir. How­ells recalls a mem­ber talk­ing about how eerie it was, that beau­ti­ful water over there, but unap­proach­able and strange­ly dead, hold­ing with­in it the ghosts of flood­ed towns and fields and apple orchards. She said there ought to be a Water Appre­ci­a­tion Day, when the peo­ple of New York City hon­or the folks up here who gave up so much so that they could have clean water.”

This obser­va­tion led to the idea of Raise a Glass.” Rad Joy mem­bers walked around Cen­tral Park in Man­hat­tan with water and drink­ing glass­es, ask­ing peo­ple if they knew where their water came from. Some did, while oth­ers were amazed to find out their water trav­els through 100 miles of pipe, tak­ing a year for a drop of water, pro­pelled only by grav­i­ty, to go from the reser­voir to the city. A cou­ple of old-timers insist­ed they nev­er drink bot­tled water, one of them stat­ing, New York City has the best water in the world.” The peo­ple were pho­tographed rais­ing a toast to the upstate communities.

Rachel Mar­co-Havens com­piled the pho­tos into a book, for print­ing by an online ser­vice. The pre­sen­ta­tion of the book was coor­di­nat­ed with a new per­for­mance by Arm of the Sea The­ater, The City that Drinks the Moun­tain Sky, Part 2.” The play is an updat­ing of the the­ater group’s piece about the devel­op­ment of the Catskill water sup­ply, a show that has been seen by hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple since it was first pro­duced in 1999 with a water­shed edu­ca­tion grant from Catskill Water­shed Cor­po­ra­tion (CWC). Using giant masks, pup­pets, and orig­i­nal music, the play shows the effects of dis­place­ment on a farm fam­i­ly as the reser­voir was cre­at­ed. Diane Galusha, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of CWC, worked with Rad Joy and Arm of the Sea to present the show at the reser­voir to an audi­ence of about 75 people.

Water rolling off the side of Slide Moun­tain has been fill­ing glass­es and toi­lets and fire hoses in New York City for a cen­tu­ry,” says Galusha. It’s a gift that goes unno­ticed most of the time. Say­ing thank you every hun­dred years — to the moun­tain, to the peo­ple who were dis­placed, to the work­ers who lost their lives, and to the city agen­cies who cre­at­ed the sys­tem and con­tin­ue to deliv­er water to mil­lions every day — is the least New York­ers can do.”

After giv­ing the book to descen­dant Giu­liano, Rad Joy founder John­son asked her whether the ges­ture makes a dif­fer­ence to fam­i­lies who still remem­ber the trau­ma of the past. Giu­liano replied, I think it does.”
(Show­ing Grat­i­tude” orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Wood­stock Times—a small week­ly news­pa­per in New York’s Hud­son Val­ley — and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.)
Vio­let Snow is a free­lance jour­nal­ist, fic­tion writer, and mem­oirist. Her arti­cles have appeared in the New York Times Dis­union” blog, Civ­il War Times, Wood­stock Times, Ener­gy Times, Amer­i­can Ances­tors, and many oth­er periodicals.
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