Legislator renews push for human rights commission

A confrontation near Indian Brook Falls in August has prompted appeals from elected officials for serious talk in Philipstown about bigotry and renewed a push to create a human rights commission in Putnam County.

The incident occurred on Aug. 21 when a bus stopped on Indian Brook Road to drop off six teenage girls and four adults for a hike at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

Two residents challenged them and the situation escalated until a call to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department brought one or more deputies to defuse the situation. The girls and staff, from a foster-care program, were all African American, and at least one resident allegedly used a racial epithet.

A brief Sheriff’s Department report said “a parking problem” sparked the altercation, and that the bus had departed by the time the Sheriff’s Department arrived. It also stated that in placing the call, a woman had claimed that “the tour bus is back and she is ‘being harassed.’ ” The report did not identify the residents. 

Audubon Constitution Marsh-boardwalk edge
The Constitution Marsh site includes a boardwalk, visible at left, that is popular with visitors. (File photo by L.S. Armstrong)

Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea, who has expressed alarm at the incident, said on Tuesday (Oct. 13) that he likewise does not know who the residents were. 

Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown on the Putnam County Legislature, told fellow lawmakers on Oct. 6 that the incident was “pretty awful” and demonstrated the need for a county human rights commission to “address things like this,” she said. The Legislature in August rejected her proposal to establish a commission, but Montgomery said she’d “like to continue the discussion.”

The girls were on a trip organized by The Felix Organization, a nonprofit that provides “inspiring opportunities,” including hiking and other outdoor activities, for foster-care children, and in Putnam Valley operates an overnight camp that has been shuttered this summer because of the pandemic.

Shortly after the argument, the eight-car, town-owned parking area on Indian Brook Road near the Audubon site was blocked with traffic cones and, later, more permanent barriers. 

For years, homeowners near Indian Brook Falls, a picturesque waterfall on state parkland, and the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, west of the falls, have complained that visitors overrun the area, engage in unruly behavior, drive erratically and park haphazardly on the winding dirt road that at times narrows to a single lane. The neighbors aired their grievances again at an Oct. 1 Town Board meeting. 

Greg MacGarva, a representative of the delegation, told the Town Board that disagreements with visitors included one “culminating in a near-violent physical assault on a resident this summer by some people on a bus tour.” He did not elaborate.

Indian Brook parking
Visitors to Indian Brook Falls often park along the side of Indian Brook Road in Garrison. (Photo by Chip Rowe)

In letters to Shea and Montgomery several weeks ago, and in a phone interview with The Current on Tuesday (Oct. 13), Amanda Ricken Simonetta, the executive director of The Felix Organization, said that while she was not on the trip, she received a detailed account from the adults who were. 

Simonetta, who lives in Beacon, said she is familiar with Indian Brook Road and “I know that parking there is a pain.” She said “there was never an intent to park” the bus, only to halt long enough for the girls and chaperones to disembark.

The neighbors “were the ones creating the traffic problem,” she said. “They started yelling and chastising and saying, ‘Go back where you came from’ and used the N-word.” 

She described the incident as “heart-wrenching” because the girls “are survivors of abuse and neglect” and “have faced abandonment in their life and overcome quite a bit of trauma. To re-traumatize them like that is just really unconscionable.”

To help the adolescents process the incident, The Felix Organization urged them to write about it. One wrote that the girls had been called the N-word and xenophobic epithets, adding that a staff member had been called a “Black bitch.” The girl wrote that she had eagerly anticipated the visit to the marsh but that, after reaching the trailhead, “we were told to leave, that ‘we’ did not belong there,” and that she felt “embarrassed and confused” by what happened “In the end, I just want to say: black lives matter.”

Simonetta praised the Sheriff’s Department. Upon reaching the scene, a deputy asked “What’s the problem here?” and soon decided the hike could proceed, she said. “That was a very positive side of this story, that the police were called” and found the girls “aren’t doing anything wrong. That was very good because, who knows, it could’ve gone in another direction, if there had been a different response from the police. So I was very grateful to the Sheriff’s Office.”

On a subsequent trip, the girls visited Boscobel, “where they had a great time,” Simonetta added. “Boscobel was wonderful.”

In an Oct. 13 letter to The Current, Shea wrote that “use of racial slurs is never acceptable and everyone knows this.” He said he has asked Simonetta to bring the group back to Philipstown so he and others can “attempt to make amends by doing something that shows our best selves,” perhaps a hike or visit to a local farm. He also proposed a discussion “of what they felt and how we can do better here in Philipstown.”

He had spoken, more obliquely, at the Town Board meeting on Oct. 1. In an unusual speech as the meeting convened, Shea said that Philipstown residents are fortunate to live in such a setting and need to recognize they have responsibilities, including being “a good ambassador for this town” and trying “to lead by example and be better people.” He acknowledged that “recently we’ve been inundated and there’s a lot of tension about a lot of things. But we need to extend ourselves, we really do.” 

He confirmed on Tuesday that dismay over the Indian Brook incident had prompted his remarks. 

Visiting the Marsh

Scott Silver, director of the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, said on Wednesday (Oct. 14) that while the Visitors’ Center at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary is closed, the grounds and trails, including the boardwalk that extends into the marsh, are open daily to visitors. The boardwalk had been closed for a time this summer because of the COVID-19 threat.

He said that to his knowledge there have been not been other confrontations such as the one that occurred on Aug. 21, “although our neighbors have previously asked people to move vehicles blocking their driveways.” With the increase in visitors to Constitution Marsh and Indian Brook Falls, “the parking situation has become increasingly more difficult,” he said.

To alleviate traffic congestion, Audubon has arranged with Boscobel for visitors, for a fee, to use the parking lots there from Friday to Monday and walk to the Audubon preserve, about three-quarters of a mile. Aubudon recommends that large groups notify it in advance of a visit.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Armstrong was the founding news editor of The Current (then known as Philipstown.info) in 2010 and later a senior correspondent and contributing editor for the paper. She worked earlier in Washington as a White House correspondent and national affairs reporter and assistant news editor for daily international news services. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Politics and government

16 replies on “Fracas at Indian Brook Prompts Calls for Action”

  1. I understand that residents of Indian Brook Road are not happy about the number of people coming to visit Indian Brook Falls and Constitution Marsh but there is no excuse for what happened on Aug. 21.

    I live in the Village of Cold Spring on one of the routes hikers take to get to the trailheads. In my 16 years of living here, I have never seen so many tourists/hikers as I saw this past weekend. There were people walking by all day and into the night as I was trying to go to sleep, horns were honking, and I had trouble driving out of the area earlier in the day because of the illegal parking. I was not thrilled but I did choose to live in a beautiful village that other people enjoy visiting. The residents of Indian Brook Road did choose to live in a beautiful setting with a state park in their backyards. If I am outside and hikers come by asking how to get to the trailheads, I give them directions. I do not have an unnecessary and non-productive argument with them.

    There is no excuse for what happened on Aug. 21 and whomever these unknown residents are, did they think they would solve the problem by harassing, discriminating and using racial slurs against a group of young black women? While Town Supervisor Richard Shea has the best of intentions in inviting the group from The Felix Organization back to Philipstown to show our better selves at another location, I ask why can’t they come back to visit Constitution Marsh where they wanted to visit in the first place?

  2. We should all be furious about this. Cold Spring is still listed on online databases of sundown towns (places that are not safe for Black folks). I hope it sparks a real conversation about what we need to do to change our legacy and make this a safe place for everyone to visit and live.

  3. The Indian Brook Road residents who engaged in the primitive, cruel verbal abuse of youthful visitors bring major shame on themselves and on our town. They should be prosecuted for a hate crime.

  4. It can’t be all of them, but some residents on Indian Brook Road behave as if the road, the park, and the marsh are their private property. The only solution is a real parking lot.

  5. The worst thing about this whole situation is that there are residents on Facebook disparaging these young girls long after the incident was reported. Racism, hate and a fear of change is quite prevalent in this town, even if you can’t see it while walking down charming Main Street.

  6. This is not a racist issue and it doesn’t help anything to turn it into one. It is about what our beautiful area can handle, in terms of traffic, and the oversight of these areas. The situation with the marsh is a part of the larger situation, which is addressed in the other story in this issue of The Current, Chaos in Cold Spring. I have lived in this area for fifty-five years and I have never seen so many people come here as visitors.

    While I agree with Richard Shea’s efforts and sentiments regarding the responsibilities of residents living in this area, I view it more as a stewardship, rather than an ambassadorship. I think that it falls upon us, as residents, not only to help to make available actual state park areas, but to protect them, as well. When the influx of visitors becomes so great that it becomes detrimental to the areas that attract such interest, then steps need to be taken to limit and/or accommodate these numbers. I believe that through discussions with the town board, the Audubon Society, the residents, and other local businesses and tourist attractions that solutions to these issues can be reached and are in process.

    I believe that it, also, falls upon visitors to these places of natural beauty to share in this sense of respect and responsibility to maintain the well being of the places they visit. The ability for people to visit and enjoy these places is a privilege, not an entitlement, that was established through the efforts of the people who cared enough to preserve these places, many of whom are longtime residents.

    Specifically regarding the situation on Indian Brook Road, the parking area there had always been only for the use of visitors to the Audubon preserve that is in Constitution Marsh. A sudden interest by visitors in the nearby Indian Brook Falls, as well as increased interest in the marsh, greatly overwhelmed the limited parking. The falls, while state owned, were never, and still are not, a state park. There were never any signs or services provided to indicate or establish the falls as part of the state park system. This has led to our own chaos, as parking spots became something that people were willing to fight over, and the public and residential areas surrounding these spaces of natural beauty became choked with people and their cars. Unfortunately, this chaos has affected the residents whom live adjacent to these spaces to the point of being faced with the hostility of frustrated visitors, when they are asked to move their cars.

    The process of finding solutions to these matters is ongoing and is reaching toward positive ends from which everyone may enjoy the benefits. My hope is that the situation isn’t further inflamed. That can only drive things into a negative outcome and make the reaching for solutions all the more difficult.

    1. There is very little profit and tax revenue in the field of state parks. The profits and the jobs are created, and the economy is thusly boosted, by privately operated casinos, amusement parks, spas, resorts, movie theaters, wedding venues, bars and restaurants, and so on. The state government, meaning those who influence its policy, determine the plans for and the funding of state parks and preserves. The influencers in this regard are the tourist and leisure industry business partners. All that we here see and discuss is merely the unavoidable and logical consequence of the state’s policies, its needs for tax revenues, and the promotion of a particular, even a peculiar, type of an economy for their generation.

      This condition is unlikely to change unless the state successfully develops a different basis for its economy.

  7. If parking is such a great concern, pave the lot, put in parking meters, and ticket, tow, or boot all violators. A parking fee is quite common at State and National Parks everywhere. Just this September, I was expected to pay $25 to park at a National Seashore beach in Cape Cod — even though there were no lifeguards and the bathrooms, locker rooms, and cafe were all closed due to COVID.

    In reading the reporting, however, it sounds like the group of hikers was actually following quite good protocol, given the circumstances: They arranged for transportation to drop them off at the site, and return later to pick them up. They weren’t using a parking spot, or leaving their van elsewhere along the road.

    The altercation illustrates the sad truth that this has nothing to do with parking. It is only about keeping “outsiders” away.

  8. Can you ask Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong to check her facts? Shame on her and shame on Legislator Nancy Montgomery for being guilty of the same. Shame on Amanda Ricken Simonetta and The Felix Organization for not speaking with the residents involved. It sounds like another entirely divisive accusation.

    What is worse about this one was including race bias, which was clearly not the case as you listen to not just one side of what actually occurred. Shame on you, The Highlands Current, for publishing such trash!

    1. Had we known the identity of the residents involved, we would have contacted them for comment. In a phone call, Capossela, who lives on Indian Brook Road, said she was not present at the incident but knows who was involved. She would not identify the residents, saying that was “not my place.” But she said The Current should have gotten their side of the story or not printed the article.

  9. We live in an incredible area and take for granted all the privileges that we enjoy. This clouds how we see the world and skews reality. The privilege that we take for granted is not the experience for so many people, especially people of color.

    Having grown up here and lived much of my adult life in Philipstown, I have often wondered why our community is not more representative of the country in terms of racial diversity. I have lived in other areas but still, I suffer from inherent bias and am aware of this. I have always known that something was not right within myself and within this community.

    When I was young, we would shop in Peekskill, Beacon and Newburgh and it struck me that those communities were much more diverse. I speak only for myself, but I did not have enough experience with people of other cultures and back-grounds and therefore felt unprepared to understand the world when I went off to college. That lack of understanding stays with me and weighs on me to this very day.

    Discussions of race and privilege are not easy, but that discomfort can no longer be used as an excuse for not engaging in them. The very discomfort we feel can only be alleviated through the recognition that injustice exists all over this country and throughout the world. Taking the easy way out and continuing in our blissful ignorance is a tacit approval of the way things are.

    If the televised killing of George Floyd is not enough to make us aware that there are serious problems, then I do not know what will. We need to acknowledge the horrors that Mr. Floyd and so many Black and brown people have endured and work to make a better society.

    I realize that people have busy lives and that, by and large, it is not intentional that we ignore problems, especially a problem as big as racism. Raising families and getting to work during a global pandemic feels like enough and I understand that people are overwhelmed. This being the current state of affairs, recognizing and acknowledging the issues of race in America is a first step that all of us can take.

    Shea is the Philipstown supervisor.

  10. Oh, what now? It seems like there is a monthly discrimination event around these parts. This compelled me to look up The Felix Organization and donate money and apologize for the bigots. I highly encourage more donations of time and money.

  11. Separate from this incident, there should be more conversation about what happens when your neighborhood becomes a public parking lot. It is lazy to say that because you have the privilege of owning property near a public hiking trail, you should be grateful for those who come to visit.

    Throughout the area you are seeing quiet neighborhoods turned into parking lots for hiking trails with dozens of cars on narrow streets. When your front yard becomes a parking lot, you see that you get parking-lot behavior. Parking in front of hydrants, creating narrow paths and blind corners, blocking traffic and emergency services, trash and animal waste, children urinating on your hedges, and the stress of having to endure this sudden lifestyle change should be addressed. Or we can pretend that it is unmanageable and that affected homeowners will have to bear the burden of believing there is no difference between local street parking and public hiking trail lots.

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