August 2, 2010
Grassroots activism and nonprofits in the Hudson Valley
Last month I went back to see family and friends in the Hudson Valley region of New York. While there I had the chance to see and walk across the Walkway Across the Hudson. The Walkway is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world with a span of over 1.28 miles over the Hudson River connecting the cities of Poughkeepsie on the east and Highland on the west.
The Walkway (http://www.walkway.org) is also the name of the nonprofit that is responsible for revitalizing the bridge and transforming it into a pedestrian skyway with gorgeous views of the Hudson River.
The bridge is more than 100 years old, and was shut down after a fire in 1974. In 1992, a handyman named Bill Sepe formed the Walkway nonprofit, but his ideas of using volunteer labor and funding to revitalize the bridge was voted down by the board. Under the new leadership of Fred Shaeffer, a local attorney, the Walkway began working with private foundations and the state of New York to make the Walkway a reality. The Walkway has been designated a State Historical Park, and the nonprofit is headed by a friend of ours, Elizabeth Hart.
I went across the Walkway three times while I was there, and was impressed at what it has done in terms of energizing the area’s business, civic and recreational scene. Every time I went, there were many people out walking with infants in strollers, with dogs, roller skating, and biking over the bridge. A New York Times article noted that there have already been more than double the estimated 250,000 visitors per year since the Walkway opened last October. At each end, there were several businesses/vendors selling drinks and food, renting bikes, in addition to Walkway volunteers selling T-shirts, cups, and hats to raise money to maintain the bridge. There are also plans underway to connect the Walkway to other bike trails in the region.
The Walkway is a great example of the kind of impact that grassroots activism can have. The initial vision and impetus comes from a single person who starts a nonprofit which then partners with private and public agencies to make their vision a reality.
On the bridge, there is a sign thanking the many supporters of the Walkway. They include a number of private foundations in addition to the state of New York. Let’s hope that we begin to see this level of collaboration in China.