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Diversity leader moves out of Saranac Lake over safety concerns

Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicole Hylton-Patterson smiles in her office in Saranac Lake. (News photo — Griffin Kelly)

SARANAC LAKE — The director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative is packing her belongings and moving out of this village, saying she hasn’t felt safe living here as a Black person since racist graffiti was found spray-painted on a railroad bridge a week-and-a-half ago.

The other reason Nicky Hylton-Patterson is moving out, she said, is that the mayor and the director of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce did not issue statements condemning the graffiti.

“I mean, come on, what are people waiting for?” she said. “It would have made me feel safer.”

This comes just as the village hung new banners from downtown light poles that say, “Racism is a public health crisis.” It is also a time when Americans are particularly sensitive to matters of racism, following nationwide anti-racist protests over the deaths of several Black people at police hands.

Hylton-Patterson moved here from the Bronx on Dec. 3, 2019, to take the newly created staff position at ADI, which New York state had funded earlier that year through a $250,000 allotment from the Environmental Protection Fund. She plans to continue working at this job, including at its Saranac Lake office within the Adirondack North Country Association, but she said, “It’s not safe for me to live in Saranac Lake right now.”

She will remain in the Adirondacks but said, “I’m going to an undisclosed location that is safer.”

As a runner, she said, she ran five mornings a week right past the railroad bridge over the Saranac River that someone defaced with slurs, expletives and the racist phrase, “Go back to Africa.”

“I know that that was meant for me,” she said.

“It is a threat to my life and my safety and my peace of mind.”

She said it was also a threat to the village’s other Black residents. “There just aren’t that many of us,” she said. Saranac Lake’s year-round population is roughly 95% white, according to past census data.

She said the village police chief talked to her and told her officers were investigating the graffiti but have not made any arrests. But she said the mayor should have reassured Black villagers that this kind of crime is not tolerated here.

Mayor Clyde Rabideau responded in an email to the Enterprise: “I regret Ms. Hylton-Patterson’s decision and hope she will reconsider. I am a small-village, part-time mayor with no staff or media advisors, and our nation’s recent racial unrest is a challenge for me while in this position, and I am still learning how to properly respond to the many events, and sometimes I fall short of expectations, and this is one of those times, and I hope that Ms. Hylton-Patterson will forgive me and, in her capacity as a diversity advocate, reach out to me, and give me guidance should a future incident warrant it as I wish her and her family well.”

Trustee and Deputy Mayor Rich Shapiro said the actions of the village police and the man who reported the graffiti — and painted over it, with police permission — spoke louder than words.

“I thought the response from Sgt. (Leigh) Wenske and the citizen passerby spoke more about this community than having a political leader make a statement that could be viewed as somebody saying something that was politically correct at the time,” Shapiro said.

He said village board members “abhor” that graffiti.

“We wish it didn’t happen,” he said. “We’d do whatever we can to stop that from happening.”

Banners

Hylton-Patterson said these things in an interview that was supposed to be about the new anti-racism banners. Rabideau, speaking Tuesday before learning Hylton-Patterson was moving, said the banners are “an expression from our village of racial equality.

“We’re an inclusive village,” he said. “We’re not that diverse, racially; however, we’re supportive.”

He said the effort was prompted by a peaceful June 2 protest against racism and police brutality that drew some 500 people to Riverside Park and River Street. Roughly the same number of people signed a petition asking the village Board of Trustees to condemn police brutality, which it did on June 8. Then on June 16, the village board and police Chief James Joyce co-hosted a public forum to discuss policing. A recording of that is available on the village website, www.saranaclakeny.gov.

Rabideau said the banner idea came out of the board’s discussion of those issues; however, Trustees Melinda Little and Shapiro said they were not part of any conversations about banners and didn’t know about them until they were hung. They support the message, though.

“It was a nice surprise,” Little said.

Rabideau said the village asked the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism to come up with options for text and visualization, as part of ROOST’s $12,500 annual destination marketing contract with the village that the board just renewed in June. He said ROOST offered four or five options, which were run by Hylton-Patterson.

She said the one that was chosen was the only one that would have worked. It has a black background with “Racism is a public health crisis” in red, white and peach letters, with a line of four hearts below and Saranac Lake’s branded script at the bottom. Rabideau said ROOST had the 10 banners printed, again as part of its contract, and they were hung Monday from light poles downtown.

Hylton-Patterson said non-white visitors “will know where they are” because of this supportive message, just as, when she is in Georgia, Confederate monuments show her where she is.

Nevertheless, she said the banners are only “a beginning” and that the mayor and chamber director missed an opportunity to denounce the racist graffiti.

“This was a crisis that was a threat to the Black community, but this was also an opportunity to … back up the words on that banner with some action,” she said.

“Hyper-vigilant”

She said she knew she would have to be vigilant when she moved to this predominantly white rural area, but she has been “extra-vigilant” since a threat associated with the June 2 rally. That day, police charged a local 19-year-old who allegedly posted on Snapchat May 31 that he might shoot protesters if they engaged in rioting and looting, accompanying his words with a photo of himself holding a gun.

The graffiti took her from “extra-vigilant to “hyper-vigilant” and was “a final straw for me staying in this community,” she said.

“Repeatedly, people don’t believe what is coming out of the ADI” on Black people’s negative experiences in the Adirondacks, she said. “We get the emails: Where’s the evidence that Black people and people of color are not welcome in the Adirondacks?”

For instance, she said, ADI has been working with the Adirondack Experience museum on “The Black Experience in the Adirondacks.” On July 23 and 30 is a two-part session on “Driving While Black,” in which Hylton-Patterson said Black people talk about being pulled over repeatedly by police officers when they have done nothing wrong.

Born in Jamaica, Hylton-Patterson spent her formative years in northern Norway as part of a gifted child program. She has 20 years of experience leading activities and programs geared toward advancing diversity in Westchester County, Syracuse, Elmira and Arizona.

She only made it seven months living in Saranac Lake. Asked about that, she said, “I’ve seen this articulation of racism in different ways in many spaces, so I’m disappointed but not surprised.”

At the same time, she said, “There are a LOT of anti-racist accomplices in this community.”

Also, she said, she loves the Adirondacks.

“I want to be with the land,” she said. “I love this place. I think that it’s absolutely marvelous.”

Nevertheless, she said she believes there are people here trying to limit non-white-people’s access to the state-run Adirondack Forest Preserve.

“Sing louder”

Chris Morris of Saranac Lake has been an ADI board member since 2015. He said Hylton-Patterson told him she is moving.

“I’m mad about it,” he said, “but just being mad is not very useful, so … I’m more resolute to create a community here that is really a more welcoming and inclusive space for people.

“We pay a lot of lip service to Saranac Lake being a very welcoming place, and I think these incidents show that isn’t true, and we have to do more.”

He said they may not be able to change the mind of a person who would spray-paint racist graffiti, but they can mobilize people “who really believe this is a welcoming community.”

But isn’t that preaching to the choir?

“You can preach to the choir, and then you can get the choir to sing louder,” he said. “I know that sounds incredibly corny.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the racist graffiti was on a railroad bridge on Forest Hill Avenue. Graffiti was there, too, but police say the racist graffiti was on a nearly railroad trestle bridge over the Saranac River. The News regrets the error.)