by Erik Baard
I’m excitedly anticipating my chance to step sideways into a greener parallel culture this weekend with the Clearwater Festival, and I hope you can join in. I say “sideways” because while many green gatherings in NYC are slick and smart previews of possible sustainable futures, this “Great Hudson River Revival” is an odd amalgamation of innovation and anachronism, of renewable energy and creaky sailboats (and creaky sailors).
While continuing to support and enjoy the established festival in Westchester County, might it be time to strike out in new directions here in NYC?
Thousands of people gather on the Croton Point Park grounds each June for a weekend of music and other performances, nautical life and lore, and building environmental awareness. Estimates vary, but an attendance high point was reported as 15,000. At root, the campout concert a fundraiser for the sloop Clearwater, which sails the length of the Hudson River carrying educators who preach the environmental gospel and introducing generations of young people to the joys of living with nature. The continuing voyage began with folksinger Pete Seeger, who vowed in the 1960s, to “build a boat to save the river.”
Many stretches of the Hudson River were written off as dead at that time, sludged over with sewage where it wasn’t sterilized by toxic industrial releases. Seeger’s quest, despite long odds, wasn’t entirely quixotic. He added his considerable creativity and energy to the environmental movement, which was roused by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Seeger is widely credited with playing a key role in the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. In the past three decades the Hudson River has become cleaner than in anyone’s lifetime.
Over that same time, however, folk music has declined in popularity. In a sense, while the Clearwater Festival started as a way for folk musicians to use their popularity to raise environmental awareness, that dynamic has flipped: “green” is so trendy now that it’s subsidizing folk music.
New blood, new funding, and a renewed sense of mission could come with an additional Clearwater Festival at Randalls Island.
The music would have to appeal to a younger demographic; positive message hip hop, rap, and new rock. The environmental message would resonate strongly if tied to PlaNYC and health issues like asthma, cancers, lead, and stress-related diseases, which stem directly from our urban ecology.
Randalls Island faces three boroughs (Manhattan, to which it belongs, and Queens and the Bronx), and each opposite waterfront is chockablock with lower-income public housing. East Harlem has the highest density of public housing in the U.S., while the Queensbridge Houses complex in Long Island City is the largest in North America. The South Bronx is famous both as a place of environmental injustice and marvelous community-based green initiatives like Friends of Brook Park and Sustainable South Bronx.
The bordering Harlem River and East River (below Hell Gate) are part of the Hudson River estuary, as defined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Dockage for the sloop is viable on the west side. Pedestrian and mass transit links, while not perfect, are extensive. Icahn Stadium is already home to popular concerts, and there are many open areas on the landfill-unified Randalls and Wards Islands for tabling and event tents. If instead of a chlorinated water park, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation now focuses on creating a gorgeous wilderness restoration, we could look proudly upon a new annual mega-destination.
Governors Island is an invaluable asset to our city, and on July 26 will be the site of the City of Water Day, a confluence of harbor mavens convened by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. It’s the harbor’s navel, and a splendid place of parkland and historic buildings. But access is everything for a grass-roots event that’s inclusive of the poor as well as the comfortable.
Perhaps there couldn’t be camping at the Randalls Island event, but there’s no need to replicate all aspects of the mother festival. Plenty of people would come for a day trip, and because the stadium is enclosed, attendees could choose to pay for major attraction concert tickets or to opt for the free music and entertainment on the open greenswards. Walk-up paddles, planting, crafts, and other public participation activities could be offered for free or at affordable prices.
I proposed this to the Clearwater organizers a few years ago, when I was the environmental program manager at Citizens Committee for New York City. While they were concerned about the danger of siphoning off too many visitors to the Croton-on-Hudson festival, they were also quite open to new possibilities. The catch was that we New York City greens would have to put it together for ourselves. Are we up to that yet?
And again, in the meantime, come up to the Clearwater Festival this weekend!