By Joe Hirsch
Musician Pete Seeger, who became an icon of social movements in the 1960s for his use of traditional folk music and original folk songs to rally the public for political change, was honored at Hunts Point Riverside Park on September 3 for his lifetime contribution to the arts.
Nearly 200 people turned out at the park to see Seeger awarded the $250,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which is granted annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
Seeger sounded a note of hopefulness in his acceptance speech, using the calm, verdant setting of the park as an example of social progress. Activists and residents helped turn the 1.4-acre park from an illegal dumpsite into a popular neighborhood green spot with a pier for fishing and boating earlier this decade.
“I am now more optimistic about my country than ever in my life,” Seeger told the crowd.
“In every part of America there are little things going on,” he added. “The powers that be are gonna try to break them up, but they can’t. They won’t know where to start.”
Guest speaker Majora Carter, who was instrumental in the conversion of the park from dumpsite to riverside jewel, and now runs the Garrison Avenue based environmental consulting group the Majora Carter Group, told the crowd the park “is a manifestation of a Pete Seeger singalong.”
“If this park were a church, Pete’s getting the award here would be like the coming of the pope,” Carter said.
Seeger later urged the crowd seated at the park’s amphitheatre to join him in singalongs to some old standards, including perhaps his best known song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The still acutely alert, spindly-thin 90-year old alternated between acoustic guitar and banjo while accompanied on guitar by R&B singer Toshi Reagon of the band BIGLovely, and by Adam Green, executive director of local nonprofit Rocking the Boat, who played harmonica.
Seeger’s choice of Hunts Point Riverside Park, where Rocking the Boat is centered, came as no surprise. Seeger has been involved with the nonprofit, which trains young people to build boats and row on the Bronx River, since its inception in the mid-1990s, and has been on the advisory board since 2005.
Rocking the Boat uses oak trees from Seeger’s vast rural property outside Beacon, New York to build its boats, and Green often takes young people from the program camping on Seeger’s land.
Although no official word has yet been given about how Seeger will use or distribute the prize money, Adam Green of Rocking the Boat says Seeger has vowed to send a significant chunk of it to that organization, and not a moment too soon.
“We need it to help us get through the year,” Green said, due to “a significantly reduced budget.”
After the ceremony and performance, Seeger looked up at the sprawling Soundview Public Housing projects across the small sliver of Bronx River that separates Hunts Point from Soundview, and noted the uplifting effect Hunts Point Riverside Park could have on the area.
“Some of the children must be looking out their windows, thinking, ‘what’s going on down there?’ ‘Can I get on a boat down there?’ Then they’ll probably get on the telephone and spread the word.”
The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize was established by the Gish sisters, the famous movie actresses, to reward artists in all creative fields. The first Gish Prize was issued in 1994 to architect Frank Gehry. Other recipients over the years have included Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, Bob Dylan, and Chilean author Isabel Allende.