Saturday June 30, 2012

New England Newspapers

PITTSFIELD -- As a child growing up in the 1970s on Pittsfield’s Westside neighborhood, Eddie Taylor always looked forward to the daylong summer celebration first known as The Black Festival, and then later, The Gather-In, in Pitt Park.

But after attending last year’s event, Taylor realized his experience felt different somehow. He longed for the celebrations he cherished as a youth.

His recognition wasn’t a matter of pinpointing blame, but rather, became a call-to-action.

"I was almost embarrassed that I felt the way I did because I haven’t been involved," he said during a recent lunch with the Rev. Willard Durant at the newly opened Madjacks BBQ restaurant in town. "I feel that I have this responsibility. Š It’s all about legacy and passing the torch."

Motivated by this awareness and inspired by his own childhood, Taylor conceived the inaugural Pitt Park Heritage Festival to be held today from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the park, located on Columbus Avenue between Dewey and John streets in Pittsfield. The festival is sponsored by Western Mass Electric Co. and the S.E.E.D Network, Taylor’s nonprofit organization that offers mentoring and classes to youth.

"The theme we’re taking on is heritage," said Taylor, S.E.E.D’s executive director. "The purpose of the festival is to uplift and celebrate our community’s contributions and dedication to building strong and vibrant neighborhoods with a renewed sense of family, education, growth and civic responsibilities.


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We feel it is our time to ensure that the strong cultural heritage of our community is preserved for future generations."

When deciding what to include in the activity lineup Taylor said he requested input from the community.

"My focus is on the core people who remembered how it used to be," said Taylor, referring to the past signature events in Pitt Park. "People in the community came and gave testimony about what it meant to them."

Today, the grounds will be peppered with arts, crafts, and a variety of vendors, while Deejay Jimmy "Dubfly" Hall will be on the turntables. In addition, there will be live performances from several Berkshire County artists such as Blue Light Trio, Nostalgia & Problematics, The Gospel Gang and the Mess engers, BIGZ, Rodney Mashia, and the Kid Zone Dance Team. The Syracuse, N.Y.-based R&B band Brown Skin and international jazz artist Tony Cham bers are also on the roster.

For parents of young children, Taylor has designated an area of the park as "Toddler Town," a place for youngsters to play freely in a bounce house. At the nearby "Parent Perch," moms and dads will be able to talk amongst themselves and access parent-related information from various booths.

An especially poignant element is the Heritage Walk, which will pay homage to the Westside and its members, past and present. Guests will be serenaded by jazz while they take in enlarged photographs along the path, Taylor said.

"Columbus Avenue was just as prominent as North Street," he said. "We wanted to take the basketball section and turn it into a place of remembrance and have conversations with our children and elders.

Taylor’s vision for this festival is something that was empowered by mentors like the Rev. Durant.

"I invoked the spirit of Rev. Durant from the beginning. Š I am just mirroring what my elders did for me," Taylor said, looking across to him. "The beauty about Rev. Durant and his generation is that money wasn’t an issue. He ran free summer programs for 50, 60 kids and we’d go to the lake and come back and eat at the Christian Center."

Smiling, Durant thanked Taylor and quickly acknowledged that it was not just him but also the work of his late wife Rosemary, who was the program director at the Christian Center for 25 years.

"She was the one who said to me we can do all these things without money," Durant said. "We knew that if you just started doing what you believe [it would work out]."

It’s wise advice considering that some have questioned Taylor’s intentions, he admits. But Taylor wants it known that this festival isn’t about putting him in the forefront or denouncing other events.

"The agenda is to remind people of the strengths and beauty of what was given to us as children. My generation and the lack of participation have sparked this," Taylor said.

In keeping with that mission, Taylor used social media during the organizing process, a move which created openness and helped to bring others on board with the effort.

"I said what happens if we actually put everything out there to give us transparency, alleviate mistrust and create buy-in," Taylor said. "This is about community."