Gather-In Festival celebrates a neighborhood's culture, long-standing sense of community

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PITTSFIELD — Lance Spratling started playing in the Gather-In basketball tournament at Durant Park when he was 6 years old. Now 33, he is the one holding the roster.

"It's just about giving the kids something to do and showing them that there are people in the community who care about them," said Spratling, who has been organizing the tournament for a couple of years. "It's shining a light that kids are not all about getting in trouble."

For 46 years, hundreds of Pittsfield residents have flocked to the West Side neighborhood one afternoon in July for the Gather-in Festival, the oldest African American gathering in Berkshire County. The event, hosted by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP, features multicultural food, toys, vendors and performances. The basketball tournament is its staple.

Spratling, who played basketball at Taconic High School and later in college, watched the 50 children dribble and sweat on the court Saturday. Typically, there are more kids participating, but many of the regulars are out of town with their travel teams.

For the past few months, Spratling has been hearing a lot of negative talk about the kids of the West Side. Ensuring that they have something healthy in their lives to entertain them is the best way to keep them from getting into trouble, he said.

That's why Ronnica Bennett and her husband, Joseph, were thrilled when their son, Jayden, asked to get involved with Youth Alive, a community-based step, dance and drum program.

On Saturday, Jayden, 12, banged on his drums and marched with five other children in a processional through the park before performing at the festival.

"He likes it," his mother said. "They don't really have a lot of stuff for the kids here."

In the year that Jayden has been involved with the program, he has become less shy, his parents said.

"Performing in front of people kind of breaks them out of that," Joseph Bennett said.

Visitors to the festival walked between vendors as the smell of steamy seafood stew and empanadas wafted through the summer air.

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Makya Lowe, 8, was hard at work filling plastic cups with lemonade at her stand, Tootie Fruities. The cold drinks were going fast as community leaders and officials lined up in front of her.

Makya was selling the lemonade with two goals.

"So I can take a trip to Disney World with my family so I can have more time with them," she said. The rest of the money will be donated to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"I want to help them," Makya said of children suffering from cancer. "I want to help them live and stuff."

Across the park, Pittsfield resident Sam Adams also was working a line.

For six years she had run a candy booth at Gather-In and last year decided to try something new, by running a seafood boil.

"Durant Park is my stomping grounds," said Adams, 55, who grew up in the city.

These days, it's her grandchildren who are hanging out in the park, she said while stuffing so much snow crab, king crab and corn into plastic foam containers that they barely closed.

"If you're good to them, they're good to you and they keep coming back," she said of her customers.

Spratling said he is happy to see the park, which went through a rough patch about five years ago, come back to life. Back then, the grass and basketball court were covered in debris and glass, he said. On Saturday, there was no litter in sight.

"It seems like people actively care about the park now," Spratling said. "It's hopefully a new look for the West Side."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977


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