Then, Now & How (Part 3)

steve schwartz

Steve Schwartz with the sloop Woody Guthrie (Photo by B. Cronin)

The city has long been fertile ground for community activism. Why here?

In 1978, Steve Schwartz ran the New York City Marathon without training. It wasn’t the most questionable thing he did that weekend.

The following day Schwartz got a call from a friend inviting him on a sailboat ride from Beacon to Cold Spring. Schwartz had recently moved to Cold Spring from New York City in order to start a family — “I came upriver to spawn,” he said — and was living near the train station. Although he could barely move, he figured he could hobble to the train, ride to the Beacon waterfront, hobble to the boat, sail to Cold Spring and hobble home.

“I’m thinking deck chairs and a piña colada with a little umbrella in it,” he said. “I didn’t know much about sailboats, but I figured you didn’t walk much on it.”

The boat was the brand-new sloop Woody Guthrie, a smaller-scale replica of the sloop Clearwater that folk singer Pete Seeger and friends had built 10 years before. Seeger was there and, as Schwartz found out when they pushed off from the dock and discovered that there wasn’t enough wind to catch the sail, he liked to do things the old-fashioned way.

“His favorite thing about that boat was rowing it,” Schwartz said. The immobile Schwartz and the spry Seeger spent the next three hours rowing the 9-ton sloop down to what some sailors call The Wind Gate, where the Hudson River narrows and deepens between Storm King and Breakneck Ridge. The Dutch, however, referred to that area as “the weather hole,” as Schwartz discovered when the wind and current suddenly picked up with hellish intensity, determined to sink the Woody, as they had hundreds of other boats in that spot.

Three hours of rowing at a snail’s pace were followed by 10 minutes of breakneck panic, as the sloop zig-zagged back and forth, narrowly missing the shore again and again. Finally, with Cold Spring in sight, Seeger dropped the sail and the sloop gently coasted into the dock as if being carried on a pillow.

“I turned to Pete and said: ‘What do I have to do to get back on this boat?’” Schwartz recalled. “And Pete said: ‘Show up tomorrow; we’re doing some maintenance.’ ”

Forty-five years later, tomorrow hasn’t ended. Schwartz is now a captain of the Woody Guthrie and spends more days on the water than off. It’s a volunteer position; as Schwartz proudly points out, no one has ever paid, or been paid, to be on the Woody. The Beacon Sloop Club still hosts free sailing trips on weeknights at 6 p.m. throughout the summer, and will hold its popular annual Strawberry Festival this Sunday at Pete & Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park in Beacon.

When the Seegers and friends founded Clearwater in Beacon in 1969, the Hudson Valley was a focal point in a resurgent environmental movement, as community groups fought Consolidated Edison’s plans to build a power plant on the side of Storm King. The Seegers thought that if the 18th-century sloops, specially designed to take advantage of the river’s unique topography and fickle weather, made a return and were accessible to the public, people would fall in love with the river again and try to protect it.

Sloop clubs affiliated with the Clearwater sprouted up, although only about a half-dozen remain, and Beacon’s is the only one on the Hudson River that still has a sloop. Perhaps that’s because it’s the oldest club, formed the same year and in the same city as the Clearwater.

But there may be another reason that Clearwater has endured, and that many later activist groups and community organizations have thrived in Beacon. Schwartz, and others said it may have to do with the city itself.

“Pete Seeger landed here for some reason, right?” said Jen Clapp, who arrived in September 2001 from the West Coast and became the first education director at Common Ground Farm.

Schwartz said he observed the same energy in the ongoing protests led by Beacon 4 Black Lives in the summer and fall of 2020 as he did in the early years of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches in Beacon that the Seegers helped to found with the Southern Dutchess NAACP. “We’re Pete and Toshi’s children,” he said. And Seeger used to say, in reference to his work in Beacon, “I wanted to turn back the clock to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”

Feeding each other

Clapp and her family moved to Beacon 10 days before the towers fell. She didn’t know too many people, but the people she did know were looking to build community in the wake of the attacks. From that came Common Ground Farm, based at the Stony Kill Environmental Center just outside Beacon. It launched one of the Hudson Valley’s first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects in which members pay upfront for a share of a farm’s produce throughout the growing season.

After Clapp became education director, the farm started working on food-justice projects, such as offering free or discounted memberships, working with the Beacon school system and helping to found the Green Teens, in which teenagers are paid to plant community gardens while learning about the food system and how to cook the food they grow. Thanks to an ongoing grant, Common Ground gives away about half of the food it grows every year.

Clapp left in 2013 to become a nurse, which meant that she was overworked and overwhelmed after the pandemic hit. “Suddenly Beacon Mutual Aid sprang into existence, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this thing that I’ve always wanted to have happen in my community is happening and I can’t participate,’ ” she said. “It was painful.” She changed her work schedule so that she could help with distributions, “and I just loved it,” she said.

beacon mutual aid

Members of Beacon Mutual Aid prepare for distribution on Wednesday (June 7). (Photo by B. Cronin)

Every other Wednesday, a crew of volunteers shows up at 6:45 a.m. behind Rombout Middle School to pack bags, sort donations and unload a truck from the Hudson Valley Food Bank. By 8 a.m. on a recent Wednesday there were more than 30 cars lined up, even though distribution would not begin for another hour. Clapp said that the group usually serves more than 60 cars, and most are transporting members of more than one family. Bags are also packed for home deliveries, and another batch is dropped at the Beacon Recreation Center.

It’s a diverse group that shows up to help, Clapp says: racially, economically and politically. “Everyone’s politics are all over the map, but it doesn’t get talked about,” she says. “This is nobody’s overt mission to change the world. It’s just people working together to do something good.”

The concept of mutual aid appeals to people who might not otherwise get involved in charity groups, Clapp says, because there’s no hierarchy. “I know several people who used to be in that line of cars every week who are now in positions of leadership in the group,” she said.


Kara Dean-Assael and Jamie Levato of Fareground (Photo by B. Cronin)

A similar philosophy governs Fareground, a food insecurity group that was founded in Beacon in 2014 and works with Common Ground Farm and Beacon Mutual Aid. “A lot of our volunteers are people who have in the past, or are currently, getting free food from us,” said Jamie Levato, its executive director, who in 2021 became the organization’s first paid employee. “That’s important to us, because they know what it’s like to have experienced food insecurity, so it helps how people engage with one another. But it’s also neighbors helping neighbors.”

“Being involved and taking action is simply the character of the Beacon community, and it has been for decades,” said Brooke Simmons, who helped to create I Am Beacon in 2012. In 11 years, the group has raised $33,000 in scholarships for Beacon High School graduates, produced 100 episodes of a podcast that features community members and organized dozens of events, including a festival devoted to expanding mental health resources and an annual 5K run.

Simmons said the group was inspired by the legacy of the city’s shuttered community centers, including the Beacon Community Center and the MLK Jr. Center, and by role models such as Carmen Johnson and Lehman Anderson.

Julie Winterbottom, who moved to Beacon in 2016, said “there’s no better antidote to despair and a sense of powerlessness than working with others to actually get things done.” Last year, someone she knew invited her to the first meeting of a Beacon group devoted to addressing the climate crisis. Winterbottom insisted she was too busy but would come to one meeting. However, Beacon Climate Action Now struck a chord and she’s rarely missed a meeting since.

“It’s a collaborative, democratically run group,” she said. “We figure out a concrete campaign to work on and everyone pitches in. The climate crisis breeds fear and a feeling of helplessness, and this group has beautifully countered that.”

The group has been working with organizations such as Grannies Respond and the Beacon Hebrew Alliance to collect supplies and offer outreach to the waves of asylum-seekers who have arrived in the Hudson Valley in recent weeks. It is also pushing for more affordable housing.

Those issues may not seem to have a lot to do with global warming, but Winterbottom said community care is an integral part of addressing climate change. “As the climate crisis accelerates, we’re only going to survive and thrive if we have community connection,” she said.

The mountain and the river

When Pete Seeger moved to Beacon in 1949, he had been branded a communist sympathizer. Only three businesses in town would serve him. He said he built the chimney in his Highlands cabin out of rocks that people threw at him. Yet, when he died 55 years later, in 2014, the city mourned. He had helped change the place.

“This was a smoldering landfill when I got here in 1978,” said Schwartz, standing in Long Dock Park. “Now it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.”

It’s tempting to attribute all of this to the Seegers, but Clapp said she knows from working as a home health aide for older residents whose families have lived in the city for generations that it has long been a tight-knit, supportive place. In conversations with local organizers, the size and landscape of the city kept coming up as the reasons why activism has thrived here.

“It was hard to find community in New York City because the place is so enormous and everyone is focused on their career,” Winterbottom offered. “Here you can make real connections with people because you see them again and again.”

The mountains and the river surround and contain the city, preventing sprawl. “It’s small and compact, so you see your neighbors all the time,” said Levato. “You see what’s going on, you see where the needs are.”

The city is also walkable, with a relatively narrow Main Street. Winterbottom noted that, after her urban downsizing, she could meet someone one day and run into the same person at Key Food or the library the next. Those connections “build a better town and better community organizations,” she said.

“There’s this constant flow of people coming from other places, and they want to meet each other,” said Clapp. “That’s part of what’s kept me here. My kids are grown and gone, but I have this constant flow of new people coming into my life.”

Finally, the mountains and river are lodestars. “It gives you this feeling of attachment and love for the place where you live,” said Winterbottom. “That extends to wanting to take care of it, and wanting to work with other people to take care of it.”

“People here know that they live in a special place, and we don’t want to mess it up,” said Clapp.

“You’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the river,” said Schwartz, one hand gesturing to each. “How could it not be Beacon?”

Leave a Reply

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. All online comments are moderated, must include your full name and may appear in print. See our guidelines here.