Below a hill in Hunts Point, the Bronx River glistens offering an escape from the city. Herons and egrets glide above the water and the air is fresh. A 20-foot sailboat slices through the calm flow of the river. But this sailboat was made by kids.
Rocking the Boat is a Bronx-based nonprofit that empowers local youth through teaching them to build and sail wooden boats. On Friday, the organization received enough wood to build five more boats from the deinstallation of a Manhattan art installation.
Ghost Forest, the public art installation by Maya Lin that illuminated the effects of climate change on the world’s forests, was uninstalled from Madison Square Park on Nov. 19 after six months of display. The lumber was milled on site by Tri-Lox, a Brooklyn-based, sustainability focused millworks and workshop. The 49 50-foot-tall Atlantic white cedar trees will no longer stand in the park’s Oval Lawn but will glide through the waters of the Bronx River. Because Rocking the Boat builds their boats out of solid wood and not plywood. Finding the right materials can be difficult.
Madison Square Park Conservancy teamed up with Rocking the Boat and Tri-Lox to repurpose the trees, amplifying the environmental and social impact of Ghost Forest. All of the cedars used in Ghost Forest were originally sourced from a restoration project in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where climate change-related phenomena have caused large swaths of forest die-off.
“It was really important to the artist that we do this,” said Tom Reidy, deputy director of finance and special projects with the Madison Square Park Conservancy.
It was also important to the Madison Square Park Conservancy. The park launched a sustainability division to look at the park’s practices from a sustainability lens and to educate the community about sustainability initiatives. Donating the wood from Ghost Forest allows the Conservancy to practice sustainability.
Rocking the Boat is based in Hunts Point on the Bronx River and offers three tracks for its students including boat building, environmental science and sailing. Beyond rowing and sailing, the group uses the boats to conduct environmental research and restoration on the Bronx River. Staff social workers also work with participants throughout their high school years and beyond. The organization offers public programs to school groups and a free community rowing and sailing program. The goal of the program is to show kids the opportunities they have and help them recognize their potential, said Adam Green, founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat.
Andy Aguilar is a junior in high school and a sailor with Rocking the Boat. She said using the wood from the art installation to now build boats is powerful and “gives the wood a new life.”
Sebastian Ramos is an apprentice in the boat building program. He said being a part of Rocking the Boat has pushed him out of his comfort zone and helped him grow as a person. He is excited to use the wood on the next boat building project.
Jaymi Lopez, a boat building apprentice, said she is grateful that people are trying to help the Earth through reusing the wood and that people care where the wood goes.
Tri-Lox is also working to build a system of reuse and salvaging trees that can be used for wood and incorporating that wood into the New York cityscape, said Alexander Bender, co-founder of Tri-Lox.
“We’ve seen too many trees in New York go into the chipper, and we (Tri-Lox) felt like it was time to create a more sustainable circular system that gives New York City trees a second life,” Bender said. “I think being able to salvage the trees form the Ghost Forest, being an exhibit that focused on the fragile state of our ecosystem is really the perfect opportunity to both respond to Maya Lin’s deeply moving work and to also expand our mission at Tri-Lox of salvaging trees so it really has this beautiful synergy.”
The smaller sections of the trees that cannot be milled will be turned into mulch to use in the park, and the conservancy’s arborist will use some smaller pieces to make tree props.
“One hundred percent of the tree is being recycled in one fashion or another. We’re really excited that this has all come together,” Reidy said. “It was a really fantastic exhibition and this is a sweet and appropriate conclusion to the show.”
Rocking the Boat’s beginnings
Green was volunteering with a junior high school in East Harlem in 1994 when the teacher he was volunteering with said he had a dream to build a boat with his students but was never able to do it on his own.
Green grew up on the 11th floor of an apartment in New York City but always loved being outside and creating things with his hands. When the teacher asked if Green would help turn his dream into a reality Green decided to “give it a shot,” he said. The pair worked alongside seventh- and eighth-graders.
Eight months later, the first boat was floating in the swimming pool in the basement of the school.
Green immediately noticed the connection the seventh- and eighth-graders were making to learning when they realized there was a practical, relevant purpose to it and that they could use what they learned in the classroom to create a boat out of a pile of wood.
“They were learning things and actually using them,” Green said. Before, many of the students did not know how to read a ruler, but through the process of building the boat, they learned how. The interrelationships that formed during the boat building process was also transformative, he said.
“It was magical,” Green said. “There was just this feeling of connection and sort of a bond that we all had because we were doing this really special thing.”
What started with eight kids in a small classroom in Harlem, turned into an organization serving about 4,000 people.
“I was really excited about connecting kids to nature and understanding how that nature affects them and how they affect it,” Green said.
Historically, the Bronx community has had very little access to parks and green spaces. People living in the area have the highest levels of asthma in New York City because of the air quality.
Rocking the Boat gives kids the opportunity to be in nature and to have extraordinary experiences that give them the opportunity to discover skills, talents and possibilities in their own selves, their lives and in their own communities and then use those skills to go out into the world and be successful, Green said.
“This (the Bronx River) is an amazingly rich resource that improves the quality of life, not just for the animals, but for the people of the Bronx,” Green said.
The group recently received funding to start growing seaweed at the mouth of the Bronx River to use in community gardens as fertilizer. The group has also built boats for other organizations such as a whaleboat for the Mystic Seaport Museum and a steamboat for the Stevens Institute of Technology.