Thriving Public Memory in Syracuse - some side-trips for Rt 81 planners

("View from the Pulpit," copyright Deborah Willis, courtesy of Light Work)

Tucked away off the Panasci Lounge in SU's Schine Student Center, the photo exhibition "Embracing Eatonville" is a treasure worth climbing stairs for. It's one of a several related public memory projects that those contemplating the future of Route 81 might take in.

On view through May, the 2004 Light Work exhibition is reprised to coincide with the Syracuse visit of one of its artists. "Embracing Eatonville" surveys Eatonville, Florida, the oldest Black incorporated municipality in the country and home of Zora Neale Hurston, whose father served as the town's third mayor and pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. In 2002, Syracuse photographer Carrie Mae Weems invited Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham and Deborah Willis to join her in this project.

"Embracing Eatonville" features Weems' photos of herself -- "channeling Zora," observes Willis -- walking the town's shady paths, sitting by its lake, relishing conversations beside a piano or a pick-up truck. They're among my favorite of any Weems work. Lonnie Graham photographed the town residents at market and their homes dwarfed by ancient, moss-draped trees. Dawoud Bey made vivid color portraits of young people. Willis captured the "View from the Pulpit" (in this region red in church evokes the "blood of the lamb" more than scarlet women), the town's beauty salons (part of a larger project for her), its lake and landmarks. Framed texts draw from aphorisms of local folk wisdom.

In 1987 Florida's Orange County was all set to expand tiny Eatonville's main street to a five-lane highway, opening up the county's last undeveloped chunk of real estate. Hurston's pioneering decades as artist and African-based folk-life historian were critical to Eatonville's designation in the National Register of Historic Places and to its citizens' successful efforts to halt the highway plan. Instead, local history and arts projects have flourished there and drawn national attention.

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