Fair Weather Friends (Or What Keeps Westcott Weird)
September 13, 2022
Text and photos by Sam Gruber
Soon after we moved into The Westcott neighborhood in 1994 my wife and I were asked by a suburban stranger about where we had chosen to live. When I said we’d bought a house off Westcott Street he seemed slightly shocked. He paused, and then perhaps knowing we’d moved from Manhattan, said “Westcott! That’s like Greenwich Village!
Out of earshot I said to my wife, “clearly he’s never been to Greenwich Village.” But in way he wasn’t wrong. True, Westcott is nothing like Greenwich Village in any way you can put your finger on. The way that the Village relates to the rest of Manhattan, however, and is so perceived; that is the relationship between Westcott and the rest of Syracuse.
In recent years local independent coffee shops have offered T-shirts that say “Keep Westcott Weird,” an exhortation (or aspiration) to keep counterculture currents flowing along Westcott Street, and even lapping over the lawns and gardens of the neighborhood’s more settled inhabitants. For many in what is popularly called the Westcott Nation, the simple message is that conformity is the enemy of creativity. But as the children of the 60s and 70s age, they too become set in their ways.
There are many paths to weirdness, and the annual Westcott Cultural Fair is where many of these paths converge. Along with dog walking and school recitals, the Fair is the very best place to run into and catch up with neighbors. It began as a neighborhood enterprise by volunteers of the “Westcott Nation;” a mix of left-over hippies, peace and justice activists, a radical fairy or two, some small business owners, and the committed homeowners who were battling landlords to maintain some balance in the neighborhood between families and student renters. This was hardly the same coalition of homeowners who built and lived in the neighborhood in the early 20th century, but it was – and remains – a community that recognizes the achievement of that first generation in building a truly comfortable and extremely livable neighborhood.
The Fair has taken place every year since 1992, except the first year of the pandemic. It has grown from a funky day-long block party of a few thousand people to over ten thousand participants annually. But the Fair remains essentially a local event. There are dozens of tables for local organizations promoting their political, cultural, and religious missions; and there are quirky craft offerings; children’s games, art projects, and foot races. The library has a big book sale and food and drink is served from the bars and eateries along Westcott Street. As venders take down their tables, the day concludes with lively dancing at the last stage standing as evening closes in.
The Fair is a heady antidote to the New York State Fair, though regrettably, we have no cows, rabbits, or fluorescent poultry, though sometimes people take on similar roles. The Morris Dancers are every bit as colorful as the rainbow-colored Japanese Bantam Silkies at the NYS Fair’s Poultry Building, and more deliberate in their strutting. Over the years Open Hand Theater’s puppet lions and elephants have been an attraction.
Our local parade and fair began in the early 1990s to help revive the spirit of a neighborhood that many viewed as irrevocably in decline. More and more, as Syracuse’s traditional parades (except Saint Patrick’s Day) have faded, the Westcott Fair and parade have grown in both size and stature. In Syracuse, it is the counterculture Fourth of July.
The parade kicks off the Fair at noon. There is a rough order, but after the lead-off by the Color Guard of African American veterans from the Dunbar American Legion Post 1642, there is nothing lock-step to follow. The Vets carry flags and march to drums. These men and women served in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Classically Westcott, the Dunbar Post 1642 is named after a poet, not a warrior. Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906), was a Black poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Post 1642 was founded at the Dunbar Cultural Center in the 1940s when other Upstate American Legion Posts would not accept Black members. In those days, the Post was a base for organizing nascent black power in Syracuse. Those vets and their allies, however, still could not stop the demolition of the 15th Ward and the displacement of Syracuse’s Black community.
In 1972, when the 15th Ward was demolished, the Dunbar Post moved to a much older (former) Odd Fellows Hall at Dell Street and Columbus Avenue. This remains its home, smack in the center of the Westcott neighborhood. The 1970s was a decade of big cultural and demographic change in Syracuse and in Westcott, and the roots of the Fair lie in that era’s chaotic diversity. Most of the Dunbar vets will end up at the Post after the parade where they’ll serve fried chicken and BBQ ribs to the hungry masses. They’ve been preparing the kitchen for weeks. Others will eat sausage or empanadas or other fare from the restaurants on the street.
The flags are followed by the politicians, usually led by the incumbent mayor and the parade’s Grand Marshal, someone chosen by the organizing committee who has usually served the neighborhood well in some useful capacity, or behaves with some much-loved eccentricity. Sometimes both. Some of our elected officials are also members of the Dunbar Post. County Representative Linda Irwin is active at the post with her husband Marion, who is a veteran. And Pam Hunter, our State Assemblywoman is also a Vet, and can usually be found at the Post relaxing on a Friday when ribs, fish, and chicken dinners are served.
I was once given the honor of serving as Grand Marshal for having lived in the neighborhood long enough, and being dubbed the Westcott historian, and I marched side-by-side with our then-mayor. She was good on policy but lacked charisma. To a parade of marching Morris Dancers, belly dancers, and puppeteers on stilts, she wore white shorts, a well-pressed button-upped shirt, and smiled wanly. I, being a near-native, wore complete Renaissance garb. In an embroidered cloak and a doge’s hat, I worked the crowd, shaking hands and kissing babies. Impressed the mayor said “You’re good at this.” I replied, “Maybe, but I’m doing your job.” In Westcott, the neighbors like their politics, but they want theater, too.
After the Mayor and Marshal usually comes a band – recently the Unity Street Band, a kind of New Orleans Jazz co-op, where local residents who can play an instrument join up and play locally, turning up at all sorts of festive events. Next march the local office holders and candidates. The parade kicks off the fall election season on the Eastside, and the politicians and their eager assistants will be circulating through the crowds handing out literature. The candidates of the same party might clump together. If a campaign is a popular one, it will have its own marching coterie holding up signs, while the candidate waves or give the thumbs up sign. The fair draws state, county, and city elected representatives. In a presidential year there is usually a big contingent for the Democratic candidate, and perhaps a modest showing for the Green Party, with perhaps just a few brave Republican souls.
This year has some hotly contested races, so we’ll see lots of candidates and their sign waving supporters. Lawn signs – if they haven’t already gone up in the primary season, will soon outnumber the flowers in front yards and along sidewalk berms, as summer turns to fall. This maintains the classical tradition baked into the very name of Syracuse. Archaeologists have found thousands of painted political “posters” on the exterior walls of houses in Pompeii. Appropriately (as I have written elsewhere), Westcott Street itself is named after a 19th-century mayor, Amos Westcott.
I see these candidates marching and so many of them seem ill at ease. The parade is fun on many levels, but it is far removed from the type of street politics that were the norm a century ago. Before radio and television, politics was more-in-your-face. Candidates or their machines worked the local neighborhood’s civic, business, and social clubs. If the old movies can be believed, there were torch light marches and rallies before Election Day.
The parade continues with school marching bands, church groups, and various clumps of neighbors carrying banners for their special associations and organizations.
A delegation from All Saints Roman Catholic Church waves rainbow flags, carrying signs exhorting “Diversity is for Everyone” and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Refugees Welcome” … Signs carried by the refugee empowerment organization, CNY Rise, exclaim “Revere your Neighbors as You Revere Your Mothers,” “Only a Life lived for Others is Worthwhile,” and “A Candle Loses Nothing By Lighting Another Candle.”
The CNY Pride contingent is led by a large, bearded man dressed as a leprechaun and it is followed by the Jail Ministry of Onondaga County. A delegation from the Community Center is followed by a large throng of parents and kids from Ed Smith School, the local K-8 school, which my children attended, and which celebrated its centennial in 2019. These are followed by a big banner from the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, named after local 19th century troublemaker Rev. Samuel May, uncle of Louisa May Alcott, and an ardent Abolitionist and advocate of equality for women.
In 1845 May gave the subversive – and prescient – sermon on “The Rights and Condition of Women,” that advocated total equality between the sexes. It was published the next year, “God created woman to be the companion of man, not his slave, not his menial; not subservient to his will, any further than his will is in accordance with the will of the Divine Mind. He has not given one law to men, and another law to women, but the same law to both.” This view is championed by the marching women’s contingents.
In 1851 May and his friend Rev. Jemaine Loguen, minister of the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion church, orchestrated the “Jerry Rescue,” when they and dozens of Syracusans violently defied the federal government and the Fugitive Slave Act by freeing a former enslaved man living in Syracuse who was captured for return to the south. Westcott was still farmland at the time, but Rev. Loguen, who had also escaped slavery before settling in Syracuse, lived nearby, off East Genesee Street where he could quietly receive freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. There was no Westcott Street then, but later, in the early 20th century, his daughter Sarah Loguen Foster who was one of the first women in the country to earn a medical degree, owned a house on the street, right about where the Westcott Florist is today. In that spot one is smack in the center of the Westcott Cultural Fair.
Most of the marching politicians cannot show the gumption of May and Loguen, whose spirits more than anyone, hover over the activists, agitators, artisans, and assorted do-gooders that fill the Fair.
The parade is all on foot – not cars, trucks, or flatbeds with floats. Everything is low-tech. Here is the Thornden Park Association, neighbors who have over decades led the restoration of a great urban landscape and public play space. The Westcott Neighborhood Association follows. These residents promote clean-ups, report broken streetlights, design new trash cans, and sponsor public art projects. This year, as WNA co-president, I’ll proudly march with them.
There is a contingent from the local socialist Credit Union, founded on the porch of the Food Coop in 1981. If Westcott can be a “Wonderful Life,” than the Credit Union is the Bailey Brothers Savings and Loan – but happily much bigger and serving a larger clientele. We are alarmed, however, that success brings change, and the Credit Union will soon leave its cozy Westcott Street building for a larger –but more distant space – on East Genesee Street.
Bringing up the rear of the parade – appropriately for our century old neighborhood – is the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans, Central New York Chapter. But if the energy of Fair proves anything, it is that this old streetcar suburb is far from retirement. It won’t die; it will just be reinvented and revitalized.
Probably Westcott Street hasn’t been so busy since the days when the racetrack was active here before all the houses were built. Those home builders didn’t want commotion – at least in their new suburb. We cannot know for sure, but one big change in the neighborhood from the 1920s to the 1970s and then onward has been an ever-increasing assertiveness. By 1920 the neighborhood unconsciously defined itself as proper and circumspect adhering to new America suburban middle-class behaviors. But the 1970s changed that.
What happened to this sense of propriety? A half century later Westcott Street found the counterculture – or vice versa. Folk music, socialist organizers, and peace activists took to the streets (and new coffee shops) and grabbed headlines.
As always, the Fair will bring out all of Westcott, and variety of the neighborhood will be on full view. The Westcott Nation has a strong sense of its varied pasts. The general sense of the neighborhood is that past and present can get along, and a strong and inclusive future will grow from this.