Westcott Community

The Westcott Neighborhood of Syracuse, NY

A vibrant eastside neighborhood rich in history, culture, food and entertainment


Spring is Here, It’s May Day

No Comments

April 28, 2024

Last May Day (2023) before dawn – on a wet chilly morning – Luna and I headed to the water tower at Thornden Park to celebrate spring (?) with our local Morris Dancers. We climbed Clarendon as water streamed down the hill from the previous night’s night’s rain, and I tried to ignore all the red solo cups left from weekend student revelries. It was overcast, so rosy-fingered dawn never showed herself in the east.

Still, it was May Day and spring would return. The Thornden Morris and the Bassett Street Hounds entertained with sticks, bells, hoops and twirls. And there was an amusing – and appropriately politically progressive – mumming play, all in rhyme. We all sang a May Day carol and there were flowers – which Luna accepted on our behalf. And plenty of old friends and familiar faces

After the event, I wrote this account which I share here.

— Sam Gruber

 Spring is Here, It’s May Day

Spring is here, it is May Day, but last night’s long rain and this morning’s gray chill seem more like March. I’m optimistic though, and at 5:30 a.m. don my Thornden Park sweatshirt, wake the dog and we head out in the dark to climb a hill to Park’s water tower. At this highest neighborhood peak, our local Morris Dancers and Mummers will welcome the May Day dawn.

Luna I head west. It is strange to see Westcott Street at this hour stretching in both directions and not a car in sight. Finally, as we step over the curb on the other side, we see a bus chugging toward us on the long, wet, shiny black asphalt. We hurry along up the hill of Clarendon Street in case the sun decides to rise early. Carousing students also celebrated May Day here – or MayFest as the fraternities and sororities have named it – and everyone else now, too. Classes will end soon, and the license is to party. If there was a heraldic device for these student-errants, it would be the empty red solo cup that marks their presence. This cup in various sizes is no grail, it is too easy to find. It is strewn across lawns, sidewalks and in the gutters; hard evidence of young revelers.

We climb to the summit. The sidewalks are steep here, and the even steeper driveways literally flow into them. These houses back up against the park and the watery hill. As any drumlin, the hill catches water like a sponge but does not hold it. Water drains downward and after last night’s rains the sidewalks are little rivers. The green berms are sodden. I’m only wearing sneakers, so we walk in the street. Now we reach the top. We turn into the park.

Across a field beneath the tall round red brick drum of the water tower, the rag-coated dancers start to skip and hop and twirl with bells. We hear the clack of sticks as the dancers collide in precise time. We are early enough; things are just beginning.

Soon the company has its say, and recites a brand-new rhyming mummer play.

The early risers watch and cheer, but rosy-fingered dawn does not appear.

A few wise elders have brought chairs to the Morris dancing. Some mothers are there with young children who seem a bit dazed to be out so early. Luna is at her best behavior, and even does a bit of a dance herself with another dog, with the appropriate musical name of Banjo.

The Furry Day Carol is sung, and spring flowers handed out. I thought Furry was a typo on the lyric sheet when it was handed out; but Furry Day is real. This is not the fur of a dog or bear. Furry probably comes from the Cornish word fer, simply meaning fair or feast. A Furry Day is a feast day. In Cornwall May 8th (not May Day), marks the passage of winter to spring. Cornwall’s Christians dubbed this “Flora Day,” in a Latin nod to blooming spring. I think of my grandmother Flora who’s been dead for 35 years, and of the bright daffodils in my yard that are already fading. But today the troupe has fresh daffodils and tulips and the first buds of spring forsythia to distribute.

We watch the dance and look out on the view from the water tower’s drumlin, where long grassy slopes stretch out and tumble like an emerald ball gown sweeping across the floor. This is a steep hill where my children loved to roll and roll and roll down the hill, and winter sledding is very good and a little dangerous. On July 4th, neighbors gather here to watch distant fireworks from the State Fair Grounds.

We are in the city. The gridded streets just below us were filled with rowdy students just the night before. But high up here with the shaking of the dancers’ bells and the accompaniment by tin whistle, squeeze box, and steel drum, we have one foot in another world.

Morris dancing has been part of the neighborhood since 1985, when The Bassett Street Hounds began to practice – on local Bassett Street – and perform traditional English Morris dancing. The tradition is a generation old and seems just right for a neighborhood that was founded for Anglophiles with new street names including Clarendon, Cambridge, Lancaster, Westminster, Buckingham, and Westmoreland. Except for Cambridge, I don’t where these English names come form or to what they refer, but I’m sure whoever and wherever they were, there was dancing.

Now the group practices every week at the local community center, formerly a turn of the 20th-century firehouse, and they are a popular site in the annual Westcott Street parade. They dance what is termed “border Morris,” a term originally applied to dances from Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, but which now applies to a type of dance that is especially energetic. The Hounds maintain their “border Morris dances are “creatively remembered.” That is to say, “they would have been traditional if we hadn’t made them up.” The dancers are a jolly lot, with a tendency to pun. Thus, they write on their website that their names reflect their “dogwood sticks (with bark) and our tendency to howl at the drop of a garish floral cabbie cap.”

Many are older and worn a little like the water-washed rocks, but here the tides that ebb and flow at the foot of this hill are waves of university students, who year but year have spread over Westcott, and eroded the west part of the old family-based neighborhood and transformed it in a student ghetto.

Despite the drizzle, there is good cheer in the air at the water tower as the sky begins to brighten. There are some old friends and many familiar faces. These people have lived here a long time. Many are older and worn a little like the water-washed rocks, but here the tides that ebb and flow at the foot of this hill are waves of university students, who year but year have spread over Westcott, and eroded the west part of the old family-based neighborhood and transformed it in a lively student quarter, following its own clock and rules.

On May Day we won’t worry about that. All are welcome when the sun rises.

— Sam Gruber, May 2023

Sam Gruber is Co-president of the Westcott Neighborhood Association and has lived on Clarke Street for 30 years.


Leave a comment: