The festival is a premiere form of cultural expression. Unlike its counterparts--the street fair and the block party—each of which has its distinct value, the festival is culturally-specific. It reflects the core values and sustaining practices of a given culture or community. It advances connection and coherence. It draws on tradition to celebrate resilience and change. And, among other things, it involves participants in the kind of creative encounter with one another that renews and builds the ties that bind. Characterized by play, process, and performance, the festival is a ritual of renewal.
In Northside, the festival has at least two primary purposes. The first, following the landmark work of Mindy Fullilove on the effects of urban renewal or what (following James Baldwin’s infamous declaration) quickly came to be called “negro removal,” is to speak back to displacement and dispersal with claims on place. In the late 1970s, when HUD threatened to condemn and demolish homes in Northside, residents organized and held off the destruction that would soon take down the Hayti community in Durham. In the face of the rapid rise in private residential investment and costs of living over the last 10 years that has similarly threatened stability, neighbors have gathered again and again to change policy, to secure rights of ownership, and to protect the unique abundance of their community. Fullilove describes the festival as “the ultimate reworking of the grief of root shock” (228). Actual and potential loss drive its form and its pleasure. The festival grabs grief and turns it inside out into hard-won joy.
A second primary purpose of the festival is to be part of realizing the Northside/Pine Knolls’ vision of dynamic, diverse, livable, family-friendly neighborhoods, as documented in the Town’s Northside Market Action Plan. Today, Northside/Pine Knolls neighborhoods are the most economically diverse in Chapel Hill. Historically segregated, the former enclaves known as Potter’s Field, Tin Top, Windy Hill, and Lloyd/Broad were tight networks of support. In oral histories, neighbors repeatedly describe the four pillars of community that define Northside’s cultural architecture: home and family, school, church, business. Institutions that now seem disparate, even incompatible, were deeply interconnected. The teacher might make it to your house before you did to report bad behavior at school. Businesses were owned by neighbors who guarded residents’ interests. Parents watched out for each others’ kids.
The Northside Festival is not meant to be nostalgic or quaint. It is certainly not about romancing the hardships of living under Jim Crow. As Ms. Gladys Brandon has so pointedly said about Northside community, “we have always been about change.” Effective and inclusive socio-cultural change depends on “reworking” tradition for the present and future moment. The Northside Festival draws on longstanding traditions of community in Northside to imagine and to practice—if only for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon--the power and beauty of a future built on Northside’s history.
We began with May Day. The Orange County Training School, the former, Black elementary and secondary school whose steps still lead up to the new Northside Elementary, closed out its school year in style. Students performed operettas and braided the May Pole. Field games and a small feast accompanied the grand celebration of summer. In 2009, the Jackson Center hosted its first May Day Festival on the grounds of St. Joseph C.M.E. The celebration featured the launch of “Soul in a Bowl,” a community cookbook; t-shirt screen printing to mark the day; and the rare invitation by St. Joseph’s pastor to follow his lead and get HIV-testing—in the church. In 2010, we took what had been immediately declared an annual tradition to the next level, incorporating a multi-mediated documentary installation, “Facing Our Neighbors,” that featured self-styled photos of neighbors accompanied by oral history listening stations and framed transcriptions that meant that, for instance, 95-year-old Mr. Edwards could be seen standing in front of an image of four generations of his descendents, wearing headphones, at once listening to his interview and elaborating his life story to surrounding young people. In the kitchen, folks outside saw themselves almost immediately projected into a montage of neighbors on the wall—in a high-tech version of taping snapchats to the fridge door. In a back room, performances of oral histories provoked one guest to respond: “this is what love looks like.”
This year we aim to take the festival into the streets. Jan Cohen-Cruz argues that the power of radical street performance is “to invite participants into a changing script” (Cohen Cruz, 2). Opening up the portion of W. Rosemary between Roberson and Graham to festival performance, we’ll inhabit what Rosemary Imagined planning has characterized as the “seam” connecting the Northside Conservation District and a municipal services district. Of course, historically, Northside included “the other side” of Rosemary, stretching across Franklin to Cameron and down Merritt Mill The Midway business district was surrounded by the homes of families it served. The line between residential and municipal districts was not as clear as it is today. Thinking about the festival as a street performance, we imagine inviting participants into a historically expansive view of Northside and a renewed connection between home and business.
The Northside festival is free for all and ultimately a time of renewal. It is a chance for all of us to revel in the abundance of Northside community and to rededicate ourselves to preserving its future. We look forward to seeing you there.