The Salt of the Earth

A vision of Literature and Literacy in
"The Heart of New York"

April 2, 2006

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Local author Laurie Halse Anderson spoke as part of the Central New York Community Foundation's "Read Ahead" program to promote literacy. "I want to tell you a few things what I know about this area, what I've learned about this area, and what I would like to see happen here," she said. "And since I'm an author, I'll be looking at all of this through the lens of literature." These remarks are from her report, which she called, "Salt of the Earth."

Being an author is a strange life. You develop calluses on your fingertips and eyeballs. You mutter to yourself frequently, writing down snatches of ideas on grocery store receipts and the backs of your hands. You get paid to tell lies and make people laugh. And sometimes you're asked to be a wandering bard, exchanging stories and opinions for a meal and good conversation. That's why I'm here today.

I'm a Central New Yorker. I grew up at the corner of Berkeley and Dorset, a block away from SU. As a kid I made extra money by allowing cars that were in town for the SU football games at Archbold Stadium to park in our driveway. I went to Ed Smith Elementary, Levy Junior High, Manlius Pebble Hill, F-M and OCC. My first library card was handed to me at the old downtown library building, which looked like a Gothic cathedral to my 7-year-old eyes. Analyze my blood and you'll find salt potatoes and butter.

I must confess, however, that I was an idiot when I was a teenager, a real thick-headed dolt. I couldn't wait to get out of here. As soon as I graduated from OCC - bam! - I was gone. I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, not appreciating home until I was far, far away from it. I lived in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pa., and I've traveled all over our country. Finally, after 25 years away, I came back for good last summer, reached my roots down deep and found the soil that nourished me. I could have moved anywhere and I came here. There is no place like home.

What I know

Here's a fact of the day for you: Syracuse was once known as Bogardus Corners. North Syracuse used to be called Podunk - I am not making that up. The name "Syracuse" is commonly thought to have been bestowed by a postmaster with a fondness for Italy. Contrary to popular belief, it is not Greek or Latin for "swampy place with too much snow." Actually, Cicero called ancient Siracusa "the greatest Greek city, and the most beautiful of them all." The same could be said for our home here. A beautiful place, a melodious name.

But our region? Our region needs a new name. "Central New York" is not descriptive enough. Bad use of dull adjectives, as we say in my trade. "Upstate New York " means just north of Queens to too many people. The "Salt City" is good, but not encompassing enough. "Champion of the Golden Snowball" is a little hard to explain to outsiders.

There is only one solution: we need to call ourselves the Heart of New York.

Our region needs a new name...we need to call ourselves the Heart of New York.

Heart meaning central and vital - smack dab in the middle of the map, reachable from all corners of the state.

Heart meaning beauty - natural beauty unparalleled anywhere in the country.

Heart meaning compassion and goodness - reflecting our community values of reaching out and helping, like the big heart shown to refugees from Bosnia, Somalia and Sudan.

Heart meaning the core, the foundation, the place wherein resides the soul. That's who we are - the heart and soul of New York.

Growing up here, I knew that this place had been home to generations of extraordinarily kind, curious, hard-working people. People who were more than up to the challenge of our hills and our snowstorms. What I didn't know until recently was the rich tradition of literature and social activism that we have.

What I've learned

The history of self-improvement, striving for growth and understanding, and championing literary achievement has deep roots in this area. Now way back when it started, it wasn't much. In 1820, this area was a salt marsh with a couple houses on it.

What I didn't know until recently was the rich tradition of literature and social activism that we have.

When the Revolutionary war hero Marquis de Lafayette visited here on June 9, 1825 - five years later - he compared the region to "wilderness that ... has been transformed into one of the most populous, well cultivated and enlightened parts of the United States." (The guy made such an impression that the people of a newly formed community near Pompey decided to name their town after him - Lafayette.) (Best apple festival I know.)

With the Erie Canal in place, the region boomed. As the region grew, so did its passion for literature. By 1840, the Legislature opened the Syracuse Library and Reading Room Association. Nine years later, a literary association called the Franklin Institute was incorporated. It also had a library and a reading room, and it sponsored lectures during the winter months open to the public.

The presence of books in a community leads to readers. A community of readers tends to be open-minded, intelligent and progressive. It is not surprising, therefore, that our area, the heart of New York, the soul of New York, was fervently against slavery and very active in helping people in bondage obtain their freedom in the days before the Civil War.

Andrew Dickson White was the co-founder and first president of Cornell. White was born in Homer, and grew up and was educated in Syracuse. In his autobiography he wrote: "Syracuse, as the central city of the State, was the scene of many conventions and public meetings. That was a time of very deep earnestness in political matters to prevent the extension of slavery, and, by the more conservative, peaceably to preserve the Union ... There were at Syracuse frequent public debates between the various groups of the anti-slavery party represented by such men as Gerrit Smith, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, John Parker Hale, Samuel Joseph May, and Frederick Douglass. They took strong hold upon me and gave me a higher idea of a man's best work in life."

In 1851, the Anti-Slavery Society had been driven out of New York City and moved their meetings to Syracuse...[which] became a heart of the abolition movement in this state.

In 1851, the Anti-Slavery Society had been driven out of New York City and moved their meetings to Syracuse. William Lloyd Garrison said that the fact that the Society could hold its meetings peacefully in Syracuse would "cover this city with historical renown."

Syracuse became a heart of the abolition movement in this state. No fugitive slaves were ever returned to bondage from Syracuse. The people building our community valued people, they valued learning, they valued books. Folks here attended lectures and readings by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Horace Mann, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, and Fannie Kemble-Butler.

In March of 1868, Charles Dickens came to town! He read for 90 minutes, took an intermission, then came back on stage and read a little while longer. It can't be said that we made a positive impression, exactly. "On the previous night at Syracuse - a most out of the way and unintelligible-looking place, with apparently no people in it." But we turned out in droves to listen to the author. He pulled in more people in Syracuse than he had in Rochester, Albany, Springfield or Providence.

Mark Twain read here from his works in 1871. If I can stretch our reach a bit, we can almost claim him as a hometown player. Mark Twain married a girl from Elmira and spent summers there writing. The family homestead is now a center for visiting Twain scholars.

In 1875, the progressiveness of the region continued apace with the Women's Congress held here with Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton speaking, and author Louisa May Alcott in the audience.

The list of authors with ties to our region is long, so I'll just give you the highlights:

L. Frank Baum - Wizard of Oz, born and raised here.

Walter Farley - Black Stallion, grew up on Tipperary Hill.

Other childrens' authors like Bruce Coville, Ellen Potter, the Mazers: Norma, Harry & Anne, Ellen Yeomans, and ... me.

Writers for adults with ties to our community include Tobias Wolf, Mary Karr, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Seybold, Jay McInerney, John Berendt, professor Gwyneth Bolton, poet and professor Bruce Smith, Raymond Carver, Steven Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, mystery writer John McDonald, and scholar Alison Lurie.

It was just in the newspaper that Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who spoke here in the fall, amazing author, gifted musician and person I would most like to drink tea with, is moving here.

We've had giants walking among us here, the giants of the Literacy Movement: Bob Laubach and Ruth Colvin and Robert Wedgeworth. Their lives are testimony to the finest values of our region, combining progressive social activism with literature, and always emphasizing the worth of every individual. Each one, teaching one - words to live by.

This is such an amazing place!...When I tell people around the country about it, their jaws drop open and they say "in Syracuse?"

This is such an amazing place! There is the Downtown Writer's Center at the YMCA, outreach programs offered by local colleges, vibrant chapters of writers groups, including writers of poetry, for kids, romance writers, and fantasy authors. We even have a James Joyce club.

The astounding Central New York Reads program (currently reading Miriam Grace Monfredo's wonderful North Star Conspiracy) still has ongoing events. Be sure to check out their Web site. Central New York Reads Day is coming up on April 22. This is one of the most thorough one-city-one-book programs in the country; another thing to be proud of.

We have people who love books. The Raymond Carver Lecture series at SU, the Rosamond Gifford lecture series downtown - do you know how good that is? When I tell people around the country about it, their jaws drop open and they say "in Syracuse?" And I nod and say "yes, in the heart of New York."

What I want to see

So that is what I know and what I've learned. Now let me tell you what I want to see.

First, a quiz. What percentage of adults in Onondaga and Madison counties read at or below the eighth-grade level?

According to data on the Read Ahead Web site (www.readahead.com), based on the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey and the 1990 U.S. Census data, 40 percent - four out of 10 - read at or below the eighth-grade level. The average job in America today requires two years of education beyond high school. Clearly, that is a gap that needs to be addressed - it's why we're here today.

But I'm not interested in incremental growth. I want something bold, daring, visionary. I want our region to set the standard in literacy.

We need to take an unflinching stand against ignorance the way we did against slavery.

I want us to commit to 100 percent literacy.

That's right. Imagine if every adult could read at least at the eighth-grade level, and if every kid was where they should be for their grade. Imagine if we could find the way to support the schools so that all of our graduating seniors were doing senior-level work. Imagine a world where you talked to your boss, your mechanic, and the kid who bags your groceries about the books you are all reading. Imagine neighborhood barbeques where you swapped football statistics and hardcovers.

One hundred percent literacy! That is a radical, powerful concept. If everyone could read, and read well, we'd have a population prepared to make informed political decisions. Our people would become a workforce that would be the envy of the world. Our people would be able to read their medicine bottles, choose their food carefully, understand legal documents - well, some of them know what is going on around them. Our people would become critical thinkers because that's what literacy does for you it fires up the engines of the brain.

One hundred percent literacy that's my goal. They do it in Scandinavia. Maybe it's a winter thing. Tough winters = literacy. We fit right in.

One hundred percent literacy would address about half of the issues raised by the 2002 Citistates Report that highlighted areas of critical concern for our region. Full, robust, 100 percent literacy would go a long way toward:

  1. Healing the deep social and racial disparities we have allowed to fester.

  2. Meeting and overcoming our economic challenges that require an educated workforce.

  3. Creating an atmosphere of Hipness strange, but true that attracts culturally aware and culturally connected young people and allows them to thrive. When we become the Capitol of Literacy, that will happen here.

If I have one criticism of our region, it's that we sell ourselves short. Too many people wince when they say Syracuse instead of shouting it from the rooftops.

But we can't think small. If I have one criticism of our region, it's that we sell ourselves short. Too many people wince when they say Syracuse instead of shouting it from the rooftops. It is time to take our light out from under the bushel, and let the example of a community committed to the highest possible goals of literacy family literacy, adult literacy, and children who all read well and read for fun. We can, should, and will create a tipping point of literacy, with enough momentum to create a region packed with readers.

You are here because you are the movers and shakers who care. You have the skills to make our good place to live even better. You feel called to give back, to express your gratitude with commitment and imagination and grace. Together, we can redefine the heart of New York to become a vibrant center with strong jobs, strong families and strong children. One hundred percent literacy.

I want to end by sharing a moment I had last summer, the moment when I knew I had made the right decision coming back here. It was at the Taste of Syracuse festival downtown. It was jam-packed with people and the smells of food. It was hot, sun beating down, kids squealing and playing in the fountains, balloons bouncing free along the skyline, lovers old and young holding hands, music drifting with the barbeque smoke, people of all colors, all faiths, all backgrounds moving their hips and bobbing their heads to the same rhythm. It was a familiar feeling, the safety of my childhood.

We are the salt of the earth here. Not as fancy as some places, not as rundown as others. We are salt, bread, and wine the basic elements on a table, the elemental fruits of life. We are capable of extraordinary things here; in literacy, in fellowship, and in leadership. Let's make it happen.

Go on and "Read Ahead".


Author Laurie Halse Anderson grew up in Syracuse. Her first young adult novel, Speak, was nominated for a National Book Award.