Review by Wayne Swanson •
What defines a city? Civic boosters point to all manner of urban amenities, but highways and freeways are seldom among them. Functional at best, highways are more likely known as noisy, divisive, and unsightly rips in the urban fabric.
Yet in the post-World War II era, their impact on American cities has been profound. Photographer Shane Lavalette uses one aging and unloved segment of elevated highway to explore the effects on the character of his city, Syracuse, New York. The slender monograph, part of the Kris Graves Projects Lost II series of city portraits, captures daily life set against the backdrop of a stretch of highway that has outlived its usefulness.
Lavalette is director of Light Work, a non-profit organization in Syracuse that provides direct support to artists working in photography and related media. The images are early work from his ongoing project about Syracuse. They consist of portraits of the people and the mundane realities of city life, with stark detail shots of the ever-present freeway interspersed. The black-and-white images are evocative, if at times dreary and drab, but they capture daily life in the type of city neighborhood that does not appear in travel articles.
Context for the images is set in an introductory poem by Carrie Mae Weems that asks “How do you define a life?” Unspoken but implied is the point that surroundings play an important role. A closing essay by author Arthur Flowers fills in the blanks about the facts of the matter: More than 60 years ago, the heart of Syracuse was split by construction of an 1.4-mile stretch of Interstate 81. The elevated highway was problematic from the start, in terms of both functionality and community displacement, and is now in need of replacement. It’s an opportunity for redevelopment and rebirth. But will the city embrace the chance or fumble it again?
Together, the text and images provide an occasion to contemplate the consequences of past city planning decisions and the opportunity to do better this time around. They also demonstrate the reality that people will learn to adapt to their surrounding regardless, while continuing to search for connectedness and hope.
Syracuse, Shane Lavalette
Photographer: Shane Lavalette , born Burlington, Vermont, resides Syracuse, New York (USA)
Publisher: Kris Graves Projects (New York, NY, USA, copyright 2019)
Poem: Carrie Mae Weems, Essay: Arthur Flowers
Stiff cover book with 48 pages and 31 photographs; 7 x 8 ½ inches; printed by SYL, Barcelona, Spain