Eatonville’s Big Bash Turns 20: A Town Transformed
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
January 17, 2009 Saturday
Daphne Sashin, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
STATE AND REGIONAL NEWS
EATONVILLE — Twenty years ago, a small town went looking to prove it was worth saving.
The residents of Eatonville were fighting to keep a five-lane highway from being built through the center of town. To instill pride among locals and respect among outsiders, they started a festival in honor of their most famous resident, the late Zora Neale Hurston.
Long after plans for expanding Kennedy Boulevard were scrapped, the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities — now in its 20th year — has spread Eatonville’s name far beyond Orange County.
As many as 100,000 people have attended in past years, although 2008 numbers counted about 25,000.
“The impact it has had on the community is the evidence that this community is worthy of respect and therefore capable of great, great things,” said N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, which sponsors the event.
“Eatonville has demonstrated that it can be a meaningful member of 21st-century America, because it demonstrates it every festival, when all these people come.”
Big stars come out
The January celebration, also known as the Zora! Festival, always has attracted important international literary and artistic figures to pay homage to Hurston, a writer and anthropologist who spent her childhood in Eatonville and wrote about its residents in some of her books. Writer Alice Walker was the first big name to attend, followed by the poet Maya Angelou and actors Danny Glover and Phylicia Rashad in later years.
Soon after the festival had begun, tens of thousands of visitors were making annual trips to Eatonville for the multiday celebration of Hurston’s work, the cultural contributions of blacks and Eatonville’s significance as one of the oldest, all-black incorporated towns.
Eddis Dexter, one of the first organizers, said the event transformed the community of about 2,500 people.
“People would call to say, ‘I want to help; I want to be involved in the history-making of the town,’ ” Dexter, 68, said. “Everybody was very proud to work with it, and they were bragging about our festival.”
As the festival grew, some residents complained that it had become too commercial and no longer involved the community in the planning. The trade-off was international and national attention that allowed the Eatonville preservation group to take on other projects that bolstered the town and its image.
Out of the festival came collaborations with the Orlando Museum of Art, a summer performing arts program and an after-school computer lab for Eatonville children. In June 1990, the association opened the first Hurston museum on Kennedy Boulevard, a small gallery of work by black artists.
Nathiri’s group was instrumental in pushing for Eatonville’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The association also co-sponsored markers in a walking trail of Eatonville linking historic sites with Hurston’s writings.
Boost for business
This year, Nathiri is trying to help local businesses capitalize on the festival’s success and sustain that success throughout the year. She enlisted Tadayuki Hara, interim associate dean and associate professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, to help businesses promote themselves at the festival.
“One time a year you have a tremendous opportunity of 30 [thousand], 40,000 people coming to this little town,” Hara said. “If you pick up even one percent of these people, that’s 400 people. [Getting] 400 new customers is unbelievably overwhelming for one hair salon, or even 40 people coming from outside Eatonville.”
Nathiri and Eatonville Mayor Anthony Grant also are pushing for a much larger cultural center, named for Hurston, to increase tourism. The center could include a national archive for the history of black towns, as well as artifacts from Eatonville’s history. The town won a $100,000 grant last year from the state Department of Cultural Affairs to gauge the feasibility of such a project–another testament to the Hurston festival’s success, Nathiri said.
“It has been able to consistently show the tourism it has brought to the region,” Nathiri said.
About 40 percent of festival participants come from outside Metro Orlando, with most coming from other parts of Florida specifically to attend the festival, according to a study by the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2008, about 8 percent of the attendees came from other states. Some residents make it a family reunion each year, with relatives coming from Georgia and elsewhere to attend.
Out-of-town visitors in 2008 spent $784,000 while in the Orlando area, the CVB survey found.
“We started this event because we had to help the Central Florida public understand what Eatonville is — what it represents,” Nathiri said. “Right now still it is a low socioeconomic community. . . But Eatonville has the wherewithal to become a world-class heritage destination. [The] festival has simply shown that that’s really true.”