Drop me off in Harlem: exploring the intersections

By , csmonitor.com

From time to time, enough artists of like mind or similar geography will inspire and encourage each other to the point of creating, a "movement." Just how many participants it takes to reach an artistic critical mass is anybody's guess, but there's no doubt that the threshold was reached during the Harlem Renaissance between the two World Wars. Drop Me Off In Harlem - exploring the intersections investigates the Renaissance by meeting the catalysts, touring the landscape, and witnessing the impact of a cultural explosion - at its point of origin and around the world.

Created by ArtsEdge (an education-through-technology arm of The Kennedy Center for the Arts), Drop Me Off looks at the outpouring of creative activity in Harlem between 1917 to 1935, and uses the unique capabilities of the Web to effectively illustrate the critical mass phenomenon. (As the authors point out, many of these people "...went to the same parties, danced at the same clubs, and lived and worked on the same streets.") Giving visitors the ability to interweave stories and move instantly from one reference point to the other, Harlem's intersections are meticulously mapped out in both the geographic and artistic context.

The artistic intersections are best illustrated in the first of the site's three main sections. Faces of the Renaissance uses individual "Cards" for each of almost 40 actors, writers, dancers, artists, musicians, and supporters - and accompanies each biography with a column listing influences on or from other members of the community. (For example, the card for Eubie Blake notes that he launched the career of Florence Mills, had his work played by Duke Ellington, performed with Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, and appeared at benefits for the NAACP - co-founded by W. E. B. Du Bois.) Surfers can use these entries to link directly to another subject, or use a categorized navigation bar along the top of the card's frame for a more systematic survey. (There is also a "View All Cards" option that lists every personality profile on a single page - for those who want to be sure that they haven't missed anyone during all the intersecting.)

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In addition to the bios and connections, many subjects' cards offer such media files as a video of Bill Robinson's "Step Dance," an audio clip of Cab Calloway,'s "Minnie the Moocher," and a transcript of "The Making of Harlem," by James Weldon Johnson. Unfortunately, the audio clips aren't full length, and the videos are RealVideo - so don't expect a smooth playback.

Cards contain links to the second main sectionss, Themes and Variations - which features wider surveys of the Renaissance. (Subjects covered in Themes include the birth of an African-American publishing boom, and the impact of the 1921 musical revue, "Shuffle Along," on the stereotyping of African American performers and on American musical theatre as a whole.)

The last of the three main sections, A Place Called Harlem, examines intersections in the geographic sense - through an interactive map of notable social, artistic, and political landmarks located between 155th and 129th streets. Historic locations -from the Cotton Club to the Tree of Hope- are presented with their own biographies, as well as period photographs and links back to related Faces. For educators, Classroom Connections holds a pair of middle and high school classroom activities, and links to offsite lesson plans about the Renaissance.

Designers gave Drop Me Off a unique look (starting with a color palette based on the works of Aaron Douglas) and an efficient interface. Once inside any of the main sections, text and indexes scroll within each content frame, and images open in pop-up windows - so as long as you have an 800x600 screen or larger, you won't need to do much shifting around during your visit. Not without its flaws, though, the site does have the occasional problem displaying its layouts in a manner that the designer presumably intended. The "Echoes of Harlem" index in Themes and Variations, is an overlapping mess in Netscape 7 and not much better in Internet Explorer. The only way I could keep the text from overlapping was to abandon standard font sizes and shrink the type until it was illegibly small.

While irritating, such a cross-browser/cross-platform problem is easily fixed with a bit of remedial coding, so with luck, it may be repaired before long. In the meantime, it's a minor annoyance when balanced against the content of the rest of the site, and the creative and effective manner in which that content is being presented.

Drop me off in Harlem can be found at http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/exploring/harlem/.

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