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Hear Susan Smitka's story about Harper Woods

Susan Smitka, a 40-year resident of Detroit’s Harper Woods, talks about her love of all things autumn in a Pedal to Porch event from early October.

 

Ideas We Should Steal: Pedal to Porch

The Detroit group tempers the effects of gentrification by connecting newer and older residents through the power of storytelling

The Detroit group tempers the effects of gentrification by connecting newer and older residents through the power of storytelling

On a crisp October day this year, Susan Smitka, a resident of Harper Woods, Michigan, sat on her porch telling a story to an audience of about 25 people standing on her lawn. Her tale jumped from her memories of the neighborhood in Detroit where she grew up, including the nostalgic smell of fall leaves when her neighbors and family would burn them in the street (something she admits now was probably not a great idea)  to the origin of the name of Pumpkin Hook Road, now Kelly Road, in Harper Woods. Woven through all of this was her deep love for fall, and, of course, pumpkin-flavored products.

The rapt audience, in helmets and tired from biking to her house, were all Smitka’s neighbors, though she had not met many of them. Several weeks later after sharing her story, Smitka began receiving gifts from members of her audience—a pumpkin spice candle from a neighbor she had never met, who said she saw it in the grocery store and simply thought of her, and a pumpkin roll from a neighbor she hadn’t seen connected with in awhile. In a world where human connection can feel a low priority, Smitka says, “those two acts of kindness gave me hope that people do still connect in many ways.”

Smitka was participating in an event thrown by the Detroit nonprofit Pedal to Porch, which organizes bike rides through neighborhoods in the city and immediate suburbs with stops at various neighbors’ houses to listen to them tell stories vital to their neighborhood fabric. Over the past three summers, the nonprofit has hosted six rides, with 33 stories told and more than 350 listeners.

“There are articles and even research that’s been done about how communities are more likely to bounce back from social and natural disasters when they know each other,” said Cornetta Lane, the organization’s founder. “Storytelling helps to break those barriers between people.”

Pedal to Porch founder Cornetta Lane

Though connections amongst neighbors is high on Pedal to Porch’s list of priorities, it was Lane’s desire to preserve and celebrate neighborhood identity that got the project started. Lane grew up in the Core City neighborhood in Detroit and attended elementary school right around the corner from her home. She remembers jump roping at recess in the street in front of the school and frequently looking at a black plaque on the side of a building at the end of the block that said in gold, italicized letters, “Core City Neighborhood, Inc.” She knew she was from Core City, and she was proud.

Lane’s connection to this  identity made the realization in 2015 that someone was trying to “rebrand” it even more jarring. In scrolling through her Facebook feed, she came across an article titled “West Corktown: Creating Detroit’s newest neighborhood” and was intrigued by the idea of creating a new neighborhood in a city as old as Detroit. She clicked, and was appalled to find that the “new” neighborhood was actually her own neighborhood—Core City.

A couple had purchased an old bank in the area, just west of the recently developing Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. Tired of telling people they had moved “just west of Corktown,” they started the push to call the neighborhood West Corktown. They made a logo and put it on T-shirts; they created a Facebook page that garnered nearly 1,500 likes.

To Lane, this brand new name swept away the experiences of the thousands  of people who had lived in Core City for generations. “I just think of rebranding as a form of gentrification in that it attempts to erase neighborhood history and identify,” she says. Pedal to Porch—at the time called Core City Stories—was Lane’s effort to “push back against this new emerging identify by celebrating historical accounts of the neighborhood.”

Later that year, Lane participated in the K880 fellowship in Toronto, a program that provides young civic innovators who have great ideas with $5,000 to get their idea off the ground. When she returned, she went door to door in her neighborhood to find out how neighbors felt about the rebranding effort; she found that many people were unaware of this sudden change to Core City, but  were quite upset when she told them.

She recruited four story tellers and 40 attendees and had the first rendition of what would become Pedal to Porch in the summer of 2016. Lane says that after this first ride, the couple behind the rebranding effort apologized, and the dispute was covered so much in the news that the rebrand essentially died.

Since then, Pedal to Porch has spread to several other Detroit neighborhoods and the close suburbs. Once a neighborhood has invited Pedal to Porch to host an event, staff goes door to door to find nominees to be storytellers. The chosen storytellers participate in a 90-minute storytelling workshop and are paid a $25 stipend. On the day of the ride, attendees travel—usually by bike—from porch to porch of each storyteller, learning about them and their connection to the neighborhood.

The rebranding problem Lane sought to address with Pedal to Porch is not unique to her own community. In fact, Philadelphia has experienced its own version of this in several gentrifying neighborhoods over the years. In South Philly, neighbors in what has long been called Point Breeze bristled when newer residents and businesses claimed the area as “Newbold,” even going so far as starting a community group they called the Newbold Civic Association. More recently, signs started popping up in Kensington in an attempt to rebrand that changing neighborhood as “Stonewall Heights”—an effort that ran to ground amidst neighborhood outcry.

“Neighborhood rebranding is happening nationwide,” Lane says. “Pedal to Porch is one way of addressing it and really trying to celebrate and preserve neighborhood identity. It’s a way for neighbors to get to know each other in a fun way. Once you know someone’s story, it’s easier to rally around a cause.”

“There are articles and even research that’s been done about how communities are more likely to bounce back from social and natural disasters when they know each other,” said Cornetta Lane, the organization’s founder. “Storytelling helps to break those barriers between people.”

Changing neighborhoods that attract new residents can be a good thing—as long as you do it without being a Columbus-er. “As we all know, Columbus sailed to this land and decided to give it a name, although Native Americans already had a name for it,” Lane explains. “It was a failed acknowledgement of previous ownership and previous and current identity.”

Lane says the key is understanding that a neighborhood identity already exists, and that you are not the first person to arrive with ideas for improvement. “Absolutely, move in, but do it from a position of support, and not from a position of ‘I’m going to lead this effort,’” she suggests. “Of course you want to have a good looking community, that’s natural. But when you move into some place new, you want to get to know what’s there, and support work already being done.”

In Core City, for example, after Pedal to Porch had its first ride, residents started the 4828 Collaborative in an effort to make it easier to identify where that support is needed. The Collaborative brings neighbors together monthly to discuss new projects and map out ways to help.

The Pedal to Porch model is designed so that anyone can host the event in any city. A toolkit is available on their website for $25 and includes meeting agendas, flyer templates, and pointers on how to host the event. Residents as far away as Florida, Texas, and even Ontario have hosted rides. Lane’s idea has even spread to Philadelphia, where she has spoken with the Knight Foundation, Bartram’s Garden Staff, and the Bicycle Coalition about her own efforts and how they could take what she has learned to inspire community events around Bartram’s Mile, a 1.1 mile trail along the Schuylkill that opened in April.

As the biking season came to a close this year, Lane embarked on a new storytelling expedition: Dinner for 30. At each dinner, an invited cook prepares a dish close to their heart and tells a story about a memory the dish evokes. After, the audience of 30 tastes the dish. Lane was able to raise nearly $9,000 on kickstarter, and plans to pay for the rest of the project through ticket and cookbook sales.

The crux of everything Lane does is storytelling.

“In the age of Trump, we’re more and more divided. We’re constantly trying to find out: ‘Are you part of my community? Are you cool or naw?’” she laughs. “Storytelling helps to connect us.”

Header photo: Pedal to Porch

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