"Ideas We Should Steal" is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival on Nov. 30.
On a crisp October day last year, Susan Smitka, a resident of Harper Woods, Mich., 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, 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 after sharing her story, Smitka began receiving gifts from her neighbors — a pumpkin spice candle from one, a pumpkin roll from another. In a world where human connection can feel like 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," says Cornetta Lane, the organization's founder. "Storytelling helps to break those barriers between people."
Connections aside, 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 to this day is proud to say that she was born and raised there. But in 2015 she learned on Facebook that someone was trying to "rebrand" her childhood home to "West Corktown." She was appalled.
To Lane, the 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 identity," she says.
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Pedal to Porch — at the time called Core City Stories — was Lane's effort to "push back against this new emerging identity by celebrating historical accounts of the neighborhood." She went door to door in her neighborhood to find out how neighbors felt about the rebranding effort. Many were unaware of this sudden change for Core City, but were quite upset when she told them.
She recruited four storytellers 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 rebranding 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 go 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. Additionally, 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.
"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."
In fact, Philadelphia has had its own share of rebranding efforts 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." More recently, signs started popping up in Kensington in an attempt to rebrand that changing neighborhood as "Stonewall Heights"—an effort that ran aground amid neighborhood outcry.
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The Pedal to Porch model is designed so that anyone can host the event in any city. A toolkit is available on its website for $25 and includes meeting agendas, flier templates, and pointers on how to host the event. Residents as far away as Florida and Texas 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.
"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."
Jill Harkins originally wrote this for the Philadelphia Citizen.