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When Cycling and Storytelling Mingle

Detroit’s Pedal to Porch project hopes neighbors will slow down and meet each other.

Courtesy Erik Paul Howard

On a summer afternoon in Detroit, a few dozen cyclists pulled over on the side of the road and looked for a shady spot to grab a drink of water. They tipped their bicycles over on their sides and gathered on a bungalow’s sun-crisped lawn to listen to a story.

A few years before, Cornetta Lane had learned that a new name was floating around for her neighborhood. The new moniker, West Corktown, nodded to the rapidly transforming Corktown enclave nearby. Lane had always known the four-square-mile stretch as Core City, and the rebranding effort—even in jest, or with the intention of spurring a wave of economic development—felt like a sting. It was a rewriting of a narrative that was deeply personal. “We have an emotional connection to our home,” she says. For Lane, Core City was more than a collection of down-on-their-luck blocks. It was, she wrote on Medium, “a place I learned to ride my bike without training wheels.”

Detroit may be patchworked with disused land, but it’s no blank slate. In Core City, “there have been folks living in this neighborhood for generations who deserve to be celebrated,” Lane says. In summer 2015, she decided to laud them via bicycle, fusing cycling and storytelling to highlight the area’s character.

As a caravan of a few dozen cyclists wove around the Core City neighborhood, they met with storytellers like Amy Good, the CEO of Alternatives for Girls, a local nonprofit that serves girls and women at risk of homelessness. Another neighbor, a nurse named Eleanor Parnell, surveyed the block where she lives—across from the home she was born in—and recalled days of drinking coffee on stoops and going to soda fountains, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Originally dubbed Core City Stories, the project has since expanded beyond the neighborhood’s borders. Now called Pedal to Porch, the outings guide riders on leisurely loops through neighborhoods across Detroit; next summer, cradled by a $30,000 Knight Cities Challenge Grant, the project will also roll into Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and Boston.

Participants at a Pedal to Porch ride in Southwest Detroit. (Courtesy Erik Paul Howard)

Despite its history as a car city, Detroit’s bike scene is already expansive. The weekly Slow Roll excursion, which attracts thousands of riders, has picked up steam over six seasons and spawned national branches; an extension of the Dequindre Cut—the city’s paved rails-to-trails track—opened last spring. Officials have been considering proposals to beef up the cycling infrastructure, too, including protected lanes that would keep riders closer to the curb. And across the city, a handful of local cycling shops offer places to get a tune up.

The cycling community is tight-knit and growing, says Derek Savage, the shop manager and head mechanic at Southwest Rides. The store, which also runs an earn-a-bike program for local kids, partners with Pedal to Porch to map out rider-friendly routes, and loans bikes to participants who don’t have their own. Savage has been entirely car-free for three years, since his insurance payments ballooned to $230 per month. But even for more recreational riders, cycling can shift one’s mode of engaging with the city. Riding has “allowed me to view the city in a different way,” Savage says. “It slows it down for me, which means I get to see more of it.”

Lane hopes that as cyclists cut a path on the road, they’ll also forge relationships. Rolling along en masse, cyclists “could maintain your speed and meet one person, speed up and meet another person, slow down and meet someone else, or hang in the back and watch the scenery,” Lane says.

(Courtesy Erik Paul Howard)

Convening residents and conversations can translate, Lane says, into long-term strategy for imagining the future of neighborhoods. Since launching Pedal to Porch, she’s helped to spearhead the 48208 Collaborative, a group that aims to identify—and work to solve—issues that are important to residents in the surrounding communities. When it comes to approaching issues such as blight, crime, and lack of public space, she adds, the group is a way to share resources by mapping “which organizations are doing what, is there any overlap, and can we support each other as opposed to creating something separately from each other?” Lane’s convinced that the bike rides laid the foundation for this kind of community building. “I wouldn’t have known any of my neighbors who are participating in this otherwise,” she says.

She’s also working towards launching an open-source model so that other groups can emulate the cycling project. She hopes that the toolkit’s future users will preserve her mission of storytelling with dignity—one reason she compensates the tellers with a stipend. Lane insists that the rides are conversations, not attractions. “Neighborhoods aren’t zoos,” she says.

To that end, Lane also collaborated with the filmmaker Charles Ashley to distill the trips into documentary shorts, which Pedal to Porch is screening at venues across the city. (The next installment, depicting an outing along the Mack Avenue corridor, will debut in January.)

Following the screenings, Lane invites the audience to pick up on themes that the storytellers touched on—often, tough topics like racism, poverty, and gentrification (or, as Lane puts it, “how to move into a neighborhood without being Columbus-ers”). “It’s so important to have dialog with people,” she says. “Especially people who have a vested interest in seeing Detroit bounce back and become a better place.”

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.