All The Neighborhood’s A Stage: The Power of Storytelling

Riverwise Interview with ‘Pedal To Porch’s’ Cornetta Lane

Interview conducted by Eric Thomas Campbell

Neighborhood by neighborhood, Cornetta Lane is coaxing Detroit homeowners onto their porches to take ownership of their communities through the ancient craft of storytelling. The stage may be intimate, but the potential for raising awareness about our identity, and our vital role in protecting it, is vast. In 2014, Lane turned to storytelling as a way to reclaim her own childhood neighborhood, known as Core City, after discovering signs of a misguided effort to rebrand the area as West Corktown.

Lane reacted by canvassing the city blocks where she grew up. She quickly discovered a high level of awareness and a willingness to organize around the issue. Folks in other parts of the city may not have known the area inside the approximate borders of Michigan Avenue, Grand River, Warren and East Grand Blvd. as ‘Core City’, but the residents living there certainly did.

Out of that initial neighborhood survey, Core City Stories, which has now evolved into Pedal To Porch, was born. Pedal To Porch hosts bike tours through designated neighborhoods, making stops at designated homes where residents emerge onto their porches to tell their story. Lane and her longtime neighbors took the rebranding effort and used it as an opportunity to engage a wider audience in a much-needed conversation about the past, present and future of our city.

The intentional renaming of historic Black neighborhoods is a device used by city planners to make communities more attractive to potential investors, and to speed the erasure of the people’s cultural history. Pedal To Porch and Lane’s writing on that issue, and the subject of gentrification in general, have increased the scope of the dialogue.        

“For me, rebranding is a form of gentrification and it’s a hot topic,” Lane told Riverwise. “No one wants to be labeled as a gentrifier.”

 With the help of a Knight Foundation grant, Pedal To Porch has taken the concept citywide. Riverwise met with Lane on her new porch to discuss the evolution of Pedal to Porch and its potential to increase self-determination from within our strongest asset— the neighborhood community. — ETC

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Riverwise: After the success of Core City Stories in 2015, how important was it to continue developing the outreach element with Pedal To Porch?

Cornetta Lane: I wanted to create a city-wide conversation about what rebranding can do to neighborhoods. If you look at New York, neighborhoods were rebranded or buildings were rebranded, and then you get this wave of interest coming through those parts of New York and now people are priced out of their homes. I didn’t want that to happen to Core City.

When I launched Core City Stories, I needed to get my neighbors involved because I needed to share with them what was going on. I feel like the only way to do that was to go to their door and knock and have a conversation with them.

And then also realizing, there is a digital divide in Detroit. Not everyone has access to the internet. The way that I found out about the effort to establish a ‘West Corktown’ was scrolling through Facebook and stumbling upon the Model D article.

For Pedal to Porch I kept the same process that I had with Core City [Stories] because it establishes a trust and a relationship with the people I’m working with. Also, with Pedal To Porch, we’re usually invited to the neighborhood so we don’t presume that Pedal to Porch is for every community.

Pedal To Porch seeks to address the issue of neighbors not knowing each other, and neighbors not having conversations about what’s happening in the community. It’s built to lower the barrier of connection between neighbors so that we can begin to talk to each other.

I built in the door-to-door campaign, not only to begin to ask questions of the residents, but also to let them know that this thing is happening in their community and if they want to participate, they’re more than welcome.

So it’s a two-pronged reason for continuing with the door-to-door campaign: The first is to create awareness, the second is to ask questions of the residents. Not every community development organization is going to go door-to-door, so this can create another opportunity to do so.”

RW:  How has storytelling invigorated and mobilized the neighborhoods that have participated in Pedal To Porch thus far?  Can you expand on the idea that storytelling can heighten one’s consciousness, or self-consciousness— that in the act of telling your own story you’re placing yourself in the course of history, or at least the history of your neighborhood?

CL:  The community organizations that are contacting Pedal To Porch have usually already established some sort of organizing process in the neighborhood and want to continue mobilizing residents through Pedal To Porch.

They are intimately aware of what’s happening in their neighborhood and they just want to talk about either the history of it, or they just want to have an interesting and fun event.

The thing about Pedal To Porch is stories. I just believe in the power of crafting stories as well as telling stories. For me, crafting stories is all about self-reflection and I feel like when you put aside time to self-reflect, that’s growing your emotional intelligence around your experiences and the more you do that the more capable you are of handling different situations and, also, whatever hurt that you’ve experienced during that time, be able to kind of heal from that.

Story crafting is a form of meditation, I feel. Because it has an ability to self-correct, or even change how you see and view things. It allows for emotional and intellectual exploration and I believe in that…when you come to tell your story you’re able to share ideas with people and share experiences and people are able to see themselves in your experience or begin to empathize better. I just think the two of them together, within a community, it’s a very powerful tool for mobilizing and that’s why it’s resonating with a lot of people even outside of Detroit. They see the power that it can have in their neighborhood.

Pedal To Porch in Southwest Detroit, one of the storytellers told a story about how they started the Brown Beret chapter in Southwest Detroit. And another storyteller on a different street responded during the workshop that the Brown Berets had motivated him to become an activist.

They didn’t know each other and now they do because someone paved the way for them to become active in Detroit and contribute to their community how they see fit…. I thought that was a really powerful example of growing more in the connection to your community and your community’s history.

RW: What types of stories have you been hearing during the tours? What topics seem to be the most popular?

CL: They range from a kid on the East Side, 16, who told a story about losing his dog and his neighbors helping him to find it, and that journey. Another woman talked about how her neighbor– an incredibly kind woman– pointed to a little sprig, or plant, that was in the ground and asked if we should let this thing grow? The other woman said, “Yeah, we should.”  And now it’s like a 50-foot oak tree. One of the women has now passed on, but that tree lives in honor of her, along with the story.

Back in the southwest neighborhood, a man told us about social awareness and why he’s now into urban farming. He talked about the extraction of Black wealth and poverty in his community. He was saying a lot of the homes around him burned down and now there are these huge gaps in his community and for every home that’s gone, that story and history are gone as well. And so it’s up to people in his community to reconnect or even fill in those gaps by creating new things that benefit the community, like gardens.

I think diversity of story is important. We can do issues-based stories, but I just prefer not to influence what people share. I want people to share what they authentically feel because it comes off better that way.

I have considered doing issues-based Pedal To Porches—issues like transportation, food and food insecurity but, for the most part, when we host our storytelling workshops, we just ask people to talk about something significant that happened in their house or on their street and you get the diversity of stories.

RW: I love the idea of people using their own home as their stage. It not only makes the storyteller more comfortable, but provides a perfect prop for the stories themselves. How integral is the storytelling environment to the story?

CL: The interesting thing is that people don’t necessarily have to leave their house. One woman– she’s an artist– she brought all of her paintings out on the lawn. She had a little lemonade stand for everybody. She really kind of brought her house out so that people could feel comfortable on her front porch.

Public speaking is terrifying in general. But when you can speak on your front porch, I feel like that lessens the anxiety and you’ve gone through the storytelling workshop, so you know what you’re going to say. You’re comfortable in your delivery. So now you just have a built-in audience. There’s something to be said about the comfort level within that.

RW: How many Pedal To Porch tours have you done? How many stories have been told through Pedal To Porch since its inception?

CL: For Core City it was four, for southwest six, and Eastside along Mack Avenue, five. This summer we’re doing four tours in Detroit and each will have five storytellers and then we’re doing one in Washington, D.C. with five storytellers.

RW: Have you seen any lasting effects on participants that went beyond the Pedal To Porch experience?

CL: The experience has influenced people to go to the next level in community engagement, or in making their community better. In Core City, after the bike ride, my neighbors began to be more active in the community. So we’ve launched the 48208 Collaborative. We meet once a month to just share what’s happening in the neighborhood. That was pretty awesome.

I think that the best thing that can come from sharing your story is that now you’re interested in organizing in your community because you’re more connected to the people. Now you don’t have that fear that you’ll be doing it alone— you’ll be doing it together, whatever it is.

On the Eastside, I really wanted to concentrate on conversations along the Detroit/Grosse Pointe border. After the Pedal To Porch on the Eastside, they put together a plan to create a program where Detroiters and Grosse Pointers had to come together to create some kind of public art or public space along the border. They were finalists for the Knight Cities challenge, but they didn’t ultimately win. I don’t know if they are going to continue with that project, but further action was inspired by those stories.

RW: Are there any new projects or efforts on the horizon for yourself that have evolved out of Pedal To Porch?

I’m starting a new initiative called Dinner for 30, and it’s built to bridge cultural divides. I’m inviting a cook– it can be a novice or an expert– to recreate a dish that’s connected to their fondest memory and they can invite their Dad or their Mom or their spouse or their best friend to help them prepare this dish. And at the end of their story, the audience will get to taste the dish. We plan on doing five installations of Dinner for 30, and then we’re going to create a Detroit Story recipe book. And it’s all attached to this identity, food and culture and what food means for communities. So that’s the project for the winter months.

RW: How are you dealing with the program’s ties to the Knight Foundation and the perceived drawbacks to relying on foundation monies to ignite community engagement, or community development?

CL: So when we won, we went to Philadelphia where the winners’ convening was held. I was listening to some of these projects and I thought to myself, are some of these projects encouraging gentrification? Are some of these projects responsible for the alienation that some people feel?

I grapple with that question:  Do foundations– that have no previous understanding of what communities are– do they effectively fund projects that will then, in the future, displace people, based on the participation of certain folks and not others?

I can say that, for the Knight Foundation, it has been hands-off. So I don’t have to worry that my project exposed people or promoted gentrification. I didn’t get push-back from the foundation for that, and I’m glad that I had that freedom.

Contact Cornetta Lane and Pedal To Porch at www.pedaltoporch.strikingly.com

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