Thanks to my East Coast Greenway donors

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Thanks to everyone who generously contributed to my fundraiser for the East Coast Greenway, a wonderful organization that works with local partners to build a network of bike-and-pedestrian paths from Maine to Florida. I just returned from the ECG’s “One Week A Year” tour, where forty of my new best friends and I pedaled about 275 miles from Philadelphia to Washington DC (where I had to jump off to go to a work event, but they kept going the full 325 miles to Fredericksburg VA). My donors contributed $680, and the organization as a whole raised over $43,000. You can still donate here.

ECG-sign-dcAs promised, I re-named cities and states on my route for each donor. Each road sign photo below was stolen from someone’s website and personally Photoshopped by me, with great haste, in your honor. (Full disclosure: I didn’t actually see any of these signs! While I originally planned to snap my own photos, turns out that we rarely saw “Welcome to. . .” signage along our bike route. Originally, I planned to snap pictures myself, but it turns out that we rarely saw “Welcome to. . ” road signs on our bike route, since transportation departments apparently save those for the busier interstate highways.) Instead, we saw several small markers for the East Coast Greenway, and this large one when entering northeast Washington, DC.

Match the re-titled territories below with the names of my wonderful donors: Bill and Ginny Major, Chris Corcoran and Abigail Adams, Kathy Barnett, Tracey Wilson and Beth Bye, Jill Cassidy, Maggie Eccles, Elizabeth Rose, cousin Vicki and her husband Kevin Finger, and my mother, Linda. Also check out my photo & route map from the trip. Thanks to everyone, and definitely take a bike ride or walk along the East Coast Greenway!












PS: Bethesda, Maryland isn’t on the official route, but I pedaled there along the Capital Crescent trail from Washington, DC to pick up my bike suitcase at my in-laws’ house. Also, while I didn’t bike into Virginia on this trip, the rest of my group rode to Fredericksburg.

How General Andy Hamilton led us across the Susquehanna River

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When George Washington crossed the Delaware River, his boats showed up on time. But when the East Coast Greenway “Week A Year” cyclists tried to cross the Susquehanna River this week, we had to improvise. Thanks to ECG Mid-Atlantic Trail Coordinator Andy Hamilton (aka General Hamilton), our group of forty-one riders arrived safely.

This particular adventure happened on the second day of our Philadelphia-to-Virginia ride (see my photo & route map). We started that morning in Wilmington, where our group met Delaware Governor Jack Markell, “the most bike-friendly governor in the nation.” ECG leaders and local cycling and environmental advocates organized an impressive event with the Governor at the top of the DuPont Environmental Educational Center. Delaware has already built many miles of bike trail, and we learned about concrete plans to build more. Andy (holding the map in the photo below) praised the Governor and emphasized that when he leaves office, about 60 percent of the Delaware portion of the Greenway will be converted from roads to bike trails. Geographically, Delaware is a small state. But it’s proving what can be done for its neighboring states, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and helping to connect more communities from Maine to Florida.

Delaware's Jack Markell, "the most bike-friendly governor in the nation," welcomes the East Coast Greenway cyclists.
Delaware’s Jack Markell, “the most bike-friendly governor in the nation,” welcomes the East Coast Greenway cyclists.

Andy is one of the many talented ECG staff members who have helped to grow this trail over the years. But as I’ve ridden with him these past few days, what continues to impress me is his unique blend of strategic thinking with nuts-and-bolts logistics. The Greenway is successful in part because staff members like Andy, who previously worked in landscape architecture and community development, share the broader vision and “speak DOT.” Both in person and on the phone, Andy knows how to communicate effectively with department of transportation planners, engineers, and project managers at various levels of state and local government, as well as coalitions of advocates and elected officials to leverage what needs to get done. In my line of work, I meet many thinkers who have lots to say, but those who make real changes are less common. So it’s delightful to spend a week with the thinkers-and-doers of the East Coast Greenway, even when things don’t always go as planned.

Rallying for a Susquehanna Safe Crossing Solution in Perryville, Maryland. Photo: Sylvia Ascarelli.
Rallying for a Susquehanna Safe Crossing Solution in Perryville, Maryland. Photo by Sylvia Ascarelli.

At the end of day 2, we rolled into Perryville, Maryland, along the bank of the Susquehanna River, for a “Safe Crossing Coalition” event organized by the Greenway and local partners to push for faster action on a bike-and-pedestrian bridge to Havre de Grace, Maryland. Although four bridges currently span this section of the river, they permit only automobiles or trains. The good news is that Amtrak needs to replace its existing bridge, and the Greenway and its partners are pushing to convert the old one into a bike/pedestrian bridge. Rather than hiding this severe “gap” in the Greenway, Andy and his colleagues organized this event to call attention to the problem, and hired a local boat company to ferry riders across. But the boaters bailed on us.

Rather than give up, General Andy Hamilton rallied the two-wheeled troops to pedal up the highway to a car-only bridge, where we stopped along the shoulder, with the protection of a local police patrol car. Since it was not legal or safe to bike across the bridge during rush hour—even with a police escort—we loaded bikes and riders into cars and trucks of Greenway supporters who came to the event. People driving by wondered what was happening. To communicate our message, Andy (on the right) stood along the side of the highway, holding up the banner from our rally, to drawn even more attention to the need for safe passage for cyclists and walkers across the Susquehanna River.

Andy Hamilton (on right) at the highway toll plaza, showing motorists why we need a bike-pedestrian passageway across the Susquenhanna River.
Andy Hamilton (on right) at the highway toll plaza, showing motorists why we need a bike-pedestrian safe passageway across the Susquehanna River.

Biking 30 years back into my past in Chester, PA

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Today was the first day of my ride with the East Coast Greenway, the non-profit organization that connects communities from Maine to Florida with cycling and walking trails. Our group of forty biked along Philadelphia’s beautiful Schuylkill River Trail, the brand-new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, and the tranquil John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. But the portion of today’s trip that is still rolling through my mind is our ride through the impoverished city of Chester, PA, because it’s challenging me to deal with my memories of living and working there as a twenty-year-old. Although this experience deeply shaped me as the person I became, today’s ride forced me to confront the painful fact that I have not returned to this city in nearly thirty years, thereby abandoning it in the same way that I criticized others for doing decades ago.

Can you find me in this Fall 1984 photo? Swarthmore occasionally reprints this image in alumni publicity, which is the only reason I have a copy today.
Can you find me in this Fall 1984 photo? Swarthmore occasionally reprints this image in alumni publicity, which is the only reason I have a copy today.

In January of 1985, I stepped away from being a full-time student at Swarthmore College and moved into the home of the Harris family on the 1300 block of West 3rd Street in Chester. For about a year, I had spent my Saturday mornings volunteering with the Chester Community Improvement Project, a non-profit housing renovation organization. The Project emerged as a partnership between the Calvary Baptist Church and the College, led primarily by Swarthmore students who were a couple of years older (and far wiser) than me. I was a relatively clueless kid from rural upstate New York who was trying to understand social change in Chester, a predominantly black and impoverished city located only a few miles from the wealthy white suburb surrounding my college. The extreme disparities baffled me, but the concept of helping urban residents to renovate and buy their own home, as a strategy for building a stake in transforming their neighborhood, appealed to my Republican roots and pulled me in. At the same time,  I was pushing away from Swarthmore, a place where professors and students spoke in very abstract realms, often so quickly that my brain was not able to keep up. Working with a housing group in Chester moved me back into the realm of action, and built a meaningful sense of community and purpose with other students, where I made useful things with my hands. When I learned that the College funded a internship program, where students who worked full-time with a Chester non-profit organization could earn $400 per month, I leapt in head first—with both feet—in classic high-energy, mixed-metaphor style.

I asked the Chester Project leaders to help me find a place to live in the community. The Harris family kindly welcomed me into their home on the 1300 block of West 3rd Street, right around the corner from the row house we were renovating in the photo above, a couple of blocks down from our headquarters next to Calvary Baptist Church. Mr. Harris was a deacon at the church, and Mrs. Harris raised their grandchildren and foster children at their modest home. I shared a room with Harry, their adopted son who was my age, and who, by coincidence, was the piano accompanist for the Swarthmore College Gospel Choir. Most of my time at their house was spent in the kitchen with Mrs. Harris, who taught me to appreciate foods I had never tasted (collard greens and sweet potato pie), and more importantly, talked with me as I tried to process all that was happening around me, as the only person of my race for several blocks. By living with the Harris family, walking around their neighborhood, and attending their church, I received a very personal education in Whiteness, long before I knew that concept had a name.

My work with the housing renovation project was not a “success,” in the conventional sense. We did not change the neighborhood, and we staff members (all who were White twenty-somethings connected to the College) had a difficult time building true partnerships with African-American community members. While the Project continued for several years, and deeply educated several students like me, what I ended up taking away were lessons in what did not work, including some painful memories of my personal missteps, from which I wanted to walk away.

Why can't I remember the exact house where I lived?
Why can’t I remember the exact house where I lived in Chester?

Today I pedaled through my old neighborhood in Chester, with a predominantly White group of spandex-wearing cyclists who, like me, have the financial means to take a week off from work and go exploring on our bikes. I paused to take a photo of the 1300 block of West 3rd Street, but am frustrated that I cannot remember exactly which house belonged to the Harris family. I have no address book or letters from this period in my life. I never took a photo of Mrs. Harris, nor did I keep in touch with her after moving back to the College at the end of the semester. I cannot remember her first name. In fact, after digging through the online Delaware County property records for this block and not finding any trace of them among all of the prior owners, I am starting to fear that my memories may be faulty, and begin to doubt whether I have correctly remembered the family name.

As I pedaled around the block that I walked hundreds of times years ago, very little looks the same as I remember. Calvary Baptist Church still stands on West 2nd Street, but the shape of the building does not match the one stored in my memory. Was it torn down and rebuilt, or am I imagining a different past? The block of row houses we renovated in the photo above appears to be an empty lot. Was it demolished, or did I recall the wrong location? The Commodore Barry Bridge still towers above the West side of Chester, but there was absolutely no trace of another house  (or even the block) underneath it, where I spent months trying to rebuild its crumbling walls. What happened here? The answers to these questions are probably a mixture of actual urban neighborhood change over thirty years and the fluid nature of memories. But I cannot piece it together, because I kept no contact with Chester, no connection over time, and intentionally allowed those thoughts to fade away. . . until today.

Let’s give credit to the folks behind the East Coast Greenway, because they did not take the easy way out. It would have been so simple to design a bike path for privileged white folks that routed us only through the suburbs and avoided inner cities. Instead, the Greenway is serious about its vision to link urban, suburban, and rural communities across the Eastern seaboard. I’m proud to be part of an organization that is working to connect with Chester, rather than abandon or avoid it as so many of us have done. To be clear, this is only a bike ride, with a bunch of us white folks who look silly wearing neon jackets and spandex pants. It’s not a strategy that will bring needed social and economic change to the residents of Chester. But the Greenway brought me back, at least for part of one afternoon, to reflect on what I learned here years ago.

East Coast Greenway “One Week A Year” Tour 2014 from Philly to DC

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Follow me and forty other cyclists on the “One Week A Year” tour of the East Coast Greenway. This wonderful non-profit organization works hard to create safe bike routes from Maine to Florida. Each year they host a fundraising tour that features one segment of the Greenway, and for 2014 it’s a 325-mile ride from Philadelphia, PA to Fredericksburg, VA. Thanks to my flexible schedule this fall, I’m able to ride along with the group for five days from Sunday, Oct 5th to Thursday, Oct 9th, but need to hop off in Washington DC and take the train to an urban history conference back in Philly. If you can’t join us in person, come along for a “virtual ride” by checking out my photo map below (see full-screen version). Click to view any of my geotagged photos along a GPX route map of our trip. (Thanks to my son Eli, who helped me  to create this code. )

Or see the slideshow below of photos from my public Flickr photo album. I’ll update all of these images during our trip.

  • Thanks to Eric Cohen, an old friend who hosted me in Philadelphia the night before my East Coast Greenway bike ride

  • Inspiring pre-bike ride pep talk from Dennis Markatos-Soriano (on right), executive director of East Coast Greenway. "We'll start after I finish this speech in an hour or so," he joked.

  • Enjoying sunshine with my bike (and hundreds of other people) on the new Schuylkill Boardwalk, which opened this week in Philadelphia

  • The East Coast Greenway bike route connects communities, including the impoverished city of Chester, PA. I looked for the home of the Harris family on West 3rd St, where I lived in 1985 while working with a housing group instead of college.

  • On ECG bike trip through Chester PA, I stopped by the Calvary Baptist Church that I attended while living with the Harris family. This experience profoundly changed my narrow view of African-American spirituality and culture.

  • While riding my bike under the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester PA, I'm stunned by the number of city blocks that have vanished since I renovated houses here in the mid-1980s.

  • Welcome to Delaware! Let's see if we can persuade the Governor to replace sewer drains like this one, which are deadly for bikes

  • Delaware Governor Jack Markell, "the most bike friendly governor in the nation," welcomes the East Coast Greenway riders to the DuPont Environmental Education Center.

  • A great day to ride a bike on the East Coast Greenway in New Castle, Delaware, along the river

  • During a lunch break on the bike tour, people at the next table heard us talking and asked for help fixing a flat tire on a bike in their car (Photo: Silvia Ascarelli)

  • The East Coast Greenway is working with local partners to create a bike and pedestrian bridge across the Susquehanna River when Amtrak constructs a new rail bridge.

  • How General Hamilton helped us to cross the Susquehanna River on our East Coast Greenway bike trip.

  • On today's bike ride I found these Osage orange tree fruit, which I haven't seen since we lived in Nashville.

  • Riding the East Coast Greenway bike tour with Chuck and his son Alex from Media, PA, where I lived for a short time many years ago.

  • Wonderful bike ride into Baltimore on the Jones Falls Trail through Druid Park

  • Bike police officers Cam and Dom from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who escorted our crew along the BWI bike trail.

  • Great view of Baltimore by bike, thanks to the East Coast Greenway. We rode the Jones Falls Trail for about 8 miles to the Inner Harbor.

  • Seeing Baltimore from the top of Federal Hill Park with our ECG bike guide Greg

  • Thanks to Karen from Annapolis (left), who rode about 20 miles to meet our ECG bike tour group and escort us into her city.

  • My favorite sign on the East Coast Greenway bike tour in the Woodridge neighborhood of northeast Washington DC (Photo: Silvia Ascarelli)

  • Our East Coast Greenway bike tour finally arrived in Washington DC

  • After arriving in DC, I disassembled my folding bike, placed it inside a suitcase that I had stashed at my in-laws' house, and boarded Amtrak back to a work conference in Philadelphia.

  • Visited Beth's cousin Robert and Colleen during bike tour in Annapolis, and 10-week-old Henry slept through the entire meal

Special thanks to Silvia Ascarelli, who also posted photos from our ride and wrote about the experience on her blog, ExploringByBike, which you should definitely check out. I’ve credited the photos she took that also appear in my album.

See additional posts I wrote on this trip:

I’ll rename a city or state for your East Coast Greenway donation

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Everyone wins with safe places to ride.

Dear friends and family,

Update: Thanks to everyone who contributed, I surpassed my goal and raised $680 for the East Coast Greenway!

Here’s your chance to donate to a good cause and put your name on a piece of real estate! Please contribute to my fundraiser for the East Coast Greenway, a non-profit organization that’s creating bike and pedestrian trails from Maine to Florida. For my local friends, check out the ECG route through Hartford — the big red line on this map — and follow it to New Haven CT and Providence RI, where communities are actively building more off-road bike paths.

Click to view East Coast Greenway
Click to view East Coast Greenway route

I believe in ECG’s admirable track record. Hundreds of volunteers work to coordinate the construction of new trails to promote walking and biking. About 30 percent of their route is already firm-surface and traffic-free, and it’s growing every month. I also support their strategy of building trails into major cities to connect communities with one another. Everyone wins when we have safe places to walk and ride.

ECGlogoDuring the week of October 5th, 2014, I’ll be joining the “Week A Year” tour and riding the Philadelphia-to-Virginia portion of the route with 40 other cyclists to raise awareness and funds for the East Coast Greenway. Please help me to meet my goal of raising $600 by donating via my personal FirstGiving online form. It’s simple, fast, totally secure, and tax-deductible. Plus, if you make a donation of $25 or more, you automatically receive a one-year ECG membership. (Or if you prefer, mail me a check and I’ll send it to ECG for you.)

WelcomeToSign_YourNameHereWAIT — there’s more! For anyone who donates $30 or more, I will rename a city or state on my route in your honor, by digitally altering a photo of a sign or map to personalize and post it on your FaceBook page and/or my blog ( Act now to claim valuable territories in your name. Think of the possibilities!

If you want me to rename some real estate for you (or someone you love!), add a comment on my online donation form, or send me an email. Thanks for your support!  -Jack