Stitching a City Together One Neighborhood at a Time

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Photo:  Clay Davies

Building community takes work.  It takes leaders putting themselves in vulnerable positions.  The rules of the road get instituted as you go along.  The norms and mores of a community usually are instituted after conflict, deliberation, debate and trial and error.  This country, after all, is a continual work in progress.

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Seamus tries out a low-rider

 

I sat down recently with Seamus Gallivan, co-founder of Slow Roll Buffalo, and Renee Tarrant, chair of the Slow Roll streets committee for a talk about how Slow Roll came to Buffalo from Detroit, its growing pains and extraordinary developments in the direction and overall meaning of the ride.

For a guy who leads a several thousand-strong bike rides weekly, Seamus doesn’t have the history of biking you might expect.  “I have a clear memory of my dad teaching me to ride and then saying, “Now you have freedom, go out and explore.”  He remembers those days fondly, “I got a ten-speed I was riding all over the Buffalo waterfront and spending the whole day on my bike.”  Not exactly a group ride guy.

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Tony Caferro and Lucy Jay, Photo:  Clay Davies

Seamus and Tony Caferro started a few pilot rides in 2014 with 224 riders on the first one.  By October, even on a rainy, chilly day, they still could draw 100 riders.  They were also perfecting synergistic business partnerships where the beginning and ending mass-up could happen somewhere with ample room and provide an economic benefit for the business owner.

The founders from Detroit didn’t give much guidance, but basically said a safe, interesting and well executed ride was what was important.  Those three elements would thrill beginning riders and word would spread from there.

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Detroit Style!

Seamus didn’t expect Slow Roll to change his life.  “I went from being an avid cyclist, rarely doing group rides, to doing it as a regular leisure activity with occasional functional riding to work.”  Now, the bike has begun to supplant his car.  “My car is lonely, but it will live longer,” he says with a chuckle.  “I’ll go like six to eight weeks without filling the tank.”

What Seamus loves most is how the ride has introduced him to so many people and places in the city.  It has changed the way he prioritizes his life, “I enjoy riding to work, this is a flat city, it’s easy to get around, it’s just a matter of figuring out if I have time to get somewhere.”  The desire to go everywhere by bike is an outgrowth of the intoxicatingly tactile experience of riding through the city with Slow Roll.

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Buffalo – A whole new vantage point, Photo:  Clay Davies

 

It’s a feeling he wants to share with as many people as possible.

Apparently, that high is almost universal.  To date, they’ve had about 2,500 on their largest ride.  The size of the Buffalo Slow Roll is only second to Detroit which regularly gets 5,000 riders.  Now Slow Roll is in Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Berlin and Stockholm and for a while there was even one in Baghdad, Iraq.  “The central purpose of Slow Roll is connecting people to each other and to places,” Seamus says.  Perhaps that is why it is so popular.  In an age where everyone’s eyes are glued to computers or smartphones, we’re starting to collectively forget what makes us human.  Slow Roll helps us remember our collective humanity.

For the launch point of the ride, Slow Roll has developed synergistic relationships with businesses where riders can collect en masse safely with ample parking for those who drive.  For the business or organization, Slow Roll doesn’t just bring a slow Monday night some good income, but it’s also great exposure.  Often they try to focus on businesses or community organizations that deserve a spotlight, or could use some more regular customers.

It’s not the high-profile aspects of the ride that Seamus lights up about.  He loves it when neighborhood kids come out and give them high-fives as they roll past.  “On our second ride, we were rolling down West Street, people were just doing their Friday night thing when we came down with about 400 people, it felt like a parade.  People were coming out to the street, kids giving us high-fives, people on their porches cheering us on, it’s a fleeting moment but there’s a connection and it was definitely invigorating.”

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The fun never gets old, Photo:  Clay Davies

Renee adds, “That’s when I got hooked, right?”  She continued, “You’re going somewhere you’re not necessarily familiar with, seeing businesses, seeing architecture, meeting people where normally when you’re in a car or bus you’re not paying attention.”  Intersecting paths of humanity are where the enchanted opportunities occur.  “You hear people on the ride saying, “I grew up in this neighborhood and I’ve gotten too busy in my adult life that I’ve never been back now.  Look there’s granddad’s house.  I’m going to come back here and check out that bakery.”

Renee reflects on why these connections are so important, “With the pace of this world that we live in today, it’s important to slow down and appreciate what’s around you.”  Outside this wave of mirth, it’s not enough for many on the ride to just merely be a tourist in their own town.  They feel a responsibility to the communities they ride through.  On the ride, there is time for contemplation, “You reconsider how you’re approaching life and how you give back.”

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Rene Tarrant with the Streets Committee

Seamus reflects about how they started having problems with the ride last year.  There was a real deficit of connection with the communities they were riding through.  In the course of a summer Slow Roll covers about 240 miles of ground. every week the route is different.  It is likely, therefore, that when the ride touches tens of thousands of people each season, it’s not always going to be a pleasant experience.

Other groups conduct “poverty tours,” across the U.S. and in places like India.  This is when people pay to have a curated tour of the struggling parts of town.  Though these types of rides are more common in cities like NYC and Mumbai, they have occasionally happened in Buffalo as well.  Seamus is well aware of the phenomenon, “That is absolutely NOT what Slow Roll is.  We cannot control the minds and mouths of everyone on the ride.  There are people who point and say inappropriate things, we’ve heard it in feedback, seen it ourselves.”  The important thing is that the organizers of Slow Roll have recognized this as a perception problem and are working hard to overcome it.

Their primary goal is keeping the ride safe and organized.  But Seamus recognizes when he sees or hears about this type of behavior and attitude now, he makes sure to address it and to give guidance.  He sees it as particularly important to manage the members of the Squad who are both managing the ride and acting as the Public Relations interface between the ride and the communities they ride through.

Seamus has taken a lot of criticism in the past year.  To his credit, he meets the challenge head-on.  “An official at City Hall told me right away, – Yea, I want to know what you’re really up to.  She was skeptical about the intent.  She saw it as a ride is for prospective gentrifyers using it as a scouting tool.  Thought we were only willing to ride with a police escort.”  Seamus takes a deliberate pause, “My best response is that we want to remain free and open.  You can’t screen for that attitude, we have no interest in being used like that, but it is a side effect of being free and open.”

To add to existing perception challenges, after their tenth ride, the police insisted on escorting them.  That exponentially ballooned their costs but more importantly, in neighborhoods that already have fraught relationships with the police, it was tantamount to portraying this majority white ride as too afraid to ride in certain neighborhoods.  Without background understanding the implications of such a show, it is a natural conclusion that a police escort is implicitly racist.  Having ridden on large group rides for years, I can attest that we didn’t “NEED” police.  When I rode my first Slow Roll, I thought they were remarkably well organized.  The fact is that police, just by showing up, give credence to cyclists right to the road.

I’ve ridden Squad-type positions on many rides from Cali to DC and there is a huge difference in entitled attitudes of motorists when you are blocking an intersection alone versus blocking with an officer.  People will freely mouth-off to a cyclist even if the cyclist is right.  When a police officer is there, a lot of those heated discussions disappear.

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Photo:  Clay Davies

Last year the ride grew exponentially and too quickly for reflection on the part of the organizing team.  Consequently, a chasm between intent and perception widened to the point of fury.  Friends of mine on the East Side regularly told me about the inconvenience, the flippant way they were treated by squad members.  A close friend asserted, “We felt like our neighborhood was being invaded, I mean they didn’t tell us it was coming and then it’s inconvenient and somehow this is supposed to be helping us.”

From where I sat, an outsider who never felt comfortable on a Slow Roll, the problem seemed to be participation.  A big way to face anger is find out why it exists.  A huge help in diffusing rage, is giving it an audience.  I myself, a white person and veteran cyclist, felt shunned by this fledging group, treated like a groupie.  Even among the regular riders I had difficulty striking up conversation.  I figured maybe it was because I was a single female and that is strange to a lot of people.  I also admit that I am very confident which can be seen as bordering on arrogant.  I earned my chops, I don’t apologize.  I’m going to tell people about bike messengering life because it directly relates to my feelings about doing group rides.  I personally knew the bike messengers who invented Critical Mass and bike community in general.  Before them, neither existed.  That may sound arrogant, but it is the truth.

So I figured it was ok for people to freeze me out, take issue with me.  But I was struck at the decided lack of participation of Black folks.  I figured if Slow Roll folks could be so dismissive of me, and I was technically “one of them,” it was likely they were just as or more dismissive of Black folks.  Since a lot of the people complaining loudly were Black folks, I took the issue as a cultural one.  Insularity and unjustified superior attitudes come off as white privilege when there are a lot of white people indulging themselves in these toxic behaviors, I feel compelled to speak my mind.  As a white person, it embarrassed me that white people were going to my Black friends’ neighborhoods and being bad visitors.

I also felt obligated to defend the communal ideal I’d enjoyed as a messenger.  I wanted Slow Rollers to understand that their interpretation of bike community was handicapped and that there was so much potential out there.  It could in fact, be bliss.

Seamus met with me and heard me out.  I wasn’t diplomatic and in the face of that, he was extraordinarily dignified.  We came to the agreement that the potential for Slow Roll’s impact on our community was immense.  Getting people on bikes in huge numbers, trying out cycling in a safe way, is generally a great idea.  The more people who ride bikes, the more motorists will be sympathetic to cyclists.  The more people that keep riding, the more likely they will one day commute by bicycle.  The more people riding bikes, the greater critical political mass will converge to make the world healthier and less car-centric.  That is a reality that is better for everybody.

I wasn’t expecting much since I’ve been dismissed by men in charge before.  Then he shocked the hell out of me.

All through the summer he and Slow Roll reached out to people on the East Side.  Seamus rode his bike nearly every weekend with the East Side Bike Club and got to know people there.  His interest and affection for his new friends is obvious and enduring.  He sets an example that his squad follows.  Now there is an easy familiarity between different bike clubs around town and it’s as if all of us are actively working to defy the historical institutional segregation of our city and meet each other face to face and share the road and our lives with each other.

A year after our candid conversation, Seamus is cognizant of the challenge we all face, “We live in one of the most segregated cities in the United States.  We cannot change the preconceptions, but we can continue to be proactive.  We have to be reactive to some things, in turn.  There’s a lot of stuff we’ve been wanting to do but we just couldn’t achieve fast enough.  There are 125 people on our squad, with break-out committee, we have break out committees that focus on the needs and opportunities on and off the ride.”

Rene is filled with wonder about the excitement of being on the streets committee, “The sweepers, we keep the ride under control, we close gaps.  But we started taking it literally – Hey let’s get a broom start sweeping! – We’re representing Slow Roll.”  So as a team they scout out the routes, sweep up glass, meet the people in the neighborhood and call 311 for things like potholes.  They want to provide a benefit to the neighborhoods they visit.  Once a neighbor asked what they were doing and she told him.  – They haven’t filled that pothole in years.  No one will do it.  Rene promised she’d make it her personal goal, when they passed through the following Monday the neighbor was there waiting, smiling with a thumbs-up, the pothole had been fixed.

To Seamus it’s like baseball and music, “Particularly a minor league baseball game where the tickets are cheap, it doesn’t really matter who wins or loses.  It’s more affordable family entertainment where people can come out to have fun with the ball park serving as a shared space that opens people up.  Since the activity relaxes people, it can be a vehicle for countless causes.”  To that end, Seamus started looping in not-for-profits like the African Heritage Food Coop.  On rides, where riders can collect mid-way, “mass-ups” bring everyone on the ride together.  The African Heritage Food Coop sponsors a “Kickstand” where kids, on stipend, walk through the crowd and sell healthy drinks and fresh produce.  This innovative concept is both an incubator and the start to a cure for food deserts in the inner city.

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African Heritage Food Coop kids sell healthy snacks and drinks, Photo:  Clay Davies

Seamus goes on, “The ride is just what is on the marquee.  The purpose is much deeper than that, especially since we’ve got this segregated community.  A free event is something that most people can resonate with, lots of people like to ride a bike.  It’s a fun thing to do and the fact that it’s literally a moving thing, cool things can happen with all these connections.”  Inadvertently, it has become a creative space for people from different backgrounds to dream out loud, together.

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“We want to invite, not invade,” Seamus says with determination.  I wouldn’t have bought this line a year ago, but he’s made the concerted effort to use last year as a learning experience, an opportunity to make Slow Roll even better than ever.  “When we meet with leaders of block clubs, we tell them, we want to ride with your neighborhoods, not just through them.”

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Now on the Squad, I get to see new faces all the time, and it seems that the neighborhoods are coming out in force to ride with us.  After my first Monday as a Squad member, something I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be doing last year, my Captain, Rick Singer asked me, “Why do people keep asking me how I made you turn 180 degrees on Slow Roll?”  This was a reference to my decidedly low opinion of Slow Roll.  I looked around at the African American Cultural Center where some folks were showing off their singing prowess.  The demographic diversity of Slow Roll and the Squad itself greatly increased from the years before.  “You guys changed 180 degrees, this is starting to be a really great thing, I’m happy to be here.”

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Spontaneous entertainment at the African American Cultural Center, Photo:  Clay Davies

What is truly special is that Seamus makes an example of being vulnerable on behalf of others that deserve a chance to speak their truth.  Last summer, at a ride near the Fruit Belt, Seamus handed the bull horn over to a spokeswoman for The Restore the Community Coalition.  She talked about their advocacy and the destruction of community and ruin of the Humboldt Parkway that resulted from the construction of the Kensington Expressway.

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Let the people be heard, Photo:  Clay Davies

A white male Slow Roller of a certain age took Seamus to task, “I gotta ask you a question, is this a political event?”  Seamus stood his ground, “Well in that as everything is an extension of the body politic everything we all do is political, I don’t know what you’re getting at but if you have an issue with us raising awareness and giving a voice to people who are trying to right a wrong that happened in this city then yes it’s a political event,  But it’s also what you make of it if you just want to ride your bike with us you can do that but we’re going to keep bringing light to some of these things.”

His wife came up, “Are you causing trouble again!”  She smirked at Seamus, “We’ll be back next week, he loves these rides.”

Riding bikes is dangerous.  I’ve lost at least a dozen friends to the street.  It takes a lot of courage to put your action where your mouth is and the way things are going with Slow Roll, there are some incredible learning has been happening every week.  When Seamus responded to a question about some of his favorite moments on the ride, he smiled and said, “There are a thousand stories on every ride.”

The summer has only begun, I’m looking forward to thousands of more stories.

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Keepin it together, Keepin it rolling

 

 

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