By Alexis Gabriel
Linda Ginenthal is retiring after 23 years of working to transform the landscape of walking and biking behavior in Portland. She has helped shape active transportation programming through her leadership inSunday Parkways, Smart Trips, Safe Routes to School,Livable Streets Strategy to name a few as well as Portland's first International Open Streets Summit. For many of us, who have watched how Ginenthal has helped transform the city’s bike culture, create some of our most cherished programs and elevate the work of placemaking across Portland and beyond – it is with sadness we see her move onto her next adventure. In this interview, Ginenthal reflects on 10 years of Sunday Parkways:
Every change maker (superhero) has an origin story! What is your transportation origin story?
"Growing up in New York City, it never really occurred to me that I would drive or own a car. It was not important and highly impractical. I got around by subway and walking. For about a dollar, I could go to the Bronx Zoo or down to Coney Island or to Central Park; anywhere I wanted just about. Every day, my high school (Talent Unlimited HS – yes, that is what it was called) would give us two subway tokens – one to go home and one to come back the next day.
And I love(d) walking! Walking is so interesting and provides a rich and deeply satisfying environment with stories, people, art and culture. Now I add music to my walk. Nothing better except maybe a casual glide on my bike when distance precludes walking."
What is Sunday Parkway’s origin story?
"The idea of Open Streets or as I first heard it, Ciclovías, had been around for a while – mostly in South America. I heard about it directly at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference in 2006. Rob Sadowsky, then director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, did a couple of workshops about it. I was intrigued.
Rob was talking about connecting the African American community with the Latino Community. Those neighborhoods in Chicago were fairly close, but they did not interact with one another. The thinking was that if they could link these two communities with something as fun as a bike ride, it could start a community conversation. Biking as a tool for change. That sounded exciting. In Portland, North Portland was gentrifying with young white families moving into the heart of the African American neighborhood. What if we could craft a community event that would literally have these new and old neighbors playing together in the streets?
In 2008, we were lucky to have the International Car Free Conference come to Portland, and we planned the first Sunday Parkways to coincide with it. Somehow, we captured the imagination of The Oregonian. They decided that our new Sunday Parkways would be big news and a nice juicy story about how we were closing North Portland streets for a bike ride. I remember the reporter, Dylan Rivera, telling me that this was going to be a front-page story and to hold on to my hat. I had no idea what he meant.
After the article ran, we were called by every television and radio station multiple times for stories. It was just controversial enough to get coverage. I found myself with the task of defending this “crazy idea”. I approached it all with a ray of sunshine! This was about Opening Our Streets and Connecting Our Communities. This was a program that was free for families, both new and established in the neighborhood, to come out a play together. Everyone will be able to cross the route at designated crossings and residents who live on the route will be helped by our cadre of dedicated volunteers. It was going to be great.
The morning of Sunday Parkways on June 22nd, 2008, the weather was not cooperating. It was a bit chilly, and there was the typical misty June gloom in the air. Our team got on site and set everything up. The first hour was drizzly, and there were scant riders out on the route by 8:30am.
But then they came! By the thousands. Children and families, hipsters and old people, some African American but mostly a Portland white crowd. A good solid count of 15,000 people came out to play in the street. And it has grown and flourished since."
You have managed this event from the beginning. What were the early obstacles to creating this now internationally known Open Streets event?
"Five years before we started organizing the first event, our transportation director, Vic Rhodes, sat our newly formed Transportation Options Division down and said, look, I’m never going to get on a bike. You have to go out and find programs that will make bicycling cool for young people. Take some risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. We don’t have any capital money to build new infrastructure but maybe we can change people’s behavior. That was the first thing that made this possible. The ability to take a risk.
The scale of the events and the number of people and neighborhoods and vendors and volunteers and traffic officers and barricades and porta potties and parks made those first few years super challenging. All the pieces need to fit together to create (at least the illusion of) an easy, fun, safe and whimsical event for the participants that represented all of Portland’s communities."
How did you overcome those challenges?
"Chutzpah. I’m not quite sure why we thought we could do this. The first hurdle was to garner support from our agency and the City Councilmember in charge of Transportation. Lavinia Gordon and Marne Glick who led our Transportation Options division, helped take this on to get the ok from our director, traffic engineering, and maintenance operations folks. I went to the City Commissioner’s office. The Chief of Staff thought I was nuts but wouldn’t stand in the way. With that we were on our way.
We recruited some of the most amazing staff to work on the program next – Rich Cassidy who started this program from the beginning manages the event logistics and design. His creativity, can-do spirit, incredible connections in the city, and infectious sense of fun, infused the events and made them as joyous as they are. Janis McDonald with the heart and skill to talk to hundreds of organizations, community groups, and volunteers created a solid, community-based foundation for Sunday Parkways to stand on and grow.
Somehow, we also had the good fortune of having early supporters who helped us fund it. Kaiser Permanente, Metro, Parks and Recreation, Clif Bar, Bike Gallery, Community Cycling Center all kicked in with cash, resources and promotions. We also got an EPA grant too."
What were some of your early victories that you didn’t expect?
"Well, I didn’t think that 15,000 people would come! I was absolutely blown away. I had been telling people in the beginning that we would have about 2,500 people. I thought that was a stretch but a good stretch. As the date got closer, I found myself saying 7,500 and thought I that was terribly imprudent. I was happily wrong.
We also connected early on with the wonderful women at the Delta Sigma Theta sorority that embraced the program with their volunteers and promotion to African American women in Portland. They were able to show off their newly renovated LEEDS June Key Delta Community House right on the Sunday Parkways route across from Peninsula Park. They were one of the first partnerships that Sunday Parkways made with a strong community organization and they helped school us on how to be a good collaborator."
Even years later, running Sunday Parkways is no cake walk. I don’t know if people always realize, how much it takes to run a Sunday Parkways! Can you give people a peep into the behind the scenes world of Sunday Parkways?
"Some say it takes a village. I say it takes a spreadsheet. Every detail is articulated and put on a schedule so that all the participant sees is how much fun they are having connecting with their friends, neighbors, family, and strangers.
Two weeks before we do each event, the whole team gets together to do the Run Down. We touch each topic and detail to make sure everything is ready to go. We usually start off with a trip around the route looking at quirky/difficult intersections, traffic flagger spots, and lead and intersection volunteer deployment. Which of our delightful Superhero Coordinators are managing which one-mile chunk of the route. Added to this is the plan for setting up and taking down barricades and signage on about 200 to 300 intersections. Do we have enough binder clips to attach the signs to the barricades?
Parks and Marketplaces, where Rich makes the events come alive, present an ocean of details and moving parts. Are the dumpsters, bike racks, porta potties, trash bins, water stations, canopies, tables, chairs, stages and hand trucks all ready? Where is the volunteer and info booth set up? Don’t worry; Rich has it covered.
Communications and Community Outreach is up next. How’s the organizing going for the Bi-lingual Bike Fair/Salmon Celebration/Immigrant and Refugee Walk/African American Family Ride, etc.? Do we have the social media mapped out for the weekend? Is the shot list ready for the photographer? Any issues with the half dozen places of worship on or near the route? Alexis Gabriel and her team of interns pull these all together to maximize our all-Portland participation.
We map out our vendors’ and sponsors’ locations on paper that are chalked on the street the Saturday before. Do we have only one ice cream vendor per park? And where is the Umpqua Bank ice cream truck?
If we get it mostly right, the participants can have a safe, car-free and care-free day."
Sunday Parkways means working with several partners. What are some of the quirkiest partners you have worked with? Both unconventional and unexpected!
"Marinello’s School of Beauty signed on as a sponsor for a couple years. Their students had a blast doing hair and nails at our Parks and Marketplaces. They got some fun visibility for recruiting more students and we looked good too.
The animals have been so fun. We have had giant rabbits, ferrets, snakes, horses, cats and dogs in trailers/front bike bags, chickens in a rolling cage, goats, raptors, tarantulas,
At the first event, we brought in a dance floor for tango dancing. It was fabulous. I wish we would have been able to continue that activity."
You have worked with several partners over time. Any special shout-outs?
"June Key Delta House and the women at Delta Sigma Theta – see above.
The Community Cycling Center helped organize the Bi-Lingual Bike Fair as well as bike rides, bike repairs at the Bike Hub near McCoy Park and the New Columbia development. Their mission of youth empowerment through bicycling resonated deeply with me. It illuminates the heart and soul of what it means to be Sunday Parkways.
My fellow Open Streets colleagues from across the country are envious of our partnership with Kaiser Permanente NW. They have been a big supporter since day one. They have allowed us to run the show knowing that our missions and strategies are wholly in sync. We both want Portlanders to go outside, be active every day for their health and wellness in body, mind and spirit."
What are some of your favorite stories from Sunday Parkways?
"While riding on the routes every month, I overhear people talking about Sunday Parkways. It is delightful when you hear so many people overwhelmed with joy that they just can’t articulate what makes them so happy. They say, “It’s so great! It’s great!” Makes me giggle every time. Boy who said, now can I ride my bike to school."
The idea for Sunday Parkways originated in the Ciclovía event that takes place in Bogotá, Columbia. Did you ever get a chance to see that event in person? If so, how was it?
"I did get a chance to see a few Ciclovías while at the Ciclovia Recreativa de las Americas Congress in Peru. The simplicity of a weekly event could not be more exciting…"
Getting personal, what are some of your favorite things about Sunday Parkways?
"The staff that I work with every day who are so incredibly competent and excellent to work with. We work really hard but it is all worth it. I love that I had a hand in making something that so many people cherish. I also think I get too much credit for Sunday Parkways. It is a huge community lift. We have staff and our amazing Axiom Events Production peeps certainly that make it run. But there are dozens of lead and individual volunteers that dedicate themselves to making the wheels go round and round. Our vendors and sponsors and entertainer bring their best too. And there are the dinosaur couple dancing in the park, the guy who rides his horse on the SE route, the Storm Trooper in full costume. And the Ruby Jewel ice cream cart that I seek out at every event to eat a small (giant) ice cream sandwich. To be a part of that gorgeous machine that is Sunday Parkways is so joyful and so gratifying."
What will you miss about leading Sunday Parkways?
"The thing I will miss but still enjoy from the outside is discovering what is next for the program. How can we make it even more compelling, delightful, civically engaging, carefree, and welcoming?"
What do you plan to enjoy concerning Sunday Parkways in retirement?
"The work I do on the day of Sunday Parkways when all is working well is the same thing I will do when I’m not managing the program. I will ride the route and say hello to the dozens of friends, (former) colleagues, partners, supporters, neighbors, and Sunday Parkways revelers. I’m only busy at Sunday Parkways if something needs attention. Honestly, I’m often not that busy at a Sunday Parkways. My dirty little secret."