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The Stories You’ll Hear: Mobile Porch Preserves D.C.’s Heritage

September 6, 2017   |   Alliance for Aging Research Team   |   Aging Research
Toni Ford with Wildflower at THEARC

On Sunday, September 10, we celebrate Grandparents Day, an opportunity for people to do something grand. Below, we share the story of Toni Ford, a woman who is a quintessential example of someone who is doing just that.

Toni Ford wants to invite you to her porch and stay a while. Maybe grab an iced tea. Take a seat. And please definitely share a story or two.

There’s one thing to know first: Make sure you ask Toni for the correct address. It changes quite often.

You see, Toni’s “porch” is actually more of a mobile building that serves as a gathering place for the residents of Washington D.C., to share stories—and build connections. On this day, Toni has invited me to the home of the porch—better known as “Wildflower”—at THEARC in southeast D.C.

The long-time Washington resident developed the porch idea in response to the gradual changes many of the city’s neighborhoods have experienced over the last decade. While much of the change has been good, Toni noticed what these neighborhoods might also losing in the process.

“D.C. is developing and changing,” she says. “Many people don’t know their neighbors. But there’s a history that needs to be preserved. So, that’s where the porch came in.”

Toni explains she wanted to collect the stories of the longtime residents of the neighborhoods that were experiencing change.

“A large part of my interest in the history of the city was first stimulated by hearing my husband, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, his friends, and other natives go on and on about ‘back in the day,’” she says.

But how could she accomplish this?

By building a porch, of course.

Wildflower. Photo courtesy and copyright of Toni Ford

Think about it. It makes sense. A porch is a neutral space. It’s a traditional gathering place for neighbors to catch up, shoot the breeze, and exchange stories.

So last year, Toni started on her porch project.

“I wanted to build something we could take all over the city where people could tell their stories,” she recalls.

She envisioned a compact building that converted into a space that replicated a row house porch, the kind you might see with some comfy chairs, maybe of the rocking variety. Thanks to some talented builders, the porch’s design become reality in September of last year.

She then asks, “Do you want to go see it?”

Toni takes me out to THEARC’s back parking lot to a corrugated metal structure sitting on a trailer. It looks unremarkable—until you see how it flips out to reveal, well, what can best be described as that above-mentioned porch.

Following construction, Toni and her fellow project participants began taking the porch to D.C. festivals, events, celebrations, wherever there was a crowd.

The concept worked. At each event, neighborhood elders would gather to share their stories of years gone by. Toni’s vision, a first-of-its kind concept for Washington had been realized.

And honestly, it’s not hard to see why. In a way, Toni’s own story deserves its place among the tales being told on her porch.

She’s always been a visionary, a first-of-her kind in many aspects.

She was the first of a new generation of a Philadelphia African American family, born into a world that was changing rapidly for many African Americans during the late 1940s and 1950s. She grew up with the expectations of an entire family behind her.

She more than exceeded these expectations.

She was the first in the family to graduate high school and college. And then, the first to venture to Washington, D.C. to make her mark in the world. (Although, she never forgets where she’s from. “I am a proud Philly girl!”)

“I came to Washington, D.C., in 1964. I had $200, I could not drive a car, and I needed a job fast. But I knew Washington was where I wanted to be,” she recalls. “It was the time of President Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. If you were young, educated, and black, D.C. was the place to be. There were very few things you couldn’t aspire to and achieve if you believed you could.”

Toni went on to achieve and then some. Within a month, she had landed a job at the federal government’s Bureau of Commercial Fisheries as a science technician.

She went on to a distinguished career that saw her travel around the world, teach young people the joys of science, serve as a fellow in the White House, and start a successful business.

Upon retirement, Toni shifted her focus from a successful career to other pursuits, including picking up tennis—and winding up playing in the Senior Olympics—and starting a company with NASA.

In 2006, Toni founded the Double Nickels Theatre Company, the genesis of what has become her decade-long project to celebrate the lives of D.C. older adults.

“I wanted to collect the stories of seniors. So I started a nonprofit organization,” she says. “It began with just me. But then it became more sophisticated, and it started growing. June 2016 was our 10-year anniversary.”

Now in 2017, she continues with Wildflower.

True to form, Toni has big plans for the next phase.

“We are going to expand the concept. We are remodeling an old Airstream and creating it into another mobile-style porch,” she smiles. “We are going to take this porch to another level!”

I for one look forward to seeing the stories that will be told.

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