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larchmere porchfest: where music and front porches collide for community's sake












If a grungy rock band were to set up drums, a mic, and a beefy stack of amps on your neighbor’s front porch, you might be inclined to say “Sweet!” -- that, or speed dial the cops.

In the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland, resident response falls decidedly into the former camp. In fact, in recent years, the tradition of bands playing on neighborhood porches has actually become one of the most celebrated of summer rituals.

Unlike neighboring Shaker Heights, where the founding Van Sweringen brothers erased front porches from the vernacular of residential architecture because they smacked of plebian fun, Larchmere is a community that celebrates its broad, breezy, wood-floored porches.

So much so, in fact, that a group of friends and neighbors created an annual musical event -- Larchmere PorchFest -- built around this signature attribute. Once a year, on a Saturday in late June, local acts perform on porches while buoyant, toe-tapping crowds gather on lawns and sidewalks and spill out into the street. Acts range from rock and folk to reggae and funk, and the concerts are always free.

“When you ask someone why they live here, they say it’s the awesome front porches and strong sense of community,” says Katharyne Starinsky, who created PorchFest in 2009 after learning about a similar annual event in Ithaca, New York. She and her husband Tom own a double on E. 128th Street. “PorchFest supports both really well.”

This year’s PorchFest, which takes place from 2 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 23rd, promises to be one of the most unique events of the season. Featuring 30 bands on 30 porches, the event is expected to draw well over 1,000 people to the community.

Not only does this neighborhood celebration invite all of Northeast Ohio to sit on Larchmere porches and enjoy fine music for a spell, it also highlights local independent businesses, builds a sense of community and markets the area to future residents.

Jesse Honsky and Ben Faller first got exposed to the joys of Larchmere living while attending the inaugural PorchFest. A year later they bought a fixer-upper on E. 128th, began stripping the home’s vinyl siding, and restoring the wood to its original beauty. Jesse is now in charge of scouting out new porches for PorchFest.

“We credit PorchFest with introducing us to the neighborhood,” says Jesse Honsky, who frequently rides her bike to University Hospitals where she works as a nurse. “We realized that it had everything we were looking for: It’s walkable, close to University Circle and close to amenities at Shaker Square such as a grocery store, restaurants and movie theatre.”

Margaret Mueller, owner of Felice Café, says that events like Larchmere PorchFest add vibrancy to the neighborhood and attract people who might not otherwise come to visit. 

“It’s a wonderful idea for bringing people to Larchmere and letting them have some fun and listen to good music,” says the 83-year-old entrepreneur, who often can be found waving to neighbors from Felice’s front porch, cigarette and martini firmly in hand. Otherwise, you might find her out back on the restaurant's knockout patio, which features a garage converted into a stunning outdoor bar. 

Mueller recently sold her Shaker Heights home and moved to the first-floor apartment of a two-family home on E. 126th that had previously been in foreclosure. She gutted and renovated the home, renting the upper unit to a physicist from Case. This year, the final PorchFest concerts are set to take place on her and a neighbor’s front porches, with the entire street closed so that people can set up lawn chairs and congregate.

PorchFest also has become a grassroots organizing tool for bringing together residents in one of Cleveland's most diverse neighborhoods. While scouting for porches last year, Honsky canvassed the streets and spoke with residents about the event, encouraging them to become more involved.

“I went up to complete strangers and asked them to be a part of it,” she says.

However surprised some of her neighbors might have been, the strategy appears to have worked. While PorchFest organizers would love to see greater participation from the western part of the neighborhood, musicians will be performing throughout the entire community.

At the heart of Larchmere PorchFest, of course, is original, local music performed live. Although the first year focused largely on indie rock, recent years have broadened to include folk, blues, funk, reggae, opera, hip hop and soul.

“Part of the purpose is to highlight the local music scene, including stuff you haven’t heard of,” says Josh Gerken, a neighborhood resident who coordinates the music for Larchmere PorchFest. “Diversity is a big part of that.”

Some of this year’s highlights include an opera performance from a second floor condo balcony by accomplished vocalist Lara Troyer; a funk band called We the People; authentic reggae from 25-year veterans Jah Messengers; and klezmer music from Steven Greenman, a local violinist who performs worldwide.

The Americana band Heelsplitter will return to PorchFest for the fourth year in a row. The first year, recalls event creator Starinsky, she nearly cried when she saw Heelsplitter band members pedaling bikes down Larchmere with instruments in tow. The members of the band not only make many of their own instruments -- the bass player plucks a plastic weedwacker wire on a homemade eclectic bass -- but also bike to gigs.

This kind of dedication is evident in all PorchFest musicians, many of whom travel from across Northeast Ohio to be a part of this unique one-day celebration of porches, music and community.

“We pay a small honorarium, yet people still call us because they believe in what we’re doing,” says Starinsky. “They really just want to bring music to people, and I love that.”

- Images 1 & 5: 9 PorchFest 2011 - Photos Patrick Shepherd
- Images 2 - 4: Porchfest Planning Committee (L-R) Katharyne Starinsky, Matilda Starinsky, Lynardo Mays, Katherine Poecze, Jesse Honsky,  Chris Rupprecht, Mindy Peden, Ben Faller, Heide Rivchun. Committee members not present are: Gina Gerken, Josh Gerken, and David Bartholow  - Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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