Aug. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Growing festival spreads word of overlooked borough


They may be able to point to it on a map, but to Jessica Yorko, an organizer of Lansing’s Westside Summer Festival, many people drive through any number of historic neighborhoods each day on the west side of town without even knowing where they are. “A lot of people don’t even know it exists,” Yorko said. “They don’t know there are historic buildings on Saginaw Street; they don’t know there are cute neighborhoods on the West side.

During a recent historic tour, Yorko said a group of about 50 listened to stories of what used to exist along the Saginaw corridor before it was widened into a one-way highway in the mid-1960s.

“What they didn’t know is it used to be a place,” Yorko said. “It didn’t used to just be a road you went through to get somewhere else. It used to be the heart of a community, where you would meet up with people.”

If for only one day, that sense of community and place will return, when the expanded Third Annual Westside Summer Festival gets underway Saturday.

True to its roots as an offshoot of The Northwest Initiative, a nonprofit organization with a mission of creating healthy communities in Lansing, this year’s festival will feature its first Wellness Expo. Sponsored by Sparrow Health System, the expo will feature activities and stations for children and adults with incentives for those who visit most of the stops, such as free face painting for kids and food discounts for adults.

One stop sure to more of a hit with kids than flossing is Lansing dentist Greg Maxson’s “healthy food hacky sack,” a modified game of cornhole in which “healthy foods” are tossed into a “mouth” for prizes (free toothbrushes).

A popular draw at last year’s festival, the bike rodeo is back, but with a bonus: free helmets for the first 300 participants thanks to Ronald McDonald House. Yorko said the idea came from seeing lots of kids on bikes with no head protection. “They liked showing off their stunts and doing the obstacle course, but I don’t think any had bike helmets,” Yorko said.

One of the biggest draws for the festival over the last two years has been the music, and Yorko expects this year to be no different. Featuring a lineup heavy on hip hop, R&B, blues and reggae, this year’s headliners include local favorites Root Doctor, Christian Nelson, Summer of Sol and One Love. Getting the festival on the beat early on in the day will be the hand-drummers of Three Fires Singers and the conga players of Shabazz Academy.

Food from local vendors, including Clint’s Hot Dogs and Marsha’s Fish & Chicken, will help keep visitors’ stomachs full. The festival will also feature a returning farmers market, this time accompanied by an artisans market for crafters, jewelers and apparel makers.

Following a first-year crowd of around 1,000, last year’s festival drew about 5,000. Yorko hopes to see at least that many show up this Saturday. Yorko said the free festival costs about $9,000 to put on, not including labor and volunteer hours, and is paid for by grants and donations.

While many festival-goers are from nearby neighborhoods, Yorko said guests at last year’s event came from as far as East Lansing, Grand Ledge and Dimondale. To get a better idea of where people are coming from and why, Yorko said this year’s attendees will receive surveys to fill out for www.msufcu.org a chance to win prizes.

Yorko is program manager for the Westside Alliance, a branch of Northwest Initiative focused on the Saginaw Corridor — a mile-anda-half stretch from Grand Avenue, in the heart of Lansing, to Stanley Street, just before the city limits on the west side. She said a bigger, better-attended festival means getting the word out even further about the revitalization projects underway there, including street clean-ups, building improvements and a push to narrow Saginaw Street by one auto lane and make room for a bike lane, possibly picking up some recruits for the cause along the way.

“Also, it brings our community together,” she said. “It brings all the people from all the neighborhoods that touch Saginaw Street together in one place, which doesn’t really happen otherwise,” she said.