Weaving a Better Life

Poor, urban communities are discovering the Internet can be a catalyst to social and economic growth.

by / April 16, 2002
Beyond the glitter of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the gleam of Cleveland's professional ballparks lies the modest but gritty neighborhood known as the Stockyard. A half-century ago, the community housed one of the largest livestock yards in the country. Today, little evidence of that past remains, except for the name, the working-class houses that sit close together on tree-lined streets and the blue-collar workers who live there.

Cut off from downtown Cleveland physically by highways and economically, the Stockyard is typical of many low-income neighborhoods in urban America: poor and isolated from the wealth of the rest of the city. But the situation in the Stockyard isn't entirely bleak. In a neighborhood storefront sits the Westside Community Computer Center, a product of the Stockyard Community Association, a nonprofit group. Inside are about a dozen networked computers, where residents can learn about computing and the Internet. Local families can also stop in and purchase inexpensive, used PCs from the center.

But the real benefit of the Westside Computer Center goes beyond training and offers of low-cost PCs for sale. The storefront is creating a social buzz that's been long absent in the neighborhood. People from different walks of life are coming to the center, congregating, learning, talking and establishing new relationships.

Thanks to the Internet, these small community centers are helping revitalize and change the social capital that exists in poor urban communities, according to a new report on urban development and the Internet. Social capital has to do with networks that can improve communities by bridging gaps between different groups in society and helping them come together in ways they normally do not. A report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "Cities Online: Urban Development and the Internet," looks at ways the Internet is shaping social networks within inner city neighborhoods and how the Internet is serving their needs.

According to the report's author, John Horrigan, the Internet is changing everything from foot traffic in poor neighborhoods to social interactions. "When you make the Internet available to someone who hasn't been exposed to the technology, the process of learning about it becomes a social process," he explained. "You can't just give a person a computer and a phone jack and expect them to learn by themselves. It involves training and getting people engaged in the process."

This kind of social interaction not only expands opportunities for people who get Internet access but it's creating excitement in neighborhoods, like the Stockyard, as people get to know each other from different environments. The result is a decline in apathy, Horrigan pointed out, along with skills building that can help poor people get better jobs and housing.

Internet and Foot Traffic

Horrigan examined five cities for his report and found that the Internet is generating new energy as public, private and nonprofit organizations realize they can transform traditional roles in government and business, and promises a closer, more interactive relationship between a community and its citizens.

In Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; as well as Cleveland, Horrigan found clear evidence that the Internet was changing social norms, especially when community development centers offered Internet services and training. "By virtue of having the Internet at these community organizations, foot traffic has changed substantially within neighborhoods," he pointed out. "The secondary impact has been in the new relationships and social networks that have formed because of the Internet and its ability to draw people together."

Cleveland may not be known as a center for Internet innovation, but the city's various neighborhood organizations have become adept at using the Internet for community purposes. Bill Callahan, director of the Westside Community Center, said the goal of his organization is to generate a large volume of traffic at the computer center in the Stockyard neighborhood. Serving just a handful of people isn't going to help a community develop economically and socially, he pointed out.

To that end, the center has placed PCs in 800 homes in the neighborhood in the six years of the center's existence. Last year, more than 250 adults received training on basic PC operation, the Internet and office software programs. "We give them core skills for school, work or whatever they are doing," he said. Most of the people who show up for training at the center don't have high school degrees or the knowledge to work in the new economy. "They all want to improve their job skills," Callahan added.

The reason is simple, Callahan continued. A recent economic forecast predicted 10,000 new information technology jobs would open up in Cleveland in the near future. Meanwhile, old-time manufacturing jobs, the kind one could get without a degree, continue to disappear.

In Portland, Ore., a similar kind of energetic, community-development effort is under way. As in Cleveland, the activity is coming from the grass roots level. For example, the Neighborhood Pride Team, based in southeast Portland, is offering computer and Internet training along with an emphasis on leadership development. Nearly 1,200 students have passed through the center's classes and several have gone on to start their own businesses.

The activities of the Neighborhood Pride Team and Cleveland's Westside Community Center are typical of what Horrigan found in other cities. "These initiatives are very much bottoms-up activities, spurred by community activists who understand the Internet's potential and are working hard to exploit it," he said.

Demand for these services from low-income neighborhoods continues to outstrip supply, according to Horrigan. "Our data for household income below $20,000 shows that just about 30 percent have Internet access. That's half the national average," he said. "We see a lot of pent-up demand for the Internet in these neighborhoods. There's a lot of people walking in the door of community centers, wanting to get online."

Government Support is Key

Encouraging community-based initiatives that support Internet use in poor areas takes leadership and financial support. Horrigan's report finds no shortage of committed individuals willing to put in the time and energy to bring storefront Internet services and support to low-income neighborhoods. But sustaining these efforts requires funding and the most likely source is government.

According to Horrigan, some of the best community technology initiatives under way were funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), a merit-based program aimed at nurturing the benefits of network technologies in communities. This year, TOP will distribute about $12.4 million in grants to initiatives.

"That kind of government support can really help sustain these initiatives," said Horrigan. "But the initiatives have to be bottoms-up from the community as opposed to the government coming in and imposing a particular approach on a neighborhood."

As for local government support, Horrigan cited Austin and Cleveland as having in place city grant programs that can help nurture community-based technology initiatives. But all cities can place technology in their communities simply by taking advantage of their franchise agreements with cable operators. Many cities use their regulatory oversight to ensure cable companies add extra bandwidth and connections for community centers and libraries, which are another gathering place for low-income people who need Internet access.

Another factor in urban development and the Internet is electronic government. Horrigan believes that as more local governments develop online services, they will have to discuss with the various community groups the best way to serve low-income populations. "That kind of dialogue can only help improve how the Internet can deliver services to people," he said.

Portland's Housing Service

Portland's Bureau of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) is an example of how that kind of local government/community group relationship might work. The bureau oversees nearly $30 million in federal and local grants for affordable housing in the city. When a recent survey showed that the city's poor didn't know how to access the various housing services available to them, the bureau applied for and received a $480,000 TOP grant to establish the Portland Area Housing Clearinghouse, a source of up-to-the-minute information on where to find housing, how to deal with landlord problems or how to fight housing discrimination.

This kind of information is critical in Portland because high demand has made affordable housing hard to find, according to Program Coordinator Andy Miller. "Given the situation and the fact that the poor often need information on available housing urgently, we decided to take the clearinghouse to the next level and establish a Web-based housing information system," he said.

The result is Housing Connections, a multi-purpose, regional housing database packed with information and, eventually, transactional services for the area's poor. Working with the city's Geographical Information Systems Department, Portland's housing bureau is building a system that will have three components:

- A searchable database containing listings of as many as 80,000 affordable housing units.

- An agency service module containing resources for city staff to use in their effort to aid the poor.

- A case management system for electronic documents and applications from housing clients.

Although the case-management module won't be available for some time, the database is expected to be up and running this spring. It will allow low-income people to receive the kind of service from the city and social services agencies that airline travelers receive from travel agents, according to Miller. "More importantly, it allows city agencies to interact with one another and share time-sensitive information about housing with those who need it the most," he said. Miller pointed out that if someone can't pay their rent, they can be evicted within 72 hours in Portland, making time a critical factor -- and the Web-based service all that more important.

Housing Connections typifies the kind of e-government project that Horrigan believes must be developed if local governments want to see their online services used by the right people for the right purpose. Portland's Bureau of Housing has put a lot of legwork into working with area community groups to develop the right kind of housing database.

"Local governments need to establish a dialogue with these groups if they want to see the Internet become a benefit to their community," urged Horrigan. "That dialogue will enable cities to tailor what it tries to do on the Internet to the real needs of the community."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor