“We want to rebuild the internet from the ground up,” proclaimed CSLN member Steve Ediger. As part of ChiCommons Coop, Steve is partnering with CSLN member and South Shore organizer Alvyn Walker of Windsor Park Lutheran Church to launch Block Share, a new pilot program that aims to leverage technology to strengthen neighborhood connections.
Alvyn and Steve worked with other CSLN members to organize the Nourish (comm)Unity II series, and planned the final event at Windsor Park Lutheran Church on October 12th, 2019, as a way to introduce the new coop model.
Steve introduced the concept as an opportunity to build on the wealth of assets in South Shore. Assets, he said, can take many forms, from both formal and informal institutions to the skills and expertise of individuals and even local stories.
Participants began by generating an impressive list of South Shore assets. They identified a wealth of natural areas, including the longest continuously operating victory garden in the city, South Shore Nature Sanctuary, and Rainbow Beach Dunes, which one participant called “the best view of the city” and has a stewardship group that hosts regular work days. There are numerous transportation options, such as the Metra train, the Jeffrey Jump bus route, and bike lanes. There is a rich entrepreneurial and craft-making culture built around locally-made products, farmers markets, and notable restaurants such as Majani, Chef Sara’s, and Rainbow Beach Sub Shop. There are hospitals, trade schools, co-working spaces, and event centers such as Quarry and the South Shore Cultural Center. South Shore even has a black cowboy tradition celebrated through an annual parade.
“South Shore is this hidden gem” that is continually underrepresented in the media, remarked CSLN member Mario Longoni.
But for residents, the opportunity isn’t just getting the word out to the rest of the city, it’s facilitating exchange within South Shore itself. Several local participants said assets are shared mostly through word of mouth, encounters with neighbors, and block clubs. Moreover, they identified a generational divide in which younger residents either aren’t aware of or don’t appreciate the local assets.
When asked how to address this divide, participants suggested organizing a bike tour to visit local assets, partnering with local high schools, and organizing ways to exchange tools, time, and skills.
On many of these approaches and more, Windsor Park Lutheran Church is already leading the way. In addition to youth summer programs, Tai Chi lessons, and a community garden and food pantry, the church has been working to address the local “connectivity gap”. Alvyn explained that in South Shore, 27% of residents do not have internet access. In 2015, the church worked with Cambium Networks to install a wifi extender in the steeple, allowing it to offer free wifi to anyone within a half block radius.
In 2018, Windsor Park again partnered with Cambium Networks to host workshops with Tech Girlz, which teaches tech skills to middle school girls. The Tech Girlz at Windsor Park are able to map their own assets on a publically-accessible page using Mapping for Humanity, a program built on the Open Street Map system. Most of the South Shore assets currently in the database were added by the Windsor Park cohort.
Also in 2018, the first Nourish (comm)Unity series visited Windsor Park for its Community Tech event. During that event, South Side resident and permaculturist Matthew Stevens shared his vision of a decentralized internet platform that would allow residents to share resources, such as surplus vegetables from their garden. A working group in Chi Hack Night, a local civic tech network, is now developing a model for a “wireless mesh network” that distributes internet connection in a delimited area through a system of localized hardware.
The Block Share coop in South Shore is the first attempt to actually build such a system in a Chicago neighborhood. The coop is now seeking interested residents who can contribute the capital needed to buy the necessary hardware and in return become members of the coop and gain access to the platform and internet connection it provides.