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Neighborhoods Mon Jan 25 2010

Digital Divides the Neighborhoods

Htun-Htun Thing (pronounced: toon-toon ting), a 16-year-old refugee from Burma, spent a recent Sunday afternoon chatting with friends online. His friends are in New York and Florida, Australia and Kuala Lumpur -- anyplace that has taken in members of the ethnic Chin population who have fled the country in the face of human rights violations. Communication is filtered through the standard QWERTY keyboard, so not only are Htun Htun and his friends connecting and preserving a sense of community, they're also becoming more literate, strengthening their written and spoken English with every keystroke, whether they realize it or not. He lives on the North Side of the city, in Albany Park, a neighborhood scattered with immigrant populations from Sarajevo to Seoul, and where broadband access is plentiful.

When Htun Htun was done talking to friends on Sunday, his 10-year-old brother Jacob used the computer to stream episodes of "South Park" online. Later, they used Google and YouTube to teach me about Burma and the Chin population there. Like most people reading this, they know how to search for and find information online.

But just a couple miles to the south, in Humboldt Park and Pilsen, the computer access and fiber optic networks that connect much of the North Side to the opportunities inherent in Web 2.0 dry up. Mexican-born Alfonso Vargas doesn't have a computer or an internet connection. More importantly, he doesn't see the benefit to be gained by having either. He travels from the Humboldt Park studio he shares with his brother and cousin to Truman College, in Lakeview, four days a week for English classes and works in a kitchen in the Loop. "The job is good," he says, "but I need something more. More hours, more money." He makes $8 an hour and found the job by walking the Loop and filling out applications; he has no idea there's a website of classified ads listing jobs by the hundreds, or that he could learn and practice English from his couch, saving on the bus fare to Lakeview.

Do you use the internet at all, I ask him. "Sometimes, when I'm at school," he says, but when I ask about home use he says no. "I don't need that. My brother wants (a computer), but I don't really care." He buys $5 phone cards from a store near his apartment to call back home to Mexico and talk to family on his days off.

Alfonso is, according to studies in Chicago over the past year, typical of many Latino immigrants, whom the studies say are generally isolated from the digital technologies that are increasingly essential for life in the urban United States.

A study of broadband and digital technology use across the city came out over the summer, authored by University of Illinois researcher Karen Mossberger. It highlighted the city's Latino population in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Humboldt Park as among the least connected. While all immigrants must contend with a lack of familiarity, Latinos were singled out as the least likely to bridge the gap -- a phenomenon coined the "digital divide."

Pilsen and Humboldt Park were selected for pilot programs to receive city funding to cross the divide. In Pilsen, non-profit groups have been working over the past year to not only train residents in the use of digital technologies, but to more generally popularize and familiarize people with the potentials of the internet.

Jaime Guzman is running some of those projects out of the Resurrection Project in Pilsen. They run community classes in the neighborhood, and have set up community tech centers and public internet kiosks. "We did our own study," he told me, an informal poll at a local middle school, "and we found that interest is much higher in the (Pilsen) community for using internet technology than the UIC study suggests." It's the access and the know-how that he says needs improving.

Guzman, raised by Mexican-born immigrants just to the west, in Little Village, knows how beneficial regular internet use can be for first and second generation Americans. "For the first half of my life, I learned about American culture from TV," he likes to say; "but later, in my twenties, if I didn't understand something Americana, I just googled it."

Similar efforts are underway on the South Side, in the Auburn-Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood neighborhoods as well -- three communities also singled out in the same study and picked for pilot projects. Internet kiosks have been set up at community centers there as well, and last summer students on break took part in a journalistic endeavor to create a newsletter and digital media that covered community issues.

But Mossberger, the UIC researcher, says that home use is the key. "Using it conveniently and at home, that's where habits are formed and real learning takes place," she says, a statement that may be backed up by Alfonso's lack of enthusiasm for the internet he uses at school in Lakeview, miles away from home at a place he's probably eager to get out of.

Guzman says he's still in conversation with people at the city's Department of Innovation and Technology about expanding broadband access. "We're trying to figure out what the most efficient way to get more people engaged is. We're still studying it. If it turns out that free wifi access is what's needed, we'll try and do that, it's been done in other cities. Right now, we're focused on getting people familiar with the technology, and seeing how it can benefit them."

One way that engagement with the web can clearly help these communities is in terms of economic development. Guzman spoke about a study that found that nearly $12 million leaves Pilsen annually. "There are a lot of reasons why residents spend money elsewhere," he says, "but definitely one is that they don't know about everything that's right here in the community." Part of the pilot program was the construction of a community website, the Pilsen Portal, that highlights community issues as well as local businesses.

With its high-end coffee, its modern decor and its wall space dedicated to showcasing local fine art, he says the Jumping Bean Cafe is the sort of place that Chicagoans from all communities would go out of their way to patronize. "But they have no website, and a lot of people don't know about it." (Jumping Bean Cafe has recently started a blog and a Facebook page). Fogata Village, another neighborhood restaurant with an odd mix of Mexican and Italian menus and a focus on organic ingredients, just recently launched a website. I know that I follow Flaco's Tacos, a South Loop taco shop, on Twitter, and have on more than one occasion made plans specifically to stop by when they tweeted about specials and promotions.

Getting local business communities in under-served neighborhoods engaged online could potentially be a galvanizing force for rejuvenating commerce, attracting and keeping money in those communities -- a potential tool for economic development with more self-direction and empowerment, not to mention accountability, than any TIF project.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Rick Fenster / February 1, 2010 10:23 PM

Nicely written Dan. From what I recall in Grad school a few years back when we were studying the "Digital Divide" in emerging nations, the key to proliferation of the Internet is the presence of the "technology backbone" to support wide-spread use. Clearly the infrastructure is more accessible in the urban environment you have described in your article than say in a remote rural area of Indonesia, but is the economic wherewithal available to support long-term sustained usage? In my mind, this is the key to reducing the Digital Divide.

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