Humboldt Park Primed for Tech Investment
Humboldt Park is not known for an abundance of Wi-Fi hotspots. When Tony Muñiz put a sign in front of Nellie's Restaurant on Division Street advertising “Free Wi-Fi” three months ago, a gentleman walked into the restaurant to ask, "What's wee fee?"
A 2009 University of Illinois-Chicago study found that only four in 10 of the 62,000 residents in Humboldt Park use broadband Internet. But only one-third of the rest said they weren’t connecting due to lack of interest.
Muñiz, the restaurant's owner, had been unsure whether the service would bring in extra business or would be ignored by his customers. But a look around the busy room at lunch time shows he shouldn’t have worried. The restaurant seems to be populated entirely by professionals on their lunch break, many of whom are pecking away on their computers.
"It has definitely attracted the business crowd a lot more," says Muñiz, who adds that people have even started holding meetings at Nellie’s. "No one else has [public Wi-Fi] in Humboldt Park. We're the only ones offering this."
Many people might guess that Humboldt Park – a moderate-income neighborhood with a large Puerto Rican population on the eastern side, a notable African-American community to the west and more and more Mexican Americans moving in – has little demand for high-speed Internet. But Nellie's, at 2458 W. Division, has proven them wrong.
In fact, a 2009 University of Illinois-Chicago study found that only four in 10 of the 62,000 residents of the neighborhood use broadband Internet. Of those without access, however, only one-third said they weren’t connecting due to a lack of interest. Humboldt Park may be a bit behind in the digital revolution, but it’s looking to catch up.
When Nellie's Restaurant on Division Street added free high-speed Internet three months ago, one gentleman asked, "What's wee fee?" But plenty of other new customers already knew.
This spring, a broad coalition of community organizations in Humboldt Park is releasing "Connecting Our Communities," a plan to bring more broadband and digital tools to the residents, businesses and community organizations in the area.
Created through LISC/Chicago’s Smart Communities program, the document is a blueprint of how to radically increase broadband access to the more than 37,000 residents of Humboldt Park who don’t have it now – and a plan for much more.
Ready for More
Although Humboldt Park may not be as wired as some other Chicago communities, there are "signs of grass pushing up through the concrete," says Rishi Desai, program manager for the neighborhood’s Smart Communities program for Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. since the end of October. "People are clamoring for opportunities, and a lot is already happening, despite barriers to widespread use."
Seniors enrolled in programs at local social service agency Casa Central are using the site’s computer lab for e-mail and social networking to keep in touch with family members living far away, for example, and residents who have fallen victim to the bad economy are learning how to adjust to the reality of Internet-based job postings.
The Smart Communities program run through LISC/Chicago and local agency Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. envisions plenty more storefront windows like this.
Perhaps the biggest adapters are the community’s young people, many of whom are involved with creating new media. "There is a voracious demand by our youth for more technology in their lives and in the schools," Desai says.
Alejandro Molina, the secretary of the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park (and the group’s liaison to the Smart Communities program), says that a big step forward in available technology in the neighborhood will allow groups such as his to build on their decades of experience in the community.
“We all don’t necessarily want to start new projects, but we can layer all these possibilities onto our current programs,” he says.
“Connecting Our Communities” was created with this dynamic in mind, framed by Humboldt Park’s needs and opportunities as identified in a 2008 update of its community quality-of-life plan. The Smart Communities’ document includes a number of projects for five key digital strategies, which include creating a community of wellness, providing jobs through training and local business development, and improving schools.
The plan delves much deeper into how technology can be a transformative force in Humboldt Park than simply adding more broadband connections. “For Humboldt Park, technology can be a tool to tackle racial, cultural and socio-economic barriers, overcoming geographic obstacles and building community across all of Humboldt Park – both geographically and across populations,” the plan notes.
“Technology is not a panacea; it can’t resolve everything,” Molina says. “But we will have a great chance to work together with other organizations, and I think that’s part of this plan’s success. In education, employment, housing, healthcare, culture and art – there are opportunities, and opportunities for new partnerships.”
Desai already has begun working with community groups such as the Westside Writing Project to add an online presence to current programming, and is creating the infrastructure necessary to open a community web portal.
“I’m moving around the community and talking to people to find the common direction that we want to move on these issues,” Desai says. “It feels like a lot could be happening very fast in Humboldt Park. People are very excited by the idea of it.”
Keep up to date. Visit humboldtparkportal.org
Posted in Smart Communities News