A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Clicking on community

Online newsgroups move coffee klatch to cyberspace

Kathleen Sullivan, from The San Francisco Chronicle

With its brick walls and steel sash windows, the exterior of the East Lake Lofts in Oakland suggests a bygone era -- the time when the building was the original headquarters, factory and warehouse for Emil Hagstrom's Mutual Creamery, an early grocery-store chain.

But its welcoming committee is decidedly modern: "Welcome to the East Lake Lofts online community! I'm hoping we can use this as a way to easily talk about ... Dumpsters, pets, parking, parties, deliveries, activities, clubs, neighbors, restaurants, bars or stores. ANYTHING!"

In the year since Gavin Ross started the group for tenants living in the three-story building near Lake Merritt, "anything" has included invitations to a courtyard barbecue, congratulations on the birth of a baby, a plea for a dog walker, reminders about book group meetings and a discussion about getting organic fruits and vegetables delivered to the building.

Ross, a 29-year-old architect who recently moved to Oakland from Pittsburgh, said he started the online group so residents could get to know each other, collaborate on projects and share concerns.

Ross also wanted to create a social bridge for residents -- couples young and old, families with children, residents with dogs and the building's many artists.

"A barbecue can really bring everybody together," he said.

The tenants of the East Lake Lofts are among the thousands of Bay Area residents who have become members of online communities devoted to their neighborhoods, using free services offered by Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and other companies.

The groups have attracted renters and homeowners living in condominiums, townhouses, apartments, single-family homes and planned communities.

David Kopp, senior director of Yahoo Groups, said it's hard to estimate how many people in the Bay Area are chatting about their neighborhoods using its service, because most groups choose to be categorized by subject, not by geography. Some choose not to be listed at all. Many Bay Area neighborhood groups are included in Yahoo's Cultures & Community category, which lists 700 groups in California. Neighborhood-focused groups can also be found in its Regional and Family & Home categories.

Both Silicon Valley companies have made it easy to start online groups.

Group founders choose privacy levels, deciding whether access to information created by members -- e-mail messages, files, photographs, calendars and databases -- will be restricted to members or open to the public. Some groups let visitors read messages but don't let nonmembers post messages.

Kopp said most local groups choose the "membership required" option.

"They want people in the local area to feel safe and comfortable sharing information and opinions with other members of their local communities," he said.

Emily Rosenberg founded Skyline Neighbors for families living on a 6-mile stretch of Skyline Boulevard on the south end of Oakland, between Redwood and Grass Valley roads. She used an old-fashioned metaphor -- the back fence -- to describe the reason for starting the group.

"Since we don't meet over the back fence or in the front yard, we can use this message system to ask for resources, like best cell phone service, set up carpools, find lost pets and more," she wrote on the group's home page. "All our responses will be kept in an archive that only members can access. That way, if someone has already replied to 'What is the city phone number for potholes,' you can just check the archive."

Skyline Neighbors, founded in early 2005, has about three dozen members.

Some online neighborhood groups are even smaller. A dozen people living in the 1000 block of Berkeley Avenue in Menlo Park formed an online group a year ago. In Sebastopol, more than two dozen people have joined a group devoted to maintaining the rural and farming character of Coffee Lane.

One of the largest neighborhood groups in the Bay Area is Ardenwood Home. The group has signed up 600 members -- residents of a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes in north Fremont.

Bay Area residents have also created online groups whose members are devoted to giving away unwanted household items to neighbors -- part of an international movement known as freecycling. Residents in four dozen Bay Area cities, including Healdsburg, Los Gatos, San Mateo and Walnut Creek, have created freecycle groups that have more than 45,000 members.

Most online neighborhood groups are named after places: Happy Valley Residents (near Pleasanton), Sequoyah Hills Neighborhood Association (Oakland), Alum Rock Neighborhood Network (San Jose), Rex Manor Neighbors (Mountain View), the Portola Neighborhood Network (San Francisco) and Glenfriends (the Glenview neighborhood in Oakland; see sidebar).

Some have whimsical names: the Marin Cafe, Sunnyvale Cafe, the Derby Street Regulars (Berkeley).

Leela Gill, president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association in San Francisco, started NOPNA-Announce, a Yahoo Group, so its board of directors could post meeting reminders, crime reports and general announcements.

"It's a fast way to communicate with a number of people in the area," she said. "It will never substitute for face-to-face conversation. However, it's a great tool to use to organize events, to get people excited about something and to motivate them to be part of a community."

Earlier this year, the association used NOPNA-Announce to rally neighbors to help more than a dozen residents displaced by a fire in their three-unit building.

The online group has attracted nearly 500 members -- an impressive number, but only a fraction of the people living in the neighborhood's more than 3,000 homes, Gill said.

"Older people and people who can't afford to have a computer in their homes are a very important part of our community, and we need to remember that communicating with them is very important," she said. "That's part of the reason why we never stopped publishing our eight-page newsletter. Yes, technology is great, but only for those who have access to it."

There seems to be no shortage of computer-savvy people living in the Willows neighborhood in Menlo Park, where residents have formed several online groups: Willows Neighborhood, which is devoted to eliminating heavy commuter and commercial cut-through traffic on their streets; Willows Moms & Babes, which also welcomes dads and families; and Willows Neighborhood Watch, a partnership between residents and the Menlo Park Police Department.

Resources

For more information about starting or joining online neighborhood groups, visit:

Yahoo Groups at groups.yahoo.com

Google Groups at www.groups.google.com

The Freecycle Network at www.freecycle.org

To take part

To join online neighborhood discussions on Web sites open to the general public, visit:

Local2Me at www.local2me.com

outside.in at outside.in

Backfence at backfence.com

-- K.S.

 

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