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Near North Portal Aims to coNNect

Chicago’s Near North neighborhood has added what its designers call “a six-corner intersection of two-way streets.”

But no, it’s not some random roadway realignment left over from the NATO confab.

The new Near North "portal" site offers events, news, features, a directory and more for area residents.

It’s a new website--www.coNNectnearnorth.org--and it captures a lot of what LISC Chicago has learned over the past few years about how to pull together a website capable of pulling together a neighborhood.

“It’s a place for community members to plug in,” said Abu Ansari, the site’s first part-time manager. He’s a professional actor and one of those who stepped up when LISC Chicago’s Near North Unity Project asked for volunteers to create a community-run website, or portal.

The goal, Ansari remembers, was to establish a common space in cyberspace where visitors to, and members of, the highly diverse Near North community “will be constantly coming and going and interacting with one another.”

The site went live in mid-April and is off to a colorful start. There’s a newsy calendar of upcoming events--from job fairs to music festivals--along with brief write-ups of what to expect at each. There’s neighborhood news, such as the dangling fate of a popular community garden as well as an explanation of how Near North fared in the recent ward remap. There’s a spotlight feature on interesting local residents, a loving tribute to a recently deceased owner of an Old Town landscaping store, and a small-but-growing directory of local businesses and nonprofits.

Smart lessons learned
In many ways, the coNNect site is the fruit of lessons learned over the past several years as LISC Chicago helped five other neighborhoods set up web portals as part of its Smart Communities Program, which operates with the help of a federal grant. 

The portal site gives Near North residents a place to build community in cyberspace--as they did in physical space during the Near North Unity Project.

Gordon Walek

“This was a test of what we could do in a community that didn’t have Smart Community resources,” said Carl Vogel, an online editor who helped create sites for Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Auburn Gresham, Englewood and Chicago Lawn.

One key point all along, Vogel said, is for the sponsoring neighborhood organization to back off a bit. That way other local voices will see it as their site and bring to it both fresh content and repeat viewership.

Another spinoff from Smart Communities is the content management software developed by Webitects, the digital design firm that worked with LISC to set up the earlier portals. Its Grassroots template is simple to use and allows outsiders to prepare and submit content. But it’s also safe, in that only designated gatekeepers are able to edit submissions and post them on the site’s public face.

“We do have a gatekeeper … and it’s me,” said Ansari, who picked up some web skills in an earlier communications job with the Ounce of Prevention Fund. But his job now is getting the word out so coNNect will have more viewers … and more submissions for him to edit. So he’s been going to a lot of church meetings and posting flyers in lobbies from North Avenue to Chicago Avenue, from Wells Street to the Chicago River. 

NNUP evolving
The Near North Unity Program, meanwhile, is being led increasingly by a core group of local stakeholders with LISC Chicago and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), the co-conveners of NNUP starting in November 2010, still providing financial, technical and moral support.

Abu Ansari, an actor and the site's part-time manager, pick up web skills at an earlier job with the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

Behind it all is a determination to bring together a community that has been rocked by the demolition of public housing and the relocation of hundreds of minority families into newly built housing complexes alongside more affluent condo owners.

Progress has been slow … but progress is being made.     

“We bought our condo in ’08 just before the market crashed,” remembers Ansari of his first year at Parkside of Old Town. It’s one of the mixed-income developments that replaced the CHA’s Cabrini-Green high-rises. “The discord then, you could feel it.”

“So it’s good now to see people coming together,” he said. “There are still challenges, but compared to what it used to be, the way people avoided one another, it’s very different. Now we’re looking forward instead of looking back.”

And one of the best places to look forward, he might have added, is www.coNNectnearnorth.org

More information: info@connectnearnorth.org

Keri Blackwell, LISC senior program officer, kblackwell@LISC.org

Posted in Civic Tech, Near North Side

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