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To All a Good Net

The Phillips neighborhood gets wired: pnn.organizers (from left) Paul Weir, Sue Hunter Weir, Jerry Beberg, Carly Swirty, and Paul Meek
Michael Dvorak

It's a matter of record that the 220-block area in south Minneapolis known as Phillips is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. More than 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty level--double the citywide number. At 18 percent, the neighborhood's unemployment rate also dwarfs the city's, which is under 4 percent. While these statistics may not be surprising, their source might be: This, and gobs of other information about the neighborhood, is available on the Phillips Neighborhood Network, a Web site created by and for Minneapolis's largest, and historically most troubled, neighborhood. Compared to the sites developed by other city districts--most of them more affluent--PNN's (at www.pnn.org) is a remarkably rich repository of valuable information.

The network first went online in 1997, around the time that questionable finances and shady management practices were busy obliterating the last traces of People of Phillips, leaving the neighborhood without a central political organization. During that turmoil a handful of residents got together and came up with the idea for the Web site, says Paul Weir, chairman of the PNN board. It was, and still very much is, a shoestring operation. WaveTech, a local Internet service provider, donated the group's Internet connections and continues to host the site for free. The Webmaster worked on old equipment (a '93 Macintosh) to post material.

Since its launch the site has expanded slowly. It is by no means slick, with a simple design and only a few graphics. But with some quick clicks it's not hard to find demographic information, studies on housing, crime statistics, event listings, directories of youth and employment services, even a pictorial meandering through the many community gardens on Phillips's vacant lots. "What we want to do is give people in Phillips a view of the neighborhood," Weir explains. "This will better enable them to figure out where they want to go, what they want the neighborhood to become."

The role of the Web site may soon expand, Weir says, since Phillips is in the process of "regionalizing," that is, separating what until recently was a single neighborhood into four districts, each recognized by city hall and each given a hand in decisions concerning their own economic and housing development. At the same time, the future of The Alley, Phillips's long-standing newspaper, is unclear as it struggles each month to cull enough advertising to pay for the printing. "We're in the middle of a crisis in the neighborhood, and nobody's publishing minutes, nobody's publishing agendas, nobody's publicizing meetings," Weir says.

Which is where PNN comes in. Using a Web site as a central spot for information seems to be an increasingly popular innovation, and Phillips is at the forefront of the trend, says Carrie Day-Aspinwall, coordinator of Minneapolis's Weed & Seed program, part of a federal project to reduce crime in urban-core areas. PNN, she says, has inspired other neighborhoods pinpointed by the program (there are 11 zones across the state participating in Weed & Seed) to consider building their own pages as well. "I think it's going to take off," she says.

Still, neighborhood-based sites face challenges simply because they often target only a very small, very specific segment of the population, says Peter Krasilovsky, vice president of the Kelsey Group, a New Jersey Internet consulting firm. Even if a Web site steps up to take on an organizing role, the reality is that not everyone in Phillips can afford a computer, let alone Internet access.

So who is actually looking at the site? PNN gets about 10,000 hits a month, Weir says. They come from around the city, nation, and world, and most of them originate from outside the neighborhood, he surmises. "We just don't have that much access to the Internet," he says. "We originally hoped that everybody in Phillips would look at us. We realized that was not going to happen, because not everybody in Phillips has a computer or is online." One of the group's original goals was to get about 100 computers and dole them out to block-club leaders, so they could connect to the Web site and disseminate the information to their neighbors.

Weir admits, however, that hasn't happened yet. The reason? Mainly money. PNN, he explains, is hesitant to accept funds from donors who might want to push their own agendas, because the founders want the Web site to stay politically independent. PNN did accept $5,000 from the Minneapolis Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit that gives money to improve high-poverty neighborhoods, and $5,700 from the Weed & Seed program. Those funds went toward buying new computer equipment in order to better manage and update the PNN site.

"I do find it ironic that a lot of neighborhood organizations have all this extensive information and no way for anyone to get to it," says Lisa Miller, cofounder of Digital Access Center, a start-up that's trying to create computer labs in the city's poorer neighborhoods to increase residents' access to technology. The center has run into some difficulty raising the funds to get started. "Offering resources on a Web site for a neighborhood network is great," she declares. "But make sure people in the neighborhood can see all those things."

Others are less concerned, saying that existing libraries and computer centers offer a fair amount of access to people who don't have their own computers. And, says Barb Lickness, who works on the city's south side as a specialist with the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, more and more people, regardless of income level, are somehow managing to get their hands on computers. "They may not be the hottest and the best," she notes, "but they work."

Lickness, who is working with the Phillips Neighborhood Network to post NRP information, suggests that it is because PNN is a separate entity--not part of a neighborhood association--that the Web site has remained such a high priority and is continually becoming more elaborate. Because the site is the sole charge of the self-governed volunteer group that works on it, it doesn't get buried under paperwork or tedious resident meetings.

As the computer becomes a more important tool in increasing citizens' participation in their many governments--from block clubs to the White House, knowledge is still power--people will be watching to see what happens with the Phillips site. "We're probably at the earliest phase," says Dianne Lev, senior program officer at the Minneapolis Foundation. "It may be that pnn.org eventually takes on as prominent a role as a neighborhood newspaper." Until then, it's a quick place to go for the insider scoop on the issues facing Phillips, or just to stroll among the gardens and public art that grace the site.


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