Side-by-side neighborhood photographs taken this year and in the 1930s provide great insight… each pair worth 2,000 words, I guess. Check out Depression Era Streetscapes, a project of University of Vermont Professor Thomas Visser. The site covers much of Burlington, Vermont, USA.
Mia Moran of Channel 5 News WPTZ captured the essence of what we’re after with Front Porch Forum in a piece broadcast last night. And bonus points to her and cameraman Nick for braving our home during the toddler bewitching hour. If you have trouble watching this video (on WPTZ’s site), hold tight… I hope to have a more accessible version directly on our server soon.
And in another take on related matters, Peter Krasilovsky reports on two more city sites: Pegasus News in Dallas and CitySquares in Boston. CitySquares co-founder Ben Saren reports 300 advertisers paying a flat 25 cents/click.
To date, neighborhoods out of the downtown district do best, like Jamaica Plain and Harvard Square. “There is a lot more of a neighborhood mentality,” says Saren The more homogenized, high rent businesses in downtown Boston are less likely to pitch their tent with a local city site.
Saren, like Pegasus’ Orren, hopes to take his concept beyond his city’s borders. “Ideally, it would be a Tier 2 or Tier 3 market with a college orientation, like a Burlington or Tallahassee,” he says.
Hmm… I wonder how this would work in home-sweet-home Burlington.
Nearly a quarter of private-sector, non-farm jobs in Vermont are in micro-enterprises, according to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity and reported by Leslie Wright in the Burlington Free Press today. The number of such businesses grew about 8% from 2001 to 2003.
A micro-enterprise employs fewer than five people and requires $35,000 or less in start-up capital.
I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with several small-scale local entrepreneurs whose business fits that definition. Many are excited about working with Front Porch Forum to connect with people in the neighborhoods that they serve. They often complain about being priced out of conventional means, such as the Yellow Pages. Plus, many of these folks are doing business with their neighbors, so they’re interested in supporting FPF as a community-building resource.
Some places have a great sense of community, but most neighborhoods in America, me thinks, do not. A new book, Applebee’s America, seems to agree:
“Life is changing too damn fast,” Cindy Moran told us one day at an Applebee’s restaurant in Howell, Michigan. A single mother of two, Moran was one of the dozens of people we interviewed for this book to gauge the mood of the country. “It’s not easy being the kind of mother I want to be,” she said, carving a high-calorie path through a bowl of spinach dip while her daughter begged for more, “not with life stuck on fast-forward.”
Buffeted by change, people like Moran crave the comfort of community. They want to know their neighbors and meet people like themselves no matter where they live. They want to help improve their neighborhoods and their country. They want to belong.
Our Front Porch Forum experience concurs. The babysitter find, car sale, plumber referral, etc. through our neighborhood forums are almost bonus to the main event… connecting with neighbors. The Dallas Morning News recently ran a piece by the book’s authors:
In the next quarter-century, the nation is expected to increase its housing, office and business stock by 50 percent, and the great majority of that new building will take place in exurbs. But the rapid sprawl comes with complications that few people notice until they’re ensconced – including hellish commutes, overcrowded schools, disappearing open space, inadequate public works and social disconnectedness.
“My next-door neighbor is not friendly, and the rest of them I don’t even know,” Ms. Kromer [a housewife from Livingston County, Mich.] says. “They drive past my house, open their garages from inside their car, and disappear until their car comes popping back out in the morning.”
We’ve heard versions of this last quote so many times that we’ve lost count. Time to do something about it!
Community building is also what got Yahoo! so interested in Ludicorp’s creation and although Yahoo! has got some of the best technical resources behind it, Caterina believes that skills and money don’t guarantee users. “The interesting thing about acquisitions of this kind is that you can’t just suddenly build a community. You can’t just go out and replicate all of the features and functionality of something you’ve seen, it doesn’t really work that way.”
According to Caterina: “The most difficult part is not the technology but actually getting the people to behave well.” When first starting the community the Flickr team were spending nearly 24 hours online greeting each individual user, introducing them to each other and cultivating the community. “After a certain point you can let go and the community will start to maintain itself, explains Caterina. “People will greet each other and introduce their own practices into the social software. It’s always underestimated, but early on you need someone in there everyday who is kind of like the host of the party, who introduces everybody and takes their coat.”
Thanks to Jason Kottke for the reference, as well as an additional example.
With the development of Front Porch Forum, I too have been spending time online with our early members helping to shape that sense of community… online community that is. So that the positive, constructive, civil tone we’ve achieved will carry over from the online community into the actual neighborhood. Some have suggested that this aspect isn’t scalable… I’m confident it will be. Already we have about 6% of our members self-selected as neighborhood forum volunteers to help make this happen. People are able and willing to step up when it’s their neighborhood.
Josh and Zoe live around the corner from us with their two tots. I saw their original posting in our neighborhood forum asking for help moving from their rental across the street to their new home. We had planned to stop by to help schlep a few boxes, but one thing led to another and we didn’t make it. I wonder how many other people wanted to pitch in like us, but didn’t for some reason. And, as my better half, Valerie, said, what a great sense of community that allows people to feel okay about asking for this kind of help. Amen.
From: Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum, Issue No. 1,282
Front Porch Forum
By Josh Brown, December 05, 2006
Just over a week ago, we moved [across Catherine Street]. And what was it like? It was like a swarm of giant leaf-cutter ants suddenly descended on our apartment and carried everything away; It was like Hogwarts had put their best people on the job; it was like the gods of suction applied a vacuum to our stacked boxes and furniture and they shot out, miraculously, into all the right places at the other end; it like was one of those stop-action films where an entire day’s weather passes in a moment. It was downright fun.
OK, we exaggerate.
But we do say thank you, thank you, thank you, to the wonderful crowd of friends and neighbors who came out to help last Sunday. It was humbling and heartwarming to have 36 people show up, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, in response to our request for help here on the Five Sister forum and move all our things down the street in an hour and a half. When Jess Lily arrived a bit before noon, I thought, “great, at least there’ll be some else to help with the heavy stuff.” Then a few more people showed up and so it seemed good to station myself at the top of the stairs to try to tell them what things to pick up.
But I soon realized that, like a good wedding, it was only a little bit about us – and it was more about community and collective wisdom. Instead of needing directions, people seemed to know better than we did where things should go. Within a few moments, the best I could do was to stand back and try not to get in the way or gape, as a stream of people came up and down the stairs, buzzed across the street with a load and returned, smiling.
Of course, there were a few spots that we just hadn’t gotten to cleaning and organizing before the moving day, like the messy back porch and jumbled garage. A little embarrassed, Zoe and I tried to say, “Oh, don’t worry about that mess, we’ll get it later.”
Ha. The group knew better – and within a few minutes someone had packed up all the milk bottles and crud on the back porch and Dave N. had backed his pick-up into the garage, where a crowd loaded it up and delivered it within 10 minutes.
When a socket wrench was needed, it appeared; when the picnic table seemed like it would be a pain to get down the stairs, a team lowered it off the second-story porch by rope; our bed was not just moved, it was fixed; Rosalie’s finicky crib was dismantled then expertly reassembled; all the picture hangers in the old place were taken out and put in a bag; carpets vacuumed; the buckets of potting soil were subdued; a crew set up the beds in just the right spots at the new house so we’d have a place to sleep. And these are just a few examples of the rain of goodwill that fell on us that day.
Most people, I posit, are looking for this kind of thing. We’re seeing more and more stories like Josh and Zoe’s flow through Front Porch Forum… although it seems the majority just happen and don’t get discussed… so it’s hard to quantify the good will.
P.S. Glad to see that the Burlington Free Press also covered this good news in its holiday blog.
I realize that Halloween was a few weeks ago, but severed-hand stories keep dropping in my lap. So… it all started with a message on the South Union Neighborhood Forum from Sue Burton and Jan Schultz:
“The morning after Halloween we found a green hand on our porch (pretty scary)! Maybe it’s a “special gift” (Sue has a broken wrist)… If it’s yours, give us a call.”
Three different neighbors, each missing a hand, came around to inspect the green foundling… and no matches were made! Jan and Sue followed up with:
“THE FICKLE HAND OF FATE: There’s more to the Green Hand Saga. Our most recent potential taker realized that our mysterious green hand is not his Green hand after all. As for the two callers yesterday, one found her own missing green hand on her back porch, and the other glumly realized that our new-found treasure wasn’t her lost hand. (Her’s is a glow-in-the-dark monstrous glove; ours does a little dance if you try to pick it up). So. But it’s O.K. I have to admit I’ve become very attached to this green hand. (This is Sue speaking, of the broken wrist.)”
Well, that’s four. What’s going on here? And then yesterday… number 5. Richard Donnelly told me of his missing gorilla hand… last seen in Halloween’s moonlight around Caroline Street. So, I just posted an APB on the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum. Banana reward offered by Richard.
Who would have known the ways that Front Porch Forum would be used when we launched it a few months ago? In this giving season, please help these missing hands reunite with their rightful owners. Thank you.
Burlington Telecom is a young internet provider that is bringing fiber optic broadband all the way to the home. This is the latest and greatest technology and it’s cheap! BT also offers telephone and “cable” TV (no copper). And the kicker… this innovative high tech outfit is owned by… the citizens of Burlington. It’s a municipal utility. All “profits” stay local… no distant corporate CEOs to feed or bail out of prison.
In our market, we have a small number of broadband options. The primary cable option has been Adelphia, which was swallowed by Comcast. That change is just hitting the ground here and I’ve been hearing from customers about the switch. Some haven’t had a problem, others have.
Here’s word from one unlucky chap who lives in Redrock:
“The switchover from Adelphia to Comcast has been a nightmare setting up forwarding loops and non-delivery notices. I am in the process of deleting most of some 21,306 messages… to get the half dozen legitimate ones.”
Ouch! He went on to sound an increasingly common refrain:
“Burlington Telecom doesn’t serve us yet… We can’t wait until they get here.”
Full disclosure: I volunteer on BT’s citizen advisory council and was a beta tester when their residential service started last fall.
Trade associations form when a group of businesses in the same field feel a need to work together to (1) get a better shake from government and/or (2) get group discounts from the vendors that serve them. Professional societies serve the same purpose for individuals. Last I recall, the United States has an incredible number of these organizations. That’s how you get things done… find a group with common interests to yours, then work together to lobby government and twist the arms of your common business partners (yes, they also provide training, issue credentials, market the industry, etc.).
I’ve been in and around such entities for much of my career in Washington, DC (trade associations central) and more recently in Vermont (where I ran a 30-employee association of utilities).
Now in launching Front Porch Forum, I’ll be darned if I don’t find myself on familiar ground. This past week, a neighborhood forum in Williston bustled with talk of neighbors banding together to muscle a bulk discount from a trash hauler. Previously, a forum in Shelburne discussed a group discount on home heating oil. Neighbors in Burlington have connected through their forum to split cords of firewood. Another group of neighbors jointly purchased a power leaf mulcher. Plenty of potential to save a buck using your forum to organize a group of neighbors to get some leverage. I wonder what’ll be next?
Using neighborhood forums to political ends… that’s even more common. Burlington forums debate the Southern Connector highway project. Williston forums heat up over the proposed landfill. Our neighborhood’s phone service used to cut out during every hard rain… for years… decades. Our forum got folks mobilized and making calls (when the sun shined!). Now we have new poles and lines and great service. We have a similar story about our old nearly impassable sidewalks… replaced now with concrete the envy of every trike rider in town.
Need to mobilize your neighborhood? Try Front Porch Forum.