Rockwell Gardens neighbors reconnect
New site a community hub for residents of former housing project
08/04/2010 10:00 PM
The Web site has familiar features of any online social network: photos, lists of groups, birthdays of members, discussion forums and upcoming events. What makes the site unique is embodied in the words that hang at the top of the page: “Never forget from whence you came.”
The site represents a community of people all connected to a place that no longer exists, at least physically: the Rockwell Gardens public housing project in East Garfield Park.
“We had a very tight-knit community. After the buildings ended up being shut down a lot of us ended up losing contact with one another,” Mickia Williams-Davis, a one-time Rockwell dweller, said.
Former residents have held an annual gathering for the last 10 years and Williams-Davis created the social network almost two years ago to allow them more opportunities to stay in touch. The site has around 1,700 members.
“I thought it would be a good way for us to be able to reconnect with each other without having to wait each year for the picnic,” she said.
Rockwell Gardens was built in 1961 and spanned 11 buildings and 1,136 units of public housing. By the middle of this decade, all the buildings had been demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. Like other city housing projects, a developer, in this case East Lake Management, was selected by the housing authority to construct a mixed-income community where the high rises once stood.
Williams-Davis, who moved from Rockwell Gardens in 1989 to attend college, said she had heard that some former residents were able to move into the new mixed-income housing, but most ended up scattered throughout Chicago. Some, she said, even moved from the city altogether.
“This is just another way of communicating with the community,” another former resident, Gloria Bradley, said.
Bradley lived at Rockwell Gardens for more than a decade before moving away in 1979 to attend college. She kept in touch with some friends from the neighborhood before the advent of online social networks, and Bradley said she now uses the Rockwell Ning site to contact other former residents about once a week.
“Some of us have done very well, some of us are struggling,” Bradley said of the diverse trajectories of former neighbors. She said the site gave members the chance to say, “Hey, I feel good about what you’re doing. Congratulations.”
Both Bradley and Williams-Davis acknowledge that in later years, the housing project faced rising violence and crime. In the late 1980s Rockwell Gardens and other housing projects saw police crackdowns targeting drug dealers and gang members, many of them non-residents, as part of the city’s “Operation Clean Sweep.”
Still, both women focus on positive memories of neighborhood life.
“It was just a family-oriented atmosphere that a lot of us still miss to this day,” Williams-Davis said.
She described neighbors helping each other with childcare as well as more formal community support like summer programs for youth, teenagers tutoring younger children and neighborhood talent shows.
“We just kind of pitched in to help each other, like a village,” she said.
For Williams-Davis, the site is not just a platform for remembering this kind of supportive community, but for continuing it. Williams-Davis works as a school social worker in Chicago’s southwest suburbs and helps former neighbors through the online social network. She said she frequently posts information about available jobs, apartments and city resources on the site. She also created sub-groups on the site which are used to coordinate adult-youth mentoring, book clubs and group trips.
In many ways the Rockwell Gardens site has maintained these supportive relationships online, but such relationships can be found throughout Chicago’s public housing diaspora.
Sudhir Venkatesh and Isil Celimli, sociologists who study Chicago public housing and the Plan for Transformation, wrote in a 2004 article that 54 percent of former public housing residents in one of their studies returned to their old neighborhoods at least once a week.
“Nostalgia may be a factor,” they wrote, “but the social supports they spent years, if not decades, building up are not easy to cast aside.”
The online Rockwell Gardens community may have to stay connected through another move. Williams-Davis built the social network using Ning, a web service that allows people to create their own customized social networking sites.
But in May, Ning announced that it would be phasing out its advertising-supported free service in favor of pricing plans that range from $19.95 to $499.95 a year. Creators of networks will have to choose from one of the plans within 30 days of their July launch.
As the site’s creator, the new fees would fall on Williams-Davis, an expense she said she can’t afford. She said she sent out a notification on the site to see if members could make small donations to sustain the site. Williams-Davis said it would take about 500 of the site’s members to donate one dollar to sustain the site for a year. If this plan succeeds, she said, extra money could be used to help pay for school supplies for children of some of the site’s members who are in need.
“Right now it’s kind of rough for us because a lot of people, I don’t know if they can pay for the site,” Williams-Davis said.
If she isn’t able to preserve the Ning network, Williams-Davis said she would try to move the online community to Facebook, where she has already created a page.
“I put a lot of work into it,” she said, “and I would hate to see it, you know, just fall apart.”
On July 19, Williams-Davis posted a notice on the site, saying it would survive.