This Web site has many familiar features of any online social network: photos, lists of groups, discussion forums and upcoming events.
But what makes this site unique is embodied in the words that hang at the top of the main page: “Never forget from whence you came.”
The Web site represents a community of people, all connected to a place that no longer exists-the Rockwell Gardens public housing project on the West Side.
“We had a very tight-knit community,” Mickia Williams-Davis, the site’s creator, said. “After the buildings ended up being shut down, a lot of us ended up losing contact with one another.”
Former residents have held an annual gathering for the last 10 years. Williams-Davis created the social network almost two years ago to give former residents more opportunities to stay in touch. Now, she said, 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 in East Garfield Park. It spanned 11 buildings totaling more than 1,100 units. By the mid-2000s, all the buildings had been demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” Like other city housing projects, a developer was selected by the city 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. Most, however, ended up scattered throughout Chicago and some, she said, even moved from the city altogether.
“This is just another way of communicating with the community,” former Rockwell resident Gloria Bradley said.
She lived at the Gardens for more than a decade before moving away in 1979 to attend college. Bradley was able to keep in touch with some friends from the neighborhood before the advent of online social networks. She now uses social networking site Ning.com to contact people from Rockwell Gardens 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 were sites for police crackdowns targeting drug dealers and gang members, many of them non-residents. That effort was part of the city’s “Operation Clean Sweep.” Yet, 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. “It was like a big family, like you were being raised with a lot of brothers and sisters. It was nice.”
She described neighbors helping each other with childcare, as well as more formal community support like summer programs for youth. Older youth getting jobs tutoring younger children and neighborhood talent shows were also part of the community, she recalled.
“We just kind of pitched in to help each other, like a village,” Williams-Davis said.
For her, 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 also 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 to use 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.
Sociologists Sudhir Venkatesh and Isil Celimli studied Chicago public housing and the “Plan for Transformation.” In a 2004 article about their research, they wrote that 54 percent of former public housing residents in their study 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.com, 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 had by this month to choose from one of the plans.
As the Rockwell Gardens site 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 their online space. Williams-Davis estimated that 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 that extra money could be used to help pay for school supplies for some of the site’s members’ kids.
“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.com, 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.”