Communities finding new links through neighborhood Web sites

Internet pages keep residents informed, promote city life

July 04, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's neighborhoods are increasingly taking to the Internet, and those who log on to the Web sites say the sites are helping them enhance their sense of connection and putting the city at fingertips worldwide.

A redesigned Bolton Hill site and an aging Butchers Hill site, commonly considered the newest and the oldest residents on the city's cyber block, are among 18 neighborhood associations that have links on www.LiveBaltimore.com, the city's home page.

Though some suggest that Baltimore is late in entering the Internet arena, others say these Web sites are forerunners of a trend that will rewrite the way communities communicate: groups of neighbors and neighborhood groups entering cyberspace.

"It's an easier way for people to share information at a time that's convenient to them," said Ned Himmelrich, an Internet law attorney at Gordon Feinblatt who corresponds regularly with his Reisterstown neighbors about local issues and recently helped organize opposition to development plans in his community.

"We distributed leaflets to neighbors, invited them to respond to an e-mail address and then had our conversations and discussed our tactics through distributed e-mail. I attribute it to everyone having a lot to do, being unavailable to have frequent regular meetings and being able to use available technology."

Jane Brown, executive director of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, said recent developments leave Baltimore's online community behind those of many other metropolitan areas, especially those in Texas, North Carolina and Washington. "Baltimore's just starting to use the Internet as a city," she said.

Despite the city's possible tardy entry into the Internet world - Mayor Martin O'Malley began City Hall's Web site, www.baltimorecity.gov, in March - neighborhood Web sites often are useful, Brown said. "With the Internet, people can get information from all over the world, but what's happening in our own neighborhoods is often more timely and important.

"These Web sites have become community-binding mechanisms," she said.

Barry Glassman, who founded the Butchers Hill Web site three years ago, said it helps bring people together to such events as summer outdoor movie festivals and persuades people from as far away as New Mexico to consider moving to that part of Baltimore.

The sites aren't always born easily. The Bolton Hill Web site, which was begun a few weeks ago, is a polished production of the Mount Royal Improvement Association that arose out of arguments between Dolph Druckman and Doreen Rosenthal.

"Knock-down, drag-out fights were very crucial exercises in organizing a topic," Druckman said. As the Web master, only he can touch and change the site.

Rosenthal, in whose dining room the Web site was invented, said, "We were lucky my mind and his mind are so different. That covered a lot."

The two, who hardly knew each other before they volunteered for the task, say they are now like family. Both cleared time in their lives for the project.

Druckman is a doctor, and Rosenthal is chairwoman of the city's civilian review board, which hears complaints about police conduct.

The third volunteer, Rachel Schreiber, a 34-year-old faculty member at Maryland Institute, College of Art, designed the digital art.

All three agreed on the need to think in another dimension. Schreiber applied herself to the colors, fonts and look of the site, and Druckman and Rosenthal figured out its contents, nailing down details such as the interactive bulletin board.

Which pages should be linked to their own became the topic for vigorous exchanges as they paved a path into cyberspace. Parking and safety are expected to be among the most heavily visited links.

The introductory page shows four simple architectural symbols, each of which opens into a different world, all connecting about 900 households in the neighborhood known for its well-preserved rowhouses.

About half of those households are members of MRIA and as a result have access to the new Web site, Druckman and Rosenthal said.

They said that as they find a new way to create community in an already close-knit neighborhood, they are not supplanting the MRIA newsletter or leaving behind those who communicate in less modern ways.

For those who do, the Bolton Hill Web site offers a guide not just to parking, real estate, leisure activities and dining, and the local swimming club, but also to a trash and recycling schedule that covers every day of the year.

A calendar of events is not offered because the co-creators said it would require too much maintenance.

On other neighborhood sites, one can stroll through the history of Federal Hill and Highlandtown.

The Southeast Development Corp. focuses on practical advice on jobs, loans and homebuying, offering maps of Canton and other neighborhoods in that area.

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