Alan Ehrenhalt, Inversions, and Developing Our Communities

June 2, 2014

There’s something viscerally appealing about a dynamic, creative community, regardless of whether it is onsite or online.

If we walk on a city street, through a public plaza or park, or in a library or museum where people are engaged with each other, we often feel the urge to be part of what it offers. If we participate in and contribute to a civil, active, well-facilitated, and creative online community of learning, community of practice, or community of interest, we frequently feel well-rewarded and stimulated by the positive interactions we have. Conversely, if we stumble upon or through communities that feel uninviting or in any way unsafe, we’re not going to remain there very long.

Ehrenhalt--Great_Inversion--CoverReading Alan Ehrenhalt’s book The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City tells us plenty about the state of some of our most interesting physical communities; it also, I believe, offers us opportunities to draw productive parallels about what makes online communities attractive.

The settings for his onsite explorations include urban and suburban neighborhoods in or near Chicago, Cleveland, Gwinnett County (Georgia), Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and several other American cities, and he also draws upon several European cities (including the Paris of George-Eugène Haussmann’s time and Vienna as the Ringstrasse was opening in the latter half of the 19th century). He reminds us that a great European street served—and continues to serve—as “a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation….To talk about a crowded city thoroughfare of the nineteenth century as ‘mixed use’ urbanism in the modern sense is to miss the point altogether. This was essentially ‘all use’ urbanism” (p. 23) He then explores various American cities to document ebbs and flows of population into and out of areas in an attempt to help us understand what makes contemporary cities appealing or lacking in appeal.

As we share Ehrenhalt’s journey through our physical sites, we consider the impact immigrants, the availability of public transportation, the presence of street life, street furniture, parks, residents’ commitments (or lack of commitment) to their communities, and even levels of housing available in downtown areas have on making or breaking communities.

And that’s where I believe we can draw parallels between what we see in The Great Inversion and what we see in equally dynamic or challenged online communities. The diverse points of view that can result from interactions between immigrants and well-established residents of a community also provide the advantages and challenges of welcoming various points of view in our online communities. The presence of engaging levels of onsite street life has its online equivalent in communities where friends and colleagues can drop into an online community with the assurance that their “neighbors” will be there to interact synchronously as well as asynchronously in rewarding and stimulating ways. The elements that contribute to a sense of safety and engagement in our onsite settings also have their online parallels: just as broken windows and large amounts of graffiti can quickly chase us away from onsite settings, the presence of spammers and haters in an online community can quickly inspire the departure of previously-engaged members of an online community.

Street life in our physical settings is returning in various forms, Ehrenhalt contends, and I see—and benefit from—a parallel level of street life in the best of the online communities to which I’m drawn. Although Ehrenhalt’s own conclusion is that “The more that people are enabled by technology to communicate with one another while remaining physically solitary, the more they crave a physical form of social life to balance out all the electronics” (p. 236), I believe that an equally compelling interaction is occurring as those of us who are lucky enough to meet in dynamic onsite communities continue some of our interactions online. The result is that for those of us who comfortably move back and forth within our blended onsite-online communities, the opportunities to engage and benefit from interactions from dynamically diverse communities has never been better.

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Hidden Garden Steps: Community, Collaboration, Geocaching, and Muggles

August 29, 2013

I’m officially a muggle. At least that’s what “Team512”—known more colloquially as Margo Peterson among her colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, where she works—playfully confirmed earlier today when I found her on the Hidden Garden Steps here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

Muggles, as readers of the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter series (or the Wikipedia “Muggle” article) know, are those lacking magical powers and magical blood. They are also, under the rules of the Geocaching game that brought Peterson to the Steps this morning, those not yet initiated into the pleasures of geocaching—whimsical searches that incorporate GPS technology into excursions introducing residents and visitors to places they might otherwise not be inclined to explore throughout the world. Geocachers who are successful at onsite and online searches find a variety of objects—the one on the Steps is a small ceramic turtle containing a metal cylinder with a piece of paper that geocachers use to document that they were there before also documenting their success online at Geocaching.com.

HGS--Geocaching--Margo[1]--2013-08-29

Margo Peterson

Peterson says she has more than 6,000 finds to her credit, including objects found in a cave outside of Livermore (here in the San Francisco Bay Area) and at the end of a “Vampire Empire” search that led her through part of the Chicago subway system. And although geocaching is, in her words, “a little nerdy,” it also offers the same sort of enticements that involvement in the Hidden Garden Steps project itself offers: an opportunity to be part of a playfully engaging—and engaged—community. Peterson says she knows of barbecues, coffee-house gatherings, and many other social events that have drawn geocachers together when they were not actively engaged in their onsite and online searches.

Encountering Peterson and learning about this generally muggle-free endeavor that has led to the creation of more than 2 million caches available to the more than 6 million geocachers who have registered since 2000 is, for me, just the latest unexpected benefit to having been involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project since early 2010. The Steps effort has two explicit goals: to create a second set of ceramic-tile steps, murals, and gardens here in the Inner Sunset District, and to create a community-meeting space that fosters a greater sense of community and collaboration than already exists in one of San Francisco’s great neighborhoods.

HGS--Preview--Mosaic[1]--2013-07-20

Mosaic in progress, at preview (7/20/13)

Discovering that the Steps—“Stairway to Heaven #3”—has become one of the “premium” (available only to paying members of Geocaching.com) searches even before the mosaic that is nearing completion in the studios of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is formally installed onsite on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets is a great sign that the Steps effort continues to attract a community extending far beyond the Inner Sunset District itself. Our fundraising campaign to raise approximately $300,000 in cash and in-kind services successfully concluded in July 2013 with nearly $10,000 in additional individual gifts in 10-day period and a $32,500 grant from the City and County of San Francisco Community Challenge Grant program. Extensive onsite preparation work by City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Works employees is keeping us on track for installation of the mosaic sometime between October 2013 and spring 2014. Visitors drawn to the original tiled steps, on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues, are increasingly finding their way to the new site, where long-hidden views continue to be revealed through the work of volunteers and other supporters. And recent conversations with visitors from other parts of the United States as well as from China, France, and many other countries show that there is a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement about how the project has developed with partnerships and collaborations that include neighborhood associations, the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) Street Parks Program, local government representatives, businesses, and more than 500 individuals who purchased tiles that have been incorporated into the mosaic and whose names are still being added to the project website as a sort of snapshot of the levels of support that volunteer-based community-driven efforts can still attract. All of which might have combined to transform me into a muggle-in-transition since I am, through my encounter with Peterson on the Steps, beginning to suspect that the geocache there may not be the last one I encounter.

N.B.: This is the eighteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Connecting the Dots in an Onsite-Online World: Metatrends in Travel, Life, and Learning

January 26, 2013

Having the unusual experience of jumping from one professional conference to a second this week is providing learning experiences most of us rarely encounter—and one that shines an extremely bright spotlight on what it means to live, work, and learn in a completely blended onsite-onsite world.

nmc.logo.cmykAfter leaving San Francisco on Monday, I was completely immersed in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas from mid-day Tuesday to mid-day Thursday. Trying to capture even most cursory set of highlights of the discussions held on Tuesday and Wednesday meant absorbing highly stimulating and challenging ideas from some very bright colleagues from schools, colleges, universities, museums, and libraries all over the world—then condensing them into blog–sized posts late at night before returning to the intellectual arena the following day for even more of the same.

Making the transition from Austin to Seattle Thursday evening to attend part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting at first suggested the need for a major shift in thinking. I assumed ALA_Midwinter_2013I was leaving behind the education summit themes of wicked problems including the need to rethink higher education, rethink online learning, and deal with how we effectively incorporate technology into learning. Diving into the ALA conference, I suspected, would instead focus on a different set of wicked problems, including the roles libraries play in a variety of arenas including lifelong learning, information literacy, intellectual freedom, and the overall development of communities—geographically defined communities as well as global online communities.

It didn’t take long to realize that there were dots to be connected between the two conferences and the two sets of wicked problems—and one of the major connections is the technology that makes it possible to jump between two such conferences so seamlessly.

Some of the subtle connections rapidly became apparent as I started running into colleagues in the Washington State Convention Center here in Seattle late this afternoon in hallways, reception lounges, and more formally organized activities; the conversations we had were amazingly similar to those in which I participated during the education summit—the need to rethink what we’re doing, abandon some of our core assumptions, and take advantage not only of our face-to-face opportunities to explore and act upon the challenges we are facing, but also to draw offsite colleagues into the conversation via tweets and twitter feeds, posts on Facebook, and other online extensions of the onsite conversations.

There were also the completely unsubtle reminders that geographic barriers are far less constraining then they were even ten years ago—barriers often reduced or completely knocked down by how quickly relationships are established in one arena (e.g., virtual communications), extended into a physical setting, and then extended even further in both settings.

My latest moment of revelation came this evening when I connected the dots between meeting, for the first time, an NMC Horizon Summit attendee Tuesday because we were both live-tweeting the summit from different parts of a meeting room housing approximately 100 attendees. By mid-day Wednesday, she and I had managed to engage in face-to-face conversation, then continued the conversation via the Twitter feed throughout the afternoon, and then ended up across a dinner table with eight other colleagues that evening. We said good-bye to each other early Thursday afternoon in Austin—and then unexpectedly were face to face again this evening while walking the exhibits floor at the ALA Midwinter meeting—an event drawing thousands of people from libraries across the United States. But even that isn’t the remarkable and marvelous part of the story. We ran into each other twice in that huge exhibition area this evening, and it was only during our second encounter that I realized the colleague with whom she was traveling is a member of an ALA committee that I chair—a colleague, I should add, that I’ve only met face to face one time, and with whom I will be having lunch tomorrow before our committee meeting begins. Turns out the two of them are rooming together here at the conference, and neither of them had known how the three of us were connected until we met on the exhibits floor.

While all of this may sound like some freakish “who would have thought it” sort of encounter worthy of little more than a “wow, how strange” sort of reaction, I believe it speaks to something far deeper and more important in our world of rapid travel, seamless onsite-online communication, and learning. It speaks to our natural inclination toward socializing and learning since a thirst for learning drew us to these events; our need for affiliation anywhere we can find it; our drive to create, nurture, and sustain community wherever and however we can develop it; and our willingness to continually push the envelope on what it means to “meet” somebody, engage with somebody, and build upon relationships that, without attention, could begin to grow and then quickly wither away if left unattended. It also speaks to the almost magical, mystical nature of how we forge connections in a world of countless interweavings through a variety of means— not the least of which is the creative and effective use of social media tools—with an eye toward solving some of those wicked problems we continued exploring at the NMC education summit.


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