Urban uplift has gone through many phases in the last few decades—from the militant community empowerment experiments of the 1960s, to the large-scale government housing projects of the 1970s, to the new public-private partnerships of the 1980s and 1990s. The latest enthusiasm is “technological empowerment” —symbolized nowhere more clearly than Edgewood Terrace in Northeast Washington, D.C., which has achieved that peculiar status of the famous left-behind community.
The drive down Rhode Island Avenue to Edgewood Terrace is, in a word, depressing—rows of degraded houses, schools with boarded-up windows, half-abandoned community centers, pawn shops and multiple liquor stores with grown men loitering out front. But just off Rhode Island on Edgewood Street is the rebuilt Edgewood Terrace, until recently one of the worst housing projects in the country. With its purple, red, and yellow colors, its bold high-tech sign, and its new urban finish, the development looks out of place next to the worn-down brownstones that surround it.
Inside the apartment complex is a large multi-room computer center—called “The Gateway@ Edgewood,” with a sign on the wall that says “Sponsored by Microsoft”—where at 8:30 on a Friday morning “Verizon Session 7” is learning how to use a Microsoft database. There are nine students in the class, five men and four women, all black and in their early 20s, sitting in front of their own computers. Some look bored and uninterested; others attentive and ahead of the day’s lecture, which is being delivered by a smiling, sweater-vested man named Alfred Attey.
“What we’re trying to do here is use technology to empower residents, to connect them to one another, to rebuild community,” explained Keith Kroell, the director of funds development at the Community Preservation and Development Corporation, the nonprofit that bought, rebuilt, and now manages Edgewood Terrace.
Only six years ago, most of Edgewood Terrace—a group of three distinct apartment complexes built as HUD-subsidized, mixed-income housing in the early 1970s—was nearly torn down. The area had become a drug and homicide haven, variously called “Little Beirut,” “The Killing Fields,” or “The Edgewood Terrorist Community” by locals. Like much HUD-subsidized housing, it was so poorly managed and dilapidated that elderly residents would often be trapped in their apartments for days because no one would fix any of the elevators. One area resident described sleeping with her babies in the bathtub to protect them from stray bullets. A local social worker recalled with a laugh the “legend of Spiderman”—a resident who fell to his death scaling the wall of one of the apartment buildings in an attempted break-in.
In early 1995, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal told the tale of two Edgewoods: Edgewood I, which was owned by a Seattle syndicate and used as a tax shelter, had become an uninhabitable war zone. Edgewood II, which was owned and managed by Eugene Ford, a local developer who built both buildings in the 1970s, was well-run and well-maintained. But the degradation of Edgewood I inevitably spilled over into the entire community. Crime rates soared out of control; common spaces fell apart; and what began as a mixed-income community became a half-empty welfare trap filled with Section 8 residents who couldn’t leave and drug dealers who didn’t want to. The only solution, HUD officials and the General Accounting Office concluded in the early 1990s, was to tear down the decrepit buildings, move the tenants, and sell the land.
Led by Rogerline Nicholson, a 69-year-old retired government cook who passed away last November, the residents fought back. Many had lived on the property for over 20 years. They hated the conditions but did not want to move; they wanted to rebuild. Nicholson revived a long-defunct residents’ association. She deluged HUD, Congress, and the District government with phone calls and demands.
At that point, the Community Preservation and Development Corporation, a nonprofit created by Eugene F. Ford in 1989 to preserve affordable housing in the tri-state area, stepped in. CPDC convinced HUD to sell Edgewood I, the most degraded of the properties, for $1 and to help finance renovations with $17 million of mixed-income HUD grants rather than the usual low-income Section 8 funding. CPDC assembled another $5 million in bank loans and District government grants and began its “Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan.” (CPDC has a similar deal with the D.C. Public Housing Authority to buy and renovate Edgewood III.)
“There are really four parts to what we’re trying to do here, which together reflect the values and goals of the residents,” said Al Browne, the vice president of CPDC. “We’re rebuilding the physical space to make Edgewood a nice place to live. We’re working to build partnerships and training programs that connect Edgewood to the economic mainstream. We’re working to provide opportunities for kids with youth development and education programs. And we’re working to make Edgewood a mixed income community, to make it housing of choice rather than housing of last resort.”
But what makes Edgewood unique is its commitment to technology, which permeates everything CPDC has done since 1995. Edgewood was one of the first recipients of HUD’s “Neighborhood Networks” grant program, which began in September 1995 to help low-income communities build “community technology centers” and foster “microenterprise development.” The goal of “closing the digital divide” has become an article of faith in the urban uplift community and the new holy grail of the civil rights movement. It is, all in one, the great problem and the great solution.
Edgewood’s plan, as it developed, was not only to build a technology center where residents could get job training, but to connect every single apartment to the Internet with high-speed T-1 lines and to provide every resident who wanted one with a fully-equipped “thin-client” computer, which works like a desktop but runs off a centralized server.
CPDC’s first major corporate partners were Fannie Mae and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), which funded job training programs in customer service and technology support. Then, in early 1998, CPDC approached Microsoft to get support for building a fully wired community, offering computer training classes, and building a community intranet—called “EdgeNet”—that would allow residents to interact in an electronic village.
“We looked at the project and saw that it met our parameters for what we were trying to do at the community level,” says Chris Roberts, a former Microsoft engineer who ran the Edgewood project for the Seattle-based software giant and still sits on Edgewood’s Technology and Economic Advisory Council. “We believe in connected communities where people have access to technology regardless of their socio-economic status.”
Microsoft donated $100,000—mostly in software, along with a small amount of cash—to get the program started, a figure that has since ballooned to more than $1.7 million (again, mostly in software). Other partners soon came to the table, including Neiter Technologies, which sold Edgewood the thin-client terminals, and Data General, which sold the central server.
In June 1998, Microsoft president and CEO (then executive vice president) Steve Ballmer came to Edgewood Terrace to deliver the keynote address at the grand opening of the Gateway@Edgewood. A few months later, Microsoft used Edgewood in a national ad campaign—a tribute to the supposedly unlimited power of computers to create job-training heavens out of inner-city hells.
Compared to what it was five years ago, Edgewood Terrace is indeed a heaven where it was once a hell, and for that CPDC deserves a large measure of the credit. The apartments—at least the model apartment—are beautifully renovated. In addition to the Gateway computer center, there is a Children’s Technology Center with two more rooms full of high-speed computers. All the common areas are painted in bright yellow, purple, and red. Facilities include a meeting room for the Residents Association, classrooms and conference rooms, and 24-hour security with multiple cameras to monitor the premises.
But there have also been a number of problems with the technology rollout. The original computer terminals were defective and the central server was unequipped for the amount of traffic it received, causing the whole network to shut down. As of this spring, 592 apartments had been renovated and wired. Only “around 72 or 78” of those had “thin-client” terminals, while another 90 are connected by PC. “There’s been some severe backlash. People expected this stuff to be up and running a long time ago,” says Browne.
To help pay for this buildout, CPDC received a $500,000 Department of Commerce grant. The terms of the grant required an independent evaluation “to make sure the community’s goals were met.” Earl Dowdy, a social scientist at Georgetown University, heads the evaluation, which began nearly two years ago and is still ongoing.
“The problem with Edgewood Terrace is the management of expectations,” says Dowdy. “A lot of people began to wonder whether it was all worth it, whether things would happen as CPDC promised. Edgewood has gotten a lot of attention because of Microsoft’s involvement, the television commercial, and all the media focus. But the fact is a lot of residents are very frustrated. They call the technology ‘Bill Gates’s junk.’ I’m not sure it was really Microsoft’s fault, but they were the first to get blamed . . . . I think things have started to turn a corner, but so far Edgewood has not met its objectives, which were pretty ambitious. There is a lot of work left to do rebuilding the community’s confidence.”
Other glimpses into the community have been more positive: A case study by the University of Maryland (written before the technology problems began) describes Edgewood Terrace as the next-generation model for urban renewal and quotes a handful of residents who celebrate the CPDC transformation. In addition, an oral history of the area compiled by Mindy Glover, a Georgetown graduate student who has worked closely with Dowdy, recounts stories of Edgewood job-training graduates “successfully entering the competitive workforce.”
But CPDC admits that tracking its students is very difficult. “There’s just not enough follow-up that happens, especially with welfare-to-work populations,” explains Lecester Johnson, who runs CPDC’s career enhancement program. “There’s no guarantee that retention will be there.”
Verizon has been the central player in this job-training effort, giving Edgewood over $1 million in cash grants to provide computer and customer service training for young adults in their 20s. The program, according to CPDC’s annual report, has been a mixed success. “Job placement is where they have been the weakest, but they’re improving,” says Marianne Becton, who has headed up Verizon’s involvement with Edgewood. “Building relationships with employers takes time.” Last year, of the 62 students that started job training, 45 finished and 38 found jobs. Those students who did find jobs raised their hourly income from $6.10 to $10.26—an increase of 68.2 percent. (Microsoft, interestingly enough, has never hired an Edgewood graduate. And Verizon has hired only a few according to Becton: “People who work here really can’t have any issues in their background.”)
Despite some cutbacks of programs and staff in the year 2000, CPDC has had significant success raising money from both the public and private sectors (especially the high-tech sector). In addition to Microsoft and Verizon, the AOL-Case Foundation has agreed to help fund a new “youth learning and exploration center” in the 7,000-square-foot Edgewood basement. D.C. Child and Family Services plans to hire CPDC to provide career training and job placement services at $8,000 per person. Howard University’s Center for Urban Progress already pays CPDC $4,000 per student for similar training. The Department of Employment Services plans to pay $5,000 per student for courses in computer and Internet applications.
Both for children and adults, the money is nearly all earmarked for technology-centered programs. “Over there will be a personal discovery area where kids can work on robotics,” explained CPDC’s Kroell as we toured the soon-to-be-built youth center. “We’re planning to launch a webcast program where kids can cover community events live over the Internet.” “Over there will be a cyber-rec room where kids can pretend to build cities.”
Most of Edgewood Terrace’s youth programs are run through Beacon House, a separate community service organization that shares space from CPDC in the Edgewood complex. Rev. Donald Robinson, a Unitarian minister, founded Beacon House in a broken-down one-bedroom apartment to provide a “safe haven” for kids from the drug- and gang-ridden streets of the early 1990s. Since then, Beacon House has grown substantially—”We have heat now,” jokes Stacey Gold, Beacon House’s executive director—but still has only five staff members.
This winter, I helped organize and run—along with two graduate students at Georgetown who were part of Professor Dowdy’s seminar on Edgewood Terrace—a reading, art, and technology program at Beacon House, which is where I first learned about Edgewood Terrace. We worked with about 15 kids (though the number varied greatly from week to week) aged 8 to 12. They were, for the most part, good kids. Their moods swung wildly and quickly from playfulness to sadness to anger. A few could read quite well, but many struggled. We worked with them on Saturdays for three hours—alternating between drawing, learning about computers, and reading C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Even with the number of volunteers we had—one for every three kids—we struggled to keep their attention, especially when we used the computers.
Of course, this is all very anecdotal, but so is much of the evidence for the idea that computers are what these kids—and their parents—need most of all. And for every anecdote of techno-success—the excitement of the students, the effective use of computer games to teach math, the digital cameras that make students into mini-documentary makers—there are anecdotes that give ample cause for skepticism. Indeed, every time we saw the kids, the most popular sites were video games and music videos.
All the programs scheduled for the new youth center are built on the same premise—that learning should be fun, that computers are the key to opportunities. Perhaps. But the reality of Edgewood Terrace is not the Microsoft ad campaign that depicted smiling, networked people achieving economic independence. The reality is much more complex, much more mixed, and often much more dysfunctional and sad.
Many of my Beacon House students did not have full-time fathers. Many Edgewood residents are still on public assistance, a problem that is likely to be exacerbated by the slowing economy. And all the endless enthusiasm for new programs—always meant to be fun, experiential, cyber-centered, self-directed—cannot obscure the fact that many of Edgewood’s children can barely read. The two elementary schools in the area, Shadd and Noyes, had 95.8 percent and 78.8 percent of their respective students reading below proficiency in 1999. As yet, there is no evidence that computers are helping to solve the reading crisis and no comparative studies that show that CPDC’s computer-using students are doing better than their peers.
Perhaps given time—Edgewood’s computer programs are only a little more than two years old—technology will help. Or perhaps, at least, the enthusiasm for technology will inspire companies to give money to communities that need it, and the public to reform many past decades of inner-city failure. If it is a myth, techno-uplift is certainly a more productive one than many of the urban myths America has followed in the past—and it deserves a good deal of credit for giving energy and purpose to CPDC’s miraculous turnaround of “Little Beirut.” But it is also possible that all this techno-enthusiasm will in the end only further obscure the moral, cultural, and educational problems that are much deeper, much more tragic, and ultimately the cause of the much-lamented digital divide. Only time will tell.
Eric Cohen is a fellow at the New America Foundation.