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Chicagoans using website to build neighborhood cooperation

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Joe Jablonski uses a circular saw he borrowed through the website OhSoWe.com to cut rotting railroad ties used as a planter's box in front of his home on the 3000 block of N. Hoyne Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Updated: January 17, 2012 11:18AM



Chicagoans are using a locally created website to build neighborhood connections and activities, reinventing the days when neighbors borrowed sugar or talked on the front porch.

Joe Jablonski, a software entrepreneur, used the site, OhSoWe.com, to borrow a saw strong enough to cut through railroad ties so he could get rid of planter boxes at his house.

“The planter boxes are rotten, so I went online to find a way to cut through them,” he said.

Mandy Pekin turned to OhSoWe to organize her Lake View neighborhood to clean up the yard of a vacant house and to pick up 107 pounds of trash on the street.

“In the past six months, our block has used OhSoWe to spread the word about initiatives that affect us beyond neighborhood basics like safety alerts and block-party planning,” said Pekin, who has lived in her home for five years. “It has helped us create conversations about truly building a sense of community on our block.”

The site can also be used to share tools and skills, and post ‘needs’ and announcements such as a garage sale or a single person’s needing help to move a dresser.

The site is the brainchild of Chuck Templeton, who founded online restaurant-reservation site OpenTable and serves as chairman of the board of restaurant-delivery site GrubHub.com.

Templeton launched the beta version of OhSoWe on his own block — the 1700 block of Fletcher, one block south of Belmont — because he believes so strongly in strengthening community bonds.

“The concept is about making neighborhoods more resilient and self-reliant,” he said. “I don’t know many of my neighbors. I felt that the Internet’s capabilities could accelerate people communicating and sharing resources.”

One of the goals is saving money or, in socially conscious jargon, promoting collaborative consumption in the mode of Zipcar and Netflix.

When neighbors lend one another a rake or folding chairs, or rent out a power drill, they save money and start talking, Templeton said.

“People can look at skills the same way — house-sitting, dog walking or help moving a clothes dryer,” he said.

Templeton used the website to borrow a sledgehammer so he could remove a tree stump from his back yard.

Another benefit of the Internet is that people keep one another in line by posting alerts about bad behavior and rulebreaking, and praise their neighbors for being stand-up, reliable people, he said.

Other websites are sprouting in Chicago to help people find services that they can trust. These include:

†Kumbuya.com, where people post their own deals and seek specific discounts, products or services at the cost they prefer;

†OpenChime.com, which lets people get unlisted prices and custom quotes for services they are seeking;

†NextAdvisor.com, which ranks services ranging from online diet programs to tax-preparation companies to credit-monitoring services.

The community-building trend is extending to upstart businesses such as Chicago-based mobile-game developer Bravado Waffle.

The three-man startup is using crowd-funding site Kickstarter to raise money for its planned strategy game, RoboArena.

“We were inspired by the Robo Rally board game of 15 years ago and other classic computer games,” said Stephen Dick, CEO and game designer. “We want to make games that are fun, educational, challenging and family-friendly.”

RoboArena players program teams of robots to outwit their opponents in a game without the blood, gore and shock value so common in games today.

Such communal efforts illustrate a trend in which people turn to social-media platforms to strengthen their friendships and build geographically connected networks, said Stacy DeBroff, CEO of Boston-based Mom Central Consulting.

Forty percent of mothers surveyed in the consulting firm’s research say they lack a friend with whom they can share everything, and 61 percent want to make new friends.

“Let’s say I have a child diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. I want to find a nurturing community so I can get advice and obsess about details that other people don’t care about,” DeBroff said.

“People can break down these barriers online and learn how they can bring value to others in ways they never knew.”

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