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The Fenway Hall Hotel opened in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1923, in a new 13 story Art Deco building.The building occupies the Northwest corner of Euclid Avenue and Stokes Boulevard, faces East with the Sculpture Park in University Circle as its front lawn, and has the Martin Luther King branch of the Cleveland Public Library as its Northern next door neighbor.

It hasn't been a hotel for many decades; it is currently a HUD-certified apartment building for seniors and disabled persons. Its current designation is the Fenway Manor Apartments, and all of its 144 spacious, thick-walled apartments have nine foot ceilings. Fenway Manor's fifteen foot ground floor lobby still has its Art Deco wallcovering and original U. S. Mailbox.

I have loved the building since my early teens, and was a near neighbor in the early '60s, when I was the everything man for a coffee house named La Cave, three doors away. I moved into the Fenway on August 24, 2002.

I have been refurbishing and building computers for friends, relatives and acquaintainces since 1995; for free since 2001 (when I became 100% disabled) and when I moved into the Fenway I extended that free service to my new neighbors. At least 85% of the Fenway's residents are ethnic minorities, almost all of us are seniors and all of us are poor. The digital divide was very real for my neighbors; I wanted to tackle that issue, and did so.

In 2004, Fenway Manor's then property manager, Mrs. G----, told me she had gotten permission from the real estate company to set up a computer lab for the use of us residents, and she wanted me to design the room and then run it as its volunteer after it was built. I agreed to do so. I went to the chief of maintainance, a fellow self-taught computer builder, and friend since I moved in, and asked him to set up the designated space with as many wheelchair-accessible carrels as possible.

As we discussed it that day, he informed me that the connection we would be using for the computer room was a T1 line, which was serving only the two office computers. My eyes got all big (according to him) and I said, "Management's already paying for a T1 line? For two computers?? We can put 254 computers on a T1 line!" Then we just looked at each other and started grinning. I said, "We could WiFi the whole building!" as he nodded in agreement.

About a month later the room was ready for me. The two office computers were firewalled off and three ethernet lines had been run from the new office router to the new computer room. There were five carrels. Two old computers, an old multi-function inkjet printer and a non-working multi-function mono laser printer had been donated by management. I built three more computers from old parts I had or purchased, donated my old monitors as I went to flat screens in my apartment, got the laser printer working, and the computer lab was announced to the building.

A few weeks after we opened the lab the principal owner/managing partner of the real estate company made a visit at a time when I was away at a doctor appointment. He left a very nice handwritten card of appreciation in my mailbox, thanking me and stating that he had been told I had even contributed equipment to the project. Reading that card, which I saved and treasure, I realized that not only had I explicitly been given carte blanche to run the whole project by the property manager, the property owner had implicitly also endorsed that wonderful position. [1]

I decided I now had all the authority I needed to turn the Fenway into a WiFi hotspot, with management-financed free internet in every apartment, as long as I came up with the design and the hardware to accomplish this, and continued to satisfy building staff (and by extension the building's insurers) that I knew what I was doing. I wasn't in a hurry to build the WiFi network because my neighbors weren't yet at a point where there would be serious demand for the system.

First I had to whet their appetites for cyberspace, which I had already been doing, and I stepped up my campaign to eliminate the digital divide in my immediate neighborhood. Fellow residents and their non-resident families, residents' caregivers and their families, building staff and their families were and are all entitled to free computer lab help, including computer repair, upgrades, online purchase advice and assistance, lessons and online shopping through me.

Residents have written family histories and digitized them, complete with old photos. They have learned how to comparison-shop for local items without leaving the building. My neighbors can explore and pursue their hobbies, former professions and interests in a 21st century way. They make up fliers and other things for their church groups or other involvements.

Most importantly, my neighbors can and do address their children and grandchildren in their descendents' "language" and methods. Grandma or grandpa gets more and richer visits from young relatives. When teenagers need a timeout during long visits the computer room is available to them, and their parents or grandparents know they are in a safe environment while they are online. The digital divide based on ethnicity, age or income no longer exists in our building's community.

Last year at the annual Christmas party I was able to announce the existence of a preliminary working building-wide WiFi network, ask interested residents to become beta testers without abandoning their existing ISPs, and promise everybody that a final and sufficiently robust system for every apartment would be implemented. At this year's party I expect to announce that the finished network is up and running.

Our city councilmember wants to tour the building as soon as I tell his office that the final system is fully operational. I'm sure Cleveland's city council can be persuaded to try implementing a similar setup in CMHA housing, as well as encouraging other private real estate companies to follow our own real estate company's stellar example, which is ultimately good for all their bottom lines. For my personal bottom line, I'm no longer paying forty dollars a month to a company I detest, for internet service. Within a few years I will have paid myself back for the hardware outlay, and 143 neighbors get the financial benefit right away, for both internet and telephone (think MagicJack).

I wanted to let my Daily Kos community know about this because it is an example of community activism. I may also need the help of software gurus when I finalize the complete system; I'm entirely self-taught about computers, and I'm a natural hardware man (have been all my life about mechanical or construction things) but software isn't quite so intuitive for me. Expect a follow-up diary in a month, detailing hardware and asking software advice.
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[1] Please note that management never granted me permission to act for them, either verbally or in writing; I was and am an unpaid resident volunteer and I specifically with this note indemnify the real estate company, its partners and its employees for any consequences arising from any of my actions as a volunteer.
That said, I was both moved and inspired by the attitude and appreciation of a very busy and rich man toward my minor contributions to the wellbeing of his tenants, and I determined to "return honor for honor" by demonstrating how completely our Fenway community could and would use his largesse for good things.
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UPDATE: Rec list! Thank you all. BTW, if I seem slow in responding to comments, it is because I'm overseeing the computer room while I respond, but I intend to answer every comment addressed to me and I deeply appreciate your responses.

Originally posted to davidincleveland on Wed Sep 14, 2011 at 11:58 AM PDT.

Also republished by Aging In Community.

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