Seven Days

Front Porch Forum Encourages Neighborliness -- Online and Off

Seven Days

August 15, 2006
By Cathy Resmer

BURLINGTON -- Arthur Goyette knows the value of good neighbors. His wife Betty died three years ago, but while she was battling cancer, his neighbors brought countless meals to their Caroline Street home. When the neighbors learned that Betty had always wanted to ride in a convertible, they found a dealership willing to loan them a car, and surprised the Goyettes with a Chrysler Sebring. When the couple drove down the street with the top down, people lined the block waving and taking pictures.

Remembering this time, the 71-year-old Goyette marvels that he barely knew some of the people who helped him. He might never have known them at all if it weren't for an email newsletter called the Front Porch Forum, which serves the South End neighborhood known as the Five Sisters.

Goyette's neighbors used the newsletter to organize support for the family. "If the web wasn't there," he says, "it never would have happened."

Goyette is not the only South End resident who credits the 6-year-old Front Porch Forum with bolstering community. The FPF website lists testimonials from dozens of users who say they like the way this free online service helps them connect with others in the immediate area; of the 350 households in Five Sisters, 286 subscribe.

Encouraged by this response, FPF creator Michael Wood-Lewis has expanded the communities he covers. For the past month, he's been testing FPF in three other Burlington neighborhoods, and this week he's opened it further. Now any resident of Chittenden County can visit and sign up for their neighborhood's version.

Wood-Lewis says people use the email service to exchange information about everything from lost cats and recent break-ins to yard sales and reliable plumbers. "It's kind of like MySpace for adults," he suggests.

Wood-Lewis started FPF after he and his wife Valerie moved to Burlington from Washington, D.C., and had a hard time making friends. They tried to attend neighborhood gatherings, but always seemed to hear about them too late. "After one event," Wood-Lewis recalls, "a neighbor told me, 'You'll find out about these things after you've lived here 10 years and you're on the grapevine.' That lit a fire under me."

Wood-Lewis set up the Front Porch Forum website, then photocopied a flyer inviting his neighbors to visit it and sign up for the newsletter. Only people who lived in his neighborhood were allowed to subscribe.

His system is different from online communities such as MySpace and Craigslist, and from other email services such as Yahoo Groups, Wood-Lewis insists. "They're being all things to all people," he suggests. "This is tailored to do only this."

The most important difference is that no one is anonymous. All FPF members are required to register using their full name and address; each message they submit to the group includes that information. "It has a way of civilizing people's Internet postings," Wood-Lewis explains.

He also notes that FPF members can only communicate with others in their neighborhood. The FPF software sorts members into groups based on geographical boundaries, so that only Five Sisters residents see the Five Sisters postings, for example. And members communicate solely by submitting content to the newsletter. They can't hit "reply all" and send a group message.

Wood-Lewis demonstrates how FPF works in the Caroline Street home he shares with his wife and their four young children. He logs onto the FPF administrative area, and shows how his software sorts residents' postings into a queue. When he gets a few messages, he copies them into an email, changing headlines to clarify the subject matter. Today's messages include one from someone looking for a good electrician, someone looking to borrow some scaffolding, and a series of comments on the Southern Connector.

There's also an email from City Councilor Joan Shannon, explaining why she voted to take away Springflower Market's liquor license. "That one's a juicy one," Wood-Lewis remarks, "so I'll probably move it right to the top." Shannon is not the only local official who reads the neighborhood newsletter; City Councilor Bill Keogh is also a member, as are School Board members Fred Lane and Amy Werbel.

Wood-Lewis says users often write about politics, and that's fine with him. "I see this as part of Town Meeting," he says.

He doesn't delete commercial messages, either, though he says he doesn't get many of those. That might change, however, as FPF expands. So, too, might his time commitment. Now it takes Wood-Lewis just a few minutes to put together each issue. How often issues go out is determined by how much content comes in; the Five Sisters newsletter goes out three or four times a week, whereas other, less active neighborhoods would probably get just one.

Though Wood-Lewis is currently working on FPF as a volunteer, he sees his time as an investment. He's hoping that as the service expands, he'll be able to find local businesses to sponsor it.

"At the very least, this is going to be a really good community service," he says of FPF's expansion. "At the very best, it's going to be one that generates revenue and is a sustainable business. And if it's crazy good, maybe it'll catch on and spread beyond Vermont."

Wood-Lewis concedes that an email newsletter won't solve all of a neighborhood's problems. A few weeks ago, for example, police arrested one of his neighbors, a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder accused of threatening behavior and violating probation. Wood-Lewis says no one posted about that to the newsletter. It didn't seem an appropriate topic.

But FPF helps his neighborhood handle challenging situations, he says. "When difficult situations do arise, people can talk to each other."

FPF's Impact

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