Look who’s talking: Screens link communities

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / June 11, 2010

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Jamarhl Crawford stood on the sidewalk outside the Nubian Notion gift shop in Dudley Square, microphone in hand and an enormous screen in front of him. And on that 60-inch television, Zach Cone, standing in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, spoke to him.

The two men were separated by just 2.5 miles, or a few minutes on the No. 66 bus. But that distance can seem insurmountable when one neighborhood is predominantly black and working class and the other is a wealthy, mostly white community. As they chatted about their family histories, Crawford and Cone seemed closer.

It was day one of “Virtual Street Corners,’’ a project meant to link neighborhoods through technology and, more important, people. The project’s official launch takes place at 6 p.m. today in storefronts at Brookline Booksmith and the Warren Street side of Nubian Notion.

“This is not a thing where at the end of this we’re going to save the world, but I do hope we have some dialogue,’’ said Crawford, 39, an activist and writer serving as the Roxbury side’s community organizer. “We want people to learn a thing or two about each other.’’

“Street Corners’’ is the brainchild of John Ewing, an artist and social activist. For three weeks, the two TV portals and microphones will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Any passerby is invited to stop and chat — about anything — with a counterpart across town.

Everette Linton Jr., a photographer who had been playing chess in Dudley Square, did a double take Wednesday as he passed the screen. He stopped, excitedly grabbed the microphone, and yelled into it: “Anybody out there?’’

A man selling newspapers in Coolidge Corner wandered into his view. “I’m working,’’ the man said. “You got to wait for somebody to come by.’’ A few minutes later, a couple in Coolidge Corner stopped, peered at the screen, but ultimately decided not to talk to Linton.

The project, funded in part by a $40,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, will include scheduled “news’’ reports from a six-person staff — three in each town — delivered from one side to the other, as well as discussions with community leaders, poetry readings, and appearances from such local luminaries as former governor Michael Dukakis.

“In Boston more than other places it seems people don’t get between neighborhoods,’’ said Ewing, 45, a native of Ithaca, N.Y., who lives in Roxbury’s Fort Hill with his wife and 4-month-old daughter. “I was going to make this a live feed on a website, but I don’t want people to just sit in their living rooms. I want them to come down here, to get physically in their neighborhoods.’’

Ewing chose the two neighborhoods partly because of the complicated history they share. Roxbury and Dorchester had a large Jewish population midcentury, but that began to change when whites moved to suburbs such as Brookline, and African-Americans moved in.

It’s a story Crawford connects with. During his report Wednesday afternoon, he talked about how his family moved to Humboldt Avenue in the late 1940s.

“We were the first black family on the street,’’ he said. “My mother just had her 50th reunion. She graduated from the [Jeremiah E.] Burke [High School]. She was one of only three black kids who were there. In fact, the reunion was in Brookline. Now, I don’t think there’s one white kid in that school.’’

Ewing, who has a degree in painting from Cornell University and a master’s in digital media from the Rhode Island School of Design, tried a version of “Street Corners’’ in 2008 at the same locations but found that the lack of defined programming led to people just making small talk. “The real challenge is, how do you take it from, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and try to engage in meaningful conversations,’’ he said.

This time, Ewing has content. His team of reporters, each of them earning $1,500, will file reports from both sides of the screen throughout the day. Over the three weeks there will also be visits from a church group, a rabbi, a poet, musicians, and a yoga instructor. Dukakis and State Representative Frank I. Smizik of Brookline are among a series of political leaders stopping by. Brookline composer Paul Henry Smith will lead the two communities in a mutual game of Rock Band.

Ewing spent the early part of the week fidgeting with routers, monitors, laptops, and cameras. By Wednesday the sites were up and running and turning heads.

Paul Jacobs, a rapper riding his bike down Warren Street, stopped and stepped up to the mike when the screen caught his eye.

“We’re just maintaining here, trying to survive,’’ he told a bearded man on the other end.

Later a young couple showed up at the microphone and chatted for a few minutes with a man on the Brookline side — until he grew hungry and offered a not-so-philosophical conclusion.

“We’ll be at Anna’s Taqueria if you guys want to join us,’’ he said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at