By Amy Sokolow
Nicole Rohr Stephens moved back to Chicago from Alabama last year and almost immediately found out she was pregnant. The 34-year-old marketing manager had previously lived on the city’s North Side, but after relocating to the South Loop, she realized she had no idea where she would eventually send her unborn child to school. “When we moved back, we were joining like a completely different neighborhood, different vibe,” she said. “We didn’t know our neighbors; we didn’t know anything about the area.”
Stephens did what many people do today to solve a problem: she turned to Facebook. She first found a local dog walker and veterinarian on the “South Loop Dog and Pet Owners” Facebook group before turning to “South Loop Parent’s Group” for daycare recommendations. Stephens even began walking around the block after work with other pregnant women she met from that group. Now that they all have babies all around the same age, “that’s been kind of cool to like, you see everybody hitting the same milestones with their kids at the same time after we spend time walking together,” she said.
Stephens and other South Loop residents turn to these Facebook groups in search of community, and in this active neighborhood, there is no shortage of options. Groups such as “South Loop Urban Gardeners,” “South Loop Foodies” and “LGBTQ South Loop Residents” cater to an array of interests, while helping residents meet their neighbors. “Hello South Loop!,” a general interest neighborhood group, is the largest neighborhood Facebook group in Chicago, according to an analysis of the social networking site. The group had 10,646 members as of Nov. 8, with over one-third of South Loop residents belonging to the group.
Hyperlocal Facebook groups are so popular, they have spawned other community-building websites, such as Nextdoor, in the last few years. The social networking site, which functions similarly to Facebook groups, serves around 247,000 neighborhoods globally, according to their site. The company’s test area was a neighborhood in San Francisco, where it was founded in 2011, and the network has since spread rapidly around the world.
“Right now, it’s very popular, particularly for privileged, net-savvy people to be using various different communities online to track what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” said Dr. Ethan Zuckerman, 46, Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. He cited both Facebook groups and Nextdoor as examples of how “communities form, in part, based on what technologies are available at what times.”
The South Loop may be a particularly fertile neighborhood for the proliferation of these online communities because of its rapid development. Until the 1970s, the South Loop was a large transportation hub, with train tracks blocking new development. Once these tracks were removed and two major roads were reconfigured, development sprang up where the tracks were and beyond. Developers built, and continue to build, condos in the area so quickly that the neighborhood has seen a 209% population increase since 2000, according to real estate company Weichert.
Dr. Justin Hollander, 45, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, understands why hyperlocal online groups may be so heavily utilized in a developing neighborhood like the South Loop. “Most of the new houses would arrive within a year or two as the construction is happening, where in a typical neighborhood, that’s going to be much more staggered, it can be decades between,” he said. “So I think it makes a lot more sense that these newer neighborhoods tend to be more, kind of, organized. And today, that is on social media where people are forming those groups.”
Some South Loop residents see the newness of the neighborhood as a positive. Ramez Haddadin, 37, an ophthalmologist, created the Facebook group “South Loop Discussions” to foster civic engagement in the neighborhood, and, hopefully, to have a hand in shaping it. “I really was yearning for information and those exchanges of ideas in our neighborhood,” he said. And since local alderman Pat Dowell is in the group and responds to comments, he sees it as a more efficient way of reaching her than by picking up the phone.
Community organizing on Facebook even saved a beloved local park, Cotton Tail Park. Laarni Livings, 44, the founder of “Hello South Loop!,” recounted how developers wanted to add a train station near an upcoming development, The 78. The original plan would have required digging up the park in the process. She described how residents created a Facebook group to organize around the issue, communicate with the alderman, and post updates about local meetings on the issue. “They worked with the alderman, they worked with the developers, and pretty much activated the whole area around this park to say, ‘You are not welcome. We’re not gonna stand for it,’” she said. Developers eventually relented and moved the station.
Perhaps the most widespread benefit of these groups operates on an individual basis. Dr. Rosta Farzan, 43, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies hyperlocal online communities, found that most people use these groups for “mobilized actions,” which she defined by example: “‘I need someone to help me to cook food and my oven is broken.’ And the neighbors will basically come together and say, ‘Okay, well, I can help you.’”
Many South Loop residents corroborated this finding, using the groups for everything from finding groomer and restaurant recommendations to donating baby clothes. Stephens, the new mom, even received some baby clothes, many brand-new, at her door while sick from her pregnancy. “I don’t know what it is about Printers Row and South Loop, but like, everybody’s so willing to help one another here,” she said.
Livings, the “Hello South Loop!” founder, might have the answer: “It’s a transient neighborhood that people are still finding that common ground and trying to help each other,” she said. “There’s always a lot of new people looking for new things, and looking for things to do, and trying to fit in.”