Boston Common

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Take a large glass storefront in a city neighborhood--any neighborhood, your neighborhood. Now set up a video screen and connect it to another city neighborhood, another storefront. Would you pick one across the planet? Across the country? Why not across town?

That was John Ewing's thought in creating Virtual Street Corners. He wanted to connect two Boston-area neighborhoods, Brookline and Roxbury, via video conferencing. Beginning in June, life-size screen images in local storefronts will enable 24/7 real-time communication between the residents of these two geographically-close yet culturally distant communities.

Ewing is a former mural painter who now works with digital media to create public art emphasizing community participation. He spoke with The Atlantic about his newest project.


Tell me about the Virtual Street Corner project. Which neighborhoods are involved?

It's taking place in two Boston neighborhoods. One is Coolidge Corner in Brookline, one is Dudley Square in Roxbury. They're about two and a half miles apart, and they're on the same bus line, the 66. But people don't travel from one neighborhood to the other. Brookline has a large Jewish population that migrated in the 60s from the Dudley area in Roxbury, so there's a historical connection. But Roxbury is now an African American neighborhood. 

Both the street corners I've chosen are centers of their communities, they're hubs, so there's a lot of pedestrian traffic. What I've done is to transform a storefront window in each location into live video screens, so when you walk by and you look into one window, say in Dudley Square, you look out the other window in Coolidge Corner, and vice versa. People can talk to each other, they see each other 24/7.

And in addition to spontaneous conversations, we'll be setting up programmed ones for different politicians or educators or students, and other people will be able to chime in. And we'll also have three citizen journalists from each neighborhood doing a daily beat and coming to the screen everyday at the same time, sort of like the six o'clock news, to report on the neighborhood.

How did you come up with this idea?

I used to be a mural painter and did a lot of community projects in different neighborhoods around Boston. I would be painting a mural on the street corner day after day and all these people would come up to me and start talking to me and I would get all of this news and information about each neighborhood I was in.

And then when I went to the next neighborhood, they didn't seem to know anything about a neighborhood that was very close to them, like half a mile away. Boston's like that. The neighborhoods can be sort of isolated and segregated. I wanted to recreate that experience of being on the street corner and being able to talk to a lot of different people. Then I realized that if I'm doing this for communication and bringing people together, digital technology is so much better to work with than paint.

How does the technology involved work?

It's pretty straightforward. It's pretty much video-conferencing, but on a large scale with life-size screens. I've had to adapt it a little bit, because when you do video-conferencing you're usually in a very quiet boardroom, but here you're actually out on the street corner. You have the noises, the traffic and everything. So we've had to get better sound systems and isolate the sound. But the root of the technology is video-conferencing.

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