Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Robert Smith, a 19-year-old in a gray T-shirt and camouflage pants, climbed the stairwell of the Joseph Miccio Community Center in Red Hook, scaled a ladder at the top floor and jumped onto the roof. He soon found what he was looking for: bright, white plastic boxes, each about the size of a brick, some with little antennas sticking out. Mr. Smith pulled a laptop from his backpack and got to work, tending to the nodes of the Red Hook mesh, an ambitious plan to link up a local wireless digital network across the neighborhood.
With the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway just ahead and the Lower Manhattan skyline in the distance, Mr. Smith worked on keeping the digital conversation going. He was examining two devices on the roof while wirelessly conversing with a minicomputer a few hundred feet away on the roof of a school that had a high-speed Internet connection.
Though these white boxes, spread across various rooftops in Red Hook, may appear haphazard, or guerrilla even, the Red Hook mesh is actually in the vanguard of wireless networking. Unlike the Internet available at work or at home, which typically arrives through a wire and follows a carefully plotted path from Internet provider to user, a mesh network is improvised — and remarkably resilient.
Members of Red Hook Initiative at work this month maintaining the Brooklyn neighborhood’s mesh network. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Because the devices speak to one another, they are more than a series of “hot spots” with Internet access; the mesh remains a network whether or not it is connected to the Internet. And that independence is its main attraction — in Berlin, where a tech collective shares Internet access to save money; in rural Spain, where one of the largest mesh networks covers areas ignored by telecoms; in Tunisia, where the State Department has spent millions establishing a mesh network to experiment with a local network impervious to government censorship.
Red Hook, which juts out of Brooklyn into New York Bay and is cut off from the rest of the borough by the B.Q.E., has similar reasons for hosting a mesh. The 11,000 or so residents can feel at the whim of nature, as well as government and corporate bureaucracies. There is no subway service; there are few Internet hot spots; close to 70 percent of the population lives in New York City housing projects.
When Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, Red Hook was especially exposed. Cellphone service was down and Internet service was spotty. The lights were out. Water rushed through the streets.
After the storm, the divisions between the homeowners and the housing project residents were irrelevant, said Anthony Schloss, who helped create the mesh network through his work at Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit group. The initiative trains young residents like Mr. Smith to become “digital stewards.” Each steward works 20 hours a week (and is paid $8.75 an hour) as part of a yearlong program that teaches skills including mesh networking, video production and web design, culminating in an internship. One steward now works at Sky-Packets, a mesh networking company on Long Island; another is with Pioneer Works, a Red Hook arts center.
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Though the mesh was in the works before Hurricane Sandy struck, it gained added relevance after the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency boosted the Red Hook Initiative’s broadband connection, so where the regular Internet was unavailable, residents and government workers could log on to the mesh to quickly find out where to pick up supplies or find government officials.
Although the Red Hook mesh promises a free web connection, its potential for intensely local communication also appeals to Mr. Schloss and Mr. Smith. “That’s our hope, that the network is used as a source of communication throughout the neighborhood,” Mr. Smith said, adding, “We want to have both, that second layer, so if the Internet goes down we can still connect with each other through the mesh.”
Robert Smith climbing to the roof of the Joseph Miccio Community Center to check on the network nodes stored there. Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Joshua Breitbart, a senior fellow at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, which created the software that helps the Red Hook mesh operate, said digital culture was too focused on the global, as opposed to the local. “The general narrative of Silicon Valley is, build an app and change the world,” Mr. Breitbart said. “There should be room to say, ‘Build an app and change my neighborhood.’ ”
Mr. Smith, who grew up and lives in the Red Hook Houses, is a very different kind of network administrator. Last year, he was one of 10 or so digital stewards. While other stewards left for jobs with a tech bent, Mr. Smith, a soft-spoken young man seemingly happy with his head bent over a laptop reading technical protocols, stayed to train the next class. He is now in charge of maintaining the mesh.
Mr. Smith has a complicated set of responsibilities, requiring technical, installation and political skills — after all, these nodes are on somebody’s roof. Add in that the Red Hook mesh is using very cheap equipment, and it is the rare day when the entire network is humming in sync. When Mr. Smith was on the roof of the Miccio center, some nodes were working, some were not. Which is the way it usually goes.
“We need to get one area where the Internet is great,” he said, “and have people talking about it — like FiOS.”
A crucial point in the Red Hook mesh is Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church — particularly its bell tower, which looms over the neighborhood and Coffey Park below it. The church, which is more than 150 years old and began by serving Irish and Italian dockworkers, has three mesh nodes, two high up, and one inside for internal use.
That internal node has helped the church play videos during its religious education classes and host a radio station that broadcasts its Sunday Mass, said Robert Berrios, the sacristan of the church, who has lived in Red Hook for 45 years.
A node in the bell tower of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church (left window at bottom). Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
But the outward-facing nodes have also drawn a crowd, he said. “I see people outside to get free Wi-Fi,” he said. “Either with an iPad, a tablet or a phone — people sitting in their cars writing emails.”
This summer, the Red Hook mesh has been fighting to remain relevant, hurt by spotty service and lack of awareness. The Red Hook Initiative is completing an upgrade of the equipment and software, and is working on raising awareness in the community.
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To that end, the group is a finalist for an Economic Development Corporation grant for nearly $1 million. The group hopes to uses the money to buy more sophisticated nodes to support the network.
The local content at the mesh appears on a splash page after you log in. Among the early experiments was a stop-and-frisk app, which would allow Red Hook residents to easily report their experiences with the police. But three weeks after the app was introduced, Mr. Schloss said, the Police Department discontinued the policy.
The protests in Ferguson, Mo., have engaged the digital stewards, said Jaebi Bussey, 34, a trainer at the initiative.
Staying with the idea of monitoring law enforcement, the group has plans to meet with the creators of an online project, Copwatch, to see how their skills — in using social media, in creating and uploading videos — could be used to track police conduct in the neighborhood. With more reliable Wi-Fi service, introducing new local apps should become easier. But Mr. Schloss counts the benefits already in place. Digital expertise coming from the stewards, all residents of the Red Hook Houses, sends an important message.
“If this works,” he said, “you have this virtual platform, this virtual community that everyone can be interacting with, devoid of all the cultural assumptions. And if you flip it, and the people who build it and are maintaining it are young people from public housing, that totally changes the way people think about each other and what technology can be.”
New York Times
New York Times