Hamline Midway Facebook page deals with everything from dog poop to the stadium to racial insensitivities
By MARIA HERD
The purpose of Facebook is to “connect with friends, family and other people that you know,” but the members of the Hamline Midway Facebook Group also use the social media platform to communicate with a lot of people that they don’t know—Facebook users all throughout Saint Paul’s Hamline Midway neighborhood.
As of press time, the group has nearly 4,500 members. That’s significant considering Hamline Midway’s population at the 2013 census was 9,600 people above the age of 18–meaning nearly half of the adults in the neighborhood are members of the page. Group administrator Chris Jones estimates that the page grows by about a 1,000 members a year.
“This group does wonders to keep neighborhood communication open and information flowing. As group members make connections, share resources, and discuss issues that impact our lives, many of us have found this group to be a vital part of our community-making,” reads the group’s purposes, rules, and guidelines.
Posts range from reports of suspicious activity, public service announcements, lost dogs, events, job postings, business recommendations, funny pictures, and jokes, to neighbors offering to lend a helping hand with shoveling snow or giving away food. Group administrator Christine Brinkman estimates that on an active day, there can be up to 10 posts every hour.
Laura Whitley, another group administrator, says the page is a reflection of Midway’s incredibly diverse neighborhood, as well as a sense of community and the connections between people.
According to the administrators, the same type of neighborhood debates continually come up at the same time every year, and generally they are the same people in the arguments.
One that come up every spring is, wait for it…dog poop.
“There is this big debate over how to get rid of dog poop,” said Brinkman. “Is it okay to throw it in someone’s garbage can? Or a public trash can? Or do you need to take it home?”
Apparently the dog poop debates became so heated, that some neighbors put stickers on their trash cans saying “No dog poop,” said Whitley. In response, other neighbors made dog-poop friendly stickers for their trash cans.
The plans for the new Midway stadium have repeatedly been debated on the page for awhile too; neighbors were even debating what to do with the space before the stadium had been proposed.
The newest group administrator, Dan Buck, has been watching these conversations over time.
“For years people have complained about the Midway Center: ‘It’s not pedestrian or bicycle friendly.’ ‘It’s rundown.’ ‘It’s dumpy.’ ‘I wish something new could happen.’ ‘Why isn’t something happening in that big lot?’” he recalled from the posts.
Buck said that before the stadium was proposed, there were comments all over the group from people wanting to fill the space with a development that was bicycle, pedestrian and traffic friendly.
“A lot of things that were talked about on the neighborhood page are in that [stadium] plan. Is that by accident or on purpose? I don’t know,” Buck said.
Buck also noted that it appears to be just a handful of people that are against the stadium and are very vocal about it on the page.
All the admins agree that the page has helped prevent additional crime in the neighborhood because it provides a platform for people to communicate suspicious activity.
For example, someone will post that they have seen the same person drive around the block four times, and it gets called in for appearing suspicious.
“Once or twice they have caught someone with a history,” said Jones.
The admins recalled several instances in which after many comments and posts regarding a common interest or concern, members have branched out and created their own more neighborhood specific Facebook groups or pages.
One example is the “Hamline Park Neighbors” page. According to Brinkman, many people were voicing their concerns about issues at the Hamline Park like rough activity among unsupervised youth and drug dealing that appeared to be going on. These neighbors organized a new page, which his now used to organize plantings, park cleanups, events and extend invitations to neighbors to join them for a relaxing evening at the park.
“I truly believe that started because the community concerns were made known on the page, and from there people stepped up to take action,” said Brinkman.
The admins cited more pages that have branched off the Hamline Midway Facebook Group including a canine page, a barter page, a toddler group, a walking group, a knitting group, the Hamline Midway Craft Group and more.
“You can’t give the page credit for starting them all, but for connecting people,” explained Whitley.
One of the more heart-warming pages that has branched off is called the Hamline Midway Angels.
In the past, members falling on hard times have posted in the Hamline Midway group reaching out to their neighbors for help.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have the ability to make ends meet. They have to choose between paying bills and Christmas presents,” said Jones.
Many neighbors have not hesitated to respond to those posts and have provided meals and more for others.
However, it became apparent that some people were embarrassed to ask for help, so an anonymous “HM Angels” page was born. The page regularly organizes donations and is holding a “Fun Find May Day” egg hunt event for children in the neighborhood next month.
The group administrators are anonymous, giving off the angel persona.
“Whether it is a need for car maintenance to get to a job, help with purchasing a uniform for work until a first paycheck comes through, or to need a couple meals to get someone through until their next paycheck, the HM Angels will look to connect neighbors to each other for help, as well as existing services or resources in the neighborhood throughout the year,” reported the Hamline Midway Coalition.
“We’re not for sale”
The admins pointed out more than once that as volunteers with their own busy lives, monitoring the page constantly can be a challenge, even among four people.
However, they have heard of other Facebook neighborhood groups that monitor their posts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have zero negativity.
Wondering how that was possible, their question was recently answered when a realtor contacted them trying to purchase the Hamline Midway Facebook Group.
“Realtors hate the page because it’s real life,” said Jones. The dog poop and crime posts make the area look less desirable, and in effort to sell more houses, realtors have begun to pay off the admins and pay new admins to monitor neighborhood pages.
But the Hamline Midway Facebook Group admins were unanimously against selling.
“They want to sanitize the page, whereas we want it to be a reflection of a real community,” said Whitley.
“I’m in favor of complete transparency,” added Jones.
Censoring the negativity
That’s not to say that the admins never remove posts, comments or people from the group.
The group has user guidelines and rules that state hate speech, harassment or bashing toward any one group or person is not allowed.
However, when thousands of people from different cultures and backgrounds come together in an online forum, what is considered respectful and appropriate behavior tends to be subjective, according to the admins.
“They don’t know they’re violating them [the rules] because how they speak at their dinner table consists of just their family and people who have the same thoughts as they have, and they do not realize this a huge dinner table now,” said Jones.
One of the most debated guidelines is the definition of “bashing” said Brinkman.
“It’s not okay to bash an individual or business, but then there are people who live in a world of ambiguity and want to know the difference between bashing and critiquing,” she said.
When it does come down to removing a post or comment, the admins get hit by two groups of people with different views on how the page should be run.
“We walk this fine line,” said Whitley. “There are people who are like ‘You’re depriving us of our freedom of speech’ and then there are people that are like ‘Why are they still here? Why are you allowing them to get away with it [negativity]?’”
The admins are frequently accused of censoring posts or comments when they’re not the only ones with the power to do so. The original poster, the original commenter or even Facebook itself can delete posts or comments, according to Jones.
The few times the admins have removed a person from the group, “it’s pretty egregious, or they have been told numerous times, and they’re still not getting it,” said Jones. She also said that in some cases, serious stalking and threats were being made, or in another, the user was trolling the group.
However, most recently the admins have been challenged by posts containing racist remarks that have spun out of control with hundreds of comments.
One post about a black person being searched at a Holiday gas station because “they looked like a suspect” garnered hundreds of comments and hundreds of replies to those comments. Individuals felt that they were being personally attacked, and the comments got so bad, said Jones, that they shut down the page temporarily.
This was an instance when the admins felt it was necessary to meet in person and discuss the Facebook group.
“For us dealing with them [racist remarks] there is a level of stress, and we need to all be clear that we are on the same page,” said Whitley.
“And that we’re all qualified to do,” continued Jones. “That’s kind of what our last meeting was about, recognizing that, and looking for a better way to [deal with the situation] because we’re all white females, and we see through those eyes.
“As far as myself,” she added, “I look through a white person’s eyes and I think I’m doing good, but then I realize that I’m not. And we realized our failure to quickly act on it was not the way we wanted to represent the neighborhood. We kind of dropped the ball on this.”
That’s when the admins decided it was necessary to add another administrator that could better assist with these types of issues.
“We had announced numerous times that we are looking for administrators, but there haven’t been a lot of responses,” said Jones.
Jones then convinced Dan Buck, an active member of the group who has previously called out other neighbors on their racist remarks, to be the fifth admin.
“I’m probably going to be a little more willing to step in when race becomes an issue because now I’ve been given an opportunity to do something,” said Buck. “I also don’t want to try to be speaking for all POC’s [people of color], but I’m not going to sit there and deal with the bullshit of racism.”
Buck has noticed that there are many neighbors on the page who have genuine hearts and want to help address racial issues, and they can check their privilege for a moment to see another person’s point of view. But then there are also people who have a ‘I think you’re feeling oppressed because you want to’ type of attitude, he explained.
“There obviously is still racism, especially in the neighborhood, and a lot of people don’t realize how out front it is there,” said Jones.
Nevertheless, Buck is grateful for the page. “For all the faults of the page, all the weirdness and issues and stuff, I truly am glad it exists,” he said.
As a new admin, he is hoping there is a possibility for some growth on the page.
“I’m not going to dream too big, though,” he said. “We are dealing with people through the Internet, after all.”