Running north-south through Kansas City, Troost Avenue has long been the city’s sharply drawn racial and economic dividing line. That’s why Internet advocates, among them a Greek Orthodox priest, are fundraising to open an Internet cafe that would be the first free public WiFi hotspot on the corridor.
The spot is an old bank building at the corner of 31st Street and Troost, one of the city’s busiest intersections. St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church, which runs a social program called Reconciliation Services out of its first floor, owns the building. Last July, a local non-profit called Connecting for Good moved in upstairs and downstairs. The group refurbishes donated computers in the basement and runs digital literacy programs on the top floors. Graduates can buy one of the rebuilt computers for $50.
Together the groups hope to raise $20,000 in an online campaign to set up a coffee shop — “a low-rent Starbucks,” Michael Liimatta, Connecting for Good’s director, says with a laugh — that will offer locals coffee, computers and free wireless Internet. Spearheading the “Digital Reconciliation Project” is St. Mary of Egypt’s own Father Justin Mathews. (“He’s an Apple guy,” Liimatta says.) The goal is to marry the social capital that the social services work has built up around the space and Connecting for Good’s digital savvy to, as Liimatta puts it, “make this ground zero for transforming east of Troost for cheap Internet, cheap computers and digital literacy training.”
A 2012 map showing Google Fiber pre-registrations. Troost Avenue runs north-south through the highlighted area.
The unorthodox (sorry) project is of a piece with Kansas City’s vibrant home-grown Internet scene, otherwise populated by things like the grassroots organizing drive to pre-register customers for Google Fiber — a process highlighting the fact that the decades-old Troost division was now a digital one, too. There’s also the locally built Neighbor.ly platform, which is being used to crowdfund the cafe, and the KC Freedom Network, a wireless Internet co-op.
That DIY spirit helps, too. In a rare move for a local group, Connecting for Good functions as its own Internet service provider, buying broadband wholesale through downtown’s Joe’s Datacenter and using microwave technologies to share the $100 a month connection with a few hundred families across Kansas City. The cafe at 3101 Troost Ave. will hop on that network, too, saving the project from the fate that sometimes befalls community Internet projects: Running afoul of ISP terms-of-service agreements that limit how connections can be shared.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.