OAKLAND — The flatlands of west Oakland--home to many of the city's most tired housing projects--aren't exactly where you'd expect to find the seeds of a wired community.
But amid the groan of bulldozers, in what was once the recreation room for a housing complex, portions of which are now being reduced to rubble, the leaders of this struggling city and the world's mightiest computer company have joined to launch a $1.2-million project to build perhaps the nation's most high-tech housing project.
As part of an ambitious effort to give low-income residents access to technology and computer training, Oakland and IBM Corp. unveiled plans to outfit a 206-unit community with fiber-optic cables, computers in every apartment and a high-tech learning center.
Further, IBM is leading an initiative to develop computer training courses that residents of the Acorn complex, as it is called, will be able to take in their homes. Those who pass will be certified by IBM and placed in jobs with local companies.
"People around here really don't believe it," said Janet Patterson, 42, who has lived in the Acorn complex since 1968 and is president of its residents council. "We're talking about things here folks haven't ever dreamed of."
Patterson's remarks offer some indication of the soaring hopes for the pilot project, although some critics see it as a woeful example of misplaced civic priorities.
"There is prostitution and gang warfare in my city," said astrophysicist Clifford Stoll, an Oakland resident and author of the book "Silicon Snake Oil." "Could somebody tell me how some glitzy, multimedia gizmos are going to solve the problem of rats and cockroaches in Oakland's municipal housing?"
City leaders respond by saying little else has worked, so give this a chance.
The project will undoubtedly be watched carefully by other municipalities as an experiment in the ability of technology to raise living standards. Oakland is a waterfront city with a rich history and some of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the Bay Area, but it also has some of the region's poorest residents and highest crime rates.
According to the plan, the 30-year-old Acorn complex will be completely renovated over the next few years, and converted to a community with a mix of low-income tenants and those who can pay market rates of $400 to $700 a month.
Pacific Bell will wire the entire complex with fiber-optic cables. IBM will install network computers--stripped-down PCs with no hard drive but linked to the Internet--in every unit. All these machines will be linked to a server at a central computer training center.
The budget for the project is $1.2 million, which reflects discounts offered by IBM and PacBell. The city has already committed $400,000 in redevelopment funds and federal block grants. For the rest, the city has hired a fund-raising firm to secure grants from private and government sources.
The project is to unfold in three phases over the next several years. The first, construction, to be done in stages, is expected to be completed by fall. The next involves training, in which eligible residents will take courses to raise their computer skills to basic standards.
The third phase is job placement, in which IBM and the city are to seek commitments from area companies to hire workers with specific skills, then teach Acorn residents those skills, which will include using a computer mouse, word processing and spreadsheets. The residents would then receive IBM certifications.
"This obviously isn't going to be a huge profit generator for us," said Bernard Bowler, regional director of government and higher education accounts for IBM. "But we've always been a good corporate citizen."
Much of the course work has yet to be developed, IBM officials said. But residents will be able to do the work in their homes. And their children will also be able to use the computers for schoolwork.
That prospect delights Andrea Dunn, 30, a UPS worker who lives at Acorn with her two children and will move into one of the high-tech units.
"There are a lot of people my age here who have never turned on a computer," she said. "If they get a certificate from IBM, they're going to at least have a foot in the door" for jobs.
She also said that it will "even the playing field" for her 13-year-old son, who attends junior high school in a wealthier part of the city, where many of his classmates have computers in their homes.
Existing Acorn residents will have first shot at the new, high-tech units. Any additional openings, whether rentals or low-income units, will be doled out first-come, first-served.
Patterson said she expects many people to jump at the chance to get computer training, and others to be somewhat intimidated by it. But she has no doubt that Acorn's reputation is going to change.
In the past, some may have associated the community with drugs or crime. In the future, she said, people will say about Acorn: "That's where I want to be."