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Computer room is neutral territory in gang infested projects

February 14, 1997

CHICAGO (AP) _ The path to Michael Tolliver’s computer workshop is dark and smelly, well-traveled by gang members and others just down on their luck.

Hall lights are ripped out, as they are in the other 27 buildings of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Robert Taylor Homes. Windows are broken and wire mesh is stretched across balconies to keep children safe.

Behind a steel door in one of the buildings is Tolliver’s workshop. The room with its 50 donated computers, comfortable chairs and good lighting is a haven from dangers of the nation’s largest _ and some say worst _ public housing project.

``This is like neutral territory,″ said Tolliver, who is also commander of the police department’s South Side public housing unit.

It was Tolliver’s idea to set up the workshop for use by anyone who lives in public housing. The computers were donated by the housing authority, and Tolliver took three computer-literate police officers off their beats and put them to work as instructors.

The workshop needs everything from better software and computers to online access, and Tolliver has to rely on donations for improvements. Still, 75 people each day use the room, including children from the nearby Beethoven Elementary School who play computer games or do their homework.

``You should see them running across the park after school to sign up for the computers,″ Tolliver said.

The computer room, in operation since last August, also offers 10-week courses for beginners and experts.

Diane Bramlett, 37, is taking the beginners’ course in hopes it will lead to a good job.

``I already know a little about it, but I want to upgrade my computer skills,″ she said. ``Anybody can profit from this, you just have to be motivated.″

Antonio Holsey, 32, a security guard at another housing project, says computer skills can help in his job and pave the way to another career.

``They’re taking over parts of most every job,″ he said. ``Computers are replacing those stacks of papers nobody looked at anyway.″

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