Wednesday, March 29, 2006

why the garden club couldn't save youngstown (part III)

The previous two blogs (part I and part II) on this topic described the differing economic divergence and historical reaction to crisis between the Youngstown region and the Allentown region. In his research, Sean Safford hypothesized that the types of personal connections between different local social groups may have contributed to the actions taken by each community.

So how does one measure the connectivity of social networks? Safford delved through the historical records to find the names of every person in both 1950 and 1975 who was an officer or on the board of directors for all the major local companies, banks, utilities, universities, civic and cultural organizations, religious groups, and government for each community. He separated each organization into one of two categories: economic or civic. He then developed a mathematical method to quantify the strength of the ties between each of the organizations based upon their membership.

So what did his models show? In records from both 1950 and 1975, in both the Youngstown region and the Allentown region, many of the economic organizations shared the same people with other economic organizations, and many of the civic organizations shared the same people with other civic organizations. In other words, the network ties were extremely strong within these subgroups.

But what happens when the economic and civic subgroups are combined into one big group? The results are completely different between the two communities. In the Youngstown region, the numerical values for the social ties are still very high – the same people who ran the civic organizations also ran the economic organizations. In the Allentown region, the values were much lower – showing that the composition of people in civic organizations weren’t necessarily the same people in the economic organizations.

In general, not all the same people hung out together in Allentown, and the leadership of civic organizations was connected to people from different economic backgrounds. In Youngstown, both the leaders of the civic leaders and the economic leaders were for the most part, the same people. This may help to explain why Allentown developed centralized, community-oriented action that turned into success, and why Youngstown developed a variety of different plans, run by different people that ultimately did not succeed.

Regardless if you believe his conclusions or not, Safford presents us with some interesting food for thought, which may extend into how we as a community organize ourselves.

If his theories are correct, how can we create a stronger community in the future?

In our local organizations, we can continually strive to make sure people from a variety of economic and civic backgrounds are represented in their leadership. When facing a problem, we can organize one diverse group to explore solutions, instead of many organizations with competing interests.

What organizations and conflicts exist today in Youngstown that embodies these types of challenges?

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