Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A new perspective on regionalism

In the midst of an endless job hunt and temporary positions, I've been doing a lot of reading. One book that I finished a few hours ago and highly recommend is Sean Safford's Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown. Safford examines the post-industrial era fate of two cities-Youngstown, Ohio and Allentown, Pennsylvania, cities that had similar social, demographic, and employment characteristics in 1950, but somehow took very different paths following the economic transformation of the 1970s.

Safford builds on the regional theories of David Rusk, Myron Orfield, and Bruce Katz by focusing on the historical development of Youngstown and Allentown. He finds that while both communities attracted similar immigration groups and industrial formation between 1850 and 1950, ethnic groups formed distinct subcultures within Allentown prior to 1950 that resulted in the formation of many different civic, business and community organizations that developed numerous institutions over time. Safford notes that this development helped create networks of social capital, which helped sustain different communities, and often fostered interaction between them that related in a business, religious, or civic contexts. Many different organizations connected many different people at different points, and helped to create stable and enduring networks. Thus, when Allentown started to undergo a painful economic transformation in the 1950s, leaders and community groups were already well connected through a variety of different organizations and interests that allowed for a sustained consensus-driven effort to reposition the region in a changing era.

While Youngstown developed civic and economic networks, they were often a replication of the other. Hence, the breaking of a long-term economic network (such as the departure of various steel manufacturers and GE), the civic network also began to fray. The long-term domination of Youngstown's elite (which were largely the same original founders who arrived prior to 1850), did little to earn the support of other ethnic groups within the region. As a result, there was little success in Youngstown to develop a consensus driven economic development strategy in the late 1970s.

This book got me thinking a bit about my hometown of Grand Rapids. In many ways Grand Rapids bears numerous similarities to Allentown, with multiple ethnic groups, competing institutions, and a diverse array of networks that connect different groups of together. GR has also weathered the post-industrial era rather well. It will be interesting to see if various networks within the region will be able to further foster regional economic development as Michigan (hopefully) finds its way out of a very long recession. If it continues to foster networks similar to those that Safford details in his work. I recommend reading Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown, and also suggest that you look at Richard Longwoth's Caught in the Middle, which examines the transformation of the Midwest's urban and rural communities in a global era.

1 comment:

Sean Safford said...

Thanks for the kind review! Grand Rapids is an interesting case study; in the grand scheme of things, it seems to be doing pretty well and I have wondered if that is due to some of the dynamics I discuss in the book explain that.