Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown

Sean Safford’s book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown (Harvard University Press, 2009) is essential reading for anyone concerned with active citizenship and civil society. Safford poses a contrast between Youngstown, OH and Allentown, PA, two old steel cities that were economically and demographically indistinguishable when the fatal crisis hit the American steel industry in the 1970s. Youngstown entered a downward spiral and now has a median household income of $25,000, median home value of $52,000, a male life expectancy of 73 and a murder rate of 12.6 deaths per 100,000. Meanwhile, Allentown has turned into a successful post-industrial economic center with a median household income of $34,000, median home value of $144,000, male life expectancy of 76 and a murder rate of 4.5 per capita. (These are statistics that I have collected.)

Safford traces the starkly different outcomes to the civic infrastructure of the two cities. In the steel era, both had economic networks dominated by the interlocking boards of their local businesses. And both had social networks composed of private clubs. But only Allentown really had a separate, robust civic network. Safford defines “civic organizations [as] those for which the primary goal is to improve the community in some way” (p. 75). In Allentown, the universities’ boards and the Boy Scouts were among the most prominent civic groups. Youngstown also had civic organizations, but not a network of overlapping civic boards. When the economic crisis killed Youngstown’s businesses and left the local elite competing for scarce financial resources, they had no place to gather, plan, and collaborate. But in Allentown, local leaders talked and cooperated in their overlapping civic organizations.

Their discussions led to specific new initiatives, like the Ben Franklin Technology Partnership, which has incubated high-tech businesses. They also developed new overall strategies. The business elite, organized as a civic cadre through the Lehigh Valley Partnership, converged on a similar development strategy as the grassroots activist groups, organized as the Community Action Coalition. Meanwhile, Lehigh University reoriented itself as a civic hub with links to both activists and business (p.131).

Allentown has not drawn more external investment than Youngstown but has used its indigenous capital much more effectively, with less damaging competition (p. 125). Importantly, it was not the number of associations or the rate of associational membership that mattered. Rather, organizations were configured into a network that encouraged deliberation and collaboration in Allentown, but not in Youngstown. In national data, we find a correlation between the number of civic organizations per capita and a community’s economic success, but Safford’s closer look suggests that the density of organizations is probably just a rough proxy for the strength of the local network that permits discussion, collaboration, and relationship-building.

(See my post from years ago on Youngstown’s political corruption, which is related to its weak civic infrastructure. See also “economic benefits of civic engagement” and “civic engagement strengthens employment: the case builds.”)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.