July 13-19, 2006
Arts : BooksSocial Studies
How Philadelphia's social (and anti-social) behavior pays off.
City Paper: Every essay in this piece aims to define "social capital." Is there a basic definition you can give us?
Richardson Dilworth: The basic idea is that people's social networks are productive assets in the same way that financial capital is a productive asset. The real popularizer of the term, especially in the 1990s, was the political scientist Robert Putnam [author ofBowling Alone
]. He explained [that his definition] resonated because there is a general sense out there that there's been a decline of community [in the United States]. Philadelphia I thought was a pretty unique place to look at [social capital] because Philadelphia has this long tradition of being a uniquely anti-social city. Especially in the 1840s and the 1850s Philadelphia was probably the most violent of the Mid-Atlantic cities, in terms of race riots, in terms of anti-Catholic violence. It also had the strongest political machine, probably the highest level of corruption in anything you would want to call a democratic government.
CP: You mention the political machine as evidence of Philadelphia being anti-social. I understood one of the essays in the book to be saying that the political machines were actually fostering social capital.
RD: [In] Mark Brewin's chapter on the importance of Election Day in Philadelphia, his argument is that the political machine fostered political allegiance ... Election Day served as a sort of celebration of community ties, and it didn't really matter who won. The political machine capitalized on that. It capitalized on a connection with certain immigrant groups, certain ethnic groups, and it put together a coalition with those cohesive groups, and then denied benefits to every other group.
CP: The usual implication is that it's a bad thing that social capital has been on the decline. But a lot of the essays in your book say that there's really a more nuanced way to look at this.
RD: Yes, it does both good things and bad things. One of the key indications that there's been a decline in social capital over the last, say, 40 years is the decline of membership in voluntary associations like PTAs and 4-H clubs. But, for instance, there's also been a decline in membership of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan.
CP: Is there any way that Philadelphia could use being this historically anti-social city as a cause for bragging rights?
RD: It has! That's sort of one o f the distinctive things about Philadelphia. [The sociologist Digby] Balzell had this great quote: The spirit of Philadelphia is always to root for the away team, against the home team.
CP: The book articulates this paradox that Philadelphia is an anti-social place that doesn't have a lot of social capital, but then maybe it's anti-social because in individual neighborhoods it has a lot of social capital. Can you think of examples of cultural phenomena that unite the whole city?
RD: Well, there are certain neighborhoods in Philadelphia that for some reason seem to have captured a larger public imagination, and stand for something important.
CP: Like what?
RD: Kensington. There's a tremendous literature on Kensington ... I think a lot of people look at Kensington because there's a lot of research on concentrated poverty, particularly in African-American communities in cities, and Kensington stands as an example of concentrated poverty in a white community.
CP: I was thinking more along the lines of something like an Eagles' game.
RD: [laughs] That's a good point, actually. It is probably a big shortcoming in the book that we don't have something about sports.
CP: Are you just exploring these ideas, or is there an agenda for Philadelphia here?
RD: There's no agenda in it ... My grandfather was the mayor of Philadelphia. And he was not from Philadelphia. He was the classic non-native Philadelphian civic leader, and I think in large part the reason that he could be a civic leader in Philadelphia was that he wasn't from Philadelphia. I'm a native Philadelphian. I have a strong sense of an inability for things to change, and sort of a sense that probably I don't want them to change.( email@example.com )
Social Capital in the City: Community and Civic Life in Philadelphia
(Temple Press, 240 pp., $26.95) is available at www.temple.edu/tempress.