The Tricky Task of Changing a Local Culture

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My latest column in Governing is now online. It’s about the difficult talk of trying to change a local culture. Here’s an excerpt:

A number of books discuss the profound influence of culture on civic success. Sean Safford’s Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown contrasts that city in Ohio with the seemingly similar Allentown, Pa. Both were medium-sized steel cities that suffered badly from deindustrialization over the past half-century, but Allentown adapted much better. Safford ties this to the historical structures of the cities’ respective elites. Allentown’s elite networks were more open to the rest of the community, allowing the town to mobilize in ways the mostly closed networks of Youngstown could not.

Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia traced the very different character of those two cities to the religious backgrounds of their founders. Boston’s Puritan-derived culture created a hierarchical society that valued intellectual excellence and prized civic leadership. Philadelphia’s more democratic culture generated a leveling effect that valued practical knowledge over higher education and resulted in a notable lack of civic leadership.

Can deep-seated cultures be changed? For example, Midwest river cities such as Cincinnati and St. Louis are well known for cultural insularity. They are places where people who meet you ask where you went to high school, and where newcomers often struggle to make friends and fit in. Similar things are said of Minneapolis. “Minnesota nice” does not necessarily translate into a warm welcome to outsiders.

Empirically, cultural change would appear to be very difficult. Shrewd politicians typically find ways to package their policies in ways that are aligned with the local culture rather than challenging it.

Click through to read the whole thing.