When a region’s climate changes over long periods, its ecosystems change as well. Woodlands can become grasslands, tundra or desert. This process involves prolonged conflict between differing plant and animal groups, and between how they change their environment by living and propagating. Even if they were conscious, they would not see themselves as at war, but rather merely doing what they can to survive.
This natural process greatly resembles a social process long at work in our city. The climatic changes are predominately economic forces. The conflict looks like yuppie Barnies vs. townie Neanderthals. In fact, both characterizations are unfair, and the substance of the conflict is more complex. It is about culture, city government’s structure and conduct, how people make a living, and the nature of municipal political participation.
On the ground, the newcomers will eventually dominate the city’s political life. But if that is all that happens, Somerville will have lost a great deal. Its institutions may become more effective and efficient in their narrow purposes, but it will lose much of what made it a community.
“Community” is, to my mind, the most important thing to understand about what made mid-Twentieth Century Somerville so rare among American cities. That community shared a taken-for-granted understanding that what we have in common is more important than our differences.
The city’s relatively narrow range of ethnicity was a necessary, but nowhere near a sufficient, explanation for this. Rich networks of extended families, neighborhoods, churches, unions, fraternal organizations, youth sports, political clubs, and civic organizations intertwined to weave a strong and resilient fabric of community.
These relationships provided multiple ways for people to know, understand, and rely on each other. They fulfilled functions that, in their absence, now burden government and increase its costs. Through them, citizens guided the young, swiftly helped neighbors in need, resolved conflicts, and maintained security without being aware that they were doing anything special.
Old Somerville provided rites of passage for youth. If you treated others with respect, demonstrated loyalty, and fulfilled your responsibilities, you would gain living-wage employment, a decent home, a place in the community, and the respect of your neighbors. Every adult played a part in making this social contract work.
Few people were looking to get rich; those that were, usually left town. There was an unconscious shared understanding that wealth, position, and power can be taken from you, but not relationships with people who really know you. In the end, our greatest security is each other.
Politics was personal in several senses. First, politics was about whether my street gets repaired or my kid gets a summer job. Second, extensive and dense relationship networks ensured that candidates were personally known by voters. Third, politicians maintained influence by developing personal loyalties.
Shared values and assumptions ensured relatively little conflict regarding public policy. Politics resembled competition between sports teams and their followers rather than conflict over policy choices.
Newcomers tend to equate patronage with corrupt and inefficient government because they have experienced society, but not community. In community, patronage is, indeed, about loyalty and rewarding supporters. But it is not about giving people responsibilities for which they are unqualified.
In community, hiring officers have extensive knowledge of applicants, either directly or through relationship networks. This includes knowledge of qualities that will affect the applicant’s job performance but are outside of the job description and interview process. They also know whether the applicant’s friends, family, and associates will act to ensure that he or she performs and does not become an embarrassment.
Newcomers suggest that this is inherently unfair to people who come from other cultures and backgrounds. In the Somerville that I am describing, such people were few and well known.
All of these cultural elements fit Somerville’s governmental structure, which gives enormous authority to the mayor. Aldermen were judged more on their effectiveness in delivering constituent services than on political positions. The mayor could withhold constituent services from aldermen who wouldn’t join the “team.” When one “team” won the mayor’s office, they could reward loyalty with jobs.
In the context of a relatively homogenous electorate, limited policy conflicts, a thriving industrial economy, and vibrant nongovernmental organizations that met many community needs, this was an efficient form of government. What needed doing got done, with minimal cost to taxpayers.
In the decades to come, the electorate would diversify; the rich fabric of relationships, unravel; and the demands on government would skyrocket, along with taxes. But the structure of Somerville’s government would remain unchanged, and the culture that went with it would persist beyond its ability to cope effectively with those changes
An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Somerville News.