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Urban 'Decline' Seen As Evolution

Scholar Putnam Speaking In City

By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

February 12, 2008

What if those noises coming out of Hartford the ones everyone likes to monitor aren't death rattles but growing pains?

What if we stopped looking at Hartford as a city that is dying on the vine and saw it instead as one that is in constant and expected and healthy transition?

Robert D. Putnam, Harvard professor, social scientist and author, comes to Hartford Thursday to speak as a guest of Hands On Hartford, formerly known as Center City Churches. Though he's known for advancing the case of social capital participating in the ties that bind us Putnam will speak Thursday about some of his more recent research involving immigration.

Putnam comes as part of Hands On Hartford's restructuring, of which a new name is only the most visible part, said executive director Paul Christie.

"We needed to change what we're doing to reach more of the goals we have," said Christie. "We've been a social service agency providing services, but not many people were getting involved to change the community. We have to be much more outgoing. Robert Putnam was an obvious choice around work on civic engagement. He's done the rigorous study, but then he makes it accessible to people."

According to Putnam, Hartford and a host of cities like it are undergoing a cyclical, seismic shift that, while sometimes scary, is also necessary.

Putnam first came to prominence in the mid-'90s with an article published in a journal so small, he says now, that it had a circulation of three. But the topic immediately took hold on the national psyche.

Putnam said that Americans, known for their garrulous need to belong, had stepped away from membership in groups and clubs that help form a community. He was featured in People magazine and invited to Camp David to talk to then-President Bill Clinton. Putnam eventually broadened his research and, in 2000, published "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." The problem, he learned during his research, was worse than he had thought when he wrote the original article. The book was a best-seller.

A subsequent book, "Better Together: Restoring the American Community," took the research a step further. The more traditional means of creating community joining poetry groups, the YMCA or YWCA, or Boy or Girl Scouts give way to new traditions, he said.

"Americans have always had an enormous capacity for reinventing connections," he said recently by phone. "We've gone through similar periods with similar problems, which we fixed, but not forever. The challenges posed by urbanization are serious. If you're living on the Lower East Side, a quilting bee does not work. A barn-raising doesn't make sense for Hartford in 1910, so we invented new ways of connecting, like the Knights of Columbus, the Sons of Italy and a million others." The new ways of connecting will most likely include the Internet, said Putnam, and a re-examination of workplace practices that allows more flex time.

According to his latest research, immigration's effect on communities tends to create more isolation, but that dissipates when ethnic and racial groups start to redefine their identities. A person may be Latino, but he is also a Hartford resident, and over time "Hartford resident" becomes his primary way of identifying himself.

But that takes time. At first, immigration "makes everyone hunker down," Putnam said, like a turtle pulling into its shell. "The more ethnically diverse a neighborhood is, the more people there distrust everybody. Everybody has fewer friends, and they spend less time with their families."

The only activities that increase immediately are protest marches and television watching. "That's the first half of what I say, and if I stopped there, with that part of the new findings, it sounds like that's an argument for ethnic cleansing," said Putnam. In fact, former KKK leader David Duke included the information on his website, said Putnam, "to my utter embarrassment."

Erasing The Lines

Over the long run, Putnam said, "the successful immigrant society solves this problem by diminishing the salience of the lines of these social difference."

For example, Putnam and his wife, also a teacher, have married-couple friends in Massachusetts. The wife is Irish-American. Her parents were immigrants. The husband is Italian-American; his parents were immigrants as well. They married in the '60s, and both families called it a "mixed marriage," though both were American, and both were Catholic.

"Now, that seems like a joke," said Putnam. "What that captures is the fact that over my lifetime, those lines of difference have become less salient. Betty knows she's Irish; she spends a lot of her vacations in Ireland. Roger knows he's Italian, and on the nights he cooks, they have something that's tomato-based. We just haven't done that with the new lines of cleavage the racial or ethnic lines that divide us.

"Our society won't work as well if we don't have these social connections," he said. "Schools don't work as well; crime rates are higher where people don't know their neighbors; people are unhappier. It's right out of the textbook. Folks in Hartford should not think that's something peculiar to Hartford. That's exactly what happens. In the end, we're much better off with immigration, but it doesn't do progressives like me any good to deny that there are serious adjustment costs to that."

He points to two institutions the Army and certain Christian groups such as the Catholic Church (because of its universality) and larger evangelical churches, which Putnam has attended in his research as having successfully transcended traditional racial and ethnic lines.

"The average enlisted man or woman has many more interracial friendships that those outside the military," said Putnam. "It's not like people stop being black or Latino or Jewish or Italian in the Army, but they have some other identity, something else that's even more important to them. That allows them to make friendships of deep trust and be willing to actually sacrifice their own lives across racial lines. The Army deserves a great credit for that, how they made it happen."

In certain faith groups, he said, racial and ethnic lines blur because those lines are "no longer the most important thing at every moment of their lives. As we become more comfortable, diversity becomes less visible to us."

"I am confident that over the course of the next generation or two, Americans will come to grips with and solve this problem," he said. "I think if we manage it intelligently, it'll happen sooner. If we don't, it won't get solved until my granddaughter is collecting Social Security. I want to get it solved sooner than that."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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