TIES THAT BIND - Part
Ojai not immune to decline of community
By Bret Bradigan
Beau Luftenberg, 16, looked up
from the well-ordered array of vials and bottles, with their
taxonomic labels, wherein floated insects in various stages of
"Why do we fly fish?" the junior at Chaparral High
School asked his instructor, who was busy setting up equipment
and materials so that the class could simulate those insects
with yarn, thread and feathers.
"Because it beats sitting with a rod all day. With fly fishing,
you're moving. You see things. It's an activity, it takes creativity
and judgment," said the volunteer instructor, Ray Johnson,
77, a retired school administrator.
Johnson can speak from experience. He has donated thousands of
hours of time to both children and adults, teaching them how
to build fly rods, tie flies, and cast them. He is a dues-paying
member of several national organizations, and an organizer of
at least one major local event.
In other words, he is a typical resident of Ojai and a typical
man of his generation.
But that type of active, engaged citizen is endangered by a wide
range of threats: competition for children's time, working parents,
suburban sprawl, dwindling trust and mounting mortality, not
to mention the twin demons of television and Wal-Mart.
In 1995, Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard,
wrote an article for the Journal of Democracy, titled: "Bowling
Alone: America's Declining Social Capital."
He looked at a broad range of indications that people weren't
connecting with each other in the community, that they were,
indeed, dropping out of the public sphere. Participation in public
meetings dropped by a third from the 1960s to the 1990s. Voter
turnout in presidential elections dropped from 64 percent in
1960 to fewer than 50 percent in 1996. Polls indicated that 77
percent of Americans felt the nation was worse off because of
"less involvement in community affairs," and people
who felt that their fellow citizens had become less civil in
the past 10 years outnumbered those who felt that people had
become more civil by 80 to 12 percent.
Putnam used bowling as his lead example. "Between 1980 and
1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent,
while league bowling decreased by 40 percent ... The rise of
solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors
because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times
as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling
is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes."
This is example resonates in Ojai, where Ojai's bowling alley
closed a dozen years ago and its empty hulk stands as a stark
reminder of this economic reality. Putnam warns of future consequences,
however, of which that empty building is an omen.
"The broader social significance, however, lies in the social
interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer
and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats
balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate
yet another vanishing form of social capital."
Pet Smith worked at Ojai Valley Bowl for years, and bowled in
several leagues a week. She said that the casual conversations
of the bowlers was a great way to keep in touch with friends
and neighbors. "Most of the people who bowled up here, now
bowl in Ventura. Or they don't bowl anymore period," she
said. "That's all lost. There's a couple of people I keep
in touch with, but that's it."
Despite so many similar accounts from across the country, Putnam's
article struck a contrary chord. Other researchers and sociologists
said that while attendance in club and fraternal organizations
had declined by a third since the 1960s, membership in national
organizations such as AARP had risen to 35 million. Involvement
had merely shifted from community and fraternal groups such as
the Lions Club (down 12 percent since 1983) and the Masonic Lodge
(down 39 percent since 1959) to national interest groups like
the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, with their
growth from a few dozen to millions within a few years.
Little League enrollment was
declining, but surely that was because kids were joining American
Youth Soccer Organization squads instead. The explosion of the
Internet, with its unparalled ability to match up people by interest,
was also not given its due, said critics.
And perhaps, urban sociologist Xavier de Souza Briggs warned,
there is a dark side to social capital, citing the immense amount
of cooperation and reciprocity required for Timothy McVeigh to
carry out his act of domestic terrorism on the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, or
even the "sleeper cells" of Al Queda that brought down
the World Trade Center towers and 3,000 lives.
Gangs and terrorists and even "good ole boy" networks
and NIMBY groups exploit social capital for ends that are at
odds with the common good.
The criticisms prompted Putnam to dip deeper. "Bowling Alone:
The Collapse and Revival of American Community," published
in 2000, was his answer.
He discovered that while Little League enrollment had fallen,
so had AYSO enrollment from its peak in the early 1990s. And
while the stereotype of the small-town, narrow-minded backslapper
as a racist zenophobe had taken root in people's imaginations
through such works as Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt" and
"Main Street," the reality that Putnam discovered turned
out to be far different.
The more connected people were
through social and civic organizations, the more progressive
were their viewpoints on race, gender and equality. Which made
sense to Putnam's team of researchers, from the point of view
that having a wider range of associates and acquaintances led
to being exposed to different viewpoints.
And others have discovered that there is a steep personal cost
to the nation's growing disengagement and isolation.
In the book "The Tipping Point," author Malcom Gladwell
discusses a concept called " the "strength of weak
ties" from a classic study by Mark Granovetter in 1974.
When it comes to finding jobs, or life partners, it is these
weak ties that matter most. In that study, 56 percent of the
people surveyed had found their jobs through personal connections,
as opposed to 18.8 percent who used standard practices such as
checking the classifieds, or applying directly.
The interesting find, though, was that those who used a contact
to find a job, only 16.7 percent saw their contact "regularly,"
55.6 percent saw their contact "occasionally" and 28
percent saw their contact "rarely."
"People weren't getting their jobs through friends, they
were getting them through acquaintances," Gladwell wrote.
"Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you
do ... How much then, would they know that you wouldn't know?
Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power,
and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are."
Erstwhile Ojai Valley Bowl bowlers such as Pet Smith can attest
to that, since they no longer enjoy the fruits of those informal
The mechanisms of these networks of mutual reciprocity work to
the benefit of the individual. But they also benefit the entire
community. One illustration from Putnam's book is the volunteer
fire department of Gold Beach, Oregon. To publicize their annual
fund-raising effort, they had T-shirts printed up that said:
"Come to our breakfast, we'll come to your fire."
People smile at that, Putnam wrote, "because they recognize
the underlying norm of generalized reciprocity - the firefighters
will come even if you don't." And yet, if the fire department
is unable to raise enough funds to operate, it won't be around
to respond to anyone's fire.
Next week: Ojai was the birthplace of the world's largest
nongovernmental organization, but size is proving to be no substitute
for the hard work it takes to make a viable community.
2003 The Ojai Valley News
to the news
VALLEY BOWL's closing was a part of a larger national trend.