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The Tricky Task of Changing a Local Culture

Any community’s civic culture has deep and stubborn roots in local history. But with the right sort of leader, new and innovative attitudes and practices can emerge.

City,Hall,Building,In,Carmel,,Indiana
City hall building in Carmel, Indiana. The city is one of those places where it is possible for leaders to create some kinds of cultural change if the conditions are right.
(Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock)
The culture of a place frequently determines its fate. And that culture, more often than not, has been set by its founders. It’s been widely observed, for example, that New York’s open, globally oriented, multicultural mercantile culture in part derives from the Dutch ethos of its founding era. A very different culture, interestingly, from the conservative one that was created later and equally successfully by a different group of Dutch settlers in western Michigan.

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.
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However, it does seem to be possible for leaders to create some kinds of cultural change if the conditions are right. Carmel, Indiana, is an interesting case study. Mayor Jim Brainard was first elected there in 1995 and is still in office in his seventh term today. At the beginning of his administration, Carmel was an upscale but not especially nice residential and business suburb north of Indianapolis.

Today Carmel is a peer of many of the best suburban communities in the country. This is because Brainard undertook a series of major changes backed by well over $1 billion in borrowing – an unprecedented amount for an Indiana community. His moves — pursuing annexations, converting a rail line into a hiking trail, expanding and upgrading infrastructure, adding parks and building them out as showplaces, and building a $175 million concert hall, were hugely controversial. Many of them prompted litigation, with some lawsuits going all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. Brainard faced significant political opposition as well, and sometimes faced a hostile city council majority.

However, sometime during the 2010s, a fundamental shift occurred. A 2017 study by the Indiana University policy center looking at Carmel’s center city redevelopment efforts found broad agreement that the change in the town’s culture was “important and well ahead of its time.” In effect, opposition changed from outright rejection of the mayoral vision to disagreements on the margins and unhappiness with some of the process used to implement it. The citizens fell in line with a new way of thinking based on aspiring to be a national leader through quality rather than maintaining traditional Indiana stinginess. The culture of the city and its expectations were both re-created.

A few factors stand out. The first was Carmel’s dynamic and relentless Republican mayor and his remarkable staying power. Had Brainard left office after even three terms, his approach would most likely have been rolled back. It took four or five terms of focus to make fundamental change happen. This suggests cultural change will only occur through a political leader who isn’t forced out by term limits.

Also, as the premier regional destination for out-of-town corporate transplants, Carmel had a critical mass of outsiders who hadn’t bought into the traditional Indiana way of doing things. They were the natural constituency for the new. While too much demographic flux brings its own problems, a lack of demographic dynamism calcifies a culture. There can be a chicken and egg problem here. A critical mass of outsiders might be needed to effect cultural change, but in order to attract them in the first place, the culture might need to change.

Civic culture is important. The example of Carmel shows that while cultural change is hard, it is possible when the right ingredients are in place. Local leaders should take stock of where their culture might need to adapt to changing times, and see what tools might be available to help make that adaptation possible.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at aaron@aaronrenn.com or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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