Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Social Capital and Lowell

Welcome to the first entry for this blog! There isn't going to be any one central theme to this, but there will be some core subjects that I'll return to again and again. One of them is social capital. While there is no single accepted definition for the term, it basically refers to interwoven interpersonal relationships and their power to foster a sense of community, disseminate information, and build trust.

It's an important concept for me because developing social capital is my highest priority for the next several years of my life. Having bounced around for the past five years due to personal circumstances (mainly, preparing to enter and then joining the military) I'm well aware of what it means to go without social capital. I'll get into the details in future entries, but suffice to say it's a frustrating way to live. And much like a multimillionaire with an inspiring story about how he used to live in his car because he couldn't afford to pay the rent, I hope to make my transition from being socially *poor* to finding strength in community and social capital the central theme of my life's story.

Before you ask, let me address a question I get asked a lot -- Why Lowell?

Well, here are three reasons, listed in ascending order of importance:

a) Location. First, Lowell is located smack in the middle of New England, which is my favorite part of the country. I feel very fortunate to be able to say I've lived in several different parts of the United States. New England has a certain edge to it that I haven't found anywhere else. There's a broader cultural diversity there than most Americans probably realize. There's an underrated natural beauty. There's also an intellectual climate embedded in its culture which probably dates back to its founding as a colony and is fed by the presence of so many universities. Yet, at the same time everything is still sort of small and accessible.

Lowell is located about 20 miles north of Boston, which is the unofficial "capital" of New England. I lived in Boston for a year after college and loved it. Many of the friends I had then are still there. And although I can't afford to buy real estate in Boston or Cambridge on my salary, I can very realistically purchase over 1000 square feet of condo or home in Lowell for roughly $200k.

b) Physical layout and size. Lowell is the ideal city size for my goal -- it's small, but densely populated. It's not so small as to give off a small-town feeling (with over 100,000 residents, it's the fourth-biggest city in Massachusetts). But at the same time it's not so large as to be intimidating or feel impersonal, the way an enormous city with a highly-transient population appears to me. The central downtown with its 19th-century layout are a welcome transition from the world of strip malls and subdivisions that I've come to know and loathe in Virginia Beach. For the reasons listed here (and others to come), small cities like Lowell are ideally-suited for social capital building.

c) Forward momentum. I highlighted this one because it's so important. Forward momentum is, frankly, what separates Lowell from a lot of cities that meet conditions (a) and (b). Fall River, New Bedford, Brockton, and Lawrence come to mind, but the list could go on and on -- I'll spare you the familiar New England or Rust Belt story. But the difference between Lowell and these other cities with similar demographics and physical layout becomes immediately apparent to anyone who walks around the downtown -- there's clearly been a tremendous amount of money and effort that has gone into the city's revitalization. There are constant ethnic festivals, concerts at the Tsongas Center, minor league hockey and baseball games, conferences, etc. People there see the changes and take a lot of pride in their city.

Believe me, I'm in no way trashing other New England cities -- they will all come around with time -- but I'm 27 and long overdue for real social capital building. Comparatively, Lowell is just a much better place to do it.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Awesome to see you launch this blog, Gage. I look forward to virtually following you on your journey...