Sunday, February 26, 2012

Small Towns and Old Family Power

I live in a small city where it is often said that, if you are not a member of a pioneer family, you will have a very hard time breaking into the right circles, the inner circles where the real power and influence reside.  I imagine you’ve heard that about your community as well.  It seems to be a common assumption.
I heard it in the midwestern city where I grew up, and in the East Coast community where I lived for many years.  At least on the East Coast the descendants of old families could claim a few centuries of forbearers rooted in one place.  Out here in the West the best they can do is a hundred years or so, and mostly less than that.  But I digress.  Is there any evidence to substantiate the claim that the hierarchy of circles of social status and power are hard to break into?  At least locally I don’t see it.
There are closed circles, but they tend to be formed of persons working in the same field.  In our area, the vintners and winemakers all know each other and form a fairly tight circle of friendly competition.  The same can be said of the wheat farmers, university professors and physicians.  On the other hand, service on important community boards, commissions and councils is diverse.  Newcomers and old timers flow through the ranks without distinction between them.
Once upon a time there were a few wealthy families whose money and willingness to invest in the future of the city gave them the unofficial power to dictate, or at least heavily influence, the important decisions around town.  I’m not sure when that ended, but it was in sharp decline during the Great Depression and dropped like a rock after WWII.  What happened?  For one thing there was a flood of newcomers, veterans who had been stationed at near by bases, who moved in and were willing to do what was needed to make a life for themselves with initiative that often disregarded the established ways.  Some old family business failed to keep up with changing times and ceased to exist.  Immigrant families in their second and third generations became fully assimilated.  A broader distribution of wealth, combined with greater options for saving or investing, eroded the exclusiveness of local bankers, forcing them to compete for business rather than assuming it. 
Stories are told of the Grandams who once ruled the admissions committee of the local country club, refusing anyone who did not meet their standards, which were quite racist at best.  In today’s environment, the club is happy to get anyone who can pay the rather modest fees.  Other stories are told of the local madam whose little black book of customers enabled her to pull many behind the scenes strings.  She would have been blackballed at the country club, but no doubt more than a few Grandam husbands listened carefully when she spoke.
As I see it, in decades past there may have been one pyramid of social and economic status with clearly identified persons at the top, but now there are many with considerable overlap, and no one is in a secure position at the top of the heap.  Moreover, it appears that there are fewer people who care about climbing the social ladder, and there are more people who care about improving the community and enjoying life with their friends.  So why does the myth persist?


Reverend Ref + said...

I'm not sure I'm going to communicate this exactly like it's shaping up in my head . . . but maybe it stems from a desire to go back to the "good ol' days" when people knew their place and things were, if not stable, at least predictable; as opposed to now when there seems to be much more flux and much less certainty.

Country Parson said...

Hi Rev,
It's nice to see you here again. Hope all is well. I think you are onto something, and you may want to say more about it.