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August 15, 2003

civic renewal in NYC

I was supposed to go to New York City today for a meeting at the Social Science Research Council, but I found when I reached the airport at 6 am that no flights were leaving because of the huge blackout.

According to the New York Times, the 1965 power failure "was largely characterized by cooperation and good cheer," whereas the one in 1977 was "defined by widespread looting and arson."

In 2003, we seem to be back to civility. Jeff Greenfield of CNN says he "saw tourists pouring off those double-decker buses looking dazed and confused. People were offering them free glasses of water and restaurants were putting out food that was spoiled for free. I saw police officers politely asking New Yorkers, 'Would you mind please getting out of the street.'"

When I was deputy director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, I developed an Index of National Civic Health. INCH, as we called it, declined sharply in the early 1970s and then rebounded in the 1990s. I have to wonder whether the three great NYC blackouts are evidence of the same trend. Three scattered events do not really make a trend. Besides, I have no specific data for New York City, and no INCH data at all for 2000-3. Still, it's interesting that New York has fared so much better in emergencies when the national civic health is higher. More than 1,037 fires burned while the lights were out in 1977. In 1965, and again in 2003, people took care of each other instead.

(Incidentally, we couldn't run INCH back through the 1960s, because we didn't have enough data from those early years. But if you make an index out of the variables that we do have, then INCH declines throughout the sixties. That means that it was much higher in 1965 than in 1977.)

Posted by peterlevine at August 15, 2003 12:19 PM

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