The best measure of civic involvement in Boston is by counting people who vote. Turnout in Boston in November of 2007 was 14 percent (of registered voters). That's pretty bad. This year, turnout should be high, since we're in a Presidential year. Maybe it will even reach 60 percent (it was in the high 50s in 2004).
What I find ironic about this is that the great majority of issues I hear every day from Boston residents are local issues. Crime. Education. Picking up trash. These are issues that are not really addressed by the President of the United States. They are issues that are addressed by the Mayor and Boston City Councilors. Yet, turnout this November for the Presidential election could be three times as high as turnout will be in November 2009, when Boston will elect a Mayor and the entire slate of City Councilors. For the election that really matters for the issues my neighbors care about, no one will bother to vote.
In some ways I like that Boston has off-year municipal elections. Since so few voters actually go to the polls, the people who do vote are *really* important. Local candidates work very hard to figure out who they will be-- based on voting records for similar municipal elections. The flood of auto calls and literature I receive ahead of these elections is pretty impressive.
Back to the civic summit. In my opinion, the afternoon was better than the morning. I got a chance to chat with Adam Gaffin, who runs Universal Hub, about better ways for me to get his site Beacon Hill information, without causing extra work for him.
The lunch talk was outstanding. Dr. Thomas Sander, who is the Executive Director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, discussed the need for social capital. The fact that social capital within neighborhoods is what creates trust and improves quality of life. The fact that cities with high social capital are just bound to be nice places to live. The fact that as residents we need to "bond" to neighbors who resemble us and "bridge" to neighbors who don't look like us.
The best part of the talk was at the end. Eva Webster, who's with the Aberdeen-Brighton Residents Association, made a passionate plea for all to bridge social economic classes in our neighborhoods. I hear her. Beacon Hill isn't exactly known for being diverse in this regard.
After the lunch talk, the 400+ participants held a town meeting of sorts. It was a little long, but the format resulted in a few near-term civic initiatives that should be goals for the entire civic summit:
- Establishing a civic association exchange program,
- Improving the after school mentoring and tutoring program,
- Enhancing the summer employment program for at-risk kids, and
- Creating a city-wide litter and anti-graffiti program.
Overall, I had low expectations for the event, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing to see so many people talking about ways to make Boston better without complaining all the time. The passion was contagious.
Michael Pahre files his report here.