Pray tell, what actually is a “social science?” Personally, I have been befuddled since my collegiate days. The rigor of science seems incompatible with the humanness of humanity. Science itself (including the word) is a relatively recent invention of an ancient befuddled populace that required the discipline.
Science does use and accumulate data, so the social sciences were invented to do the same with other areas of knowledge and society. But the problem there is examined in a new book, “Uncontrolled”, by the business consultant, Jim Manzi. Manzi describes it this way: “we have much less formal knowledge about society than economists and other social scientists often claim, and that therefore we need to rely predominantly on practical expertise, federalism and trial-and-error learning to make useful progress.”
Or perhaps more clearly, as the New York Times columnist, David Brooks said in a column he wrote about Manzi’s book: “The world is changing fast, producing enormous benefits and problems. Our ability to understand these problems is slow. Social policies designed to address them usually fail and almost always produce limited results. … The first step to wisdom is admitting how little we know and constructing a trial-and-error process on the basis of our own ignorance. Inject controlled experiments throughout government. Feel your way forward. Fail less badly every day.”
That lengthy intro is my own befuddled attempt to write about Elgin’s Downtown Neighborhood Association or DNA (a kind of scientific pun in itself)—a social experiment in itself—and my recent conversation with its departing director, Tonya Hudson.
Without speaking for her, my guess is that she would agree with Manzi. We know less than we often think we do. The process of development is more complicated than predictable. But we still must proceed, by trial and error, by intuition, by desire.
Or as Hudson said, development itself—especially in a diverse, working class and ‘creative’ class cross-mixed ‘city in the suburbs’ like this is, and will always be more organic than mechanical.
This kind of perspective may be disappointing to the types that post clever little slogans on Facebook. It may frustrate those of us who have watched the degeneration of our central business district (CBD) first implode and then defy endless attempts to resurrect or redefine it as a place to live, work, or conduct commerce. And most of all it will lead to unrelenting optimism and disappointment at the same time.
Hudson also said that one of the central ideas was that “historic preservation is economic development.” Yet, even that observation can modulate. Just because the building itself was built in 1880 doesn’t mean that the continuous modification and innovation brought in the century plus then by mom and pop, small business, and our ever-adaptive ways is irrelevant. We both agreed neither one of us has the ambition to live in some quaint little town and that the chances of that happening in Elgin would be as unobtainable as it is Disneyfied obscure.
After arguing against over-simplified analysis let me just as unpredictably offer one. Accepting that our CBD, (that’s social science talk for a downtown) will and shouldn’t return to either what it was built for or latter became, there is a quartet of developmental progress. The first is more businesses locating there, the second is a denser population of residents, the third is more specialized (I despise the word ‘boutique’) stores opening shop, and the fourth is more amenity or what we call restaurants, bars, coffee shops and such.
Where developers, social engineers, city planers, ambitious politicians and just plain citizens with an opinion—especially when occupying one of those needed barstools—stub their toes is in considering how any one of those four things needs to come first to create the other. Life does not work that way and subsidizing things via governments or casino lucre may help if the idea has inertia but will ultimately fail, as it so often does, if it does not. But then again in the arena of ‘social science’ we are chained to trial and error in order to progress.
Those much-discussed condos are an example. They didn’t build as many of them as the grand design extolled and they didn’t fill up until they turned their business model upside down and became more rental than owned. Or perhaps consider the Prairie Rock Grill, now split into a big church and small good old-fashioned tavern. Then there is that block up street on Chicago turning into an antique corridor because today’s frugal consumer will understand why it is cheaper to buy old stuff in Elgin than one of those ‘quaint’ places.
When Hudson uses a word like ‘organic’ it’s not just because she is green, but because that remarkable mind of hers, as dedicated to vision as it is to details, understands real growth and the time it frustratingly takes to bring it into play. She wasn’t even born when this ‘neighborhood’ of hers started to decline. After a few years on the task, my own opinion is how well she has done credit to both the vision and the details. Hopefully, we shall carry on.
She wrote a piece for the Courier several years ago about a working class town transforming into one for the so-called creative class. Then again she and I both know working folk create and creative people work.
Is not life inscrutable and grand?
God speed you Tonya.