[For the first post in this series -- on the centrality of children and dogs in Mt. Lebanon -- click here
[For the second post in this series -- on the Fourth of July celebration in Mt. Lebanon -- click here
I moved to Mt. Lebanon for the schools. When I visited before committing to move here, I liked the old houses and the big trees and the sidewalks, but I moved to Mt. Lebanon for the schools. I was completely and utterly unaware of both the town's self-image and of its reputation in Pittsburgh more generally. That first Fall, one of my daughter's new friends invited her to the Howe School Sunny Funny Fair. (We live in the Markham neighborhood.) When we presented ourselves at the ticket table at Howe, our friend announced to the kids selling tickets that my daughter went to Markham. One of the little girls behind the table looked up at me and said, "Oooh, you must be rich!" That was a "welcome to Mt. Lebanon!" that puzzled me, to say the least.
Fortunately for me, I've both learned a lot about Mt. Lebanon, and even more fortunately, I don't care much about these things. My family has gotten a good deal out of the schools, and we've enjoyed living in town. Still, we've had to pay attention to local culture as we've moved around socially and culturally -- even with kids, and even with a dog. Today's Hidden Mt. Lebanon tip focuses on the most important dimension of that culture: Mt. Lebanon operates on a cultural economy that traffics in one ultimately important commodity: status.
What I mean by "status economy" is that folks (and groups) in Mt. Lebanon have it -- some high, some middle, some lower -- and they are concerned, and sometimes obsessively so, with keeping it, that is, with maintaining its value. Some people work hard at moving up, but in Mt. Lebanon, I think, we have a community composed largely of people who think that they have it and simply want to hold on to it. In economic terms, maintaining your status means keeping the supply relatively low and the price relatively high. Look around at groups in town -- PTAs, athletic associations, political party committees, social networks in various neighborhoods -- and on and on -- and think about how this plays out in terms of who is "in" and who is "not." Who are the status monopolists? (Please, keep your answers to yourselves!) Public communications circulate the accoutrements of status. Mt. Lebanon magazine, for example, doesn't do a lot of investigative journalism. It does do a lot of smiling neighbors and renovated houses.
I've thought about this a lot recently in terms of anxiety expressed on the blog about anonymity. If I speak publicly and by name, goes the argument, then I and/or my family will be punished or ostracized. Some of that fear is specifically tit-for-tat -- if I speak out against the coach, then the coach will sit my kid. Much of it, though, is broader and social -- if I associate my name with an opinion that turns out to be unpopular, then my neighbors will look at me funny. That's the status economy in action. Twice in the last week, in conversations about topics raised on this blog, people speaking to me have used the word "McCarthy-ism" in connection with local pressures to conform. I think that's an overstatement; the pressure to conform socially, and the fear of expressing public criticism, is a status thing. Anxiety about status produces subtle efforts -- and sometimes not so subtle efforts -- to enforce the status quo
Lots of high-end suburbs revolve around status. Mt. Lebanon is a little different from most of them, because the status economy here, as elsewhere in Pittsburgh, has been so static. Mt. Lebanon as a whole, its high status neighborhoods, and high status groups and high status families have been high status for a long, long while. Middle- and lower-status institutions likewise haven't moved much. Some high-end suburbs occupy geographies where lots of people come and lots of people go. The churn of mobility keeps the status economy in motion; no one gets too hung up on the "right" schools, groups, people, clothes, car, or things to say (or not).
Is any of this changing in Mt. Lebanon? Or should it change?
After all, the status economy isn't peculiar to Mt. Lebanon or Pittsburgh; chasing and conserving status is an American thing. As Gene Collier might say
, invoking his least favorite sports cliche, it is what it is.
But as more young families move to town, and as more non-natives move in, there is at least the possibility of reorienting the status economy just a little bit. It is not true that every resident of Mt. Lebanon is status-obsessed, though some who deny that they are status-obsessed are nonetheless active participants in the status economy. And there are those Mt. Lebanites (the leading contender, by the way, though it doesn't have a majority of the votes
) who clearly thumb their noses as the status economy. But change is a more likely option today than perhaps it has ever been. Rich (and sometimes uncomfortable) public discussion of local issues -- social, cultural, political, economic -- helps to loosen status supply and demand. Even Mt. Lebanon magazine, in my view, has read less like a "happy talk" publication in the last two or three years, which I think is a good thing. Social monopolists, like real monopolists, thrive on secrecy and control of information. Population churn brings change. Transparency brings change.
And at the end of the day, that -- change -- is what the local status economy has to confront. Many people of good will don't want Mt. Lebanon to change. It's quite a nice place just the way it is. In many ways, the status quo
is a good and useful thing. But many people -- perhaps a minority, perhaps not -- would like to feel less socially stifled. They would like to see the status quo
shaken -- and stirred. The status economy won't go away. But what happens next, if anything?
Labels: hidden Mt. Lebanon