Whether in admiring ways (from Tocqueville to Frank Capra) or disparaging / mocking (from Babbitt onward), observers of America have marveled at the informal organizational fabric that held this disparate country together. Elks and Rotary, volunteer fire departments and Junior League, Cub Scouts and Brownies, PTA and library board, neighborhood sports, of course religious organizations—these all typified and governed America as much as its formal governing structures.
Over the past 20 years, Robert Putnam has been the best-known exponent of the idea that this essential fabric has atrophied. First in 1995 in the Journal of Democracy and then five years later in the book Bowling Alone, Putnam argued that America had become a group of atomized, dis-connected individuals who owed nothing to one another and had become a crowd rather than a society.
As Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have traveled around through our American Futures journeys, we haven't been conducting anything like a systematic test of the "Bowling Alone" view. But we have very definitely seen, been impressed by, and written about some of those same informal organizations that have struck observers over the years.
Earlier this year, Deb wrote about one such institution: the YMCA in Redlands, California. Today she describes another: the Parkettes gymnastics training center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, that has prepared an outsized number of America's leading young gymnasts and that also has an important role in the town. You can read about it here, "Vaulting to Great Heights in Allentown," and get a sample glimpse below. These young ladies are certainly not vaulting alone.