Emergence of Citizen Resilience in Downtown Back Bay

On March 13, 2012, around 7pm, Back Bay downtown in Boston suffered a sudden power outage. Shoppers on the Newbury Street had to pay with cash because credit cards were no longer working. The subway system was terminated and traffic lights were off. Police force was immediately dispatched to handle traffic control. More than 20,000 residents were affected by the outage, which continued approximately for at least the next 2 days.

Government officials were concerned about the possibilities for violence such as riots and looting. Yet, as this case showed us, citizen resilience emerged. At the press conference held the day after the blackout, Edward F. Davis, Boston Police Commissioner, stated “It’s a real testament to the residents that it didn’t happen. We are very happy with the way things have gone so far. . . . Even the driving has been respectful.’’ [1] Similarly, Mayer Thomas M. Menino, at the same press conference applauded residents for coping well with the power outage. No violence related to the power outage was reported.

Back Bay downtown is a popular neighborhood where local residents, business residents and visitors spend time together. It is a very diverse and complex neighborhood. According to a theory of ‘emergent norm’[2] in crowd dynamics literature, citizen’s collective behavior is decided by emergent norms. Collective behavior can be observed in situations that are unusual such that “redefining the situation, making sense of confusion, is a central activity” (Turner, and Killan, 1987, p. 26). Then, before a crowd takes an action there is an extended period of observing others and scanning environment and then reflecting them on their own thoughts, which become a basis of its own action. In Back Bay’s case, a norm of resilience emerged from the dynamics of crowd in one of the busiest area in Boston. A social order of resiliency emerged.

How did citizen resilience emerge in environments that are composed of diverse groups such as local residents, tourists, and business residents?  How can we understand citizen resiliency in a big city, drawing on crowd dynamics perspective?


[2] Turner, R. and Killian, L. (1987). Collective Behavior (3rd Edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Sherif, M. (1936) The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper.

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