Lodges and lattes

In our last issue, sociologist Theda Skocpol lamented the decline of fraternal organizations in America (“Civic Dissociation,” CW, Summer 2003), saying that such groups appeal to “people from a wide variety of social backgrounds.” Those organizations are still around in Massachusetts, and among the strongest is the Elks, which has 75 lodges in the Bay State.

But in some communities the Internet seems to have taken over the function of bringing neighbors together. We looked at Meetup.com, the Web site that gained much publicity this summer when supporters of presidential candidate Howard Dean used it to pull together volunteers. Meetup isn’t just for politics; it gathers poker players, dachshund owners, wine enthusiasts, and many others. Among urban areas, Boston has the nation’s fourth-highest number of Meetup users. Where do they, well, meet up? Starbucks cafés, for the most part.

Our map indicates which cities and towns host Elks lodges, Starbucks locations, or both. The Elks are especially strong in older cities and towns outside Boston’s immediate orbit. There are just two lodges in Boston but three in Berkshire County (which has less than one- quarter the population) and six in Springfield’s Hampden County. Though not shown on our map, the Eagles (with 24 “aeries”) and the Moose (with 22 lodges) follow a similar geographic pattern.

Municipalities that favor lattes over lodges tend to be more affluent and better-educated communities near Boston (which has 40 Starbucks locations by itself). These include Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, and Wellesley. Whether upscale cafés work as well as fraternal lodges in welcoming people from a “wide variety of social backgrounds” is a matter of opinion.

In some locales, fraternal orders and espresso orders coexist peacefully—most notably along Route 128.

SOURCES: Starbucks Corp. (www.starbucks.com); The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the USA (www.elks.org)