Like the game that cinched the NBA championship for the Lakers, the after-party Thursday night wasn't pretty. Defying an army-force police presence, crowds tossed bottles, shattered windows, set a cab aflame and refused repeated orders to disperse. Several dozen of them, in a weirdly Los Angeles bit of rebellion, walked onto the 10 Freeway.
On television, the city looked as it has after so many civic adventures: just this side of lawless, the center not quite holding.
It was like a strange echo from the past, occurring 17 years to the day from when crowds along the freeways cheered O.J. Simpson as he evaded police in his nationally televised white Bronco chase. They paid more homage to the ex-football star than to the two people he had just been accused of slaying, just as many in the crowds Thursday paid more respect to willfulness than to basketball prowess.
But in the midst of the post-championship mayhem, there came a reminder that not everything is always what it seems. A mass of fans had begun smashing the windows of a car parked downtown, only to be upbraided by a guy in a Kobe Bryant jersey.
"You ain't from L.A.!" he said. "This is L.A. No burning!"
The incongruous burst of civic pride was telling. For a long while, social scientists measured the love affair between people and place by old-fashioned standards: whether people voted or volunteered or took part in community meetings. Now, it turns out, those might be the worst ways to measure whether people truly care about the place they live.
A better measure for Los Angeles, new research indicates, might well be who cheered for the Lakers — lawfully — or took in the World Cup games in a rowdy bar earlier that same day. A sense of community can come wrapped in team colors.
"These events are important," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
"The reason we're Angelenos is not only do we share that space, but we share what happens in that space, including the sports events.... I think it builds civic identity and, in terms of being part of Los Angeles, it has incredible symbolic and indirect benefits for the fabric of a civic culture."
Guerra may have been a tad biased, since he spoke as he was leaving a restaurant where, cheek by jowl, diners had cheered as Mexico blistered France in a televised World Cup game. But his argument is bolstered by an extensive, nationwide effort by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to figure out what makes some communities gel and others spin apart.
The surprising findings of the Soul of the Community project: It's not the jobs that make people love where they live. It's not the political leadership either. Whether people vote has little or no bearing on whether they are tightly attached to their city or town. What matters are the things that rarely come up in discussions of how to make, or remake, a place: Whether it looks nice and has parks. Whether it embraces different types of people. And whether there are enough social offerings — cultural, entertainment and, yes, sports activities — to give people a sense of belonging.
That was the firm result the first year of the study, two years ago. When the recession hit and pollsters surveyed again last year, they expected that the availability of jobs would become much more important to people. Hardly.
"What we found is that perceptions about the local economy mattered even less, and the top three mattered even more," said Katherine Loflin, the lead consultant for the project, funded by Knight and conducted by Gallup pollsters. Perhaps, she suggested, people who'd lost jobs or canceled out-of-town vacations had a chance to look around and rediscover home. "People had to derive meaning from their communities, outside of the economy, because the economy was no refuge."
The Knight Foundation studied 26 towns and cities where the Knight-Ridder chain once owned newspapers; more than 28,000 people have been surveyed so far, with another year of polling underway. The sole local target was Long Beach, which proved its conclusions: There, in a city perennially buffeted by budget woes and struggling to supply jobs, people loved the place. More than half of residents felt "strongly" that they were proud to live in the city, an expression of vehemence uncommon in polling.
The Knight study found that locales where people felt more attached ultimately had greater economic growth. That may be even more true in the future; the 18- to 34-year-olds on whom all cities rest their futures represent the first modern generation that chooses a home base then finds a job, rather than the reverse. Cities that want to attract them will have to offer more than simply a paycheck.
Loflin said there was almost no correlation between the traditional measurements of civic involvement and how attached people felt to their hometowns. Voters tend to vote wherever they live, she noted, and involvement can just as easily be driven by anger as by contentment.
"Some people get involved because they are unhappy with the place," she said.
The week before last, California once again spurned an election. Only three in 10 California voters bothered to cast ballots — barely two in 10 in Los Angeles County. The temptation was to take that as a measure of utter indifference. But it may make more sense, Guerra said, for people to demonstrate their connections by cheering for a team than by voting.
"The Dodgers are doing well, the Lakers doing well, the local universities in different sports … all of that helps to distract you from the recession, distract you from the mundaneness of everyday work or not having a job," he said. And politics?
"Increasingly, voting is not about shared experiences but about divisiveness, about differences, about wedge issues that divide us instead of unite us," he said. "In politics, it is fear rather than hope that drives elections and campaigns. Whereas in sports, it's always about hope and anticipation."
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.