Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting at Ghost Walk - a test of honesty?


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The Landmark Society's 15th annual Ghost Walk is now history. Well, I guess it's always history, since it's an event where actors portray the darker side of Rochester's past. But I digress.

We welcomed 2,000 participants over the last two weekends of October. As usual, they walked with guides to six different performance areas, where they witnessed an event from Rochester's history brought to life by talented actors. At the end of the tour the guides brought them back to our host facility, Third Presbyterian Church, for donuts and cider. And a social experiment.

We offered a voting activity, based on one of the stories they saw enacted on the tour. Here's the story from the past:

In 1904 a horrific fire in downtown Rochester destroyed the original Sibley, Lindsey and Curr department store (and many other buildings.) Sibley's had been the largest department store between Chicago and New York City - six stories of just about anything your heart desired.

One of the casualties of the event was the "fireproof safe" containing all the store's records. It crashed from the sixth floor to the basement as the interior of the building burned, cracking open as struck the bottom. All the contents were destroyed, including the records of the accounts receivable.

At a time when many sales were extended "on credit" - Sibley's had no way of knowing who owed them what. They knew how much money they were out, but not how to recoup. How could they collect on their bills? It seemed the store was destined for financial ruin.

I was curious to see what kind of response people might have today. As Ghost Walkers enjoyed their cider and donuts, they were presented with the following question:

What would you do if you ordered merchandise from Amazon.com and received it - then read in the newspaper that a virus destroyed their records, and all charges and delivery addresses have disappeared? You have not been charged for the merchandise in your possession.

Would you send in a payment?

Participants voted in an anonymous process - and we tallied the results for each group, and each evening of Ghost Walk.

We then announced the results to each tour group. And those results each night were pretty consistant. We collected over 1,500 votes. About 2/3 of all participants said they would send in a payment.

We did notice that when there was a large youth group in a tour, the numbers would change - with many more voting they would not pay. One of them commented to a Landmark volunteer "Well, if it was a Mom and Pop store that I knew, sure - but Amazon.com? They have a ton of money."

We also then let the tour goers know what happened in 1904. Sibley's was not ruined. The money came in. People paid their bills. In the end, Sibley's estimated that about 90% of what was owed was paid. They were able to use the funds to build a brand new store, in the building many now associate with the former store - near the "liberty pole" sculpture in downtown Rochester.

So - were people in the past more honest than people are today? Or, was it that they felt a connection to this "home town" store?

And what does that all say about the level of honesty in our community, where many shop only online or in anonymous, big-box chain stores?

I think another benefit of liveable communities - with businesses you know, and business owners who know you - is that it contributes to a higher level of trust in our society. It helps us hold ourselves accountable, when we know the names and faces of those with whom we do business. As I write this entry on November 4th, Election Day, it seems to me that a higher level of trust is a very good thing for which to strive.

Think about that the next time you choose between the mega-mart and the locally owned place.

It was an interesting social experiment at Ghost Walk 2008 - which, it turns out, is more than just history.

Posted by Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education - and Ghost Walk producer

3 comments:

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