"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, January 5, 2018

From Alabama to Norristown, Pa., It’s Called “Parochialism”

I’m going to begin the new year with an old subject, which reared its ugly head again last month, in a minor Facebook kerfluffle.  The posting an article about the progress of Norristown’s Lafayette Street Project initiated the discussion.  I support the project, and have made that clear in previous posts [3/11/16, 4/8/16, 1/6/17].  I replied to some people who were disparaging it, and things took off from there.  I thought we would be discussing the merits—or lack of them—of the project, but I was wrong.  It turns out they weren’t objecting to my position, but my right to have an opinion in the first place.  I don’t live in Norristown, you see, so why should anyone listen to what I have to say?

I identified this “we don’t need no outsiders telling us what to do” feeling as “parochialism,” and warned against it.  Further comments typical of Facebook discussions followed, but one correspondent—to his great credit—elevated the discussion by addressing my application of “parochialism” to the situation.  Taking me on directly, he argued that:

"Parochialism " isnt always a bad thing. It's a perfectly normal human response , best crystallized in the family unit It creates a defense against wolves, effetes, and self serving charlatans. [1] After 43 years in Norristown I think a return to rugged parochialism, exemplified by some of [name removed] and [name removed]'s comments, may be the only thing left to save it.”

While I certainly agree that the family unit possesses internal defenses against predatory outsiders, I’ve never heard that described as “parochialism.”  Of course, I’m a “language Nazi,” because I believe that both the proper words and proper grammar should be used in verbal or written conversation (It’s an old-fashioned belief, I know, but that’s because I’m old), so I have to take issue with this application of the word. 

When I called the automatic rejection of an opinion because the author doesn’t live in your community “parochialism,” I was employing the definition Oxford Dictionaries offers: “a limited or narrow outlook, especially focused on a local area; narrow-mindedness.  If that makes me an “effete,” then let me also offer that I like the Wikipedia version:  "Parochialism is the state of mind, whereby one focuses on small sections of an issue rather than considering its wider context."

Parochialism is not an ideology, or even a belief.  It’s an instinct, hard-wired into the non-rational depths of the human brain.  The brilliant Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, identifies both the source and the nature of “parochialism”:

Evolution has made Homo Sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature.  Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’.  We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs.  We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them.  We are always distinct from them, and owe them nothing.  We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota about what happens in their territory.” 

I have several problems with parochialism, and one of them follows from the fact that it is, as Harari points out, an instinct, a legacy of our eons spent in small bands of hunter-gatherers.  In today’s interlocked and interdependent world, such ancient instincts are almost always counterproductive.  Appeals to ancient instincts are not based on issues or positions, they are purely tactics, intended to evoke a deep instinct to oppose something—or someone—for no rational reason.  They abound, and exist within every town, township, or other political entity. 

As I have a fresh and vivid opportunity to demonstrate just how pernicious an appeal to parochialism can become, I’m going to use it: Alabama.  The recent election offered a fresh lesson in how a basic human instinct can be perverted to buttress an ignoble cause.  When the Moore campaign could not refute the charges against him, they appealed to parochialism, decrying the opinions of “outsiders.”  They did so because appeals to parochialism evoke a powerful instinct, and not just in the South.  Appeals to parochialism usually are successful; the Moore campaign failed only because of the heinousness of the issue they were trying to obfuscate.  Trump was considerably more successful.

Now please don’t confuse things by saying that I am “comparing Norristown to Alabama.”  I’m not; I’m talking about parochialism.  Alabama and Norristown possess toolkits that are miles apart, but parochialism is the same tool, and is found in both.  That’s because parochialism can have a continuum of possibilities; Alabama is just one on the extreme end of the continuum. 

Besides, condemnations of everyone in any political entity are unjustified.  Alabama just demonstrated that.  Norristown can too, and must.  The resources Norristown possesses are not, by themselves, sufficient to make headway in a world that has changed so much since the glory days of the Schuylkill River towns. 

Take a look at a local map and you will see what I mean.  Southeastern Pennsylvania possesses one of the most extensive and interlocking systems of limited-access highways in the United States.  Norristown appears to sit right in the middle, accessible from everywhere.  In fact it is accessible from nowhere.  It has no connection to any of these highways.  Did you know that was deliberate?  In the early 1950s, when the Turnpike was first making its way eastward, PennDOT planned an interchange at the east end of town.  Virtually everyone in Norristown opposed this, even sending delegations to Harrisburg to fight it.  Norristown was doing just fine by itself, connecting to outsiders would only ruin downtown.  PENNDoT listened, and the Interchange was moved to its present location well east of town.  As a result, for the last sixty years, everyone taking the “Norristown Exit” has discovered it doesn’t lead to Norristown.

Nothing else does either, and downtown is long dead.  The Lafayette Street Project thus offers Norristown what it has been missing for decades, a connection that makes Norristown accessible to outsiders.  That’s a lesson from history, when Norristown felt itself strong enough to prosper by itself, without any connection to outsiders.  Norristown was wrong, and the results are obvious.

Parochialism helped to destroy Norristown’s prosperity.  I’m not exactly sure what my correspondent meant by “rugged parochialism,” as I have never seen those two words linked before.  He’s onto something however, because Norristown’s decades-long period demonstrating the negative results of parochialism has been rugged indeed.

So put your focus on the Lafayette Street project, where it belongs, and put aside irrelevant distractions offered by the habitual nay-sayers.  What does it offer?  What are its downsides?  Can it become part of and contribute to a broader program for Norristown revival?  These are the questions that should matter, the important ones.  Then continue to apply that approach to other issues.  Reject parochialism.

[1] Hm, you don’t suppose…?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Wishing You A Happy "America First" Christmas!

I don't do "political posts."  I do, however, make my positions on certain subjects clear, without regard for the political sensitivities of my readers, because I address the history of these subjects, and the truth they possess, which, despite the Internet, can still be determined through objective study.  But hey, it's the holiday season, so I'm going to structure my holiday greetings according to the new national standard.  Besides, I get to address my running topic at the same time, so it's a win-win.

This new America First attitude has been a goldmine for all lovers of historical irony.  I have spent the past year, with but a few exceptions, addressing the issue of IMMIGRATION.  This past year has been a perfect illustration of why I named my blog “The More Things Change…”  I have had opportunities to point out some of the disturbing similarities between anti-Hispanic immigrant attitudes today and anti-Italian immigrant attitudes a century ago.  I’ve also mentioned my distress when I see people of obvious Italian, Irish, German, Polish (or whatever) extraction using the same arguments against the newcomers as were used against their own ancestors.  I, who am without ethnicity, have watched inter-ethnic infighting take over the question of immigration.  Today, that’s what many people are actually talking about.  When they speak of immigrants, they mean "people who are different from us."

As a historian, I am also saddened by this debasing of our appreciation of the immigrant experience in general.  Our ancestors from northern and western Europe were fleeing oppression and violence, seeking freedom and a new life.  When the Irish, the Germans and then the Italians began to arrive, problems resulted.  Eventually, most of these later immigrants came to be considered as “Americans,” which meant—somewhat post facto--that their ancestors also came here for freedom and a new life.  Today, the descendants of this flood of immigrants denigrate the herculean efforts made to come to America, claiming that these new immigrants are only coming here for “free stuff.”

The third component of this Terrible Trifecta is the fact that so-called “Christians” are spearheading the America First movement.  I find considerable conflict between Scripture and America First, but it seems that those holding power in Washington do not.

Christianity's holiest season is upon us, so it seemed only fitting that I employ Christmas to address the immigration issue in my December post.  I decided to get with the program and try to envision what a celebration of the birth of Christ that is in keeping with the America First approach might look like.  Of course, I went on the Internet and found that someone already had.  I saw the image below at least third-hand, and cannot credit its creator, sorry.

So here's to those of you who celebrate your immigrant history while simultaneously denying the ability of others to earn what is yours by birthright; you who employ THE VERY SAME arguments against newcomers that were used against your ancestors; those who see immigrants as rejecting our values, speaking strange languages, believing in false religions, determined to steal jobs from Americans, and in general "foreign."  You are proving that "The more things change..." and thus validating the existence of this blog.

Thank you, and “Merry Christmas” (I’m so glad I’m allowed to say it now!)

Friday, November 3, 2017

Does Opposing Columbus Day Mean Erasing Local History?

It’s time to return to my series on immigration, and spending Columbus Day last month in San Francisco provided an interesting prism through which to view the conflicting images of Christopher Columbus that co-exist in the U.S.  I followed the ceremonies at Norristown’s newly-refurbished Columbus Monument as well; together, these two celebrations say a great deal about contesting ideals in American society, but nothing about Columbus himself.  At the end of this post, I’m going to ask a few questions of my readers who live in the towns along the lower Schuylkill (and, of course, anyone else who wishes to comment), about my take on this subject.
I began my series on immigration by focusing on Italians, and then was moved to discuss the image of Columbus among Italian-Americans by my friend Hank Cisco, himself a long-time activist for Italians in his home, Norristown, Pa.  He sent me a group email with a link to an article in the Italian American Herald.com, that asked the question “Columbus Being Pushed out of the Picture in America?”  This opened a door—an ethnic one—through which I had not before passed.  My post of 5/5/17 was a response.  I confessed my inability to see anything through an ethnic lens, and the fact that I, along with most of my generation, was taught to view Columbus as the vanguard of Europe’s “civilizing” efforts in the Western Hemisphere, not as an Italian here, per se.  I had seriously underestimated the significance of Columbus to Italian-Americans specifically.
Norristown’s Columbus Day Celebration appears—based on local media coverage—to have focused on the Italian aspect of the legacy of Columbus, as it has from the beginning.  State Representative Kate Harper was quoted as saying, “In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day as a national holiday and today we credit Christopher Columbus with Italians’ immigration to the New World and what is now Pennsylvania….Currently there are 17 million Americans of Italian heritage in the United States and 1.4 Americans of Italian heritage right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Italian Americans have become one of the commonwealth’s most influential ethnic groups, with deep roots in religion, politics, arts, science, law and economic and social institutions.”  
Given the strength of the Italian-American presence in Pennsylvania, such a focus makes perfect sense.  There are several chapters of the Knights of Columbus in the lower Schuylkill Valley, in Pottstown, Conshohocken and Phoenixville (which also serves Royersford and Spring City), not to mention those just outside the Schuylkill Valley itself.  
But now let’s jump across almost the entire country, to the west coast, on the Pacific Ocean, specifically the City of San Francisco.  There, on a beautiful site near the famous Coit Tower stands a thirty-foot tall statue of Columbus, proudly gazing out over a bay of an ocean he never sailed on.  The statue itself only dates back to 1957, but San Francisco has hosted celebrations and a parade honoring Columbus since 1869.
Considering that Columbus never even set foot on the east coast of the American continent, let alone the west coast, what is a statue of him doing overlooking the west coast?  The answer to that is simple, and revealing.  In fact, it’s the very same reason that the Columbus monument exists in Norristown, Pa.; just the specific names and dates are different.
American education has long emphasized Columbus as the symbol of Western Civilization’s spreading over the North American continent, but Italian Americans have been taking concrete (and stone and steel) action to give his persona a direct contact with city and town residents for quite some time.  The inscription on the SF Columbus Monument reads, in part, “presented to the people of San Francisco by the Columbus Monument Committee, with grateful acknowledgement to [local donors].”  Local donors in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania funded the 1992 monument (a campaign directed by Hank Cisco), and its quarter-century restoration this year.
The construction of Norristown’s original Columbus Monument, in 1926, can symbolize the others that date back to that period.  When Italians found themselves the focus of anti-foreigner hysteria during this period, such statues were symbols of the fight against this discrimination.  As historian Christopher J. Kauffman wrote, "Italian Americans grounded legitimacy in a pluralistic society by focusing on the Genoese explorer as a central figure in their sense of peoplehood."  In the process, their message also linked the Italian Christopher Columbus with the “civilizing” history of the American continent. 
They were successful; while the 1920s had seen anti-Italian immigrant legislation passed by Congress, in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a National Holiday.  And the process still continues, to this day.  The town of Southington, Connecticut installed a statue of Columbus (locally funded, but not by the government) on Columbus Day this past month. 
But things have also changed.  By 1994, San Francisco’s Columbus Day Parade had evolved into the Italian Heritage Parade, in an effort to “celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans and their heritage,” in the words of the city’s Human Rights Commission.  The City of San Francisco still celebrates Columbus Day, but the School District does not.  I suspect that’s because the young Italian-Americans of San Francisco are far outnumbered by the descendants of those who have little reason to revere Columbus.  Even the dedication of that Columbus statue in Southington, Connecticut was met with protests this past October. 
Here’s the nub of the argument: does being anti-Columbus mean being anti-Italian, even indirectly, because you desire to end the celebration of Columbus Day?  I quoted the Italian American Herald in my 5/5/17 post as saying,Part of preserving is protecting and slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day, a holiday near and dear to Italian Americans.”  I wasn’t sure about this argument back then, and observed, “The statement’s phraseology demonstrates, but does not take into account the uniquely bifurcated nature of Columbus Day...”
What I do believe is that those opposing the celebration of Columbus are doing so to protest the core message, the “civilizing” of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans.  The fact that Columbus was Italian is irrelevant; he could have been Greek for all they care.  Yet he was Italian (or, at least, from a portion of what would become "Italy" almost 400 years later), and celebrating him has been a component of Italian-American culture for many decades.  Christopher Columbus the explorer has absolutely no connection to San Francisco, California, Southington Connecticut, or Norristown, Pennsylvania, but Columbus the symbol of Italian pride has a connection wherever communities of Italians have established themselves.  Sometimes symbols are needed.
So here’s my questions to my readers, particularly those of Italian heritage.  Does opposition to Columbus monuments constitute the erasure of local ethnic history?  Can Columbus the Italian be divorced from Columbus the symbol of European Colonization?  Can he be celebrated in some communities while being reviled in others?

Everyone is invited to respond, of course, but I freely confess my desire for opinions from those with an ethnic connection, because they are more likely to diverge from my own.

And for those of you who would like to ponder a deeper question in all this, here’s one: As America slowly evolves into a multi-racial society, what is the future, not just of Columbus Day, but of the European arrival and takeover as a “civilizing mission” component of American history?

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Bike Trail Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Port Indian

Last month, I wrote in support of the Chester Valley Trail’s being routed through Bridgeport, Pa., and across the Schuylkill River to join the Schuylkill Valley Trail in Norristown.  I termed the proposal “exciting,” and said it “offers a great deal of potential.”  I haven’t ridden a bicycle for a great many years, but I know that bike/walking trails can deliver benefits to a community, and I know this from personal experience.  Every community’s experience differs, but I will take this opportunity to relate how one community benefitted enormously.  I know because I was there as it happened.
Just upriver from Bridgeport, on the opposite bank of the Schuylkill River, lies the community of Port Indian.  I lived there for thirty-six years, and I can state, without fear of contradiction, that the adjacent bike trail is the best thing that ever happened to Port Indian.  I don’t expect that to be replicated elsewhere, and certainly not in Bridgeport, but if you’re looking for an actual success story, the one I am about to tell is hard to beat.
Port Indian encompasses a stretch of land in West Norriton Township, bounded by the Schuylkill River on one side and the old, elevated, Pennsylvania Railroad embankment on the other.  The name is an entirely unofficial designation for those homes accessed by East and West Indian Lane.  Both roads predate township regulations, and thus were never formally accepted by the Township.  That makes Port Indian a “private community,” which basically means that the Township is not responsible for anything, from streetlights to street paving.  A Civic Association arranges these things, and must raise the money to pay for them.
Every property in Port Indian has a riverfront; all Port Indian residents live along—and, on occasion, in—the river itself.  Let me also testify to the beauty and serenity life in Port Indian offers, before I move on to that “on occasion, in” bit. 
The Schuylkill River often floods Port Indian; the only question is “how high?  The east end of East Indian Lane is high enough to be safe, but all of West Indian and a portion of East Indian Lane lie at a low level.  This stretch, a solid majority of the properties, floods frequently.  This fact has always made “how to get out quickly” important to each resident.
The key to the problem is this: the only ingress/egress road to the low-lying areas passes under a double-arched stone bridge, part of the railroad embankment.  One arch goes over Indian Creek and the other over the access road.  This presents two problems.  First, there is no clearance under the arch for vehicles of any height.  This kept such vehicles as trash trucks from passing under the bridge.  They had to exit the road, ford Indian Creek, and then climb up the opposite bank.  And then repeat the process in reverse on the way back, of course.
Much more important however, is the fact that the access road below the arch is the lowest point in the entire community.  In other words, the only escape route for the vast majority of residents floods first, before the rest of the road. 
The combination of difficult access/escape and periodic floods combined to make Port Indian largely a “summer community.”  That is being polite.  Township locals referred to it as “Dogpatch.”  For a long time, water-warped shacks served by wells and outhouses were prevalent.  But in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, a new generation of residents began to live there year-round, and thus had to address the community’s physical issues.  Several improvements were made, but the issue of ingress/egress remained unsolved. 
Then came what was known back then as the “Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway,” coming up the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia.  It utilized the old Pennsylvania track bed, ripping up rails, then grading and asphalting a smooth path.  Its initial goal was Valley Forge, which meant it would use the embankment that bordered our community. 
The project was initially met with hostility by every township through which it passed and every community that lay anywhere near it.  As the bikepath neared Norristown, Port Indian residents began to pay attention, as the path passes very close to many houses.  Some were opposed, citing dangers of increased trespassing and theft, just as those downriver had.  But some of us, mindful that we actually had no leverage at all, argued for a different approach.  Let’s welcome the bikeway, we said, and see what we can get them to do for us.  I made the initial approach, to John Wood of the County Planning Commission, and was well-received.  They were pleased—and initially astonished—that a nearby community would actually welcome the bike trail.
These talks produced just what we needed: an elevated access/escape route for our residents.  If you use the trail in this area, you will notice that beginning at the large lot on one side of Indian Creek and extending about one-third down West Indian Lane, the path is much wider than normal.  That was done to benefit Port Indian, to accommodate our vehicles.  We received permission to utilize the bike trail, including the narrower stretch further upriver, for flood evacuation.  We, in turn, built a new approach ramp to the wider section, from what is relatively high ground.  Now, for the first time in its history, residents of Port Indian don’t lose their escape route first.  And that widened stretch of road is now used by trash vehicles, which are now too large to even consider fording the creek.
The buildings in Port Indian used to be water-sodden shacks; today, new residents hire architects to design their homes.  Those who have seen the process through have largely elevated their homes.  Property values have risen a great deal (no one is making waterfront properties these days), and Port Indian has become a desired community to live in.
To be fair, I must admit that trespassing and theft has increased in the community.  What is now the Schuylkill Valley Trail offers miscreants quick access and escape, no doubt about it.  Measured against the gains, however, there is no question that the bikepath is the best thing that ever happened to Port Indian.

The same is not going to be said of Bridgeport, because it can’t.  The two situations are not analogous.  Port Indian also knew what it stood to gain, and kept focused on that.  Bridgeport doesn’t know, and I don’t either.  But that’s the thing about opportunity; it tends to be vague and uncertain.  Given Bridgeport’s post-WWII history and current condition, an opportunity to connect to an emerging and popular transportation network should be seized.  Find a way to do it.