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

Gloria Steinem

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Expressway Isn’t The Only Way

My personal focus in urban studies is transportation, both intra and inter urban.  I am all about alternative transportation, particularly in towns and cities, as my research has led me to believe that there is a fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile.  Nonetheless, I can only promote alternative transportation within the Delaware Valley on a very occasional basis, largely because many localities within it simply have no alternatives; it’s either use a car or stay at home.

There are, however, locations where conditions actually favor alternative transportation, for reasons that range from cost through convenience to health.  One of them is the floodplain of the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia to its northwest.  The utilization of this stretch of land long predates the automobile, and thus the term “alternative transportation.”  People traveled along it in several different ways over the centuries before the invention of the gasoline engine.  In fact, from the dawn of the 20th century to about 1960, it was the automobile that was the alternative transportation along the Schuylkill corridor.  Travel by railroad dominated along this stretch, and had since the middle of the 19th century.

In 1960, the Schuylkill Expressway opened along its full length, connecting Philadelphia to communities along the river’s right bank.  In the same year, the Pennsylvania Railroad cancelled its parallel commuter rail service along the river’s left bank.  The two events are connected by more than a coincidence of dates.  The completion of a highway along the Schuylkill signaled the imminent end for the private railroad companies that used to dominate the route, as passenger use of both of the parallel railroad lines had been declining for years.

In the long run, however, this actually opened up a second inducement to alternative transportation, one that had not been previously considered for the corridor:  bicycles.  Thus, not only are there still two alternative routes to the Schuylkill Expressway, they are utilized today by two very different forms of alternative transportation.  One is the SEPTA Regional Rail line to Norristown, and the other is the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway.  They are very close neighbors, as unlikely as that seems in theory.

Whatever people may think about bicycles and commuter trains, few would consider them within the same concept, let alone link them.  They are about as different as means of transportation can be.  Bicycles are the ultimate in individualism; not only piloted under individual control, but also under individual propulsion.  One can leave according to one’s individual desire, travel at a speed that is individually determined, and go exactly as far as one wishes to go, all in the open air.  It’s great exercise, undertaken largely by people who don’t need it, and who don’t mind wearing distinctly unflattering clothes.

The train, in marked contrast, is group transportation; others decide its schedule and you have to accept it.  You simply sit within a steel cocoon whose course is fixed, traveling at a speed determined by someone else; individual participation is decidedly unwelcome.  Clothing is irrelevant, as is the weather outside, up to a point, although that point is distinctly further along than that for bicycles. 

Of course, contact between the two modes of transportation is to be avoided at all costs, for obvious reasons.  The need to avoid contact between bicycles and trains doesn’t mean they can’t travel close to one another, however, and if you travel along the lower Schuylkill via either means, you can see what I mean.  The route of the Norristown commuter line parallels the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bike Trail, sometimes coming with a few yards of it.  That closeness remains until Norristown, where the train tracks cease but the bike trail continues.

There is no small irony in how two such divergent means of transportation can coexist so well so closely together.  Today these two diametrically opposed means of transportation share their closeness with considerably more grace than did the occupants when both were trains.  The SEPTA Norristown Line follows the track of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown (P.G.&N.) railroad, an early railroad pioneer.  The P.G.&N.’s first runs were between Philadelphia and Germantown (then different locations) and were powered by horses.  A steam engine powered the first trip all the way to Norristown, in 1835.  The P.G.&N. was taken over by the newer, much better financed Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which dropped the Philadelphia part of its name to become the Reading Railroad of considerable memory, and a component of a game of Monopoly to this day.

That second, very close track bed occupied today by the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway is a legacy of the era of unregulated capitalism and the “robber barons.”  The Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad were two of the dominant corporations of the period, and intense competitors.  The “wars” between them were fundamentally financial and legal (well, sort of legal), but when they actually crossed paths—or, in this case, tracks—the ground often took on the look of a real war.  The Reading had dominated traffic along the Schuylkill corridor since taking over the P.G. & N. in 1870.  Then, in the early 1880s, the Pennsylvania decided to mount a direct and very close challenge.  It proposed to construct a line up the Schuylkill River floodplain directly adjacent to that of the Reading.  And so it did, its path hewing closely to the Reading's, with the parallel tracks on occasion coming quite close.  The Pennsylvania’s work was obstructed in every manner that Reading executives could dream up.  Much deception and skullduggery took place, and that was just using the law.  The close proximity of both rights of way led to frequent fights between groups of rival workers.  Eventually, the work was completed, with no actual loss of life recorded, as far as I am aware.


The two train lines could not get along, but today the train and the bicycle most definitely do.  I would even call them friends.   Why?  It’s one of the oldest—and one of the most consistently applied—rules of human behavior:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Advocates of the automobile consider both bicycles and trains to be the enemy, and rightly so.  That alone should make them friends, or at least allies.  Why the animosity?  Because, if you ride either a bicycle or a train to work, or just a portion of either route for recreation, you are not driving your car along the Schuylkill Expressway, consuming gasoline, wearing down tires and counting the days until the next required inspection.  In other words, you are not supporting the automobile companies, the automotive parts industry or the oil industry; you are not consuming at the rate desired by our current culture.  Oh, and you are also not polluting the air.  You are being downright un-American.  Good for you.  I encourage you to utilize either path and means whenever possible (and not just along the Schuylkill), and the next time you are riding along either one, give a silent salute to those traveling along the other.  By avoiding the Expressway you are both doing good, each in your own way.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Norristown Missing Financial Records? The “Good Old Days” Were Worse

People in Norristown—and elsewhere, I’ll bet—are talking about the town’s finances, spurred by two rather unusual events, probably related.  In November of last year, police escorted Finance Director Richard Zawisza out of his office; he has been variously described since as being “on leave,” or “on vacation.”  Then last month came the news that the Municipality of Norristown never received the annual audit reports (required by law) for five years in a row, from 2008 through 2012.  This was discovered by new Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones shortly after he was hired last August.  There is reason to suspect that the two events are connected, because Municipal Council is now paying more to the audit firms that did not complete their reports the first time.   Why?  Because, as Jones admitted, “they never completed those audit reports, through no fault of their own.”

This is disturbing, and has given ammunition to those critical of Norristown municipal administration, particularly because the law surrounding “personnel matters” allows—no, mandates—little release of details to the public.  Municipal critics are right to be concerned; we are talking about the public tax dollars here.  There may be much more to this, or there may not.

What this event should NOT do is add to the already pervasive attitude of suspicion and worst assumptions that permeates the social media today, at least about such small municipalities as Norristown.  This is an all-too common problem, particularly when it is frequently fed horror stories, such as that little town in Florida that seems to have not just practiced corruption, but institutionalized it.  I’ve attacked this concept before, as “the wrong attitude,” arguing that it is simply not justified to believe that things are worse now than they used to be, back in “the good old days.”  People carry around this myth that back then, honest administration kept employment up, taxes low and crime down because we “didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight,” and all the rest of that nostalgic nonsense.  If you think that today’s Norristown has incompetent administrators and Council, let’s return to those “good old days” for a lesson in historical context.

Back in “the good old days” of 1975 (not so very old, but before both Section 8 and Deinstitutionalization, remember?) Norristown’s financial condition was far worse than just some missing audit reports.  Norristown Borough Council, caught between a collapsing tax base and a political refusal to raise taxes, had failed to pass a 1975 budget by January 1 of that year, as required by law.  At the March, 1975 meeting, Councilman William Lessig, who had been appointed chairman of the Finance Committee the previous year, shared with his colleagues some of the singularly unpleasant things he had discovered during his brief tenure.  Running a municipality requires complex and reliable financial records, and Lessig summarized the state of things in Norristown quite succinctly:
  
“In a very short period of time, it became apparent to me that the record keeping procedures employed by the borough fell into one or more of three classifications.  They were either inaccurate, inadequate, or non-existent.”

Mind you, Borough Council had every reason to see the crisis coming, long before it arrived.  Back in April, 1974, Council realized that no Tax Collector’s Report had so far been submitted to it for that year, and resolved to write a letter asking the Borough Tax Collector to please do his job and prepare a report for each monthly meeting.  The May meeting arrived but the Tax Collector’s report didn’t.  Council girded itself and wrote another letter asking for a report by the June meeting.  The June meeting convened, but again, no Tax Collector’s Report.  When pressed, Borough Manager James Coyle stated that he had talked to the Tax Collector by phone, and would send him another letter immediately.  The July meeting convened, only to discover that…wait for it…no report had been prepared.  There is no mention in the Council meeting records whether anyone went so far as to speak to the Tax Collector in person, or to take other such drastic measures in later months, but to wrap up this part of the story, the Norristown Borough Tax Collector did not file a single report for the entire year of 1974.

Councilman Lessig also offered evidence that the Tax Collector’s report was by no means the only problem, and that the problems were anything but new.  Such things should have been reported during the annual audit and, as it turned out, the auditors had done exactly that.  Lessig produced a series of statements by previous auditors that had pointed out the Borough’s lack of even the most basic elements of financial oversight.  In other words, the auditors weren’t at fault this time either.  Here is a brief selection of those statements, going back to 1969 (the even better years, right?):

1969:  We are signing this report under protest.”  The borough had no official competent in the field of finance, the Treasurer had signed blank checks, and the Petty Cash account was “impossible to audit, figures were written over, erased or illegible.”
1973:  The borough kept no books at all for its secondary funds, bank statements were missing, and there were no controls on investments.
1975:  The General Fund, receipts and disbursements, has not been reconciled with the cash in the bank.  In other words the books are not in balance.”  There isn’t any list of delinquent real estate tax receivables for all prior years up to and including 1974.”

I’m not even tempted to make the obvious “the more things change…” reference about this matter, because I believe it would be a rhetorical cheap shot, and unjustified.  The full story behind the missing audit reports and the dismissal of the Finance Director has yet to come out, and given the strict controls over “personnel issues,” it might never.  But unless someone uncovers something rather more substantially wrong than uncompleted audits, there is really no comparing Norristown government today to Norristown government then, in financial matters or on any other subject.  The borough structure of members elected from different wards had long since reduced both Council and administration to competing mini-empires utterly unable to even visualize what was good for the entire town, let alone act on it.  The Mayor had little real power, and the Borough Manager had none (the office was a revolving door for several years, as optimistic managers arrived and frustrated ones left).  The problem was not one of individuals (although many certainly contributed), it was systemic.  In other words, whether it is lack of "vision" or lack of several other characteristics desirable in municipal leaders, those of Norristown today can't hold a candle to those of Norristown yesterday.  Anyone who looks back with nostalgia on “the good old days of Norristown” and includes local government in that rosy remembrance does not know what he or she is talking about.

So, whatever you may feel regarding how today is worse than when you were growing up, try to accept that this "things have been going to hell since [insert your specific favorite here]" is part of the human condition; every generation feels it.  It is not history, and we really must understand and deal with with tendency if we want to know the truth, not some collection of self-serving myths.  Things really have changed, and this one, at least, for the better.
  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Clash of Two Migrations (Seventh in a Series)

     The move to the periphery of our traditional urban areas began with the wealthy, before the Second World War.  It gathered momentum during the late 1940s for reasons already introduced in this series of posts.  Just as it began to be called a “migration,” quite early in its historical arc, it encountered another migration, one both larger and of longer duration.  “Encounter” is not exactly the right word; the two migrations clashed, with results that were both unfortunate and unequal. This clash altered the nature of both migrations, and for the worse.  In an example of opposites repelling, the migration to the suburbs consciously strove to exclude these other migrants from joining them, directing it instead to the urban areas the migrants were vacating.  We are talking about opposite races, of course, white and black.  In the major cities where numbers and density allowed reactions other than flight, those whites who had not joined the migration to the suburbs sought to direct the new black arrivals to some other neighborhood than their own through a variety of tactics, many of them illegal and all of them questionable morality, at the very least.

     This clash was a complex and controversial component of modern American history, and I will spend some time on it.  But before I introduce some specifics, about which most people think they know a lot, I want to establish the deeper context, about which few know anything at all.  There are always levels within reality, and thus within history.  This is an important one.

     The other migration that would so affect that to the crabgrass frontier had begun earlier, encompassed larger numbers spanning a longer period of time and produced such fundamental consequences that scholars refer to it as “The Great Migration.”  The phrase describes the movement of over six million African Americans (voluntarily, this time) out of the South, where the vast majority of their ancestors had been taken generations earlier.  Historians also divide it into two phases (a third, “reverse” phase is underway), with 1940 as the approximate dividing line.

    This migration deserves the appellation “Great,” both for its extent and its close-to-countless results.  At the dawn of the 20th century, over 95% of African Americans were living a rural existence in the “Old South.”  As the greater industrialization of the northern states produced a greater and still greater need for labor, these areas experienced a labor shortage even with the enormous number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe that were arriving at this time.  Thus was born an opportunity for the people who had for long been bound to the land, in one way or another.  They were technically free to move, but the economic slavery of the sharecropping system gave few the means.  The need for labor in the north was so insistent that several of the larger corporations that had already sent representatives into the Southern states to tout the jobs available up north, began to make special arrangements to move northward those who could do the work, even if they could not afford the journey.  The original arrangement—and its original beneficiary—was the Illinois Central Railroad, which welcomed a passenger influx that did not require much improvement of its services.  The railroad brought them up from the Mississippi delta, and Chicago was the original destination for most, but by no means the final destination for all.  The jobs beckoned across the industrial middle and northeast, and these migrants did exactly as America’s migrants have always done and traveled to where the jobs were, settling largely in the cities that hosted industries.  The First World War provided a major impetus; with workers leaving for the army, the need for labor became even more pressing.  When those soldiers returned, of course, those new African American workers discovered a reality about their industrial jobs: “last hired, first fired.”  The fact that they were not white did not exactly hurt, either.

     The Great Depression effectively stemmed the flow of this migration, but only temporarily.  After 1940, rearmament and then war first increased the demands on industry and then removed a great many of the workers needed to meet those demands.  The result was a labor shortage of a much greater dimension than in World War I.  The response came from African Americans and women; we celebrate the latter, as “Rosie The Riveter.”  Greater demand for industrial labor in the North brought greater migration of African Americans from the South, often along new routes.  Whereas some 1.5 million African Americans migrated during the first movement, another 5 million followed during the second.  By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the transformation of the Industrial Belt into the Rust Belt brought the migration to an end.

     The result was profound; by the 1960s almost half of African Americans were living in the northeast and north central regions of the country, and the vast majority of those had settled into the cities.  We all know the result; today, the word “urban” is a euphemism for “black,” particularly when followed by such words as “music” or “culture.”

     This Second Great Migration, occurring as it did during and after the Second World War, neatly overlapped with the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  As a result, each had an effect on the other.  By the end of the war, the Great Migration had added substantial African American components to the industrial workforce, and therefore to the population of those urban areas where industry was concentrated.  They had begun at the lowest levels of work, of course, and had occupied the lowest-quality housing.  Many still did, but others had found opportunities and had seized them, gaining job skills sufficient to propel them into America’s expanding middle class.  Then there were the African American veterans, back from a war where they had suffered discrimination, been forced to join segregated units, and almost uniformly set to performing menial tasks, but where each had made his contribution to the war effort has best he could.  This combination of hard-earned opportunities meant that some descendants of the Great Migration attempted to join the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  In other words, African Americans began to look for ways to leave the pasts that exhibited little good and partake in the new adventure, just as white veterans and those white laborers who had acquired skills and a middle class outlook were doing, at the same time.  The result was, all too often, not pleasant.  The two migrations clashed, fiercely resisting attempts by African Americans to merge them.

     We will return to our focus--our urban areas--when I discuss the initial arrival of African Americans in the better neighborhoods of our cities and town, and the reaction they provoked.  Before that, however, we need to examine the situation out on the crabgrass frontier itself, specifically why the better-off African Americans did not join that migration until well after it was underway.  I other words, when those people I introduced last time--those who would leave because a black family was moving onto their block--did so, why were they so sure that their relocation to the suburbs would be worth the effort?  They clearly would move only to those suburbs where they would encounter no African Americans, and they were able to do just that.  Why will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Poor Bridgeport, So Close To …?

     The people of Mexico have long had a saying that encapsulates their country’s history: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”  I would borrow that approach when speaking of the history of Bridgeport, Pa.  I have no idea as to any theological distance for either Mexico or Bridgeport, but just as Mexico’s history has been heavily influenced by its proximity to the United States, so has Bridgeport’s history been influenced by its proximity to Norristown.  Such geographic closeness has not served Mexico well, nor has the local version been a good thing for Bridgeport.

     Bridgeport became a self-governing borough in 1851; by that date Norristown had been a borough for thirty-nine years, and the seat of Montgomery County for sixty-eight years.  That gave it not only a head start, but also an insurmountable edge over its neighbor across the Schuylkill.  Norristown spurned the Schuylkill Navigation request to build on its bank of the river, so the company built a canal section along the floodplain of what would become the borough of Bridgeport.  The Schuylkill Navigation would contribute half of Bridgeport’s name, but little else.  By considerable contrast, the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad’s arrival in 1835 would begin Norristown’s rapid ascent as a community.

     Bridgeport was not very far behind in establishing its own railroad connection, but the chronological comparison does not reflect the reality of the situation.  The Reading Railroad built its line down the Schuylkill’s right bank, and opened service between Reading and Philadelphia—and thus Bridgeport—in 1839.  Unfortunately for Bridgeport, however, the Reading’s sole focus was on moving coal, not people.  The P.G. & N. to Norristown was a “general cargo” line, and that cargo included people from the very beginning.  Even after the Reading leased the line in 1870 it largely continued the general cargo practice.  On the Reading’s own line people were hardly even considered at first, and servicing them was initially sub-contracted.  Transportation of people never assumed any degree of priority along this line; many Bridgeport residents desiring to travel found that a walk across the DeKalb Street bridge brought them a much more congenial treatment.

     The most serious problems from the nearby presence of Norristown fell on the fundamental institutions any growing community must establish.  Those of both self-government and policing could be underwritten by even a slowly growing population, given the low expectations of the time.  Bridgeport was thus able to establish and maintain the modest level of local government characteristic of the times.  Those private institutions around which an actual community arises and shapes itself, however, proved more difficult to establish.  The local volunteer fire companies are an excellent example.  Bridgeport experienced in full perhaps the most common event to strike the Schuylkill River towns during their industrial heyday: fire.  Pretty much lacking revenue from commerce and, unlike Norristown, obtaining none from the presence of government, Bridgeport lagged badly in establishing a volunteer fire department.  The borough depended on Norristown fire companies for the first forty years of its existence, and beyond that, in truth.  This arrangement pleased no one.  Norristown companies rotated the responsibility for calls from Bridgeport, which caused no little ill will, and occasional claims of failure to respond.  The borough’s first volunteer fire company came into formal existence in 1891.  The volunteer spirit was there from the beginning, but several years passed before it obtained enough equipment to be an effective presence, thus requiring continued assistance from Norristown.  The Goodwill Fire Company, the borough’s second, came into formal existence in 1915, and it too required some years to achieve usefulness. 

     No newspaper ever established itself in Bridgeport and survived for more than a few years.  Bridgeport’s only trolley line was a spur of the Norristown Passenger Railway Company until the Philadelphia and Western Railway built the high bridge across the Schuylkill.  The P&W’s goal was Norristown; Bridgeport received only a stop on the line, which was later closed.

     Perhaps the heaviest, and easily the most obvious, of the many baneful effects  Norristown’s presence inflicted on Bridgeport was that imposed on the borough’s commercial district.  Norristown’s head start was never made up; its commercial sector had become the shopping location of choice for a wide swath of Montgomery County by the time Bridgeport came into existence, by which time the residents of the new borough had already been long-time customers of Main Street, Norristown, for anything more than the necessities of daily life.  The major economic reason to establish a business in Bridgeport was the toll for crossing the DeKalb Street Bridge; it allowed the establishment of small businesses providing items a family needed on a daily basis.  After the bridge was freed in 1884, even those were threatened. 

     A business directory published jointly for Norristown and Bridgeport in 1912 (the year of Norristown’s centennial as a borough) demonstrates the commercial dominance that the larger borough exercised during the “golden years” of both communities.  Every category listed stores in Norristown, but few listed any in Bridgeport.  Among the facts it revealed was that while Norristown possessed thirteen stores selling “Dry and Fancy Goods,” Bridgeport possessed none.  Norristown boasted twelve Furniture Stores, but there were none in Bridgeport.  And the list goes on; category after category lists stores in Norristown, but none in Bridgeport.  The only category that comes as no surprise is that of Lawyers; none had hung out their shingles in Bridgeport, but sixty-nine had done so in Norristown.  It was the county seat, after all.

     Any numerical summation comparing the respective business centers of the two towns would also not reflect how many Bridgeport commercial firms were actually branches of the original Norristown store.  Two prominent examples were Spillane's Five and Ten Cent Store and Daub Hardware.  Both locations of both stores would close, as commercial collapse enveloped both boroughs.

     But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  Simply put, it is doubtful that Norristown still exerts sway of any sort over Bridgeport.  It still possesses the superior transit connections it always has, although considerably diminished in both number and variety.  Little else in Norristown would deter Bridgeport from establishing anything that could be supported by a population of the borough’s size.

     But what should those things be, in this time of stagnation for most of the towns along the Schuylkill River?  Industry has pretty much gone, and it’s not coming back, at least in a size sufficient to employ more than a fraction of the borough’s residents.  A commercial resurgence is even more unlikely, because for Bridgeport, the burden of nearness to a larger, more prosperous neighbor has merely shifted from north of the borough to south of it.  Bridgeport is now “so close to King of Prussia,” that any plans for commercial resurgence should be given a very close reading.

     Let’s examine Bridgeport’s situation through a broad historical lens.  In the early 21st century, Bridgeport is enduring, as are countless small, traditional urban areas, the complete reversal of the conditions that led to its birth, growth and prosperity in the 19th century.  The residents of Bridgeport, as with those of each Schuylkill River town, found work, religion, information and entertainment, the whole package but for big-ticket items, within the boundaries of their respective communities.  As a result, each town along the Schuylkill River has historically been inwardly-focused.  The vast majority of residents not only worked within the borough, they walked to work, to church and to the store.  Bridgeport’s residents were no doubt patrons of commercial entertainment across the river, as Norristown possessed several such venues, but as with every river town, Bridgeport’s entertainment centered on the community’s churches.

     Not only have those things changed, most of them have changed a full 180 degrees.  At the dawn of the 21st century, what percentage of Bridgeport residents work in the borough?  How many walk to work, to shop, or even to church?  In this information age, do they even socialize in large groups at all?  Most significantly, the looming presence of Norristown is no longer a factor, because Norristown no longer looms.  Bridgeport is now, for the first time in its existence, free to pursue its future without significant reference to Norristown, and certainly no deference.  Bridgeport has a past as a quiet, unassuming, modestly-sized and locally-oriented community, but that past is no longer a guide for the future.

     For Bridgeport, the fundamental physical facts remain: it's a small urban area on a hillside with decent, if not exactly adjacent, transportation connections.  The housing stock is old, but there are several vacant lots and even areas.  The railroad remains a presence, but not a stimulus, and the western end of town will probably remain under the shadow of the SEPTA Route 100 trolley for some time.  Little else about the past need shape Bridgeport's future.  The borough's population, and pretty much that alone, holds Bridgeport's fate in its hands.  They should take advantage of the opportunity.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Did They Build The Schuylkill Expressway?

     In an earlier post, I suggested that there are usually more fundamental reasons why something is done than those which dominate the publicity about it at the time, particularly when that something involves spending a substantial amount of the public’s money.  My example was the “Pottstown Expressway,” a concluding link in the network of limited-access highways that have combined to relocate the economic core of Southeastern Pennsylvania from Philadelphia to King of Prussia.  The fundamental reason for spending all that money to build the road—as far as the general public was concerned—was to throw a lifeline to beleaguered Pottstown; hence the name.  I had the temerity to suggest however, that the underlying and unspoken reason for the highway’s construction (not to mention its exact route) was to “develop” the stretch of land over which the new highway would be built, with any benefit to Pottstown appreciated, but by no means necessary.

     As I said then, there was nothing new about this.  To demonstrate both the principle and to take it to a different—and more fundamental—level, I return to the days of the very first one of these limited-access highways and ask the same question: why did they build the Schuylkill Expressway?

    The idea of such a highway originated in the 1930s as a means for automobiles to drive into and out of Philadelphia more easily than was possible at the time.  It was termed the “Valley Forge Parkway,” and was to connect Philadelphia (actually Fairmont Park) with Valley Forge Park.  Its design was modeled on the parkways Robert Moses built to connect New York City with its immediate environs.  Like the roads built by Moses, the Philadelphia Parkway was to be for automobiles only; no trucks allowed.  It was an entrancing idea, but never anything more.

     The opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940 between Irwin in the west and Carlisle in the east changed everything, and is the true origin of the Schuylkill Expressway.  Its immediate—and overwhelming—success quickly spurred plans to extend it in both directions.  World War II put that idea on hold, but by war’s end engineers and road builders were straining at the bit to get underway. The two extensions were approved, with the eastern one to proceed from Carlisle to a new terminus amid the bucolic countryside of Upper Merion Township known  (only locally) as “King of Prussia.”

     The economic movers and shakers of Philadelphia viewed this eastward march of the Turnpike with great interest.  They realized that the Pennsylvania Turnpike would finally realize the ancient goal of Pennsylvania’s leaders, one that dates back to William Penn: to connect the western and eastern ends of the Commonwealth so that commerce might flow between them, and in particular to the port of Philadelphia.  The history of Pennsylvania is replete with attempts to accomplish this, all failures until the Reading Railroad, and even it was forced to follow a very circuitous route.

     A significant component of this long-abiding dream is rooted in the competition between Philadelphia and New York City that began in colonial times.  The epic struggle between these two ports for economic supremacy on the eastern seaboard was quite a battle, fought out over a great many rounds spanning two centuries, but for Philadelphia, most of those were rear-guard actions; the winner had been decided quite early.  One huge thing that continued to stick in Philadelphia’s collective craw after all these years was the memory of how Philadelphia had won all of the early rounds of this battle, only to lose the war.

    New York was a decidedly inferior city to Philadelphia, in virtually every manner of measurement, from early colonial times until after 1825.  In that year the Erie Canal opened a connection between New York City and the fertile lands west of the Appalachians, and the riches of a rapidly developing hinterland quickly began to funnel increasingly through New York, not Philadelphia.  Pennsylvania’s attempt to breach the Appalachians—the “Main Line of Public Works”—failed, and Philadelphia sank into an economic status permanently below that of New York.

     But even post-World War II Philadelphians possessed an intense, if resigned, view not just of their city’s history, but of its superior-turned-inferior relationship to New York City, the much bigger apple at the other end of New Jersey.  That is why the approach of the Turnpike so interested them.  Why, they reasoned, should we not make every effort to encourage that new traffic to terminate in Philadelphia, instead of New York City? 

     There were two sound reasons for making this argument: the two roads travelers would encounter after they exited at King of Prussia.  In 1950, arrivals at the new eastern terminus of the turnpike, whether commercial or private, would have had basically two choices once they left that modern marvel of concrete.  They could use U.S. Route 202 to go north to New York City, or Pa. Route 23 to go east to Philadelphia.  Neither was an appealing choice from a purely logistical standpoint, compared to the road that all confronted by this choice had just traversed.  In 1950, U.S. Route 202 was a two-lane asphalt roadway for most of its length to New York, bristling (okay, relatively so, compared to today) with grade-level intersections and stop signs.  The journey to Philadelphia via Pa. Route 23 was considerably shorter, but the road itself was worse, utterly inadequate for many cars of that era, let alone trucks.  What if Philadelphia provided a modern, limited-access highway connection from the turnpike terminus into the heart of the city?  And not a parkway, of course, but a limited-access highway open to commercial traffic as well?  Would that not perhaps change the financial calculation of some manufacturing and shipping firms about the benefits of doing business in Philadelphia?

     Mind you, nobody actually believed that connecting to the Turnpike would reverse the economic fortunes of a century and a half, but neither did they want to send any potential traffic to New York by default if they could help it.  This desire to send to Philadelphia, not New York City, the cross-state traffic that the city’s economic and political elite expected would arrive at the new eastern terminus of the Turnpike lies at the very foundation of the 1947 decision to build the Schuylkill Expressway.

     This lingering sense of economic competition was also the foundation on which support for such an expensive undertaking was built.  To actually build such a highway its advocates needed to sell the concept to a much wider audience than the local lords of commerce, so they did.  The good thing about the economic competition with New York City part was that like most foundations, it was largely out of sight.  No one had to make the historical/commercial argument publicly, beyond mutually understood comments over lunch at the Rotary Club or dinner at the Chamber of Commerce (those are plural references, the economic benefit was widely understood).  Everyone could concentrate on making the case of the Schuylkill Expressway as the greater good for the greater number, a much more popular approach.  This wasn’t all crass hype; the steadily swelling residential suburbs on the periphery of Philadelphia were already an understood factor, as was frustration with the local roads.  The latter was expected to reach a crisis point once the Turnpike extension opened.  And so, the decision was made to build.

    Enough time has passed to obscure the local motivational components surrounding the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway, the deals and understandings that no doubt populated the decisions to locate what where, particularly those all-important on-off ramps.  We are left with the broader and quite persistent issues of the Expressway's effect on Philadelphia and of its future in regional transportation planning.  The Schuylkill Expressway did not quite contribute to the economic rebirth of Philadelphia after its completion in 1960, because no such rebirth took place.  Highways encourage travel in both directions, regardless of the wishes of the planners who conceive them.  The Schuylkill Expressway, designed to funnel vehicles and products into Philadelphia, proved to be a major artery by which wealth and capital flowed out of it instead.  Whatever threat U.S. Route 202 may have posed to directing vehicles and products into Philadelphia has long since been rendered irrelevant by a multiplicity of limited-access highways that do not direct commercial and individual traffic into Philadelphia as much as allow such traffic to avoid the city altogether.  So, on the subject of the Schuylkill Expressway, are we talking success, failure, or what?