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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, August 21, 2015

When Did Phoenixville’s Renaissance Begin?

Last week’s guest post by Shannon Mannon of Activate Phoenixville Area (APA) proved to be very popular.  In fact, it’s my most viewed post to date.  That is understandable, because Shannon’s love for and commitment to Phoenixville shone clearly.  Her essay was truly a “love letter.”  Shannon’s essay offered several threads to pursue, but as a historian, I have to start with one that is critical to addressing the question “why Phoenixville?”: when did the borough’s renaissance begin?

“When did [insert your subject here] begin?” is one of the most debated questions in historical inquiry.  The result is always disagreement as to the “correct” answer.  There is no consensus definition of “began,” either, even when you have major events and convenient dates.  The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and we went to war.  Okay, but that war had begun in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, right?  Yes, but the Japanese invaded China several years before that, and it was the Japanese who got us into the war, so shouldn’t their invasion of China count?  And what about Germany and Italy making sure Spain would be at least neutral during the same period?  If this is the way it is with such easily definable—and infinitely discussed—events, what about those of less fame and considerably less analysis?

I deal with the question of when something “began” in my first book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.  When did Norristown’s classic American Main Street downtown begin to decline?  Here’s a hint:  sooner than you think!  I can back up my claim with statistics, but how about when the decline ended?  No so easy, but I think I make a good case.

Still, other—and conflicting—cases could be made.  This is largely because life—and therefore time—is a continuum, a heterogeneous unity where every part differs from every other part, but in such subtle gradations that no boundaries exist within the unity itself.  The corollary is that ALL such boundaries are both arbitrary and imaginary.  Yet without boundaries and categories, all you would have is “hippie history,” where “everything’s like everything, man.”  That would be no help to anyone at all.  So we establish all sorts of groupings of reality’s elements, because we need to.  We talk about them, promote them, disagree over them, but in the final analysis we should understand that they are all imaginary while we continue to employ them.  Unfortunately, there are few concepts harder to keep in mind.  I offer our current political discourse as an example.

Historians, as you might expect, tend to give the “roots” of an event much attention.  You must look at the period before it became obvious that something was going on if you want to know why it is going on.  The result within our profession is that not only do we dispute the time when something “began,” we also dispute what ”began” actually means.  As a result, that arbitrary and imaginary date when something “began” gets pushed back further and further. 

As we collectively understand history better, we appreciate the minute but inexorable pace of “change.”  Pretty much everyone else settles for easily definable “periods” with exact dates for boundaries.  The terms of presidents has pretty much replaced the reigns of kings for such purposes, but the change in very few of either actually signifies much.      

Phoenixville could prove to be an excellent example of disagreement over when it renaissance “began.”  Shannon referred to 2003, as “decidedly pre-renaissance”.  But it’s not that simple, and Shannon came to understand that.  In her words,

But the bones were all there – a walkable downtown, a diverse population, an intimate small town feel in close proximity to Philadelphia and the bigger suburbs….As a new Phoenixville transplant, what I hadn’t yet learned, was the community underground of leaders who had been working for decades to poise our community for the explosion in growth / engagement we benefit from today…. the founding parents of Phoenixville, who stuck around after the mill closed, jobs were lost, and decades of pain, and darkness ensued. How these visionaries lit a flame of hope, and fanned it with their belief that this Phoenix would rise again from the ashes. Painstaking project by project, committee meeting by committee meeting, these heroes built up the foundation our community to poise it to rise greater than before.”

Here’s a question: might those “founding parents” who endured the hard times have a different idea as to what constitutes the beginning of “revival” than someone who had recently arrived?  They have a very different perspective, after all.  I suspect they might they date its beginning before 2003, but I am sure they could not all agree on any one year.

Could statistics—population trends, borough issued building permits, tax receipts and the like—help to answer this question?  Tangible results may offer a date (or more likely, a date range) that things began to coalesce, at least among those components that can be calculated.  Yet we must remember that tangible and measureable results only appear after several components have already coalesced.  People had indeed worked for decades prior to 2003 to revive Phoenixville.  That makes those positive economic indicators an example of results, not causes.  They thus have limited usefulness in answering that all-important question “WHY?”

Let’s return to the question of perspective.  Even after statistical analysis had identified the date (range) when categories turned positive, wouldn’t something like “when Phoenixville’s renaissance began” ultimately be determined by your perspective anyway?  If we consider statistics as results, or at least only a partial answer, then we need to identify those less quantifiable but still necessary other components.

I believe that’s where the long-time residents can add a great deal to our discourse.  I would love to know when those hometown heroes—the ones who “stuck around”—think Phoenixville’s renaissance began. If you qualify as an “old time” resident (and I will let you define what that means), then chime in with your opinion, regardless of length; take as long as you need.  You can either comment on this blog, or email me directly at: mike@michaeltolle.com

Either way, you have a chance to add important, but too easily ignored, pieces to the puzzle.  I guarantee you that I will read what you send me, and perhaps even publish it, in part or in whole.  Let me know what you think!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Why Phoenixville? A Guest Post

This week I return to the topic of  “Why Phoenixville?”  The answers(s) to that question are important to the other river towns, because Phoenixville clearly offers a much better template for revival and reinvention than does Conshohocken, despite the latter's hugely larger financial numbers. 

I strive to expedite communication among the towns and their activists on the subjects about which I write; I do not claim to have any answers myself.  I have asked for contributors to answer the question “Why Phoenixville,” and I am pleased to publish the first response I have received.  It was written by Shannon Mannon, Chief Empowerment Officer of Activate Phoenixville Area (info@activatephoenixvillearea.org).  I take no stand about its contents, but if I published it you can bet I think it is something worth thinking about.  It is truly a “love letter,” as its title says, and I would like to hear from you about what she has to say and what you think of it.

Why Phoenixville?”: A Love Letter

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” -Lilla Watson

As a child, I had dreamed of living in a true community, where folks watched out for each other, where everyone knew your name. The dream was full-blown, bunting on the front porch, lemonade stand on the corner, romanticism. A throwback to another era.  I tried not to let myself feel the dream too intensely, so that I wouldn’t be disappointed with the reality that places like that just don’t exist anymore.
While the dream lay dormant, my newlywed husband and I were drawn to Phoenixville as proud first time homeowners in 2003. This was an era, most decidedly, “pre- renaissance.” But the bones were all there – a walkable downtown, a diverse population, an intimate small town feel in close proximity to Philadelphia and the bigger suburbs. More than anything, there was this palpable hope, this energy that seeped from the pores of the sidewalks, from the quirky folk I’d pass walking the tree-lined streets, to the historic buildings on Bridge Street themselves. Still, it was a leap of faith. We knew no one here, and had no idea what beauty we were about to uncover.
After our first year as residents, there was no doubt in my mind that the community I jokingly dubbed to my out of town friends as “little Manhattan,” would one day rise into its full potential. You could feel the forward momentum.  In those pre “First Friday” days, the Bridge Street sidewalks were empty on weekends. My pug and I would trail any other twenty-something we spotted because they were so rare a sight in the borough.
It took experiencing our first Dogwood Parade to crack open the vault, shining rays of light on my sleeping childhood dream. Whoa Nelly! Was THIS ACTUALLY that kind of town? Be still my heart! Watching that sweet parade, that lil’ slice of Americana, stream past my front stoop, and realizing that communities like this DID exist? The dream was alive. 
For all of the parade’s eccentricities and length, what stood out was that folks came together to put this on because they cared.  They shared a belief that neighbors are worth showing up for, kids get raised best when the whole village looks out for them, and that carrying on a tradition, no matter how much times have changed, is worth doing. Something shifted in me that afternoon. And I made a commitment to myself that I would raise the children I one day hoped to have right here. 
My initial enthusiasm made room for deep grooves to form. Inside those heartfelt hollows was our community’s shared sense of interconnection. What happens to one of us, impacts us all. This is the spirit that is next to impossible to quantify in words. Ask anyone who has been lucky enough to live here “what IS Phoenixville?” and they stare off, thoughtfully struggling to sum it up. Volunteerism? Generosity? Compassion? Caring? Love itself? We all feel it, sense it and live it.
As a new Phoenixville transplant, what I hadn’t yet learned, was the community underground of leaders who had been working for decades to poise our community for the explosion in growth / engagement we benefit from today. I began to integrate myself into the community, to understand the social fabric that was clearly so rich. I struggled to figure out my place – knowing that I’d only get out of Phoenixville what I was willing to put in.  How could I best serve and connect in to this community?
I joined a church in the Borough, attended every community event I could find, volunteered, and became a frequent flyer at the Library, the Colonial, and the YMCA.  And finally I made friends the old fashioned way – by pushing my sleep-detesting baby girl through the borough streets for hours a week chatting up folks. But still, I didn’t really feel like I was inside the community yet – more just a cheerleader from the outside. I sensed there was a bigger story at play, and like a detective, I hunted away until I could find a way in. The key clue was discovering, in 2006, the opportunity to be a Girls on the Run (GOTR) coach at East Pikeland Elementary, after reading about it in “The Phoenix.” (Cause what self-respecting ‘vill-ain didn’t read that cover to cover)?
Suffice it to say that program knocked my socks off, and books will be written documenting the impact it brings to communities and to women of all ages. What was special for me, was that my GOTR coaching gig lead me to the community wellness coalition that brought GOTR to Phoenixville, Activate Phoenixville Area (APA). I joined APA in 2007. This position gave me a privileged seat to understand, and impact, the very fabric of this place.
I learned that the profits from the sale of Phoenixville Hospital were used to start up the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation, whose mission is to improve the health and quality of life in the greater Phoenixville region by increasing access to health care services and promoting healthy communities. Aha! So this is why we have a depth and breadth of community organizations, and what feels like the most non profits per capita in the US!    In Phoenixville, like most places, you can’t get anywhere without relationships. Over the years, APA has formed intimate partnerships that let us glimpse the stunning, selfless service that this community is built upon. Our knowledge grew deeper this year, as we joyfully conducted stakeholder interviews with the leading community wellness experts to better determine how Activate Phoenixville Area can be Phoenixville’s wellness hub.
We heard stories about PACS facing “N.I.M.B.Y.” challenges in all their former locations. But in Phoenixville, were not only welcomed with open arms, but were given a key location in the heart of town to facilitate the ease of getting food and supplies to our most vulnerable populations. We learned more about Elizabeth Andersen’s crusade to get Phoenixville our first Farmer’s Market to open up access to fresh food. We celebrated connections that were made at the Activate table that enabled our brightest servant leaders like Michelle Ferretti at the YMCA, to engage hundreds of people and get thousands of pounds of fresh produce in the hands of the hungry through new community gardens!  
With great humility, we learned about the founding parents of Phoenixville, who stuck around after the mill closed, jobs were lost, and decades of pain, and darkness ensued. How these visionaries lit a flame of hope, and fanned it with their belief that this Phoenix would rise again from the ashes. Painstaking project by project, committee meeting by committee meeting, these heroes built up the foundation our community to poise it to rise greater than before. Because this time, our “vortex” is built on love.
Activate Phoenixville Area is a partnership forged to empower & inspire wellness and wholeness in our community. We are golden thread that weaves together the organizations, people, and institutions of our community. We gather and shares these stories of hope. Join us. Use the hashtag #PhoenixvilleInspired on social media to share what moves you. Together, we will show the world -- Phoenixville IS the most inspired community.
                                                                          Shannon Mannon

Friday, July 24, 2015

How Many Of You Will I See Next Week?

I published this post just before boarding the long and uncomfortable flight to Pennsylvania, but that is a trivial introduction to a great week.  I will spend next week in the towns along the lower Schuylkill River, speaking about my new book, They’ve Been Down So Long…/Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds (and explaining the reason for that unusual title structure) as well as meeting with local activists on an informal basis. 

My work offers a read-at-your-leisure course in “Local History 101,” focused on the eight towns between the cities of Reading and Philadelphia on the lower Schuylkill River.  Be aware: it is formatted in the old-fashioned Basic Organization Of Knowledge (“BOOK”) style, although a Kindle version will soon be available.  The advantage to this format is that you get the lectures, class discussion as well as the assigned reading, all between the same two covers.  The “book” format is—and the ebook will be—available from Amasquash, er, Amazon.com, of course.  Locally, they will be sold at Towne Book Center along Rt. 422 at Rt. 29 and the Historical Society of Montgomery County on DeKalb Street in Norristown.

I have addressed my book directly to the activists in each town, those seeking a better environment for themselves, their families and their friends.  I discuss what I consider to be the three fundamental realities of life along the river.  The first of these is the river itself; all eight communities are “river towns,” and the river’s enormous improvement in recent years points the way to a different way of utilizing it.  But the river has always been only one of the fundamental realities around which life in its small towns has always been lived.  My work examines the others also and how changes in them have spurred both high and low points in the history of all eight towns.  The central point is that even the fundamental realities change, and the significance of those changes—and they have been great—must be grasped if you want to plan for a better future.  History must be understood, not just remembered, if it is to be of any real use to our future.

My book also attacks some of the prevalent myths about what happened to our towns and cities after World War II, because efforts for a better future are doomed if they are based on myths about the past and the present.  That’s why I want to see as many of you as possible next week.  Here is my schedule:

Saturday, July 25
5 PM:                Port Indian
                          (Private Residence, locals only)

Sunday, July 26
1 – 3 PM:          Spring-Ford Area Historical Society
  526 Main Street, Royersford

4 PM:                Towne Book Center
  220 Plaza Drive, Suite B-3, Collegeville Pa.
                          (Intersection of U.S. Rt. 422 and P.A. 29)

Tuesday, July 28
12 PM:              Phoenixville Rotary Club

7 PM:                Historical Society of Montgomery County
  1654 DeKalb Street

Wednesday, July 29
6 PM:                 Pottstown Rotary Club
                          Brookside Country Club

Thursday, July 30
7:30 AM:            Conshy-Plymouth Whitemarsh Rotary Club
               Lafayette Hill

Saturday, August 1
1 PM:                Bridgeport
  Good Will Fire Company
  304 Bush Street, 19405

5 PM:                 “Calling All Schuylkill Valley Activists”   
    Coffee Talk
                           507 W. Marshall St.

Note that I made a special point to include local Rotary Clubs in my audiences.  They may not make the headlines and you won’t see too many of them in the street holding signs, but members of Rotary are community activists in the most fundamental sense of the word.  They are the men and women of local business, around whom and which urban revivals  must be built.

For those of you who take “community activism” more directly, I strongly urge you to attend what I have termed “Calling All Schuylkill Valley Activists” in Norristown, on Saturday, August 1, at 5 PM.  Our hosts are Aleks and Joel of Coffee Talk, a much-too-neglected community treasure at 507 West Marshall Street.  I frequently advocate inter-community communication and support, and this is an opportunity for you to discover that there are indeed others who think like you do and share the same concerns, just not about your immediate neighborhood.

If you are coming in from out of town and think of Main Street when someone mentions "Norristown," give yourself some extra time to walk around the four blocks of West Marshall Street where the event will take place and see what a local commercial revival today might look like.  There is one underway.

There will be much to share when we gather together.  I look forward to seeing you there, or at any of the other get-togethers on my list.   

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Would You Want To Make Bridgeport Like Conshohocken? (Part II of a Series)

Last week I posted a (very) theoretical proposal that I believe would make Bridgeport like Conshohocken. I predicted that “property values will rise, new housing will be built, new residents will settle in town, and if things work out well, maybe even an office building or two.”  I then asked: “What’s not to like?”  What I didn’t ask was the most fundamental question: why would anyone want to emulate Conshohocken in the first place?  That’s this week’s topic.

A quick review: the idea was little more than history repositioned for the automobile age.  Its centerpiece was a new Ford Street bridge, with an improved Ford Street south to DeKalb Pike, a vehicle connection to the new Lafayette Street and a foot/bicycle path to the Schuylkill River Trail.  Together they represent merely upgrades to what used to be before, substituting the automobile (and truck) for the railroad, and upgrading the roads proportionately.  Remember, it’s a regional transportation proposal, because nobody is going to invest millions of dollars to revitalize just Bridgeport.

Wait a minute.  Am I not the person who wrote not so long ago that “history offers almost no guide for the present or the future”?  Yes, that was I, on October 24, 2014, to be precise.  I have since followed that up with more than one discussion about why this is so.  It’s because fundamentally important things have changed, and greatly.  Transportation is one of them.  In the old days, “access to transportation” meant accommodating the railroad (or perhaps its lighter cousin).  Over the course of the 19th century, access to rail transportation transformed the towns on the lower Schuylkill River into bustling, prosperous communities.  Accommodating a rail connection underpinned a community’s growth and development.  But today “access to transportation” means accommodating the automobile, and the automobile only destroys communities.

Any regional transportation connection such as I have outlined would affect the surrounding areas in an economically positive way, but what about the impact on its host, the Borough of Bridgeport?  Financially, it would also be a net positive for the borough, particularly if a business or two were to relocate to take advantage of the new connection.  That would mean greater tax revenue, and Bridgeport could certainly use more of that.   I should note at this point that Conshohocken is one of two river town building a new government/police administration building, with rather more state-of-the-art communications than nearby towns possess.  The influx of business and people—but primarily business—is funding that.  Never underestimate the positive impact of money on at least some community institutions.

Housing values would also rise.  Just look again at the Conshohockens.  West Conshohocken, just down the road from Bridgeport, has been proclaimed the best place in Pennsylvania to buy a home, and Conshohocken, not much farther away, ranks sixth.  You would have to go several places down the list before you come to Bridgeport.  But I ask you, what do those rankings have to do with the boroughs themselves?  The principal factors—Interstate highways and good school systems—would remain the same even if both borough entities ceased to exist.

The fundamental question is this: the value of your house excepted, just why would you want Bridgeport to become like Conshohocken?  A community is not measured by economic indicators alone.  In fact, they don’t even count for very much.  A better road connection to the Turnpike would transform Bridgeport, but with pretty much the opposite effect that the railroad had.  The economic statistics will rise, and even might approach bustling, but the borough’s sense of community would likely wither and die.  By this I mean that better road connections for Bridgeport would do pretty much what great road connections are doing for Conshohocken: greatly increasing property values while debasing its traditional strong sense of community.

An upgraded Ford Street could be a positive boon to those arriving from north of the Schuylkill, and for King of Prussia to the south, but it would basically divide Bridgeport into two halves, one on each side of the street.  Crossing between those two halves would be severely restricted in both location and duration, because the emphasis will be on moving cars along Ford Street, not people across it.  Cars will still back up during rush hour, of course, so add traffic congestion to the daily mix.  A similar process is happening in Conshohocken as we speak, dividing the borough between the new residences and offices along the floodplain from older parts of the borough up the hill. 

Once such a makeover is in place, expect more people come to live in Bridgeport, and maybe even some who come to work there.  Those who come to work will leave for somewhere else in the evenings, and cannot be expected to contribute much to the new Bridgeport beyond revenue.  But how about those who come to stay, the new residents?  Will they contribute to a revival?  First ask yourself the basic question: why will they move there in the first place?  Probably not for work in Bridgeport.  What investment will they feel—and make—in the community?

In a town, with many people living so close together, shouldn’t “community” be a goal somewhere up there with making money?  If you are going to live in close proximity to others, shouldn’t the word “community” take on greater value?  I have been writing about my fear that Conshohocken’s reinvention, imposed on it from outside, will not be accompanied by a resurgence of the community pride that has always been Conshohocken’s trademark.  I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Bridgeport doesn’t have to be like Conshohocken, and if it avoids that fate we should all be pleased.  The borough, having lost pretty much everything that once made it distinctive, at least has close to a clean slate with which to work.  That has its downside, as repurposing beautiful old buildings can contribute greatly to a community’s revival, but you have to work with what you have.  A new group is forming with revitalization its aim, and I applaud that.  I (and others) may have advice to offer, but the plain truth is that the impetus for revival must come from within the Bridgeport community itself, not from outside.

A part of that emphasis should be examining ideas that have worked elsewhere.  On the lower Schuylkill, there are two models for reinvention: the Conshohockens and Phoenixville.  The Conshohocken model is not the one to follow; Phoenixville is, and I will return to that subject in the near future.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Want Bridgeport To Be Like Conshohocken? Here’s How. (Part I: In The Realm of Theory)

On May 29th, I wrote about a road project currently underway to connect Lafayette Street in Norristown to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and how it represents a new opportunity to correct an old mistake.  I also pointed out that a section of Plymouth Township and even Conshohocken could also benefit.  So here’s my question: Why not add Bridgeport to those towns being helped?

Okay, I think I already know the answer: money.  But let’s just skip over that, and other, pesky details, and proceed with a proposal to remake Bridgeport, safe in the knowledge that no one is going to pay any attention to it.  PennDOT will not follow up on this idea, because it is so obvious I am sure it has already been studied—and put on a very back burner—before. 

Thus what I am going to write about lies “in the realm of theory,” which is a polite way of saying “pipedream.”  Of course, I don’t waste my time or yours with pipedreams, so this really isn’t about Bridgeport as it is about a much larger point, about “change,” a history subject near and dear to my heart. 

The major point about CHANGE: Whether change is good or bad depends on your relationship to what is being changed.  Therefore, ALL change is both good and bad; it just depends on whether your ox is being fed or gored.  We call it progress, but that’s a net judgment.  We just forget about the losers that change created.  The automobile revolution brought about a change in transportation that everyone refers to as “progress,” but I’ll bet that wheelwrights and buggy whip manufacturers were not pleased.  What does this have to do with Bridgeport?  Let me explain.

If you want to change a Bridgeport into a Conshohocken, focus on ACCESS TO TRANSPORTATION.  Conshohocken possesses quite close connections to two major, limited access highways, and that is why it is thriving.  Bridgeport has U.S. Rt. 202 (and not really that, as Rt. 202 follows the Dannehower Bridge over, not through, the borough).  

When the current project is completed, Lafayette Street will offer both Norristown and a section of Plymouth Township what looks like quick access to the Turnpike.  Conshohocken could benefit also, as the project basically offers borough residents an alternative to the Matsonford bridge and road route to the Turnpike (I have heard that there is some congestion along that route at certain times of the day).  In order to benefit Bridgeport, an exit off Lafayette Street needs to be constructed, along with a new Ford Street Bridge.

Please understand that I possess absolutely no qualifications to design anything like I am writing about.  Then again, if I keep to generalities and avoid those pesky details, I can at least offer a proposal, because I have a secret resource.  It’s called “history.”  What I will describe is really little more than history recreated.

The basic idea is to rebuild a route that existed back in colonial times, managed to survive into the 20th century, then closed down.  Bridgeport basically began at a shallow section of the Schuylkill River known as “Swedes Ford.”  The ford allowed people, animals and wagons to cross the river, at least most of the time.  Swedesford Road headed south from this crossing.  Early Bridgeport developed from this site until the DeKalb Street Bridge opened in 1824.  That reoriented Bridgeport to the west, and the ford fell into disuse.  A railroad bridge was built at the old ford in 1848, one that allowed people to walk across.  It burned down in 1883, as a replacement bridge did again in 1924, just after the DeKalb Street Bridge itself burned.  New bridges were built at both locations.  The new Ford Street Bridge carried vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians.  It remained a “private” bridge, and still charged people to cross, earning it the nickname of “the penny bridge”.  It deteriorated from lack of maintenance and was finally torn down in 1939.

I am not talking about just a new bridge.  That would only connect Bridgeport to the new road, and that is not going to be enough.  Imagine making a pitch to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that goes something like the following: “We’d like you to spend millions of dollars to build a bridge that connects the Turnpike to a stagnant river town of about 4,500 people.”  Good luck with that.  If you only focus on Bridgeport, the best you will get is polite nods, providing you can get a meeting in the first place.

You need to think larger, and employ a phrase like “regional transportation solution.”  That type of thing is easy to get behind.  You definitely want to trumpet the opportunity to revitalize an old town, but as a side benefit, another reason to undertake the project, but not the major one.  

The key here is actually simple (if you ignore the details): rebuild Ford Street in Bridgeport from the new bridge to its intersection with Rt. 202.  You can’t just dump people off a bridge onto Bridgeport’s streets as they now exist.  By upgrading Ford Street you create a connection to King of Prussia.  With the traffic congestion around the Expressway/Turnpike intersection, I believe many people in western King of Prussia would see the new route as an easier way to the Turnpike.  That makes this a “regional transportation solution.”  In that vein, and in search of another constituency, let's add a protected bike lane on both Ford Street and the bridge, with a direct connection to the Schuylkill River Trail.  That can't hurt.

Once this project is completed, property values near it will begin to rise, the large new project already proposed by Brian O’Neill could get a new life, and other developers will begin to look at the area.  This new connection will not rival Conshohocken’s, and thus the development that follows will certainly be less.  For a town the size of Bridgeport, that makes sense.

The change may not be as large, but it is likely to be as fundamental as that taking place in the Conshohockens right now.  So, property values will rise, new housing will be built, new residents will settle in town, and if things work out well, maybe even an office building or two.  What’s not to like?

Remember what I said above about CHANGE; some bad always accompanies the good, and this concept is no exception.  I will break my every-two week posting cycle to write about the other side to this idea next week, because there definitely is one, and it should be considered.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Why It’s Better To Be An Outsider

I write and publish regularly on the small town urban condition, using the towns of Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River as my examples.  Thus my primary topic is urban life; what it was like back then and how that evolved into what it is like now.  You already know that I never lived in any of the towns about which I write, and some of you are bothered by this.  Well, here are some further confessions.

In giving the present a context from the past, I often find myself writing about—or at least mentioning—ethnicity.  The history of the towns on the lower Schuylkill River is an often-repeated sequence of the arrival of different ethnicities, the discrimination they had to endure and their eventual assimilation, and it’s still going on. 

The fact is, however, that I am an outsider, to both urban life and ethnic heritage.  This is by no means an apology; I believe my personal history has aided me immensely in the study of both subjects.  Not only have I never lived in any of the towns about which I write, my understanding of both urban life and ethnicity comes overwhelmingly from research and observation.

I am neither urban born nor urban reared.  I was brought home from a hospital in a medium-sized Kansas town to one of those prefab and trailer residences that grew up around our universities after World War II, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.  Upon receiving his degree, my father moved us out of Kansas, an act for which I shall forever be grateful.  After a few years in Michigan, it was on to New York.  Not the city, although my father was a professor at Brooklyn College.  He determined to move us to that new way of living, the automobile suburbs, on Long Island, even farther out than Levittown.  For many years this required him to commute daily on the Long Island Railroad, about which little more needs to be said, at least by me. 

Yes, I grew up in the environment I have come to despise, and I am relatively certain that this enhances my occasional comments on suburbia.  In the late 1950s, a Long Island developer had purchased some farmland, torn out the trees and removed the topsoil, then subdivided it into ¾ acre lots.  On this he mass-produced three types of houses, but mostly two-story Colonials (my neighborhood was part of a second phase development that followed the Levittown of one-story Cape Cods on ½ acre lots).  My family bought one of them.  Where I grew up there were no corner stores, no churches, no recreation facilities, not even any trees.  Just houses, very much alike, one after another along gently-curving streets.  If you wanted to do anything more than visit someone else in the same development, you needed a car.

Do I even need to mention that not a single person of color inhabited a house in that development?  Mind you, it wasn’t the fault of the development; the entire school district had exactly one black family, that of a school administrator, and I don’t remember any South or East Asians.  For me, “diversity” meant having Jewish friends, and some of my WASP friends looked askance at me for that.

Which brings me to the subject of ethnicity, or “people who are different from us.”  Not only am I a WASP, I descend from the very core of waspishness, England.  My direct ancestor first arrived on these shores (Maryland, actually), in 1663.  He appears to have come over as an indentured servant.  That was, briefly, contractual slavery for a set number of years; an effective recruitment tool for the down-and-out who could not afford to leave but would not be missed.  This fact accounts for why inducements to discover my ancient family crest have never moved me.

Such an origin offers several topic threads to pursue.  It does allow me to look upon almost all of my U.S. readers as “newcomers,” and period of one’s arrival in this country is all pretty much the same to me.  Are your ancestors Irish?  Their arrival was met with disgust by the local Protestants.  They were considered sub-human, dirty, clannish, drunken louts, prone to crime.  Or are you descended from the Italians, Poles, Russians and other peoples that arrived later?  Then your family history recounts how they were treated by the descendants of those earlier arrivals, including the Irish: in exactly the same way.  But now you are an “American,” and a new wave of immigrants is arriving, Hispanics.  How many of you view these newcomers through the same ethnic stereotype that your ancestors were subjected to, utterly oblivious of the irony?  I can only sigh sadly when I hear self-described “real Americans” speak out against immigrants.  The more things change…

What interests me most, however, is the subject of ethnicity itself.  I have met a great many people who use ethnicity to describe themselves.  This is foreign to me.  “My people” originated in England.  Is English even an ethnicity?  Does anybody refer to himself as an “English-American”?  “Englishness” is tied to religion just as much as being Irish or Italian, but that religion is Episcopal (the Americanized Anglican Church), and that makes it quite a different thing.  A religion of convenience rarely becomes the cornerstone of one’s life.  It certainly didn’t for me.

Even if I am an “English-American,” don’t you think that after some three and a half centuries resident in the United States (and no record of wives possessing any strikingly different last names), ethnicity might no longer be a personal issue with me? My heritage might explain my love of English folk music (Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is perhaps my favorite album), but then again, I have never had the desire to learn Morris Dancing.  As for food, well, the less said about English food traditions the better.  So what do ethnic baggage do I carry courtesy of my ancestors?  None that I have ever been able to discern.  I’m not a hyphenated American, just an American; a mongrel, a mutt (although not widely cross-bred).  At times I despair that only at some indefinite future date, when everyone’s ethnicity has been stored away in some dusty memory hole, will we find true community in being an American.

I believe that these two circumstances of my upbringing have enabled me to take a fuller measure of the history of life along the river, because none of it was implanted in me by childhood experiences.  Writing history—as opposed to memoirs, biographies, etc.—requires distance from the subject, both of intellect and emotion.  It is in that sphere that I write, not just of eight towns on the lower Schuylkill River, but of urban life and ethnicity in general.  I’m going to publish my second example of this next month.  It focuses on urban life, and ethnicity is woven into the text.  I’d like you to read it, of course, but I would also like to hear from you afterward, about my approach and what you think of the results.  I look forward to them all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Perception Versus Reality, One Year Later

They asked for a year.  A year has passed.  It’s time to check in and ask questions. 

On May 9, 2014, I published a post about Norristown, Pennsylvania’s new program to improve resident perception of itself, specifically the question of personal safety.  I attended the press conference that announced the “Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force,” which I quickly learned was not aimed at improving the public safety situation in the town, but to convince residents that their condition was already good.  The reality, they claimed, was actually much better than the perception of that reality.  As Council President Bill Caldwell phrased it, “Urban communities often get a bum rap for being places where random crime happens and we’re here to tell you today that this is not what happens in Norristown.”

I admit to expressing some skepticism.  After all, this was a PR event to announce the beginning of an extended PR campaign, which is pretty much a working definition of “grandstanding.”  What I found most heartening was that after the dog and pony show, Norristown Council members asked the public to give them a year before making a judgment.  I believed that to be a fair request, and said so.  Here is how I phrased it: 

"The joint press conference was totally a media event...that provides a clue as to how we should receive it.  As with the pilot episode of any show that we find promising, we should exercise “temporary suspension of disbelief.”  The first-rate cast stuck tightly to the script and delivered their lines with the necessary panache, producing an uplifting message, as intended.  Even ye who are without sin should not stone this cast; first let them actually act, and judge the result by how it plays out before your eyes.  Will the show deliver on the promise of its pilot?  You really need to stay tuned for this one."

I did cheat a little, writing about this perception versus reality thing in December of last year.  I did so because Pottstown had climbed on the “things are better than everyone thinks” bandwagon, complaining that people who spoke and wrote of Pottstown’s problems really didn’t understand the situation.  But this is probably a bad time to voice that opinion, given that Pottstown last month saw some 30 people arrested for their involvement in a gang war.

But let’s use this one-year anniversary to discuss Norristown.  It has spent the last year tending to the public’s perception about safety, and thus about the police department itself.  Talk about good timing.  For those of you that may have been in a coma for the last few months, they have not been good ones for police-community relations across our nation.  The general public has discovered that their perception of how things were in places as far apart as Ferguson and Baltimore (not to mention that of their respective police departments) did not match the reality on the streets.

I’d like to think that the convergence of tragic events that we have been witnessing in the media will lead at least a few more people to conclude that the manner in which local law enforcement conducts itself needs to change, whether it is a large city or a small town.  So how does a small town like Norristown fit in?  More than you might think; urban police work is—or should be—undertaken pretty much the same way regardless of the size of the urban area.

Just how does a police department earn the trust of its citizens?  By enforcing the law fairly, equally and with consideration for people as human beings, of course.  It’s easy to say, but not so easy to do.  A recent article in the Pottstown Mercury added to the evidence that Norristown may actually be onto something.  If so, then the reason may be Police Chief Mark Talbot.

He began the interview by accepting responsibility, on behalf of his department, for the state of things in town.  He didn’t pull out the usual complaints about uncaring residents, or social media.  Here is how he phrased it:

“That means that myself and the Norristown Police Department at the end of the year, or even at the end of the day, accepts the fact that we’re responsible for crime and the quality of life in our community,” he said. “We don’t point to bad people doing bad things, or citizens not helping us enough. We own it. It starts with that.”

But it isn’t just about the police.  Like all law enforcement officials, Talbot knows that citizen involvement is crucial to establishing peace on the streets.  “You can’t shut people out of the conversation. If they feel like you’re not listening to them, they will find another way to be heard, whether in a letter to the editor, or they will use social media,” said Talbot. “We would rather they come to us first….If you talk to people in the neighborhood and tell them what's going on, they will talk to you and tell you what they know."

Talbot has been impressing this approach on his department since he took over the post two years ago.  Is it working?  Official statistics say that crime in Norristown has dropped by 20% over the last two years.  Talbot, in his interview with the Mercury claimed that “people are telling us they feel safer now in Norristown than they have in a long time.”  That’s certainly a good start, but remember I focus not on the reality or the perception as much as the gap between them.

In my December post, I advanced my belief that the best way to improve the public’s perception of the situation is to improve the situation itself.  Remove the fear, and people’s perception of reality will improve.  Statistics say things have improved, so now I want to hear from YOU, the residents of Norristown.  It’s a simple question:

Do you feel safer now, in your home and on the streets, than you did a year ago?

Is lowered crime in Norristown a reality?  Statistics say so.  What is your perception, and why?  Does anyone see this as a result of the “Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force” (it was to involve more than one agency), or could there be a simpler, more personal reason?  Let me know what you think.

Either way, could you communicate that to Pottstown?