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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 15, 2015

Forgetting History, Part II: It’s All About CHANGE

On October 24th of last year, I published a post entitled “When It Comes To The River, Forget History and Start Anew.”  In it I made an observation so fundamental and so important to urban activists that I do not hesitate to repeat it:  “it’s not about remembering history, it’s about learning the lessons that history offers.”  It is all very well and good to remember the facts of history—and nostalgia always sells—but understanding history is the important thing, because it actually offers learning that you can put to good use.

At the core of understanding history lies an appreciation of the importance of CHANGE.  It’s simple, really; if things did not change, there would be no history, only genealogy.  And no one would be trying to make things better, because the concept of “better” would not exist.  There would be no “good old days,” because all days were always the same.  So, history is only about change, with variations of the question “why?” applied to them.
     In my earlier post I phrased my point about understanding change more specifically:

"In Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, one of those lessons is that history provides almost no guide for the present or the future.  Not only have things changed, they have virtually reversed themselves.”

In other words, the best way to apply history to the future of my subject towns is to determine the most important elements of that past, and then try to visualize their exact opposite.  That will get you pretty close.

Take my previous example, the river itself.  Today, the Schuylkill is a Pennsylvania Scenic River, and deserving of the title.  People enjoy being in it, on it or near it, and municipalities benefit from their interest.  Back in the “good old days,” however, the Schuylkill River was little more than an industrial sewer.  It stank, and quite a few unpleasant things floated on or in it.  Consequently, people avoided it to the extent that they could.  You simply cannot find a better example of historical reversal than comparing these two chronological variations of the same reality.  This great change also came about quite quickly.  Some progress was made in the first half of the 20th century, but the real change to the Schuylkill began after the Second World War. 

But not all change is for the good, and the second half of the 20th century provides ample evidence of that truth also.  A change in a second fundamental reality, that of Transportation, did great damage to each of the river towns during this same period.  In truth, combined with the collapse of industry, this post-World War II change delivered the heaviest blow, because it began to reverse the realities upon which each community had been erected.

There is considerable irony in this, because previous changes in Transportation up to that point had been progressively better and better for the river towns.  Each town appeared in the first place because of the transportation needs of the region’s early settlers, i.e., needing to ford the river.  The Schuylkill Navigation and the first turnpike era contributed in a small way, but each town prospered only after the railroad arrived and connected them to the wider world.  By the mid-20th century, that connection spanned the globe.

Within each town, it was even simpler.  Several methods of transportation made their appearance on a town’s streets during their history, but one internal transportation reality continued almost unabated well into the 20th century: most of a town’s residents walked to work, to shop and to worship.  The physical legacy of that truth is obvious in the crowding today of automobiles on streets and properties that were clearly not designed to accommodate them, or even take into consideration their existence.  This transportation reality made our towns what they were, and what we remember them most fondly for being: true communities, encompassing sleep, labor, worship and recreation, all within the town’s limits, or nearby. 

But after the Second World War, the automobile and its spawn combined to virtually reverse the earlier spatial order; the old urban centers of business—and the roads that had accessed them—could not accommodate the numbers of people now traveling by themselves wrapped in their individual metal containers.  These old centers declined in value, while what had (largely forever) been open fields could accommodate large numbers of automobiles (Ample Free Parking!), were put to that use and became the new centers of retail commerce as well as residences.  Wealth and capital flowed to them, hugely increasing their value.

Today, how do you survive without a car?  How many residents of a Schuylkill River town work in that same town?  The jobs are gone.  As for shopping, the commercial downtowns have disappeared everywhere but Phoenixville, where the old downtown now serves fewer of the old functions.  To go shopping in the new locations, you need an automobile, unless you have a high tolerance for both waiting and walking.  As churches continue to close, the distance between worshippers and their edifice steadily lengthens, and more people need a car to get there.

To further the irony, the automobile and the problems it causes will not only continue to afflict each river town in the new millennium, but each town will make all efforts within its abilities to attract MORE OF THEM.  An overall increase in the number of automobiles on a town’s streets is a sign of increasing prosperity (unless the are just passing through, going from somewhere else to somewhere else, of course).  Whether it’s new businesses or new residents, more automobiles will be one result.  Talk about a two-edged sword.

So far, I have introduced one reality that has changed the Schuylkill valley for the better and one that has changed it for the worse, pretty much at the same time.  The River and Transportation have always been—and continue to be—fundamental to the condition of the river towns and their residents.  Both of the examples I offered last October and this one deserve more attention, and I will give them that in my new book, They’ve Been Down So Long/Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, to be published soon. 

But there is a third reality that has been equally fundamental to the growth and prosperity of the river towns throughout their history.  Not only did it reverse itself at the beginning of the 20th century, with considerable negative effect, it proceeded to reverse itself again by the century's end.  The subject is more than a little complicated, and I will be addressing it in the future.  I will post about this twice-reversing reality because it--and a clean river--are ones that the residents of the Schuylkill River towns can turn to their advantage by their own actions.  New ideas about how to utilize the river to benefit its towns are met with hopeful interest, but few ideas are even offered to utilize the changing of this third fundamental reality of life along the Schuylkill.  There are many reasons why, but none of them good.  More about this in the future.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Every Party Needs A Pooper, That’s Why They Invited Me

I had a great time on Tuesday, April 14, at the “Conshy At The Crossroads” panel discussion, held at the Washington Fire Company building in Conshohocken.  Part of the reason was that I got to throw the wet blanket of reality on the “don’t worry, be happy” approach of my fellow panel members.

Don’t get me wrong; my fellow panelists, Jerry Nugent, Montgomery County’s Director of Development and Ray Weinmann, who has direct experience in Conshohocken development, are knowledgeable and experienced men.  They are “development experts;” I am a historian.  I actually found myself in agreement with them on several subjects.  One example would be the proposed development known as “One Conshohocken.”  I join them in their opposition; it is simply too much in too small a space too centrally located. 

It was just that, as you would expect men in their position to do, both offered reassuringly upbeat predictions about the future of both traffic and community in Conshohocken.  It’s a matter of professional perspective.  They largely share one, while I come at the subject from a very different profession.  Optimism about Conshohocken’s future predominated at the table, even concerning the two subjects I have been writing most about:  the potential division between the old and the new residents and…wait for it…TRAFFIC PROBLEMS.  On the question of whether current development might result in “two Conshohockens,” Ray Weinmann opined that time will heal any split between renters and owners in the new Conshohocken.  On what proved to be the most popular subject—TRAFFIC—Jerry Nugent contended that traffic problems in the borough can be “solved,” largely by preventing left turns. 

That left it up to me to, yet again, to be the Wet Blanket.  I would agree with Ray Weinmann that time will likely solve any division within groups of residents, but I would also argue that the amount of time required is way too much to just sit back and wait for that kumbaya moment.  Both borough government and residents need to take action now, before division becomes apparent.  Time heals all wounds, but wouldn’t it be better to avoid inflicting them instead?  He is also right that new offices will spin off other jobs, because the office workers will need services.  While these businesses may make for daytime scenes of bustling prosperity, and perhaps even provide a few jobs for locals, they will be part time and mostly minimum wage, and the businesses will shut down when their office worker customers leave for the day.  Such services only accentuate the differences between what Conshohocken offers its inhabitants.

Jerry Nugent brought his unparalleled local expertise to the panel, and gave everyone an excellent summary of what was happening.  He remembered a prediction that some 40,000 square feet of office space were going to be built in Conshohocken, then reminded us that over two million square feet have been built already, with another million square feet in the pipeline.  His optimism about Conshohocken’s future derives from a professional’s point of view.  He sees success largely in numbers, and the numbers are certainly there for Conshohocken.

It’s not so much that I disagree with either man, only that I ask different questions, with different priorities.  I am rather less “optimistic” about Conshohocken than were my fellow panelists.  As a social historian, I am concerned about Conshohocken’s future as a community.  It’s not going to be what it once was, but what is it going to be?  I have researched the realities that led to the Borough’s founding, growth and prosperity, and find that virtually none of them are applicable today.  The old realities bred a proud, internally-focused community.  What forces exist today that would bring people together and instill a sense of pride in Conshohocken?

At a rather more amateur level, I regret that more consideration is not being given to sustainable construction in a community that will possess these new structures for a long time.  “Impermeable surfaces” does seem to be the rule, and I haven’t heard anything about green roofs, to name just one component of a more energy-efficient community that could be rising.  As a supporter of alternative transportation, I simultaneously applaud the fact that 20% of the people who commute to work in the Borough do so by train (one of the highest numbers in Southeast Pennsylvania), and lament that it is not higher.  How can this be improved? 

As for traffic congestion, I’m not going to repeat what I have already said in previous posts.  I remain unconvinced that it will be “solved,” because I believe that is not possible.  That’s not a knock on Conshohocken, because I believe that about any urban grid of any size, in today’s United States.  Has a traffic congestion problem been “solved” anywhere?  And what do you mean by “solved,” anyway?

I am in the final editing process of my new book, and I will have much to say about Conshohocken, past, present and future.  Here’s a sneak peak at a relevant paragraph:

  The new structures and their built-in garages will likely meet most of
the immediate parking need, but the insertion of these vehicles onto the
Borough’s streets is already causing headaches, and much greater ones
are on the horizon.  Borough streets have also been straightened, widened,
given turning lanes and more, all governed by a carefully-timed system of
traffic lights, but there is only so much even financially well-lubricated
Conshohocken can do with its old urban grid.  The new arrivals, whether on
their way to or departing from their new parking garages, will overwhelm
the downtown streets during rush hour at the very least.  The legend of 
             Conshohocken traffic jams is only beginning.”

Call me a wet blanket, but I heard nothing at the first “Conshy At The Crossroads” to change my mind.  That paragraph will be in my book.

The event, sponsored by the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com, drew a good audience, considering that it was held on not only a weekday night, but also the night before our national "tax day."  Our moderator was Naomi Starobin, editor of WHYY's Keystone Crossroads.  She did yeoman work trying to keep things on course and on schedule, which can be difficult when residents are asked to offer questions (particularly when they ask their question in the form of an extended statement).  This was but the first of several planned for this year, and I strongly recommend that Conshohocken residents attend those to come.  This one was intended to provide a general background to the developing situation, but residents wasted no time getting to the nitty-gritty subjects, primarily traffic.  I'll bet that is also a primary subject for all of the upcoming events, despite what their titles might indicate.  Anybody disagree?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Focus on the Landlord, Not The Tenant

I wrote a two-part series on February 20th and March 6th about the effort—and time—required to remove a Housing Choice Voucher from a woman who was clearly abusing it.  My focus was on how hard it is to get something like that done, but I did mention the contrasting actions of the two landlords involved in the ongoing scam.  I want to return to that point, because those contrasting responses illustrate an important fact that we often lose sight of when discussing the “Section 8” issue.  We obsess about obnoxious tenants, but ignore their landlords.  That is a serious mistake.

The lady in question pulled her scams on two landlords.  One reported her, in an attempt to protect his property from further damage.  She then moved, and found a landlord who didn’t care what she did.  During the several month period when a neighbor was monitoring both her activities and the slow-moving wheels of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, there is no evidence that her new landlord so much as lifted a finger to address the issues his tenant was causing in the neighborhood.  The contrast between their attitudes demonstrates the difference between a landlord and a slumlord, and why we should at least match our anger at welfare cheats with anger toward those who enable them.

But first, a point about the importance of landlords to a healthy urban community.  Critics of urban life tend to use the percentage of rental units as something of a shorthand for the health of an urban community.  The implicit assumption is that the lower the percentage of rentals—and the higher the percentage of home owners—the better.  That impression is not correct if utilized as an assumption.  While we all acknowledge the importance of homeownership, the simple fact is that not everyone can—or should—own a home, particularly in an urban area.  Rental units always have been, are now and always will be a significant component of any urban neighborhood (in the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I rent an apartment).

The second problem with fixating on rentals vs. homeowners is that a focus on the raw number of rentals is not productive, because it misses the central point.  Forget the percentage of rental properties; there is a much more important question on which to focus:  are those who own the rental buildings LANDLORDS, or are they SLUMLORDS?  To me, there is a clear distinction between a landlord and a slumlord.  Both own rental properties to earn a profit, but their similarity pretty much ends at that point.  Landlords maintain their properties, and try to ensure that their tenants obey the rules and the law.  Slumlords maximize their profit by avoiding maintenance and don’t care about what their tenants might be doing.  Slumlords find Housing Choice Vouchers too lucrative to resist, and let their properties steadily deteriorate while they squeeze out the maximum profit from them.  Landlords may accept a Voucher, but continue to maintain their property in a good condition.  This means that good landlords are a necessary nutrient for a healthy community, while slumlords are a cancer that saps a community’s health.

Remember: most of the tax money we pay to support “Section 8” actually ends up in the pockets of landlords.  The Voucher holder never touches it; it goes straight from the Housing Authority to the property owner/manager.  We focus on the tenant because he or she provides the obvious evidence of the program’s faults, but we ignore the owner.  If property owners cared for their properties, couldn’t the number of Voucher atrocities be cut substantially?

The answer to that question borders on the obvious, but what can residents of towns afflicted with slumlords and rotten tenants actually do?  Individual efforts, as I recounted earlier, are always difficult and can be dangerous.  Municipal governments have proved to be largely incapable of conceiving and initiating any programs to tackle the problem.  So, if it’s dangerous to do individually and you don’t trust your government, how about a private company?  Isn’t it the grand American capitalist tradition to look to private initiatives instead of just waiting for those from the government? 

“Betterlandlord.us” is just such a company.  The firm is based in Utah, where it has established a successful track record offering an approach it calls the “Better Landlord Program.”  The first step is a survey that involves identifying all rental properties in a municipality (including those with “shadow landlords”) and mapping them, then analyzing the costs of providing services like police and code enforcement to these properties.  It uses the information gathered to set licensing fees for rentals.  These fees are the “stick” to prod landlords into joining the program.  Betterlandlords.us offers offers classes for property owners on how to become better landlords, briefing them on good property management practices, borough ordinances and how to attract better tenants.  Property owners who take the course sign an agreement that they will take steps to reduce crime, vandalism and blight on their properties.  If they don’t complete the course or follow the agreement, they are terminated from the program and forced to pay the licensing fees for their properties.  Those who follow the program have the fees waived.  The company claims that it provides a sufficient "carrot" by pointing out how landlords can make more money through property improvements and an improving rental market.  Such a program must be established by a municipal council, which votes it into place, allocates funds for the initial study and then establishes the licensing fees.   There is flexibility in both the rules and the fees that allows each town to customize the program. 

Utah is far away, but some dedicated residents of Pottstown discovered the program and brought word of it to the Schuylkill Valley.  I want to offer major kudos to the Citizens Action Committee for Pottstown for recommending the program to their borough council.  Council voted (unanimously!) to undertake the program and allocated $18,500 to produce the initial survey.  Pottstown’s citizen activists tell me they are having trouble determining how much progress has been made to date, so we should all hold our opinions about how things are going to go.

I also found it fascinating that the Citizens Action Committee was invited to present the program to the Neighborhood Watch of Phoenixville.  Considering how everybody writes about how well Phoenixville is doing and how bad Pottstown is, the fact that residents of the former town are advising the latter demonstrates that reality is more complex than is publicized, and that no matter how well a town is doing, there is always room for improvement.

Will the “Good Landlord Program” work in Pottstown?  Will it be implemented in Phoenixville?  Stay tuned.  I will be following developments and reporting back to you.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The “Pottstown Expressway”: Opposite Ends, Opposite Fates

A development proposal has just been presented to West Norriton Township, Pa., my home of long residence, that allows me to revisit the subject of a previous post.  The fact that this new tidbit provides additional evidence that I was right the first time probably influenced my decision.

Picture if you will a road, a rather new and modern super highway, lanes separated by a median, accessible only by grade-separated cloverleafs, pretty much the whole nine yards.  It is very heavily traveled, in both directions.  At each end is a housing development.  They are by no means mirror images of one another, but both were built to take advantage of the new highway and the traffic it would bring.  That traffic has materialized, and more than had been planned for (surprise! surprise!).  The development at the road’s eastern end not only prospers, it has recently offered plans for a dramatic increase in units.  The one at the western end?  Opinions differ, but only in varying degrees of disappointment.  Why should this be?  For starters, because one development is adjacent to King of Prussia while the other is in Pottstown.

The fate of these two projects, one at each end of a new road, is testimony to how the construction of a road can be sold to the general public as one thing, when it is actually something quite different.  The road about which I write is U.S. Route 422, and I have written about it before, in my post on February 20, 2014 (Why Did They Build The “Pottstown Expressway”?).  That post contains what you should know about the project, but here is a brief summary: The road was sold to the public (who would pay for it) as a benefit to a needy community at one end.  Its true purpose, however, was to open for development the land along the road itself, to the benefit of a very different group of people.

The success of the road’s real purpose is beyond obvious, whether you live in the area or just have to drive through it.  This post is essentially just piling on, but the contrast between the two ends of the road has many facets, none of them good for Pottstown.  That deserves to be better known.

The two housing developments in question were built to take advantage of the same two things: a scenic river along which people would want to live, and a new, modern road to connect the new residents to their workplaces some distance away.  That very same combination—with a much stronger road component—is what drives the current building frenzy in the Conshohocken area, but it attracts the roving eye of entrepreneurs wherever it occurs.

It did so at each end of the "Pottstown Expressway," and two entrepreneurs chose to build housing developments at those points.  Pottstown Borough Council approved the Hanover Square Townhomes project in 2005.  The site had earlier hosted Mrs. Smith’s Pies, and great hopes were entertained for this repurposing of abandoned land.  Ownership changes and the economy postponed groundbreaking until 2009, after which the construction site was sold again, this time to Cornell Homes Inc.  It initially offered townhouses for sale, but the lack of response led to offering some for rent.  This has had decidedly mixed results.  

The eastern site is also an old industrial one, repurposed.  The area is known as Betzwood, after an early industrialist, and has hosted several occupants, but its brief early 20th-century turn as a movie studio for Lubin Films is its chief claim to fame.  It sits at the foot of the high bridge over the Schuylkill at that point, not quite at the end of Rt. 422, which is just a short distance away after crossing the river.  Brian O’Neill, who specializes in converting former “brownfield” industrial sites (and is a major player downriver in Conshohocken), won approval for what became “The Lofts at Valley Forge.”[1]  Additional units were later built on the same site, just downriver from The Lofts, and named Riverview Landing.  Its website inexplicably identifies Eagleville its location, but it is really in West Norriton.

While Hanover Square emphasizes affordability, The Lofts and Riverview Landing aim rather more upscale.  The Lofts pitches itself as “luxury waterfront homes for the Philadelphia and King of Prussia area.”  True, it is a considerably more picturesque location than that of Hanover Square, although marred by the huge bridge virtually overhead.  The bridge, of course, is what quickly connects their residents to King of Prussia, so its looming presence be damned.  Without it, there would be no Lofts at Valley Forge or Riverview Landing in the first place.  Want more evidence of success at this end of the road?  The Lofts and Riverview Landing are about to be joined by an additional 1,330 more apartments in four large buildings, somehow squeezed into the same site.  West Norriton has received the Conditional Use Request, and unless the township commissioners somehow grow a backbone and insist on more than one entrance for all these people and their cars, we can expect construction to start in due course.

So, it’s location, location and location, right?  King of Prussia is happening (and for those who crave something different, Phoenixville is nearby), and Pottstown isn’t, despite the “lifeline” road having been in place for some years now.  No one calls it the “Pottstown Expressway” any more; that was just a campaign slogan.  It’s just Route 422 now.  You can read a great deal about Route 422, its traffic nightmares and proposed solutions, but you won’t read anything about how it has energized Pottstown, because it hasn’t.  Then again, that wasn’t its real purpose in the first place, remember?  That was just the “party line,” and if you control the terms of the discourse, you determine the result. 

Is it any wonder I use the school cartoon I do to accompany my links on Facebook?

[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I must confirm that I, upon discovering that the original plans for The Lofts called for the destruction of the only two remaining buildings from the Lubin area, contacted the late Dr. Joseph Eckhardt, the leading authority on the Lubin studios.  Together we successfully lobbied for their retention.  I must also note that as this is written, a request has been made to West Norriton Township to allow the conversion of these two buildings into residences, in addition to all the others.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Go Down To The Crossroads On April 14th

I’ve written several blog posts about what is happening to Conshohocken, Pa., and on Tuesday, April 14th I’ll have to opportunity to talk on the subject.  I will be one-third of a panel discussion entitled “Conshy at the Crossroads,” to be held at the Washington Fire Company, 36 West Elm Street, Conshohocken, at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6:15 p.m.  I will be joined by Jerry Nugent, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority, and Ray Weinmann, president of The Weinmann Group, who helped to develop Conshohocken’s 25-acre Urban Renewal Area during the 1980s.  Our moderator will be Naomi Starobin, editor of Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting collaborative led by WHYY that focuses on problems and opportunities facing Pennsylvania’s urban areas.  If you are in Southeast Pennsylvania on that date, I would love to see you there.

This is actually the first of several planned events on the subject of what is happening to Conshohocken, sponsored by the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com.  It will require several to cover all that is happening, but this one will be your introduction to the subject, and should not be missed.  History will be the focus, to set the stage for the more detailed subjects that will follow in future “Conshy at the Crossroads” meetings.  The April 14 event’s press release bills me as one of “three redevelopment experts,” a title which I appreciate, but do not feel I deserve.  I am a historian, and my focus on supporting urban activism has led me to learn much about “redevelopment,” but through a lens that delivers relevant lessons from the past, not a focus on current redevelopment projects.  I will thus have little to say about this or that specific project, but rather more to say about the potential effect of their accumulation. 

“Conshy at the Crossroads” is an excellent title for this planned series of get-togethers, because the metaphorical allusion is based on the physical reality (yes, the crossroads are actually in West Conshohocken, but it never gets first billing anyway).  The intersection of two major transportation routes at a location of considerable natural beauty is the fundamental reason for all that is happening to both boroughs.  Supporting credit goes the long-defunct Urban Renewal Program, for saving potential developers much of the cost for demolition of existing buildings.  The quick increase in development proposals with the end of economic hard times is also evidence that timing is still everything.  For the combination of these reasons, the time is now.  Conshohocken is indeed at a crossroads.

The stated purpose the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance is to “promote the maintenance of the borough’s character as it grows,” and it is the borough’s character on which I will focus.  The specific challenge facing the Conshohockens is how to fashion a community identity from the two quite disparate groups that the current activity will generate.  I have previously phrased them as The Old and The New, but the important difference is WHY each has chosen to live there.  I hope for the opportunity to speak to this.

In all honesty, however, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain a town’s character when the physical and social conditions have changed as much as they have since the days when Conshohocken—and each of the other towns on the lower Schuylkill River—grew to maturity and prosperity.  That character—and the fierce pride in which it was expressed—was the result of a combination of historical circumstances, none of which now apply, not only to the Conshohockens, but also to pretty much any town these days.  Conshohocken, as with every other town on the lower Schuylkill River (at least) was, during its “glory days,” a community, in every sense of the word.  The residents who lived in each town also shopped there, worshipped there and found entertainment there.  The town was almost the totality of their lives.  They also could reach each of their necessary destinations on foot, because every town, in the almost complete absence of individual transportation, congregated everything close to everything else.

That last part about everything being close to everything else remains, because Conshohocken is still the same size it always has been, and so are the vast majority of its properties and streets.  Pretty much everything else has changed, though.  Today, only a very small percentage of Conshohocken residents both live and work in the borough.  The shopping has largely disappeared and many of the religious congregations and parishes have either moved or expanded out of town.  As a result, pretty much every adult needs an automobile to perform those basic functions of going to work, shopping or worship.  

Therein lies the fundamental problem, because Conshohocken was not built for the automobile, neither while in use or parked, especially parked.  All attempts to accommodate an old urban structure to prioritize the flow of traffic are ultimately futile.  Yet the deluge of new residences along the riverside will bring with them a great many more cars, and there is no other choice than to attempt to deal with that fact.  I expect to act (as usual) as a wet blanket to anyone who attempts to posit a pleasant future for Conshohocken traffic.

Still, the automobile is only a conveyance, and in the final analysis it is people who will write Conshohocken’s future.  Automobiles will bring them to the borough, and will take them away, but if they only live there while working, shopping and worshipping elsewhere, what will give them a sense of community, a sense of actually belonging?  And if they live in the new residential developments along the river, what is to connect them with the town—and the residents—on the hill above them?  The New residents will effectively create new neighborhoods, set amidst the many promised recreational inducements.  Will The Old, up on the hillside, be able to share in these welcome improvements?  Given the traffic, how much hassle will it be to even get there?

The fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile will continue to bedevil Conshohocken, but a much more fundamental contradiction is developing, as an entirely new community arises at the foot of an old one.  If The Old and The New cannot find shared reasons to love their community and to work for its betterment, what kind of community character will result?  How will it be possible to maintain the borough’s character when virtually all the physical and social conditions which brought the borough into existence and nurtured its growth have changed a full 180 degrees?  How much of the old pride can be saved?  Must Conshohocken instead fashion an entirely new character in response to modern times?

These are tough questions, and kudos to the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com for what they are attempting to do.  I’m honored to be a part of it, and hope to see you on Tuesday, April 14, 7:00 PM at the Washington Fire Company, for the first installment of “Conshy at the Crossroads.” 

Here’s a link to the event’s Facebook page.  Check it out!


Friday, March 6, 2015

Crime and Section 8: Blaming a Victim?

Last week I related the tale of a few Pottstown residents who decided to fight back against the crime and drugs in their community.  They hounded the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA) to remove a Housing Choice Voucher from a woman who was blatantly violating the rules.  It took many months, but was eventually successful; in fact, these citizens were rather more successful than the Pottstown Police Department in dealing with this woman.  I commended this last week, and I shall continue to do so.  But I have a question about the affair, one that attempts to introduce some perspective into the issue, which I believe is sorely needed.  This is why I often refer to myself as the “Wet Blanket of Reality,” and why I am never radical enough for those who see the world through the lens of their ideology.  I know better, but here goes.

It’s time to ask the question that has been nagging at me as I read the continuing Facebook and blog posts about this story.  Section 8 is the featured topic, but isn’t this story really more about crime than Section 8?  Tracey Accor continued to have the MCHA (that means you, the taxpayers) pay a portion of her rent for much too long a period of time, but the abuse of Section 8 may have been the least of the offenses committed by her and the various residents of 377 N. Charlotte Street during their residence there.

Why the greater focus on one of her targets—the Voucher Program—than on the perpetrator and her crimes?  Aren’t we in a sense blaming a victim?  Yes, the way the Housing Choice Voucher Program was written and is administered virtually invites abuse, but that excuse does not fly with people, so why apply it to government programs?  Isn’t abuse abuse, regardless? 

There is definitely a very relevant factor here, not so much rational (read “financial”) as visceral, but no less real or important for that fact.  To see daily evidence of criminal activity is certainly cause enough for anger, but to know that your neighborhood criminal is living on your dollar, partially subsidized by a program designed to help the needy but otherwise law-abiding, really sticks in the craw.  Facebook’s “Pottstown Homeowner at Large” put this feeling quite succinctly: “Here we are, working, paying our taxes and contributing to society, but by us doing the right thing we are enabling others to do ‘nothing’.”  The writer was being kind; taxpayers are enabling such people to do positive harm to their communities, and that is much worse than nothing.

The results of this quite legitimate feeling, multiplied by the many who experience something like it somewhere else, produce a tragedy no one intended, and visits it on those who don’t deserve it.  The voucher program’s weaknesses and glacially slow procedures turn people not just against the criminal who abuses them, but the program itself.  The law-abiding neighbors of its abusers are victims, and have collected a multitude of very personal—and thus quite valid—reasons to hate the program.  The greater number of victims here, unfortunately, are those voucher holders who do obey the law and the program regulations, because they don’t have to live anywhere near the violator to be hurt.  It is this last group of people that scammers like Tracey Accor truly victimize, because amid the almost daily evidence of a criminal mentality, the thing people tend to remember is the Section 8 Voucher part.

We simply must establish a sense of perspective, and see the problem for what it is, a criminal problem, not a Section 8 problem.  Section 8 is most certainly part of the problem, and in its present form cannot be the solution.  But to conflate “Section 8” with crime is to do a great disservice to the complexity of the reality that is the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

So, keeping with my reality thing, what does the future hold for the program, and thus for the innocent victims of its shortcomings?  There are—in theory—three broad options regarding the future of Housing Choice Vouchers.  In truth, however, two of those are not options, because they require government action.  Only the third is possible, because it can be undertaken by private citizens.

First, the government could simply eliminate the program.  To those who recommend this, I ask only, “as opposed to what?”  If you think your neighborhood and your community’s streets are unsafe now, just try to image them after a substantial source of income for many malefactors is cut off.  Calls to simply eliminate the program are many things, beginning with un-Christian.  They are also pure posturing, designed to score visceral points without having to actually be serious about the issue.  Simply eliminating welfare programs solves nothing, and will only make things worse.  It won’t happen.

Second, Congress could undertake a wholesale, thoughtful rewrite of the program, addressing the flaws that everyone knows about by now.  If anyone thinks that the Republican-led Congress will undertake such an effort any time in the near future, please contact me.  I have a bridge to sell you.  And please, don’t write me about how a Democratic Congress wouldn’t do this either; that’s not relevant to reality, and therefore another example of pure posturing.  When either political party comes up with an improvement, then my attitude will change.  I'm not holding my breath, and neither should you.

What this means is that we all must continue to live with (and perhaps next to) the results of a horribly flawed program, because our government is not going to do anything.  In the face of this unfortunate truth, that leaves only the third option: people, within each of our communities, not just attacking the Voucher Program, but focusing on those who violate it.  That’s the only real option, if your goal is to make things better, and not just bitch.  Let’s not just give thanks for those citizens willing to undertake such a thankless, repetitious task as prodding a Federal Agency, but emulate their example.  Citizens must get involved, report Housing Choice Voucher violations to the Authority and then keep on hounding it relentlessly.  That’s what the citizens in Pottstown that I wrote about last week did.  The story demonstrates what can be done, but fully acknowledges the time and effort required.  To call something time consuming, difficult and productive of—at best—only a “small victory” is pretty much the definition of a “wet blanket,” but that is the reality. 

If you ask the people who hounded the MCHA for a long time just to remove one voucher from its holder, I’m not sure they would say things are really any better.  N. Charlotte Street in Pottstown has much greater problems than abuse of a Housing Choice Voucher, witness a recent headline about drug and weapons seizures a few blocks up from our subject building.  But it also still has those citizens I wrote about, and others who keep the public’s focus on the problem, so there is hope.  We must remember that for them, the problem is not only real, it’s real close.  That makes what they do not only a thankless task, but also a downright risky one.  Perspective must tell us that also.

Perspective also says that the people I wrote about last week only lit one candle in the struggle against urban crime, so the view is not much improved.  But what if many others, in other communities, undertook such actions?  Even a wet blanket couldn’t put out the fires they would kindle.

Note:  I will resume my current blog schedule in two weeks, posting next on Friday, March 20.