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

Gloria Steinem

Monday, March 5, 2018

Montgomery County's Custodians Of The Past Have A Bright Future

The town of Norristown, Pennsylvania, has been stagnating for decades.  But buried in a residential area of north Norristown is a gem of an organization that itself was stagnating, also for decades, but is clearly on the road to revival and new heights of relevance.  Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned here, ones that apply to every town along the lower Schuylkill River.

I write about the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, located at 1654 DeKalb Street in Norristown.  I invite those of you from the Conshohockens, Bridgeport, Royersford and Pottstown to read this, because the HSMC is the County Society, not just “the Norristown historical society,” as too many ignorant people have proclaimed.  It preserves your history also.

The people of Montgomery County need to know more about the HSMC.  This month I write about the transformative experience the HSMC has undergone in recent years.  It is an example from which many can learn.  Next month I’ll write about how you and yours can take advantage of the Society’s new capabilities to write your own community’s history and see that it is preserved.

I write this first post from experience; I was a part-time employee of the Society between 1996 and 2001.  Those were some of the years of stagnation, and I can testify to that.  I don’t know when that period began, but by the time I began there it had been underway for some time, and had settled into a pattern.

Genealogy had almost single-handedly sustained the Society, and had become pretty much its sole focus.  The late Vivian Taylor and Rose Brown earned the Society high marks for its support of genealogists.  But little else got done, and nothing approaching maintenance.  The staff knew what the few researchers were looking for, and collected those works in an easy to reach location.  They recognized each book by sight, and paid no attention to its actual call number.  The mail—largely genealogical queries—was answered, the few visitors serviced (quite well), and the bills were paid, but that was about it. 

I remember clearly my first day at the Society, when I explored its nooks and crannies.  The upper floor of the stacks was an absolute mess; things just piled about, in no order, or in anything close to proper storage.  I was appalled to see that there was a window up there (who puts windows in an archival storage room?) that each day spread sunlight across a large pile of old newspapers that were just sitting there.  There were pre-Civil war papers, largely anti-slavery in theme.  Very valuable items just sat there, gradually fading under sunlight.  The last thing I did that first day was to take a piece of cardboard and tape it over the window, to keep out the sunlight.  I had to start somewhere.

Much of my time at the Society was spent simply moving things around.  One of my ongoing efforts (it took a couple of years to accomplish) was to slowly put all the books and pamphlets in their proper call number order, so someone who didn’t know what the book looked like could still find it, just like in a normal library.

The core of the Society’s collection is the many old, large, handwritten property records of Montgomery County.  They are huge, heavy, and hard to carry.  This group of books was divided into three different locations, and were themselves not in chronological order.  There was a good reason for that; the HSMC’s shelves were built from what must have been a giant erector set (anyone remember those?); everything was assembled with bolts and nuts and a wrench.  Shelf heights were adjustable, but only with a great deal of effort.  I kept working on those shelves, at the cost of a great many skinned knuckles, until they could accept items in their proper order.  Finally, one proud day, I could actually proclaim that every book in the collection (save those piled with the old newspapers on the upper floor of the stacks) was now filed in call number order.

The Society’s paper and bound items gradually assumed some order, but the massive collection of artifacts lay crammed together in the room that had been designed for meetings.  Some had been more or less properly stored, the work of the Society’s dedicated volunteers, but most items just sat on the floor or on temporary shelving.  There was barely a path to get through them.  I also had to be VERY careful not to touch the silk flag of the 151st Pennsylvania Regiment of Volunteers, which had sat draped around its pole since shortly after the Civil War.  One wrong move, and it might have crumbled before my eyes.

The reason for all of this was obvious: lack of income.  Everyone knew this, so the Society’s Executive Committee threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.  Alice Smith, the bedrock of the Society for decades, used to call us “paid volunteers,” and I can testify to the truth of that.  Early in my time there I visited the historical societies of both Chester and Bucks Counties, looking for context about the task ahead.  I discovered that the Chester County Society’s yearly budget deficit (more spent than collected) alone was greater than the entire year’s budget for the Montgomery County Society. 

Such a lack of funding meant an even greater reliance on volunteers for an organization that prided itself in its volunteer staff.  The entire executive committee and Board of Directors were, of course, unpaid, and put in countless hours trying to keep our head above the water.  Our staff of volunteers did most of the work, as is usual in such organizations.

In this account of things during the years of stagnation, I must also point to the single most important thing that the Society accomplished during those latter years:  obtaining ownership of Montgomery Cemetery.  Few today remember how close the cemetery came to becoming part of yet another townhouse development.  We fought against that proposal, then managed to secure ownership, thus saving a treasure of Montgomery County history.

But when it came to a historical society’s primary task, caring for items made fragile by age, enthusiasm, dedication, and hours invested by volunteers could not compensate for the lack of trained staff to properly catalog, care for, and interpret items in the Society’s collections.  The lack of trained staff was due to, of course, lack of money.  The end result was a sustained period of stagnation, just getting by.

But that was then, and, as I like to say, this is now, and things have changed.  I don’t know when the period of stagnation began, but I can date the point at which the inertia of motion replaced the inertia of rest.  I’d like to think that I had a small part in it, but the event that made the difference was the election of Ella Aderman as President of the Society.  She was, as I understand it, the first Society President to have actually trained in historic preservation.  The era of well-meaning amateurs was ending.  The path toward today was not smooth; such journeys never are.  The Society’s recent past is strewn with departures and hard feelings, but the end result simply cannot be denied.

Today, the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania seems to have been reborn.  Every member of its staff is a trained professional, for the first time in the Society’s history.  Items in the collection are getting the proper treatment, and the meeting room is back in service for community outreach.  Genealogy is still important, but the subjects you could learn about from the Society’s speakers and events are quite broad.  In March, 2018 alone, you can learn how to maximize your use of Ancestry.com in a class offered by a professional genealogist, or you can attend a workshop about the now-lost art of letter writing, featuring some of the exquisite examples from the HSMC collections, and even try your hand at writing in the old manner.  Or, of course, you could do both.

The above are just two of the offerings this month; the Society puts on talks and workshops every month.  There will be the annual Memorial Day celebration at Montgomery Cemetery, and so much more this year.  The Society’s quarterly newsletter the “Acorn,” is a constant source of new information discovered by the Society staff, and shared with members.

How did the HSMC accomplish this?  I have no idea, but the example it has set should cause some people to talk to them, because new money didn’t resurrect the Society; it was a cooperative effort under an established and adhered-to program.  There could be some lessons here.

The Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania still faces challenges, make no mistake about it.  That’s where you county residents can help (even without spending money), and the Society will in turn help you.  If you are proud of your town, your township, your church, your ethnicity, or any other local connection, you can help write their history, and see that it is preserved.  I’ll write about this opportunity next month.  In the meanwhile, stop by and check out the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.  It’s worth the visit.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Will the King of Prussia Rail Project Benefit Bridgeport, Norristown, or even King of Prussia?

It’s about time I got back to discussing my particular interest, “alternate transportation.”  Last month I advocated for the Lafayette Street-to-Turnpike project, as have done previously [5/29/15, 3/11/16, 4/8/16, 1/6/17].  I believe this project to be fundamental to any future renaissance of my favorite town, Norristown, Pennsylvania, and hence I support it.  But advocating for roads always leaves me with an underlying discontent.  I can repress it because, when the goal is community revitalization, one’s ideology should not color one’s examination of a proposal or project.  This month, with greater joy I turn to a currently-under-development-and-may-actually-happen project to build a new rail line in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

The “King of Prussia Rail Project” is only a short—less than five miles—east-west spur to the north-south Norristown High Speed Line that will run between King of Prussia and Bridgeport.  But it isn’t a local project; it’s part of a regional plan.  Its purpose is to establish another connection between King of Prussia and Philadelphia, one not subject to traffic jams.  Any benefits accruing to the residents through whose neighborhoods it will pass will be purely coincidental.

My headline for this post refers to the towns of Bridgeport and Norristown, but just the residents of King of Prussia; that particular Census Area doesn’t need much help.  But it’s going to get help anyway; that’s part of The Project’s reason for being. 

From my perspective, the King of Prussia Rail Project is yet another demonstration of a historical trend about which I have written before [2/11/14, 2/20/14], the shifting of economic influence from Philadelphia to King of Prussia.  The Project’s documents mention how it is designed to connect “Greater Philadelphia’s major centers of commerce and culture.”  Two of these three centers—downtown Philadelphia and University City—are already well connected, located just across a river as they are.  King of Prussia is the third, and despite what on a map may look like good road connections to the city, anyone who has driven them knows better. 

While a direct connection between King of Prussia and the downtown/University City area via the existing Regional Rail line would have been preferable, that was apparently dismissed as unfeasible.  Hence the connection is indirect, using the long-existing Norristown High Speed line to West Philly for most of the actual mileage itself.

Great things are predicted for the project, with most of the benefits seemingly going to King of Prussia.  But that hasn’t stopped the opposition from some King of Prussia residents.   

Local opposition to the project in Upper Merion Township revolves around the usual concerns, i.e., crime, noise pollution, and lowered property values.  These are typical NIMBY issues, the type that surface during every proposal for development.  But some of the arguments of the local opposition do serve to clarify the real intent behind the grand phrases.  Two statements by an opposition leader point out their major issue: "Most of the positives that could come out of this extension would be for people outside Upper Merion Township," and “At best, this train is mainly supported by nonresidents and businesses.”  The author is correct on both points, but that’s not going to make any difference. 

The project is the result of a macro focus on regional transportation; benefits for the King of Prussia residents will be few and far between.  The new line will have five stops in Upper Merion, but only one of them will serve the area residents, the one at Henderson Road.  The others are destination stops at the favored local business locations.  Local opinion seems to have been significant only in the selection of the specific route, particularly in the rejection of the Route 202 route option, which was roundly condemned.  Still, you can’t route the line away from everybody, or it really would serve no purpose.  Some King of Prussia residents remain concerned about the project’s effect on their properties.

My major problem is how Valley Forge Park has become part of the project’s supposed selling points.  The train’s final stop westbound is being touted as “a stone’s throw away” from Valley Forge National Park.  This is more than a little disingenuous; the final stop is at the Valley Forge Casino.  If the Park was a real destination, why not extend the line to the park itself?  Still, I guess it sounds better to invoke history than to admit you are actually just making it easier for more people to come from farther away to throw away their money.

What the project does seem to offer is better transportation for those that use public transit, i.e., working people, and that is certainly a positive.  King of Prussia offers a great many jobs, but is almost inaccessible for anyone without a car. 

Still, despite all the claims about the huge number of riders that will use the trains (ridership on the High Speed Line is expected to increase by between 61% and 81%), don’t count on traffic in King of Prussia getting any better.  The project won’t make an appreciable difference during the already-known bad times of the day (or year). 

So commerce in the King of Prussia area will definitely benefit, as will some of the people that work there, but what about the eastern end, i.e., Bridgeport?  

From the perspective of distance, it is difficult to see how the project can be of anything but help to Bridgeport, although how much is uncertain.  Once completed, a look at the map would show the Borough at the nexus of a transportation network that connects the Borough to a significant portion of the Delaware valley.  Of course, the perspective given to distance simultaneously erases knowledge the details, and it is in the details where the devil resides, is it not?

We must also remember that Bridgeport is already connected to the vast majority of this network, and has been for over one hundred years.  Clearly, its positive impact has been limited.  Will what is only a short extension to the west improve things for Bridgeport, or will it just add more areas to those just travelling through Bridgeport can reach?  And here’s a heretical thought for you: could Norristown’s Lafayette Street Project actually be more beneficial to Bridgeport than King of Prussia Rail?  Time will tell.

As for Norristown, the King of Prussia Rail Project should provide the final piece of evidence about where and what is planned for development.  It’s not Main Street, it’s the Lafayette Street/Schuylkill River corridor, with the Regional Transportation Center as its centerpiece.  Transit connections—Regional Rail, High Speed Line, King of Prussia Rail, buses and bicycles—are what hopes are based on.  They are encouraging more people to pass through, in the hopes that some will like what they see and move nearby.

I actually like this approach, but only one thing about the rail project’s effect on Norristown is clear to me at this point.  Once the King of Prussia Rail Project is completed, people who live north of the Schuylkill River should no longer drive their cars to King of Prussia in order to do their Christmas shopping there.  Drive to the Norristown Transportation Center instead, park your car and take the train.  It has two stops at the Mall, and even if your destination store is some distance from either one, is that really longer than you would have to walk if you parked, assuming you could find a parking space at all?

Amidst all this vagueness, a word of warning: the King of Prussia Rail Project will ultimately depend on Federal money to finance actual construction.  The project, long planned under a more beneficent Federal approach toward rails, was estimated to cost just over $1 billion dollars at this point, and by the time all the required steps are taken, you can expect the total to rise.  Whether we ever see anything more than beautiful “artist’s conceptions,” of the King of Prussia Rail Project will depend on the attitude taken by future Federal administrations.   That renders its near future rather more questionable, although the recent spate of media articles about the project tend to ignore this point.  

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Hm, you don’t suppose…?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Wishing You A Happy "America First" Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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