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

Gloria Steinem

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
  Phoenixville

7 PM:                Historical Society of Montgomery County
  1654 DeKalb Street
  Norristown

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.
                           Norristown

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?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Will A New Exit Be A New Opportunity?

I’m a big supporter of transportation alternatives to the automobile.  But I also live in the real world, and in that world too many places have too few such alternatives.  Even those with the best alternative connections cannot depend on them entirely, or even primarily.  I thus find myself in the odd position of saying something positive about a new road connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Municipality of Norristown is an excellent example of good connections connections not being nearly good enough.  Norristown’s rail links to Philadelphia are among the best in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Regional Rail Line to Center City and the Route 100 line to 69th Street intersect at the SEPTA Transportation Center on Lafayette Street.   A substantial parking garage and connections to local bus lines make Norristown a regional transportation hub.  Rail connections have helped the long-suffering town, but a road now under construction holds the promise of a great deal more, and not just to Norristown.  Its completion will mark yet another twist in the tangled relationship between Norristown and the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the sixty-five years that they have coexisted.  Back in 1950, Norristown spurned a connection to the Turnpike; today it sees one as its salvation. 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike arrived in the pastoral farmland known locally as “King of Prussia” in late 1950.  This was, for a brief time, its “Eastern Terminus,” but everybody knew that the Commonwealth was committed to completing the Turnpike from state line to state line, so the terminus was temporary.  Plans for another extension followed quite shortly, in fact, and the public release of a preliminary map caused an uproar in Norristown.  The reason was a turnpike exit planned for Norristown’s eastern border with Plymouth Township.  The entire business and political community (okay, mostly the same people) arose in virulent opposition, headed by the man who knew something about virulence, Borough Councilman Paul Santangelo.  His ward lay directly adjacent to the affected area, and change out of his control was a non-starter for him.  To be fair, however, he wasn’t in his usual role of opposition, but stood with virtually everyone else in opposing this exit, which they were sure would hurt downtown Main Street.  Letters, petitions and caravans to Harrisburg were employed, and The Commonwealth actually listened.  It relocated the exit to where it still is, further into Plymouth Township, to connect to Germantown Pike.  

Well, downtown Main Street collapsed anyway, and Norristown notables and merchants could only observe with real pain the different trajectory those areas close to the Turnpike exits experienced.  Mind you, the Turnpike had a “Norristown Exit.”  The sign said so.  Unfortunately, said exit did not connect to Norristown.  In fact, until recent upgrades improved the situation, a driver had to pay very close attention to a couple of very small signs or find himself well up Germantown Pike before realizing the problem (I have always wondered whether this was deliberate, by a Turnpike Authority smarting from the overwhelming rejection Norristown administered to its original plan).

So it followed that Norristown, which at first glance on a map (remember that archaic item?) appeared to be located at the center of a road transportation network, was actually, upon closer inspection, seen to be isolated from it.  Later generations of Norristown activists would rail against this lack of a true connection, while time largely erased the memory of whose fault it really was.  The Turnpike’s “Norristown Exit” remained a local sick joke for a very long time.

But all that is changing, and Norristown will, at long last, have a real connection to the Turnpike.  This connection will actually lead to Norristown, Lafayette Street to be specific.  You will be able to use it within…well…years.  The target date as of now is 2020, but we should all expect that to slide.  They always do.  A press release by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission dates the origin of the effort to 1999, when the County funded a study about the idea, but it had been batted around for years before that.

Now, finally, physical evidence is beginning to mount, and the future can be at least dimly ascertained.  Work in Norristown to upgrade Lafayette Street is well along, the stretch through Plymouth Township is under construction and PennDot recently announced that it had obtained funding to construct the Turnpike intersection itself. 

Josh Shapiro, Chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners, calls the project “a game changer, as it will be a key part of revitalizing Norristown, improving access to both municipalities, increasing smooth traffic flow and reducing congestion on Ridge Pike and Main Street.”  He might very well be correct to call this a “game changer,” but if it is, then the increased activity it will foster will also generate additional traffic, so don’t get your hopes too high about the “reducing congestion” part.

Another—and much more significant—reason is that this project will definitely have a considerable effect on Conshohocken and perhaps even on Bridgeport.  It will provide the former with a second access point to the Turnpike.  That is definitely going to impact traffic on Fayette Street and Matsonford Road, as some drivers from both boroughs will discover that the new route is actually better for them.  In the larger view, it will both relieve the fear of some about success “choking” Conshohocken, and may be the key to yet another surge of development (toward another “choking” perhaps?).  It will open up Conshohocken Road for development , which means Plymouth Township may gain more than Conshohocken in such a new surge, but few will be unhappy about spreading the new wealth around, except those in the area during rush hour.

While the new interchange/road will directly affect Conshohocken, I'm keeping an interested eye on Bridgeport.  Connections to major roads are coming closer and closer to the borough.  A Lafayette Street connection to the Turnpike would be the nearest yet, just across the river, and promises a much quicker journey to the Turnpike than driving down U.S Rt. 202.  Could a new travel route tempt more people to take advantage of the considerable price difference Bridgeport offers over its surrounding areas?  The contrast between West Conshohocken and Bridgeport is remarkable, considering how close they are and is solid evidence that accessibility to major roads is a determining factor.  Those roads are getting steadily closer to Bridgeport, and at some point may swing the pendulum of prosperity toward the borough.  Time is money, which includes commuting time, so the appearance of a major new connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike is going to have a much broader effect that just on Norristown.  Count on it and plan for it; you know that the land development specialists are already doing both.

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.