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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, January 6, 2017

Attention Norristown: No Turnpike Interchange, No Revival

My wishes for a happy and prosperous new year to all of YOU, my readers!

I hate to begin a year by discussing potential bad news, particularly when it concerns my favorite town, Norristown, Pennsylvania, but I must.  I interrupt my series of posts on ethnicity and immigration to call attention to something that recently transpired within the Pennsylvania state bureaucracy.  Consider this a warning about a possible turn of events what would be catastrophic to Norristown’s chances for a revival any time soon.  It would also damage those of Bridgeport across the river, as well.

Those of you who read this post’s title with alarm, please bear with me.  If you are reading this from one of the websites to which I regularly post a link, such as Strong Towns or Urbansim, or one such as Urban Transportation Center Friends, in which I publish when my subject is relevant, my basic point, that the future regeneration of Norristown, Pa., is dependent upon connecting a street directly to a new Turnpike Interchange, is probably not what you want to hear.  I am fully aware of the irony when I, an advocate for alternative transportation, support something like a turnpike interchange, but I have my reasons.

First, some information about the threat:  On November 16, the PA Turnpike Commission issued a press release, one of many in its ongoing battle with the Legislature and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) over payments it is required to make, in addition to expenditures on capital upgrades.  It issued a list of six capital funding projects, already approved, that may be delayed or cancelled “if future financial or economic conditions dictate.”  One of these is the new cashless interchange planned to connect the Turnpike to Norristown’s Lafayette Street.  Should this happen, the money spent so far to rebuild Lafayette Street to accommodate the traffic to and from the new interchange would be largely wasted.

If this interchange is, in fact, cancelled, the consequences for all Norristown will be dire.  Why should this be?  My posts of 3/11/16 and 4/8/16 dealt with the importance of the interchange to Norristown, but here is a short summary:

Norristown, a municipality along the lower Schuylkill River, is the capital of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.  Like its sister towns, Norristown was built on industry.  Unlike them, Norristown never developed a dominant industry; variety was its characteristic.  For more than a century, Norristown’s Main Street was also the county’s primary commercial retail center.  The combination of government, industry and retail commerce built a thriving, prosperous town.

Both the industries and the retail stores are gone now.  Not all of them, of course, but the town has existed in a type of stagnation since the mid-1970s.  In the electronic age, county government no longer brings people to Norristown, so that is no longer much of a prop.

The 2010 Census says Norristown has 35,000 residents, but there may be many thousands more living there unregistered.  This should alert you to the fact that while Norristown’s economic statistics over the past few decades may deserve the term “stagnation,” the changes in the makeup of its population certainly do not.  They have, in fact, been profound, unprecedented and, for the lower Schuylkill at least, singular.

Each town along the river was established by portions of the region’s first settlers, largely of Northern and Western European stock.  But each grew in size and prosperity because of the waves of immigrants that came up the river (actually on the railroad) from the middle of the 19th century through the first decade of the 20th.  Each became a polyglot mixture of ethnicities, but Norristown differed because of the large number of Italians that settled there.  Bridgeport’s position just across the river led it to receive a substantial number of Italians also.

As I am in the process of arguing in the blog series this post interrupts, Hispanics are today playing the role of Italians from a century ago.  One of the main things in common is their concentration in Norristown.  We are as yet uncertain as to whether the Hispanics are also “chain migrants” as the Italians were, but comparatively low rents and living expenses are very likely a factor.

This, in turn, points to Norristown’s central problem.  A general lack of commercial or industrial taxable properties has placed an onerous burden on the residential taxpayers, at least compared to the visible results of their steadily increasing municipal bills.  The fact that Norristown possesses far and away the largest number of “Section 8” housing vouchers of any town in Montgomery County, contributes to both edges of the scissors cutting into the town’s loyal, but increasingly frustrated, taxpayers.

That’s why I argue that, while no one disputes the need for new businesses, it is fundamentally an improvement in the economic status of Norristown’s residents that is required.  In other words, new residents who possess disposable income because they hold responsible jobs.  There are two potential paths to attracting such new residents: an increase in both the number and quality of locally available jobs, or a good, quick connection to the local superhighway system, thus allowing new residents to work elsewhere.

There aren’t going to be any substantial number of new industrial jobs to underwrite this change.  That leaves what I broadly term “service” jobs.  Those jobs are going to service the needs of the local population and, hopefully, a substantial number from the suburbs.  That makes the jobs/residents dichotomy a “chicken or the egg” type of argument.   

So, if we focus instead on people who will live in Norristown but work elsewhere, what does Norristown offer to attract such people?

Two concerns seem to rank above the rest for the people Norristown desires: the neighborhood and the school system.  Norristown offers a decidedly mixed bag in both categories.  Norristown does possess the type of older housing stock that finds favor with young people seeking an urban lifestyle.  Rather too much of it is in the hands of slumlords, and thus deteriorating, and the heavy presence of “Section 8” doesn’t help, but it’s there, if often in a “fixer-upper” condition.

Pubic safety is a mixed bag, as follows in an urban setting described above.  You can get an argument about this, but I believe that things are looking up.  I am a big fan of Police Chief Talbot and his attempts to better connect his department with the people they serve.

The Norristown Area School System offers both positives and negatives, for essentially the same reason as Norristown’s neighborhoods.  In fact, I believe that the school system gets a bad rap; it’s a lot better run, and its teachers are better, than standardized test scores would indicate.

Two mixed bags will not suffice to bring in the type of new residents that are desired, but Norristown does possess one quite valuable—and exploitable—asset: its frontage along the Schuylkill River.  That’s always been valuable, of course; it was where the railroads ran and industries wanted to locate.  They have gone, but nothing has replaced them.  In my book, They’ve Been Down So Long…Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, I wrote about what is replacing them in other towns: residences and recreation.  What had historically been the riverfront’s lowest priorities have today become its highest.  Both residence and recreation offer the river towns much-needed taxables, and even jobs.

A huge asset to this is the still-developing network of ex-railroad beds converted to trails.  The Schuylkill River Trail already exists up the river from Philadelphia to Pottstown, and it runs right through Norristown.  Other such trails are in the works, and many will intersect with this one and then each other.  An alternate transportation network is slowly evolving, right under our noses.*

Young professionals are increasingly drawn to alternative transportation and to residence near beautiful recreational opportunities.  Norristown already possesses some of both, but virtually its entire waterfront still lies open and unused, a tempting target for development.

This requires another component be added to the mix: I call it “proximity to transportation,” and unfortunately, in Southeast Pennsylvania, that means limited-access highways.  The benefits of a close connection to them were first demonstrated in the heretofore sleepy village of King of Prussia, and more recently in both the Conshohockens, just downriver from Norristown.

That’s what the now-threatened Turnpike interchange can do for Norristown: provide an almost dedicated connection, offering a quick commute along a recently widened and improved Lafayette Street.  With one end at the Turnpike and the other at Norristown’s underdeveloped riverfront, such a Lafayette Street becomes the path to revival.  If the new and improved Lafayette Street only dead ends near the Turnpike, then almost the whole point of the project will be lost.

I have been focusing on Norristown, but as I noted at the beginning, the Turnpike interchange is an important for Bridgeport also.  It lies just across the river, and a widened Lafayette Street with a connection to the Turnpike would offer Bridgeport much the same opportunity to attract new residents, for the same reasons.  I've made this point before, but I'll make it again: the futures of Norristown and Bridgeport are linked, just as their pasts are.

It’s not time to panic, but it is time to be vigilant.  It is also the time to for all Norristown--and Bridgeport--residents to become aware of just how catastrophic the cancellation of the Lafayette Street Turnpike interchange would be.  Once that is understood, it is time for them to contact their elected representatives at the state level and beseech them to avoid a decision that would have such a negative effect on both towns.  Spread the word.

*Norristown already has the area’s best rail connections to Philadelphia; two lines to two locations (the remnants of a much greater system, of course).  They are, however, already close to maxed out by development in the Conshohockens, and future expansion of the system would be a shaky reed to lean on.

Friday, December 2, 2016

In Norristown, Pa., Hispanics Are The New Italians, For Sure

This is the third of my series of posts to focus on immigration and ethnicity in America, as viewed through my subject towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  I began with a discussion of the post-WW I nativist reaction that was generated, in substantial part, by fear of the large numbers of “un-American” immigrants from southern Europe, i.e., Italy.  Last time I began to examine the potential similarities between the two movements.  This post continues that examination, but as the national situation looms in the background of all current immigration conversations, I must add an update.  My previous post, published just before our national election, contained the following sentence:  Whether Congress produces the 21st century version of its previous regressive and racist policy, or pursues a different course, remains to be seen.  Things still remain to be seen, but it appears that the chances of the former being reenacted have substantially increased.  Still, we remain in that limbo of which I spoke.  Conclusions are premature, because to learn more about what is really happening.

Last time I identified the broad, but likely coincidental, trans-century time frame for both immigration periods.  Using conveniently available on-line data for the period between 2000 and 2013, it was also clear that that the smaller towns have accepted not just fewer Hispanics, but fewer by percentage, as was the case during the previous period of immigration.

In another obvious point of comparison, I began to examine the data for a correlation between a town’s prosperity—and thus rents, not to mention property values—and its attractiveness to immigrants.  I reminded my readers that, “Throughout history, with very few exceptions, immigrants have arrived in their new lands with little money.  If you are looking for where they settled, you can pretty much bet it wasn’t the richer part of town.  Today’s version of that principle in the lower Schuylkill valley focuses on towns rather than neighborhoods, and no town among my subject eight is doing better than Conshohocken.  Property values—and rents—are sky high.  West Conshohocken comes close (particularly on a per-capita basis), adding to the reasons for its low percentage of Hispanics.

So far, so good, but this latter judgment requires some further explanation, as the data on town population and immigrant percentages demonstrated.  West Conshohocken, arguably the borough with the highest home values, is also by some margin the smallest river town, and should thus be the most resistant to Hispanic immigrants.  Between 2000 and 2013, however, West Conshohocken experienced the third highest percentage increase of Hispanic population among the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill.  Conshohocken across the river is much larger, and is doing at least equally well, but has experienced a smaller percentage increase in Hispanics.  And what about Phoenixville?  It is doing quite well, yet during the 2000 – 2013 survey period, Phoenixville had the highest increase in Hispanic residents, by either percentage or number, of any town not named Norristown.

Another interesting point of similarity between then and now involves Pottstown.  Pottstown, although the second oldest borough on the lower Schuylkill (1815), did not see any substantial number of immigrant settlers arrive until decades later.  Its population remained largely homogenous—Protestants, largely of German descent—until the late 1800s.  Today, it seems that a similar process is taking place.  Between 2000 and 2013 Pottstown experienced the smallest percentage increase in Hispanics of the eight towns.  Pottstown’s depressed property values should serve as a considerable draw, but they don’t.  Why does Pottstown, despite its larger population and lower living costs, have so few Hispanics? 

Regardless of the above preliminary theses (or, more correctly, questions), the major message the data sends us is that discussion of the differences in the Hispanic population between seven of the eight towns is basically just quibbling.  West Conshohocken’s jump in Hispanic population between 2000 and 2013 added just 45 people to its population.  Even Phoenixville, with the second largest population and the second largest increase in Hispanic residents, had less than 900 Hispanic residents in 2013.  The real numbers are in Norristown, and that is so far the biggest similarity between Italians then and Hispanics now. 

The dramatic difference between the Hispanic population of Norristown and of all the other river towns is actually quite reminiscent of how things played out just before and after the beginning of the 20th century.  Back then, by far the largest number of Italian immigrants to the lower Schuylkill settled in Norristown, with what was effectively a spillover into Bridgeport.  The other river towns gained Italian communities of varying size, but that of Norristown dominated in every statistical category.

This being “the good old days,” the municipal government, real estate agents and local landlords were able to conspire and place the new arrivals in the dirtiest, least developed (and served) part of the town, the East End.  This ghettoization of Italians was practiced for over half a century.  As late as 1950, there was still an unwritten rule that Italians could not live west of DeKalb Street or north of Fornance Street.  The Italian-dominated eastern end of town never received the attention other parts (mainly the north) received, as Italians continued to suffer discrimination.  Despite the fact that the Humane Fire Company—one of Norristown’s earliest—was located in the eastern part of town, no Italians were allowed to join.  The concentrated Italian population did eventually grant them considerable voting power within what was then Borough Council, although its prime beneficiaries (Paul Santangelo dominant among them) did little to advance Norristown.

It was a long, hard struggle, but the Italians overcame, and the evidence of that is everywhere.  Norristown’s Christopher Columbus Monument was financed by the Italian community, out of ethnic pride and because, by the second half of the 20th century, any list of the area’s financial, business and political elite was crowded with Italian surnames.  Throw in the sports and entertainment figures, and the reputation of Norristown Italians has spread far and wide.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the migration of Italians to Norristown is that as many as 90 to 95% percent of them came from the same village, Sciacca, in Sicily.  This was an example of what scholars refer to as “chain migration,” whereby the first to arrive send back such glowing reports that others follow, and continue to do so.  It represents a continuation of the old localism in a new environment; those Italians who settled just outside Norristown, in Plymouth Township, came from a different area, on the Italian mainland.

Might Hispanics be doing the same thing?  Where do they come from?  We don’t know at this point, because there are a lot of things we don’t know about this new wave of immigrants.  The issue of “legality” ensures that much goes unsaid, at least to official ears.  We do know a great deal about Italians in Norristown; they have appeared in more than one Ph.D. dissertation.  Mind you, I am not criticizing the current state of scholarship, because those studies and Ph.D. dissertations were written almost a half century after the peak of the Italian immigration period.  I can’t but think how significant comparable studies of the Hispanic migration might prove.
It took a long while for Italians to overcome, and today there is much less discrimination (particularly of the lawful variety) to restrict and restrain the new immigrants.  Hispanic businesses began to appear more quickly, and have proliferated in the West End.  Walk down the four blocks of West Marshall Street on a nice day, and you will experience the very picture of growth: new restaurants, cafes retail stores, and even music floating out onto the sidewalk from the activity within them.  These people certainly didn’t arrive depending on the “free benefits” that immigrants are supposedly receiving.  They brought with them a drive, an energy to succeed and make things better for their children.  Rather like the Italians, and for that matter, every immigrant group that has arrived on our shores.  The more things change…

And here’s the real kicker:  there may be a lot more Hispanics in Norristown than anyone realizes.  My analysis during the previous posts has been based on the population figures of a group of websites designed to sell homes in these towns.  I think that ensures the most accurate information available, but just how accurate is it?  Using those figures, the 2013 Hispanic population of Norristown was listed at 26.3% of 35,407 residents.  That’s 9,312 people (discounting the partial person).  The website updates those numbers to 2014, and lists the Hispanic population at 9,128, a small drop.  But an article about Norristown earlier this year quoted a Municipal Councilman as saying that there may be as many as 12,000 to 15,000 additional people living in town.  If so, they are uncounted by anyone, and not in the figures we have been using, or anyone else’s, for that matter.  Even if they are not all Hispanics (as many might quickly assume), there could be twice as many Hispanics in Norristown as the unofficial estimates count.

This is the crux of the problem.  We just don’t know enough about the local reality in Norristown—or anywhere else—to make rational, long-range plans.  Actions at the national level will ultimately determine the overall shape of any “answer to the problem,” but that just leaves local municipalities in the lurch until then.  In the meantime, however, given that Hispanics now constitute at least one-third of Norristown’s population, regardless of what figures you use, one thing should be clear:  Norristown’s revival must include Hispanics as a basic building block.  They are essential.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Are Hispanics The New Italians? There Are Some Things In Common…

I have begun a series of posts on ethnic change in America, as viewed through my eight subject cities on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  Last month I wrote about the unpleasant national reaction to immigrants—primarily Italians—after the First World War, when our government attempted to structure the racial and ethnic makeup of the nation to favor the descendants of northern and western European immigrants.  My point was how immigrants judged too far from the mainstream—primarily, but by no means exclusively, Italians—generated a regressive and nativist reaction that swept through Congress.  

Today, a similar pattern is discernable, and there is support for an even more sweeping resolution of “the immigration problem” than was contained in the Acts of the 1920s.   This time the xenophobia is directed against Hispanics, with Italians not missing from those who feel this way.  This is the overarching story, and we are still in the middle of the second part, but there are other interesting parallels.  This time I pick up the national thread, and then compare the two periods of increased immigration in the lower Schuylkill valley, looking for what is different, and for what is much the same.

After almost closing the door to immigrants, America spent the next few decades learning to celebrate not so much its immigrant past but the concept of “assimilation,” i.e., the melding together of disparate ethnic strains into something called “an American.”  This took place largely during the mid-20th century, that period to which we look back with so much longing (I’m talking about after WWII, of course).  This was “The American Half-Century,” when we dominated the world’s economy.  We prospered by making things and selling them to other countries, recording the greatest period of economic progress in our nation’s history. 

What is underappreciated is that this period was actually an outlier in American history.  There were no waves of immigrants arriving on our shores.  They came, certainly, but not in anywhere like the numbers of before, and they tended to be better off, both in education and wealth.  But by the last decades of the century, things had changed again.  A new immigrant wave began to draw notice, this time not by people who arrived by ship, but those who walked.  As the half-century began to draw to a close, one of the signs of its closure was renewed concern about immigration.  This concern was manifest among “white America.”  Fortunately, “white” by that time largely included Italians.  Seizing the opportunity, these descendants of immigrants joined in turning the weapons and the phrases once used against themselves towards the new arrivals, Hispanics.

That’s pretty much where we are today.  It’s a limbo of sorts, as the ultimate question of “legality” remains to be settled.  Whether Congress produces the 21st century version of its previous regressive and racist policy, or pursues a different course, remains to be seen.  In the meanwhile, what can we, while in the midst of this new wave of immigrants, learn from the previous wave?  So much has changed; can the two really be compared?  Hispanics have settled in the lower Schuylkill valley; data about how many and where they settled provide some interesting comparisons of this current wave to the previous one.

We are trying to read numbers, but which ones to use, and from what source?  We are slightly more than halfway between national Censuses, which makes our official numbers—as of 2010—somewhat out of date.  Websites offer more recent data, but its veracity should remain suspect, at all times.  Keeping that in mind, I did some online research on the racial and ethnic makeup of the river towns.  I employed city-data.com for this.  It is one of several companies that market information to prospective home buyers.  I chose it largely because it offers structurally identical sites on each of the river towns.  It is thus likely that these different sites employ the same methodology in acquiring and presenting their data.  This eliminates any conscious (or unconscious) effort on my part to manipulate the data by comparing different methodologies.  I can thus use this data for comparison purposes.  I otherwise make no claims as to its accuracy.

The data is offered in both raw numbers and percentages.  This is important, because we are analyzing population change among towns of greatly varying population.  Norristown’s 2013 population of 35,407 was more than twice as large as Phoenixville, and almost twenty-eight times as large as West Conshohocken.  Its African-American population is almost twice the size of that of the other seven river towns combined.  In such cases, percentages work better than totals for the larger picture, although the totals must be periodically inserted to keep things in perspective.   

City-data.com’s structure allows only comparison between 2000 and 2013.  It would be nice to have more recent data than 2013, but using 2000 gives us thirteen years of perspective, so we’ll work with what has happened to the Hispanic presence in the river towns between 2000 and 2013.  How does this new wave reflect previous waves of immigrants?  How is it different?  It’s much too early for a historian to draw conclusions to those questions, but not too early to offer some initial theses, points that deserve further study.  I’m going to focus both on what has changed and what hasn’t.

In the broadest sense, that of time, the comparison between Italians and Hispanics holds up.  The great wave of Italians came during the last century of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.  The great wave of Hispanics has—so far—spanned much the same transition period between the 20th and 21st centuries. During the 1970s, the illegal immigrant population of the U.S. was estimated to be 1.1 million.  Illegal immigration during the 1980s more than doubled, rising to 1.3 million.  That number jumped even further during the 1990s to almost 6 million, and during that decade Mexico became the largest national source.  The numbers continued to rise during the 2000s, and Hispanics solidified their primary place among them after the post-9/11 reaction that tightened security of our air and sea borders. 

These are significant parallels in timing, but they are also quite likely coincidental.  We should also not forget that Italians were but the latest major arrivals in a long period of substantial immigration while Hispanics largely stand alone in our current comparative period.  History does not repeat itself; patterns do.

The movement of Hispanics into the lower Schuylkill Valley is also demonstrating another characteristic in common with the Italians: the smaller towns are receiving not just fewer people, but fewer by percentage.  When we are talking about immigrants who settled in towns, rather than those in agriculture, it is clear that the smallest towns offered the fewest opportunities to new immigrants, then and now.  Opportunity here is defined as both economic—jobs available—and social—less community opposition.  This means that along with fewer jobs, a town with a small population could offer more unified resistance to newcomers.  The three smallest towns on the lower Schuylkill—West Conshohocken, Spring City and Royersford—largely resisted the many ethnicities of the 19th/20th century migration wave, and appear to be doing the same thing today.

The 2013 population numbers online demonstrate that the smaller the town, the lower the percentage of Hispanics, but demonstrate something else also.  To appreciate this, we must remember that the river towns break into two groups by population; the lower five and the upper three.  In 2013, Conshohocken, with 7,780 people, was the most populous town of the lower five, but had less than half the population of the next most populous town, Phoenixville, which posted 16,440 in the same year.

The five smallest towns possessed the lowest percentages of Hispanics, but there was no break in the number of Hispanics proportionate to that of the overall populations of either Phoenixville or Pottstown, the next two most populous towns.  Here are the river towns, ranked by percentage of Hispanics, followed by their overall populations, in 2013:

Town                                          % of Hispanics                       Total Population
Spring City:                                   2.3%                                                3,359 
Conshohocken:                            3.5%                                               7,870
Royersford:                                  4.2%                                                4,784
West Conshohocken:                 4.5%                                                1,273
Bridgeport                                   4.7%                                                 4,580
Pottstown:                                   5.3%                                               22,665
Phoenixville:                               7.9%                                               16,440
Norristown:                               26.3%                                             35,407 

That’s a pretty slow percentage rise, until you get to Norristown.   

I will get get to Norristown in next month’s post.  I’m going to close this time by pointing out another way in which the current influx of Hispanics follows traditional patterns.  Conshohocken, despite having the largest population of the lower five, ranks second on the fewest-Hispanics scale.  This is a current demonstration of one of the most traditional truths about immigrants:  Throughout history, with very few exceptions, immigrants have arrived in their new lands with little money.  If you are looking for where they settled, you can pretty much bet it wasn’t the richer part of town.  Today’s version of that principle in the lower Schuylkill valley focuses on towns rather than neighborhoods, and no town among my subject eight is doing better than Conshohocken.  Property values—and rents—are sky high.  West Conshohocken comes close (particularly on a per-capita basis), adding to the reasons for its low percentage of Hispanics.

In discussing the similarities between the arrival of the Italians and the Hispanics, Norristown deserves a post all its own.  See you next month.