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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, February 27, 2015

Crime And Section 8: You CAN Make A Difference

During August and September of last year, I published a series of posts on the Housing Choice Voucher Program, the most infamous component of what is known as “Section 8.”  I focused on the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA), and on the disconnect between Bureaucracy World and the real world.  In one post I and observed that, “The fiercest critics of the MCHA are those who live in the real world, often near its clients.  They view the problems on an individual basis, and at no small risk to themselves.  They know something is wrong, not just because of the numbers around them, but in the behavior of all too many of the program’s beneficiaries, their neighbors.”

I’m pleased to tell you about a few neighbors in Pottstown, Pa. who, after realizing what was wrong, decided to do something about it.  It’s a story of a small victory achieved after much effort.  Pottstown should be pleased that it has such citizens.

On April 15, 2013, Goldencockroach.com posted the first of what would be several articles about a woman named Tracey Accor, a single parent, and it would appear, a serial criminal, with drugs being a recurrent theme.  She had just moved from one house in Pottstown—after trashing it—to another.  She brought her Housing Choice Voucher with her.   She had somehow managed to retain it, despite having been the frequent target of the Pottstown police and the subject of a complaint filed with the Montgomery County Housing Authority by her previous landlord.  The change of address did not alter her habits, but it brought her close to residents who care about their neighborhood, and were willing to step forward and do something about it.

These people saw their neighborhood being damaged by a “family” (of differing numbers) living in squalor and in defiance of pretty much every law and standard of human conduct, including that of proper child care.  They contacted the police, and then they went further.  That’s because they learned that Tracey Accor’s residence next to them was being substantially subsidized by the MCHA.  They began to pursue the matter, at no small risk to themselves.  I say that because they lived near to the residence in question, and had every reason to fear retaliation.  One of these individuals emailed Joel Johnson, Director of the MCHA, on May 30, 2014.  He informed Mr. Johnson of the many violations of the law that were ongoing, and asked for an investigation.  Mr. Johnson replied on August 27.  He apologized for the delay, informed the writer that the investigation was “ongoing and active,” and thanked him for his “new information.”

If the May 30th inquiry was “new information,” then the MCHA was already well aware of the situation by that date.  That made the delayed reply both hopeful and worrisome at the same time.  A matter already underway in May might actually be close to resolution by the end of August, right?  Wrong. 

The writer was not deterred by bureaucratic delay.  He kept sending emails, to keep up the pressure.  Reading them makes depressing reading, particularly when you factor in the passage of time.  The resident faithfully reported a consistent pattern of misconduct that certainly included violations of MCHA regulations.  In one reply, the MCHA, in a late November email, reminded the resident that even if the voucher was revoked, any eviction was solely up to the landlord, not the MCHA.  Not a good sign, but our writer would not give up.

Finally, an email dated December 31 from the MCHA informed the writer that as of January 1, 2015, Tracey Accor would no longer possess a Housing Choice Voucher.  Remember that back in 2013 the landlord at her previous residence had filed a complaint, and that Joel Johnson had termed our writer’s intervention in May of 2014 as “new information.”  Goldencockroach.com estimates that it required 2.5 years for Tracey Accor to lose her voucher, and she would know.  The complaint that I was able to track required seven months, despite periodic stimulation by email.

That is clearly too long.  Unfortunately, I am willing to believe that it is probably the norm for such actions, even the ones that are aggressively pursued by the citizen complainers.  I’m also not going to make it personal and suggest that Joel Johnson or any of his staff were deliberately dogging it.  The wheels of government, as powered by Federal regulations, grind exceedingly slowly.  That’s not a defense, by the way.  I do not approve; I merely understand, and part of what I understand is that venting on Facebook doesn’t speed things up.

And what about the owner of the building during all this time?  Didn’t he know what was going on?  Didn’t he care?  The answer to the last two questions appear to be “yes,” and “no.”  In the interest of full disclosure—and because I hold slumlords in even lower regard than I hold poverty scammers—the landlord’s name is Sam Essam Shedid (the spelling seems to vary).  He bears a responsibility for what happened, but more for the fact that things continued to happen, which he did nothing about.  I want to contrast his (non)reaction to what was happening on his property to the response of the owner of Tracey Accor’s previous residence, who filed a complaint with the MCHA.  His name is Chris Dailey, and if I am going to publish the names of landlords who do wrong or do nothing, then it is only fair that I mention landlords like Mr. Dailey, who try to do right.  So, if you’re looking for a rental property in Pottstown, you know someone to avoid and someone worth a look.

This is the very definition of a “small victory.”  Tracey Accor lost her voucher, which hopefully can now go to someone more honest, and these are two points to the good.  On the other hand, it is unlikely that the loss has spurred Ms. Accor to more responsible behavior, so the problem hasn’t been solved.  In fact, it’s just been relocated.  In a final indignity, it is reported that Ms. Accor has just moved to another address, whose renter is also reputedly a voucher holder.

A great many people would say that the effort wasn’t worth it.  They are wrong.  They are also the ones who would rather rail against the darkness than light a candle, and that is worse than being wrong.  They are also the ones who have helped to render “Section 8” into the myth that it has become.  So I will conclude this post with a tribute to those who are willing to make the effort for a better neighborhood.  Pottstown is the better for those I have been writing about, and I continue to believe that its sister towns on the Schuylkill River that face the same problems possess such residents also.

This subject can’t wait for my current every-two-weeks publication schedule, so next week I’ll take it up again, and talk about that title of “myth” I apply to Section 8, and why that is the real problem.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Rebirth of A PART OF The Past

For a great many years, I routinely drove along Ridge Pike between Conshohocken and my home in West Norriton, and thus through Norristown.  Just west of the SEPTA rail crossing was a large mural, visible to those driving west, out of town.  The painting was of the old Valley Forge Hotel, with an appropriately 1920s era automobile parked in front.  Below it was the slogan, “Rebirth of the Past” (I never did learn the circumstances of its painting, so if anyone remembers, please let me know).  What struck me every time I saw the mural was how wrong it was; the slogan, I mean.  There will be no “rebirth of the past.”  That past that the Valley Forge Hotel symbolizes is as dead and gone as the Valley Forge Hotel itself.  The evidence is overwhelming.  Industry, in the numbers and size worthy of capitalizing it, is not coming back to the Schuylkill River.  Neither is the railroad network around which each town was built.  In other words, the basic reasons for each river town coming into existence, growing and prospering, NO LONGER EXIST.  But the towns still do; the question is: as what?

If the past is not coming back, then a rebirth of the river towns requires reinvention and reuse.  Here is where the Phoenixville example is useful.  Its revival is internally generated, and thus can be replicated.  Phoenixville also demonstrates how a part of the past can be reborn, if it is also repurposed.  That part is the old downtown, the core of which in Phoenixville is Bridge Street.  The downtowns in the other river towns range from empty to underutilized, but Bridge Street is alive with shops, restaurants and drinking establishments.  A sure sign of prosperity is that parking is once again hard to find.  A prosperous Bridge Street is the core around which literally every other component of Phoenixville’s revival is built.

This is not exactly a secret, and that is why the larger towns—Norristown and Pottstown—do their best to promote their downtowns.  The surviving downtowns are key to the rebirth of most, if not all, of the river towns, regardless of their size.  Only West Conshohocken appears to be the exception, through no fault of its own.  Whether Conshohocken will, at the end of the current building frenzy, actually have a downtown is yet uncertain.  The future of the downtowns of Royersford and Spring City is equally uncertain, Spring City’s due to its small size, and Royersford’s due to the fact that much of its old downtown has been removed, but not replaced.  Whether there is a future for a Bridgeport downtown is the most open question, a fact its residents are well aware of.

It would not be too far from the mark today to label the river towns—excepting Phoenixville—as examples of what we term “bedroom communities.”  That is a recent condition, however.  For most of their history, each river town was a largely self-contained entity; the residents lived, worked, shopped and worshipped all within the town boundaries.  But that has changed.  Living in one location, working in another one and shopping in yet another one is pretty much the common theme today.  The clearest examples are the automobile suburbs.  Their residents live in housing developments, but they work elsewhere.  They also shop elsewhere, as well as worship, and require a car to get back and forth between these activities and their homes. The result is not a community in the true sense, because as there are few opportunities for residents to relate to each other and to the condition of their common area of residence.

The automobile suburbs can never be more than bedroom communities because of how they were planned.  Zoning ensures a separation between residences and businesses providing services to their occupants.  The businesses that provide such services are gathered into artificial groupings designed (and located) to expedite the arrival and departure of automobiles, not walkers.  Any real sense of community has been rendered close to physically impossible.

Our old towns are different.  For those who want to avoid living in a bedroom community, the old river towns in particular can be ideal places to relocate.  They are physically well suited to host a revival of community spirit, because of the closeness of everything.  Their biggest advantage is their existing old (and therefore charming) downtowns.  Phoenixville has an advantage here, but not a major one.  It has the best preserved of the old downtowns, but Pottstown is not far behind, and Norristown possesses a small one that may be the best kept secret around.

To properly appreciate how much of an asset an old downtown can be, we must first understand how much has changed since our ancestors shopped in these old downtowns.  The post-World War II prosperity, unprecedented in both its amount and its spread, has fundamentally revised the ancient concept of “shopping.”  The old downtowns had always offered everything, but that approach proved to be inadequate to compete with the new shopping centers and malls.  Today, the bulk of our shopping for the essentials is still being done in those shopping centers and malls.  But there is another kind of shopping, funded by that recent prosperity.  Today, people spend more time shopping for the extras they can afford than the necessities they need.  Shopping has become recreation, and as with every form of recreation, the physical environment makes all the difference.  People with cash to spend prefer to spend it not just on items they want, but to do so in locations they find entertaining.  A number of customer surveys tell us that charming old downtowns are excellent locations for such “boutique” shopping centers.

The commercial cores of each river town used to be the place where the largest number of people interacted the most.  They can be again, and you need look no further than Phoenixville to appreciate that, and what an asset an existing downtown can be.  Want more proof?  Get to Norristown; not its famous old Main Street, but its much less well known other shopping center on West Marshall Street.  The old buildings not only remain, they are almost fully occupied, by both stores and restaurants.  Walk down the great wide sidewalks and you can see the spirit of enterprise that is filling the shops, smell the food and hear music in the air.  That is what I call hope for the future.

Want to live in a real community?  By all means visit Phoenixville and see for yourself how an old downtown has been reborn.  Then check out West Marshall Street in Norristown to see one in the process.  So why not Pottstown?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Phoenixville? Part Three: “Community Spirit”?

Several of the replies to my question “Why Phoenixville?” referenced the town’s “community spirit;” some use the phrase itself, others point to manifestations of it.  A few have actually attempted to identify its roots, and I am grateful for these, because roots are what I am all about.  The problem comes with trying to come to grips with the concept itself.  It can be seen, and it can be expressed, but just exactly what is it?    

Community spirit is a very local example of an “ideology,” a belief system that people hold about themselves and others.  The role of ideology in historical causation is extraordinarily difficult to grapple with, because it cannot be quantified, and therefore compared to those things that can.  I am, however, very sympathetic to the attempt, because I believe that how people perceive things is ultimately more important than the facts of the things themselves.  People view reality through filters, and they make decisions on those filtered perceptions, which make history.  Still, history is a profession based on facts, so perceptions tend to get short shrift.

Except by me.  You know that already if you have been following my blog, but if not, be advised that I have an intense interest that the facts be correct, but I don’t give them primary place in my analysis.  So I am glad of the opportunity to discuss community spirit, one of the most important, yet most elusive, forms of ideology.

So what is community spirit?  You can see it, you can hear it, you know it exists, you know it’s important, but how do you measure it in ways that you can compare to other contributions to revival and assess its relative value?  That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.  I don’t expect an answer, because there can’t be one.  That’s the problem with employing “ideology” in anything more than the most general way in historical discourse.  But don’t we all know in our hearts how important “community spirit” is?

I would venture that Phoenixville has more “community spirit” than any other town on the lower Schuylkill.  You can count festivals and the like and pretend to measure it, but it’s really something you just feel.  Besides, when we ask the question “why?” we are not talking about the Phoenixville of today; its revival has achieved critical mass and feeds from itself.  It attracts the type of people who embody “community spirit.”  To point out that Phoenixville has more “community spirit” today than say, Norristown (to pick the most obvious example) does not say anything of any value to either town.  Their conditions differ too much to make such a comparison.  Phoenixville was never Norristown, but it did suffer its share of dark days.  THAT is the period we must look at to even begin to answer the “why” question.

Or maybe earlier?  Can a town posses “DNA,” as one respondent put it?  And if so, as a result of what?  I’m open to other suggestions on this point, but I would nominate Phoenixville’s history as a “company town.”  This is primarily what distinguishes it from the other towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  All had a manufacturing base, the core of which was metals and metal fabrication.  Conshohocken and Pottstown also made iron and then steel, and both can point to early settlers leading the way.  Pottstown’s steel industry was eventually consolidated under an outsider, Bethlehem Steel.  Conshohocken retained a close connection to Alan Wood Steel, even though it moved outside the Borough itself (Alan Wood had been a Conshohocken resident), but Phoenixville’s connection to the Phoenix Iron (later Steel) Company is on an entirely different level. 

To say that the Phoenix Company had a massive physical imprint on its namesake town is to understate the obvious.  It’s a mixed legacy, to be sure.  The Company eventually owned almost all of the land around lower French creek, and what wasn’t suitable for production had “workers housing” built on it, which made it the Borough’s biggest landlord, in addition to being the biggest of pretty much everything else.  Much of Bridge Street was its creation, from office buildings to hotels.  Its leaders built their mansions on the best ground.

Bridge Street and the mansions were lasting gifts, but the company’s initial legacy upon its death was a substantial “brownfield” around lower French Creek.  Nobody cared much about pollution in “the good old days.”  A brownfield can be cleansed, and the remaining structures (let’s not forget the Foundry and the “Sample Bridge”) repurposed, so that mixed legacy tends toward the positive.  If no one is counting money spent ameliorating pollution, even more so.

Then there is that question of an ideological legacy, and here is where things get tricky.  In American history, the phrase “company town,” has several different examples, and few of them were good for their workers.  The claim is that the Phoenix Company was different.  People speak of its “inclusivity,” and see the Company’s legacy as a positive one in ideological terms.

There is less question about another legacy, one that the Borough's history of unionism has bequeathed.  Unionism is an ideology, and one that promotes a spirit of community among its workers.  When we are talking legacies, however, this creates a problem.  In American industrial history, company and union were antagonistic, and never more so than in a “company town.”  In theory, two such opposing forces should have bred two equally separate—and contending—ideologies.  It is difficult to see how they could have blended to jointly underpin a spirit that embraces the whole community.

Yet there is evidence; in Phoenixville the steelworkers union was more agreeable than in many towns, although whether that was a positive thing or not is debatable.  The last “heat” of steel at the plant took place in 1976, but the final closing did not happen until 1987.  By that date, the president of the steelworkers union declared his men (those few who had held onto their jobs amid repeated layoffs) to be “the lowest paid steelworkers union in the country.”  They had demonstrated a greater willingness to sacrifice, accepting both wage and benefit reductions.  All to no avail, of course.

Are we talking separate legacies here?  Perhaps the focus of Company ideology is on its proud place in U.S. industrial history, rather than its actual local actions.  Or is the Company’s legacy largely physical, while that of the workers is the ideological taproot of the community and its “spirit”?  Could these two usually opposed factors have somehow combined in their legacy to Phoenixville?  Perhaps enough time has passed that the beautiful physical legacies have become so integral to the image—and the reality—of Phoenixville as to replace the memory of a profit-driven company that held a community in the palm of its hand.  What is the population’s general opinion of the town’s industrial history?  Speaking of which, is there a difference on the subject between the attitudes of the longer-term residents versus those who have recently moved there? 

I ask a lot of questions, but even more about Phoenixville, for the causes of success are harder to evaluate than those of failure.  The Borough displays abundant community spirit, but is that a recent thing, since revival took hold?  How important was this spirit, compared to the great physical remains, or the input of money, or of other potential causes, to the revival that has taken place?

I seek some answers, from which I hope that Phoenixville benefits, but my hope is to see them applied to other towns on the Schuylkill, which could certainly use them.  That's why I seek the deeper answers, the historical ones.  Phoenixville is unique today, but that is a very recent development; the Borough began to revive before it became "trendy."  So I continue to ask why, and I continue to need your help in finding some answers. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Phoenixville? “Walkable streets, a downtown to go to…”

The response to my opening post in this series has been excellent, and I thank everyone who took the time to comment. I am very encouraged, and I hope that this exchange of information continues.  Several of you took some time to offer detailed observations, and I will be getting to at least some of them, because they make good points.  But I want to begin with a more general comment I received, because it echoes the basic theme of my whole approach to urban revival.  It reflects just what Phoenixville’s revival is all about, and the great contrast with what is happening to Conshohocken.

A lady wrote to tell me “why Phoenixville” for her and her husband, who are not from Pennsylvania, but moved there after checking it out.  She didn’t offer a historical “why,” but a cultural one.  In Phoenixville, she says,

“…we walk our dog down to Bridge Street and the Farmers Market, greet/meet neighbors along the way…”

To me, that pretty much says it all.  First and foremost, the walking part; a livable town is a walkable town.  The automobile only pits residents against one another, over everything from safety priorities to “owning” a shoveled parking space.  Second, Phoenixville possesses “a downtown to go to.”  How many other towns on the Schuylkill River can make that statement?  Okay, Norristown’s West Marshall Street, but isn’t that pretty much about it?  That downtown also isn’t just Starbucks or wine bars; the Farmers Market is a community destination, as is the Colonial Theater, and there are more.  Third, the opportunity to “greet/meet neighbors along the way” may be the most important component of all.  That comes from walking, of course, not driving, but it also speaks to the type of people who live there; those who experience the community from outside, not isolated in some new high-rise apartment.

This comment excellently summed up how Phoenixville is conducting its ascent, and the type of people it attracts as new residents.  This couple came, liked what they saw, and decided to not just stay, but contribute to what was happening, even if just by walking downtown (and actually talking to people!).   But why was what they liked there at all? 

As a historian, I believe we must begin by giving credit to where credit is due, and some of that goes back a long way.  Phoenixville has the best-preserved “Main Street” (it’s Bridge Street in Phoenixville) of all the towns on the lower Schuylkill River.  Many great buildings were lost, but others survived, enough to anchor a modern revival of an old time downtown.  The importance of historic preservation cannot be overstated.  A Phoenixville that had to rebuild all of Bridge Street would not have become the Phoenixville of today.  Those old buildings are a legacy that far exceeds their property value.  Thus, when we are apportioning credit, we must make sure to look far enough back to acknowledge those who contributed to this.  I suspect there are many names, both of individuals and of companies.

Still, a town’s revival isn’t just a matter of having old buildings on an even older street.  The physical components were present in Phoenixville, but the purposes they were put to made all the difference.  Phoenixville’s nightlife gets most of the ink, and those old buildings are great settings for just that, but I suspect that the writer of the comment I am referencing and her husband are not in the age demographic that is found in those places on Friday and Saturday evenings.  People who come into town to party make a town “trendy,” stimulate business and certainly make a contribution.  But it is the people who live in the town, who pay taxes and vote, who are the backbone of the sense of community that has arisen.

People are attracted to small towns for different reasons, of course.  In my previous blog series on what is happening to the Conshohockens, I predicted that a great many of the people who will move there will do so primarily because the location offers quick access to two Interstate highways.  They may choose Conshohocken over similar locations because of the area’s great natural beauty, but that will be the clincher, not the motivation.  I also questioned how many will actually take a sufficient interest in their new home town to get involved, and whether their primary interests might conflict with those of the existing residents uphill.  My concern is about Conshohocken’s future as a community, not just valuable real estate.

Nobody is moving to Phoenixville for its great access to Interstate highways.  They aren’t very far away, but rush hour traffic on the local roads from Phoenixville to them makes the journey take rather long.  People who move to Phoenixville are attracted by what the town itself has to offer.  Of course location counts; Phoenixville’s surroundings are rich in history and culture, and there is no point in making a distinction between the Borough and its adjacent townships in that regard.

I would argue strongly that what Phoenixville has to offer begins with “walkable streets and a downtown to go to.”  Without those two, a town’s revival may be measured in economic terms, but not in those things that really go into making a town a community.

That’s the beginning, the basic requirements.  But they aren’t enough by themselves, and piecing together the story behind Phoenixville’s revival will require the addition of several more components.  That’s why I repeat my call for contributions, because there is a lot more to be said.  I plan to say more, but as always, I take my inspiration from what people in the Schuylkill Valley say and do, and the many people responsible for Phoenixville’s revival each know more than I do.  A historian cannot make bricks without straw, and that straw must come from the knowledgeable, as many of them as possible.

Several of the comments I have received speak of Phoenixville’s “air,” its “DNA,” and its sense of “tolerance and inclusion.”  Some attribute this to religion, but more often to traditions left from when Phoenixville was a “company town.”  These are subjects I want to address, so if you have thoughts on this, let me know soon.  I would like to consider them before I write about the subjects themselves.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why Phoenixville?

Historians ask a lot of questions, but all of them are designed to eventually provide an answer to The Only Real Question:  Why?  That’s why we amass facts and dispute their significance.  Who, What, Where and When are necessary, but ultimately only Why matters.  So here’s a fact: Phoenixville, Pa., is the only town on the lower Schuylkill River undergoing a locally generated community revival.  I employ the phrase “locally generated” and “community” to distinguish what is happening there from what is happening to the Conshohockens.  As I have written, both the Conshohockens are essentially being overwhelmed by outside forces.  Phoenixville, by contrast, is not only retaining its community-centered identity, it is strengthening it.

So why Phoenixville? 

In 1980, Phoenixville stood in company with the other towns on the lower Schuylkill; Its industrial backbone had virtually disintegrated and its once-prosperous commercial section was suffering, just like all the others.  Thirty years later, and only Phoenixville has crafted a rivival on its own terms.  Pottstown, Spring City, Royersford, Norristown and Bridgeport remain in stagnation, still seeking what Phoenixville has found.

I don’t know "why Phoenixville," but I am very interested in finding out.  I am asking this question, and putting it not just to Borough residents themselves, but to every reader who can contribute something.  An understanding of the underlying (i.e., the “real”) reasons will help to sustain Phoenixville’s upward momentum, and could be very useful to those towns on the river that still stagnate.  That makes such an understanding a goal worth seeking.

That’s why I am not going to discuss (at least not initially), Phoenixville’s current “trendiness.”  Such an appellation had to follow revival, although as with the other subjects just below, success can be reinvested, and what begins as results can contribute to future success.

I’m also going to quickly discuss and dispense with the two other things for which Phoenixville is most widely known.  Neither of these are reasons for revival; they represent only opportunities, but Phoenixville has taken both and literally run—or paraded—with them.  That has made them continuing contributors to community revival.  The first is the Firebird Festival, which builds on the fact that Phoenixville possesses the perfect name for a reviving town.  The myth of the Phoenix is that of a new, vibrant creature reborn from the ashes of a previous existence.  It’s the perfect metaphor, and in Phoenixville’s case one that is literally appropriate.  Phoenixville has also received a big break from a most unlikely source: a “B” movie (at best) called The Blob, which has become a national cult favorite.  Here we must also credit Phoenixville’s penchant for historic preservation, for if the Colonial Theater—the site at which the “people flee in panic” scene was originally filmed—had fallen to the wrecking ball, there probably wouldn’t be any Blobfest.

All public events are about having fund, and the Blobfest is a pretty good example, fun that is both growing and expanding in concept.  The Firebird Festival is certainly about having fun, but it is about rather more than that, and provides a more promising avenue of exploration about the phenomenon that is Phoenixville.  The Firebird Festival exploits both Phoenixville’s name and its industrial history, but it is a community event that is increasingly all about creativity, a concept more easily connected to the myth of the Phoenix than a B Movie, even one that has achieved cult status.  Its organizers seem to be deliberately creating an East Coast version of Burning Man, employing its “use up and promise to do again, only better” approach to stimulate newer, broader and even more committed festivals each year.  There is, unfortunately, a downside to betting everything on the gradual build up to a climactic act of consuming by fire.  The Firebird Festival discovered this last year, as Burning Man did a few years ago.  This approach seems to tempt those who would preempt a community festival with a little personal vandalism.  Still, it didn’t deter Burning Man, and it won’t deter the Firebird Festival.

Phoenixville’s name, its connections to pop history (and even more significant, to industrial history) are gifts that other river towns greatly envy.  These unique assets must be acknowledged, but the point is that they have been exploited properly, and have become woven into Phoenixville’s image as a reviving town.  The same is true for the many other events that populate the calendar in Phoenixville.  The Borough boasts a great many community festivals and celebrations, including rather more organized runs than Blobfest.  There are more than can be listed here, let alone described.  Yet these, even together with the big ones, are not causes for revival; they are results that have been reinvested and now contribute also.  But results of what?

As regards these events, one thing is certain:  while Phoenixville can give thanks to those gifts history has bestowed upon it, those gifts have been very well exploited.  The popularity and usefulness of all these efforts did not just magically appear.  Their success derives from the vision and hard work of the people who seized these opportunities and made them contributors to a strong community.  Yes, Phoenixville possesses the raw materials, but their contribution to revival was by no means automatic, and the right people had to be in place.  Phoenixville seems to possess such people in the private sector, and they are numerous. 

So, continuing on the subject of people, we can list people in the private sector for sure.  But how about the quality of leadership from elected municipal officials?  This has to be a community decision, because the evidence up and down the river is ambiguous.  Some Conshohocken residents claim that the Boroughs’ breakthrough required an infusion of “fresh blood” into municipal government.  Pottstown activists tend to agree that such an infusion is sorely overdue in their town, and focus on the Council Chairman, who has been in office for 15 years.  Yet Phoenixville recently saw the retirement of the man who had been its mayor for 13 years, to the applause of everyone for his achievements, not his departure.  Both are boroughs, but of different variations.  Norristown was a borough, but changed its municipal structure, then changed it again.  It has no mayor, “new blood” sits on Council, but the town continues to stagnate.  Clearly, no conclusions can be drawn from this small sample, except perhaps that it depends on the people, not the structure.  I look forward to hearing from you on just that subject, because that’s where the real differences come in.  

I'm sure there is more to be said about people (partially because there are people I plan to mention), and I want to hear about this from you.  But not just about people, because while a community revival must have the right people, there is much more to it than that.  There are more fundamental reasons for Phoenixville's resurgence, and it will take some time before enough evidence is in for conclusions.  At this point I am still in search of theses, and that's where you come in.  This is a long term project, and I will be holding forth again, but what I am really trying to do is stimulate discussion.  Together, let's amass the facts, so we can seek the answer to "Why Phoenixville?"

P.S.  I will be posting on my blog every other week for the next two to three months, as I finalize the manuscript for my new book, to be published this spring.  My next post will be on Friday, January 16.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Parochialism Might Be Your Town’s Biggest Weakness

This week I deal with a question that has appeared frequently in response to my recent series of posts on the Conshohockens and that addresses an important issue: How can you understand what [fill in the name of your town here] was like if you didn’t live there?  My readers don’t phrase it that way, of course; they just assume it can’t be done.  This is an example of Parochialism, an attitude that is not only wrong, it is counterproductive.   

It is, unfortunately, very commonly held.  One of my greatest pleasures during my years working for the Historical Society of Montgomery County was getting to know a woman named Florence Young, known to everybody as “Johnny.”  She was a grand lady, witty, gracious, and a volunteer at the Society for decades.  She contributed greatly to preserving the Society’s collections during a period of leadership and funding stagnation.  She possessed an extraordinary mind, still razor-sharp when I met her, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Norristown social history.  She knew who was descended from and related to whom, and I was never around her but that I wished I had a tape recorder with me.  When I began to research What Killed Downtown? she was one of the first people I contacted.  I began a recorded interview by assuring her that I was going to write a history of downtown Norristown, not of Norristown itself.  She gave me that sweet smile and paused (telling me what was coming), then replied, “No offense, but you couldn’t.”  I disagreed, but silently, and I did not take offense.

I have since expanded my study and writing to encompass the eight towns along the Schuylkill River below Reading, and have often encountered the same response (usually expressed less politely).  A reader took great exception to a recent Facebook post about Norristown because,  Further more you don't live anywhere near Norristown!!”  My two posts about West Conshohocken have also aroused some anger, including a reader who expressed the reason for her anger, “I just do not like it when someone who has never lived here tries to sum things up simply when our history is diverse and complex.”  She is correct about the nature of her town, but not about who is qualified to write about its history.  I have been professionally trained to do just that.

Another reader struck to the heart of the matter when, responding to my question about whether West Conshohocken still possessed a reason to exist, she wrote: Who would ever ask a question like that?  Oh yea, someone who’s never lived/experienced West Conshy.”  She has a valid point.  It is unlikely that such a question could be asked about anywhere by anyone who grew up and still lived in that place.  That’s where a professionally-installed sense of perspective is required.  One of the foundations of graduate study in history is the understanding that one should never attempt to write about a subject he/she has personally experienced, precisely because of that loss of perspective.  I attempted to ignore this wisdom during my PhD studies, only to learn just how correct it is.

I am pleased by the sense of community pride that these comments to my posts evidence, but considerably less so by the belief that I could not possibly know anything about a particular town because I did not ever reside there.  I have attacked this belief before, because it cripples community efforts to make things better.  It’s an example of Parochialism, i.e., narrowness of interests, opinions or views.  I believe, on the contrary, that it is quite possible to be both interested and helpful to a local community’s efforts to better itself without being a resident of that community.  The only issue should be: do I possesses useful knowledge?  You can judge that by what I write, whether a specific post applies to your town or not.   There is a consistency to my approach, based on research.  I have studied the history of the lower Schuylkill Valley, within the broader context of my study of urban history, which, in turn, lies within the context of American history itself.

Please understand that a great deal of my training was in how to find and analyze local sources of information.  That usually means written by people who actually did live in the community, and includes such sources as newspapers and diaries.  A historian such as I who renders his/her work in broad strokes and primary colors depends on such sources, for their close, immediate perspective.  I am a voracious reader of local accounts of all the locations I am researching.  As regards the Conshohockens, I have previously acknowledged reading everything Jack Coll writes, and cheerfully do so again.  I have cultivated relationships with the sources of local history in the other Schuylkill River towns as well, whose assistance I also openly acknowledge.  The writing of history is a collegial effort; it cannot properly be done alone.

For the record, I make no pretense at being an “expert” (whatever that is) on any of the towns about which I write, with the partial exception of Norristown, which I have studied at some length.  I have, however, done considerable research on the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill River, and believe myself generally knowledgeable about their broad historical arcs.

The pattern is clear.  All eight towns have commonalities that are much more important than their differences.  They all came into existence for the same reason and they all assumed a common shape, again for the same reason.  None varied much from the regional pattern of a riverside mill town, although Norristown, as the county seat added a new dimension.  They all grew into locally-focused communities, whose residents largely lived, worked and worshipped within the municipal boundaries.  That work was in the “smokestack” industries, and these provided the jobs for the successive waves of immigrants that would populate each town.  They all prospered, subject to the vagaries of the national economy (e.g. The Great Depression), until they all fell on hard times after the 1950s.

I am a historian, but if you have been reading my posts, you have encountered my favorite expression: “That was then; but this is now, and things have changed.”   The fundamental realities of life along the river have changed, and thus the once-common condition and histories of the river towns have begun to diverge.  I offer the Conshohockens, Phoenixville and Pottstown as examples of that divergence.  The Schuylkill River towns are no longer all alike, but neither do they exist in their individual vacuums.  The force besieging the Conshohockens is the same, and I would like to think that both municipal governments and residents realize that, and that their response should thus be as united as possible.  Last week I pointed out yet another similarity between Pottstown and Norristown, one of many.  Bridgeport’s ethnic issues reflect its closeness to Norristown, and their resolution will also.  Royersford and Spring City have always been “the twin boroughs,” and still share a great deal, despite occupying different counties.  The list goes on, except for Phoenixville, and that will be a subject I address in the New Year.  This means that all those truly interested in the improvement of their community should stay abreast of what is happening in other communities like theirs.

My point is that sheer accumulation of knowledge about the past is fascinating and to be encouraged, but for those whose focus is the future, it is irrelevant.  Knowing what has changed is necessary if one desires to improve his/her present and future.  I try to put urban history in the service of urban activism, because activists will continue to make mistakes as long as they continue to believe in myths about why things are the way they are.  The odds are stacked heavily against them as it is, and Parochialism only makes things worse.  This is not about listening to me, it is about listening to all those who can aid you, regardless of their physical location.

The experience of your town is not unique, and ideas for a better future need not come from within your town alone.  What has worked elsewhere in towns similar to yours is worth considering, and what hasn’t should just be rejected without wasting your time.  Your knowledge of what might work, what probably won’t—and of the distinction between them—is crucial for the future of your community. The problems that each community faces are much larger than the community itself, and no community by itself can be a match for them.  Those who are united in understanding this, who realize that they are truly “all in this together,” and are willing to accept the help of knowledgeable “outsiders,” will fare better in this unequal contest.  Shared knowledge can only improve the otherwise very bad odds that our older urban centers still face.  That’s why I do what I do.

There will be no post on Friday, December 26.  May all the blessings of the Holiday Season be yours, and remain with you in the New Year.  This blog will return on Friday, January 2.