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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, April 22, 2016

People Were Once The Strength of the Schuylkill River Towns; Can It Be That Way Again?

I have just returned from my speaking tour of towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  It was a fruitful visit; I learned a great deal, which I hope to integrate into my future posts.  But in keeping with my current blog series on the impending revival of Norristown/Bridgeport, I’m going to briefly summarize what I said at the Montgomery County/Norristown Public Library on Wednesday, April 13th.  

The entire history of the towns on the lower Schuylkill River can be summarized under three fundamental realities: The River, Transportation and People. The River underlies everything else, and that of Transportation has been responsible for the most dramatic and obvious changes in the river towns, but throughout their history it has been People that have been responsible for their growth and development.  The river towns were what their residents made them.  That was always true, remains true today, and will be true tomorrow. 

The period after the Second World War saw one reality—the River—begin its slow change toward the positive, from open sewer to scenic playground.  At the same time, however, the reality of Transportation turned decisively against the old river towns.  Once fully integrated into the rail network, they found themselves isolated from the new network of limited-access highways.  Some still are, but Norristown/Bridgeport will, within a few years, gain a new connection.  That connection will lead directly to the now clean river and its banks, now denuded of industries.  Opportunity awaits there.

The story of fundamental change to the River and to Transportation takes place largely after the Second World War.  But the fundamental reality of People was the first to turn negative, back in the early decades of the 20th century.  The First World War and then a reactionary U.S government virtually shut off the massive flow of immigrants to the United States that had characterized the late 19th century.  By the late 1920s, a new immigration structure was in place, which attempted to freeze the numbers of each ethnicity that could enter in the future.  This ended the waves of immigrants that had filled the Schuylkill River towns (among many others) during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the decades that followed, the river towns suffered from this lockdown, but few realized it.  Their residents became “Americans” but hyphenated ones.  They retained their ethnic identity and continued the social isolation that always divided their towns.  As the younger people left for the automobile suburbs, their world became steadily less representative of a changing America.  This added to the isolation that the fundamental change in Transportation visited upon the river towns.  This veneration of the past without the regeneration that had characterized the past via immigrants had a stultifying effect on the old river towns.  This simultaneously hallowed the memory of their specific ethnic heritage while eliminating the memory that they all—or their parents—had been immigrants at some point.

But The River now flows in a positive direction, and Transportation stands ready to direct bountiful interest to the common waterfront of Norritown/Bridgeport.  But what about People?  My motto—“that was then; but this is now, and things have changed”--reverberates on this subject, because much has indeed changed.  But something that hasn’t changed—hostility towards immigrants—threatens to limit the potential benefits of this alignment.

The periodic infusions of energy, hope and ambition in the new arrivals drove local prosperity during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  After almost a century of stagnation, it is doing so again, particularly in Norristown.  The new immigrants are Hispanics, those from Mexico in particular.  Until quite recently, they were so few as to be uncounted.  Today they are at least a statistical presence in every river town, but once again Norristown leads the way with the new immigrants.  They constitute roughly one third of Norristown’s population.

I consider this to be a great opportunity for Norristown/Bridgeport.  Unfortunately, history is (sort of) repeating itself, because too many residents, forgetting their immigrant past, have chosen to view this as a burden on the town and make the same arguments that were applied to their own ancestors.  Added to this is the dispute about “legality,” which certainly wasn’t a consideration back when the Irish and then the Eastern Europeans arrived on our shores.  Almost the only way you could be denied entry was by individually possessing some unwelcome disease or condition, and unaccompanied minors were routinely allowed in.   Of course, if you were trying to enter on the west coast, and you were Chinese or Japanese, things were different, but never mind that for now.

But for too many, “legality” is only a convenient excuse to justify the traditional American dislike and distrust of “the other,” one of the less exemplary components of the American character.  The legal issue can only be settled in Washington, but while we wait for a decision, why not take advantage of a situation that you can’t change?  Why not accept—and assist—the people who want to work and contribute?  Their potential vastly outweighs the negatives they bring, as it did for the Irish, Italians, Jews, and the many Eastern European ethnicities that preceded them.  Don’t think so?  Just walk down Main Street in Norristown, then do the same on West Marshall Street.  The difference is starkly obvious.  Main Street shows a few signs of life, but West Marshall Street is awash in new businesses, almost all of them Hispanic.  Government—at any level—did not bring this about; people did.  There is a lesson here about who is actually responsible for urban revival.

What adds to—and can greatly multiply—this opportunity is the coincidental fact that Norristown, alone among the river towns, no longer possesses a Caucasian majority.  In fact, it has no majority at all, only minorities—Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic—of almost equal numbers.  The time when some could complain that that an oppressive majority was thwarting their progress is long gone.  That excuse just doesn’t work any more.  In truth, there are no more excuses.

This new population balance makes Norristown a potential laboratory for the racial and ethnic reconciliation that will be required to take full advantage of the opportunity that the River and Transportation are delivering.  Failure to follow this path will only limit—and may even abort—the potential rebirth that awaits both Norristown and Bridgeport.

These lines from the second-to-last paragraph of They’ve Been Down So Long...sum up my message:

“Norristown thus has a unique opportunity to absorb and apply the lessons of history and ensure that the errors of the past are not repeated.  With no majority ethnic or racial group, and a community-wide dissatisfaction with the status quo, Norristown is ideally suited to attempt a combination of racial and ethnic reconciliation….Setting such an example could be Norristown’s greatest contribution to the twenty-first century.”

Anyone interested?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Norristown Pa.’s New Turnpike Connection Leads to Exactly Where It Should: The Riverfront

Two posts ago I observed that the significance of the Lafayette Street Extension Project lies in its two end points: the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Norristown’s riverfront.  I focused on the first, recounting the contrasting experiences of Norristown in the 1950s and the Conshohockens in the 1980s to demonstrate how important such a connection can be.  Now I take up the subject of the road’s other end, because it is at least as significant as the turnpike connection.  That other end is close enough to Norristown’s riverbank to spur access—and thus development—along that stretch of town.  That is exactly where the greatest opportunity lies.  Yes, you want Main Street to revive, businesses to set up shop, and many other good things, but those things have a better chance of taking place if both towns make a riverfront makeover their primary goal. 

The biggest asset in the quest of Norristown/Bridgeport for revival is their riverfronts.   Both towns stand to benefit from a historic reversal of priorities for the use of the floodplain along each riverbank.  What used to be the lowest priorities are now the highest, and much of the floodplain now stands ready to accommodate that shift.  Opportunity beckons to those towns that can take advantage of it.  that’s already happening big time in the Conshohockens, but the efforts of Royersford and Pottstown haven’t had similar success.  This demonstrates the importance of interconnection; in this case, specifically the connection to a limited-access highway, about which I have already written.  Norristown/Bridgeport will possess that connection, so the future is bright.

This historic change can work together with another—and closely interrelated--fundamental change, that of the river itself.  The River was the first of the three fundamental realities of life along the Schuylkill River to turn positive for the towns along it.  In “the good old days,” the Schuylkill River was little more than an open sewer; it carried vast quantities of waste products (from both industry and people), it smelled, and was altogether unhealthy.  Aquatic life had pretty much been killed off.  Cleanup was a slow process, one that moved by fits and starts during the first half of the 20th century, but began in earnest in 1945, when the Commonwealth began a project to dredge and clean the river.  Several environmentally progressive projects and mandates followed, in attempts to tackle the waste at its sources.  The mass closing of the river-polluting industries, which was otherwise very unwelcome, actually aided in the effort.  The Schuylkill was proclaimed a “Scenic River” in the 1970s, and has steadily continued to improve in quality.

One result of this fundamental change was a historic reversal of the housing priorities in the river towns.  In “the good old days,” you measured the wealth of a river town family by how far away it lived from the river.  Most workers had to walk, so residences were small, close together and not far from the factories.  Those who could afford their own transportation, joined later by those who could afford the trolley ride, could extend the distance according to their financial circumstances.  Drive around the river towns today, and see how the types of buildings in the different areas reflect this fact of history.  In “the good old days,” the only people who lived along the floodplain were those who could not afford to live anywhere else.

But the industries are gone, and all but a vestige of the railroads, with none upriver from Norristown that accept passengers.  The only positive result was “buildable land,” which just happened to be in steadily more scenic locations, due to the improvement of the river.  Today, we see the full extent of the change: people with money to spend (or invest) want to live as close to the river as possible and developers are accommodating them.   The Conshohockens, which in addition to their transportation access happen to flank one of the most beautiful sections of the lower river, have demonstrated how popular—and profitable—this new residential priority can be.  The riverfronts of Norristown/Bridgeport still hold much “buildable land.” What would best go where has many factors, perhaps the major one being the Norristown dam, and the difference it has on the river’s navigability. 

But new homes must not be the only consideration for developing a new waterfront.   Another 180 degree reversal of the old priorities stands to benefit river towns.  The only challenge to housing as the floodplain’s lowest priority during the “good old days” was recreation.  If people didn’t want to live near the river, they certainly did not want to spend their precious free time anywhere near it either.  Passage on or in an open sewer does not tempt those with money to spend on recreation, as the dismal record of the 19th’s century river-oriented businesses testify.

Recreation on this scenic river—or in it—can now be undertaken safely.  The Port Indian Regatta is only a memory, but muscle-powered competition is expanding, from traditional rowing to the decidedly non-traditional activity of Dragon Boat racing.  But it is recreation along the riverside that has proven to be the most popular bringer of people to the Schuylkill Valley.  The key to this exciting development was the existence of abandoned railroad track beds after the rails had been torn out, evidence that even disaster can bring unexpected benefits.  These have turned out to be quite popular for bicyclists and those who want to exercise outdoors.  The transformation began locally with the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway, and has expanded in both concept and extent.  It is now the Schuylkill River Trail, and it passes right by Norristown’s riverfront.  Today the Trail is a vital and increasingly popular lure to potential visitors (read “spenders”), and will be so for potential residents (read “those who spend even more”).  Bridgeport has the Chester Valley Trail coming, plus—hopefully—the “Bridgeport loop trail” to connect it with the Borough’s riverfront and to the Schuylkill River Trail.  Again, it’s all about interconnection.

The real keys to the revival of an old river mill town?  They are all there along the riverfront, in an admittedly raw—or even potential—form, but there nonetheless.  So this is where I conclude by promoting yet another badly needed interconnection, a purely political one, inspired by a common plight and a common way out.  People will pay good money to live along a scenic river; the Conshohockens demonstrate that.  But what will the new river residents in Norristown have for a view?  The Borough of Bridgeport, of course, which does somewhat lower the scenic level of the river along it.  By the same token, of course, potential new residents along the river on the Bridgeport side would have a view of Norristown, which can be argued is better, but hardly ideal.  Thus revival must be a joint effort; both towns possess much the same general opportunities, for mostly the same reasons, because they lie directly opposite each other on their common reason for existence, the Schuylkill River.  One of the limits to their potential rise could be the one they place on themselves by thinking only of themselves. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Okay Smart Guy, What About Pottstown and Phoenixville?

In my previous post I spoke of one way in which the fundamental reality of Transportation has begun to flow in a positive direction for Norristown/Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.  This is the under-construction “Lafayette Street Expansion Project,” the best news to arrive at this point along the Schuylkill River in quite some time.  I concluded with an introduction to my next subject, how Norristown can take advantage of the quite favorable condition of its most fundamental reality, The River, the very reason the town was built in the first place.  I will flesh out that subject in my next post, but first I need to clear up some questions involving the relationship between limited-access highways and town revival.

The central point of my introductory post in this series about Norristown/Bridgeport was the claim that upcoming access to a limited-access highway could be the needed spark for revival.  I referenced the Conshohockens to support my point.  Those two neighboring boroughs do so in spades, as they connect to not just one such highway, but at the intersection of two, and the result has been a remarkable influx of both businesses and residences.

So far, so good.  But two questions should occur to anyone following my theme.  First, wasn’t Pottstown the target of a new limited-access highway some years ago?  It doesn’t seem to have helped much.  Why Not?  Second, and more broadly, how do I explain Phoenixville?  The Borough thrives in the absence of any “access to transportation” as I have defined it.  So how important is “access to transportation,” really?

These are pretty much the two polar ends of critique, and both raise valid questions.  I have already addressed both subjects, in diametrically opposite ways.  I can explain the first, but admit to having but a few clues as to the second.  That’s why I’ll discuss Phoenixville first.

“Access to transportation” does not guarantee revival, and as Phoenixville demonstrates, is not even necessary.  It is, however, the event most likely to set a revival in motion.  The revival of our old industrial towns can have many sources (although “industry” isn’t one of them), a fact that has been amply demonstrated already and continues to be.  More fundamentally, I also contend that no one component—even “access to transportation”—is sufficient by itself; they must interact in a positive manner.  That was the final message of my previous post.

I must also admit that I have decidedly mixed feelings about gaining a town’s connections to a limited-access highway.  There is much to be gained, but much is going to be lost.  The Conshohockens demonstrate why I am concerned, as old Conshohocken and its long-time residents are being overwhelmed by the influx of new people, whose view of the borough and their responsibility toward it differ markedly.  “Old” Conshohocken knew what it was and was proud of it.  Can a new consensus self-image of Conshohocken emerge, and what would it be?  Still, as I observed previously, five of the boroughs upriver—Norristown, Bridgeport, Royersford, Spring City and Pottstown—would love to have even a small version of Conshohocken’s problems if they replace some of the current ones.

But Phoenixville is literally a case of its own, with a revival that has nothing to do with a new connection to one or more limited-access highways.  Nobody moves to Phoenixville because of its access to Southeastern Pennsylvania’s network of major roads, but they have been moving nonetheless.

I have published a series of posts—some of them guest posts—about the Borough’s revival, all beginning with that same question: Why?  That’s because I don’t know why Phoenixville—alone among the towns on the lower Schuylkill River—has enjoyed a locally-based revival.  Thus I seek answers from residents who have experienced the change.  The response has been excellent, but I am by now means done; there is so much more to learn.  I will return to this subject, and continue to invite your thoughts and comments on this fascinating issue.  I will address it specifically during my talk in the Phoenixville Public Library (co-sponsored by the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area) on Monday, April 11, and look forward to hearing from those who have actually lived through the process.

Potttstown’s situation is much easier to explain.  In fact, I already have, in a post published on February 20, 2014.  I include the link below, but here is my basic point: The “Pottstown Expressway” does not demonstrate the failure of a highway connection to revive a town, because aiding Pottstown was not its intended purpose, as its design demonstrates conclusively.  Although the new highway was pitched as a lifeline to an ailing borough, that was just for public consumption, as public taxes would pay for it.  The highway was designed from what me might call a broader viewpoint.  It was the final component of a new U.S. Route #422, to replace an overburdened Germantown Pike.  The whole point was to bypass the towns that Germantown Pike had always served, Pottstown being only the largest of them.  Its true purpose was to provide access to the land between King of Prussia and Pottstown, first for developers and then their customers and their customers’ customers.  That stretch contained a substantial amount of “buildable land” back then, much of which has been since built on.  The new U.S. Route #422 did the job it was designed to do, as everyone who sits gridlocked on the highway during rush hour(s) should understand.  Keep in mind also that the road was not even designed to connect to Pottstown, but to the much older “Pottstown Bypass,” making it easier to avoid the town altogether.  My post about the “Pottstown Expressway” will tell you what you need to know, but more about public marketing than about roads reviving old towns. 

The new Lafayette Street/Road, by contrast, is much shorter.  Although it will foster development along the stretch of Plymouth Township that it crosses before it gets to Norristown, and maybe even northern Conshohocken, new construction in Norristown was its true goal, unlike that of the “Pottstown Expressway.”  Even more important, as I began to discuss last time, is the fact that the new road goes right into downtown Norristown, terminating close to the riverfront.  I will return to that subject in my next post, and discuss why that is so important.

Here is the link to the full post about the "Pottstown Expressway":

Friday, March 11, 2016

Norristown/Bridgeport, Pa. Are Getting “Access To Transportation.” That’s The Best Possible News

The primary reason for my optimism about Norristown, Pennsylvania is that it will get “access to transportation.”  I include rail transportation in this calculation, but not as a major benefactor, as much as I would like that to be.  I’ll discuss that later, but now I want to focus on the much more certain arrival of road “access.”  In my first post in this series, I pointed out that “access to transportation” only begins with owning a car.  Only a very few people can live along the lower Schuylkill River without one.  Once you have a car, the question is where you have to drive to for work, and how long it takes.  In the years since the Second World War, the possibilities of both have expanded enormously due to our nationwide thirst for limited-access highways.  After the war, Norristown absorbed a very hard lesson about the effects of a transportation revolution on established business practices, and is now belatedly trying to connect to the limited-access road network.

The project that hold so much promise for Norristown is known as “The Lafayette Street Extension.”  It has much promise for two interrelated reasons: it will give Norristown a true Turnpike exit at one end, and the other end goes exactly where it should to tap Norristown’s most valuable asset: its riverfront.  So far, extension is it what has been accomplished, from its previous eastern dead end out to Conshohocken State Road.  Old Lafayette Street in Norristown will be widened, but it’s the next extension that is the most important, because that will take the road to the Turnpike.  An entirely different project (different funding, different timing, etc.) will then construct a full Turnpike interchange to the new road.  This new connection will be the best news to happen to Norristown in quite some time, and could be the key to the town’s long-awaited revival.

Do I know for sure that this is going to happen?  No, I don’t.  If understanding what has happened produced a knowledge of what is going to happen, then historians would be both more influential and much better paid.  Norristown’s future is not nearly as simple—or as assured—as I have phrased it above.  But looking at Norristown’s past—and understanding  what happened (as opposed to remembering it)—demonstrates that a great error was made over sixty years ago, and that Norristown’s leaders have absorbed this hard-earned lesson.

This is Norristown’s second chance at a Turnpike Exit, and its attitude couldn’t be more different.  All of Norristown, from elected officials to businessmen to just plain citizens look forward to the connection.  They are not planning to repeat an old mistake.  Back in the early 1950s, when the Turnpike extension from King of Prussia to the Delaware River was being developed, the plan proposed an interchange pretty much right where the new one will be built, at the eastern edge of Borough (as it was then).  Norristown’s movers and shakers reacted with horror; virtually everyone was against it, and they lobbied hard to move the exit, even traveling to Harrisburg to make their case.  They simply did not understand (and, in truth, could not have, given their worldview) that limited-access highways would transform the interconnected worlds of transportation and marketing.  Norristown was a railroad town, and tightly woven into the rail transportation network.  They spurned the new road. 

Unfortunately (as it turned out) the Turnpike Commission complied; it abandoned the idea of an interchange at Norristown’s border and moved it about two miles west.  I’ve always privately speculated (without any supporting facts, mind you) that the Authority still named it the “Norristown Exit” out of spite, then enjoyed decades of people using the exit and not being able to find Norristown. 

Be that as it may, things have certainly changed.  Back then, they were afraid that a Turnpike interchange would ruin downtown.  Well, the interchange was moved and downtown was ruined anyway, so now Norristown is counting on an a real “Norristown Exit” to give it a much-needed shot in the arm.  Bridgeport shares in this, as the Turnpike and the location of its interchanges contributed a great deal to the decline of the Borough also.  A new connection—even if an indirect one, in the case of Bridgeport—could help reverse that trend.

Much has been said already, and much more will be said about what the project could mean.  I support it from that outsider’s point of view, at an abstract level supported by ample historical evidence.  I am optimistic about its potential because, by connecting the Turnpike not just to Norristown, but to its riverfront, the second of the fundamental realities that have always governed life along the river—Transportation--can interact with the first—the River itself—to their mutual benefit, and thus to the Norristown/Bridgeport area.   

The most important fact about the components of this project is that they are interconnected.  A recent news article put it this way: 

Without a retooled Lafayette, the interchange doesn’t happen. Without both of them, prospects for regional growth and a revamped Norristown—particularly its riverfront—are limited.” 

Truer words were never written.  In fact, the extent of a “revamped Norristown” will be dependent on how effectively it utilizes its most significant asset, the riverfront.  I'll have more to say about this in a later post, but this one is about transportation.  So for now, I'll just note that transportation is a means of getting somewhere, and today that somewhere is not just to the Schuylkill River, but along it.  There is more to this than just automobiles, and that’s where interconnection becomes even more significant.  Connecting to the Schuylkill River Trail is an opportunity that must not be missed, so don’t think of Lafayette Street as just an automobile project; connections to the Trail will also be important.  Revival must be a multi-faceted event, and that requires interconnecting and mutually reinforcing efforts.  It begins with “access to transportation,” regardless of how you are transported.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Will Montgomery County’s Renovations Screw Over Norristown…Again?

It’s a strange sight, that old building standing alone on the North side of the first block of East Main Street in Norristown, Pa..  #43, a relic of the past, stands just east of the county garage, with nothingness beyond it to DeKalb Street.  If you are at all interested in the good old days of Norristown, check it out, because soon it will follow all the other buildings that used to grace this side of the core block of downtown Norristown.  It will disappear.  The buildings to the east succumbed to different causes, but #43 East Main Street will join all the other buildings between it and the Public Square as a victim of a single voracious neighbor, the Government of Montgomery County. 

The Government of Montgomery County is evidence that something can be within a municipality’s boundaries and also beyond its control, thus adding a further wrinkle to the possibilities discussed in my previous post.  The County’s exercise of “eminent domain” to acquire #43 East demonstrated that quite clearly.  The acquisition was an initial step in what will be a major reworking of the county’s physical plant.  History says you should be concerned.

Montgomery County’s creation of its present complex contributed substantially to the decline of downtown Norristown.  Will history sort of repeat itself?  Could this new program hurt Norristown at precisely the time people are beginning to see signs of a turnaround?  Only time will tell, but something this substantial scheduled to take place in the core of the town you are trying to revive should be carefully considered.  And you definitely don’t want history to even sort of repeat itself in downtown Norristown.

When Montgomery County first constructed the buildings and parking garage that will be rehabbed, it delivered repeated body blows to what was then the county’s shopping mecca, downtown Main Street.  The County was by no means Main Street’s only assailant, to be sure, but the decline of downtown Norristown was initiated and then sustained by the County’s actions.  And this began BEFORE even the idea of a large shopping center at King of Prussia.  If you want more than a super brief outline of what happened, I refer you to my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street to the Malls, but what follows outlines some fundamental points.

Montgomery County hurt downtown Norristown in two ways.  First, it tore the heart out of what was then a thriving downtown Main Street.  The County removed 20 businesses, plus the offices of two unions and one fraternal organization, from Norristown’s commercial core.  They never returned.  Second, and perhaps even more damaging, it allowed the work to drag out over almost two decades, disrupting downtown commerce at exactly the wrong time in history.

The County struck its first blow back in 1954, the peak year of Main Street’s post-World War II prosperity.  Planning had begun earlier, but the course of events seems to indicate that either the County began the project unsure of what would result, or had to frequently change its goals during an era of ballooning government responsibility.  Or perhaps both. 

In 1954 the County purchased the Montgomery Trust Building at #25 East Main and the Montgomery Trust Arcade Building (originally the Boyer Arcade, named after its builder) at #29.  Despite noble proclamations about making a “commitment to Norristown” while saving the taxpayers’ money, the County’s subsequent actions did exactly the opposite, at least for Norristown.  The County expelled all the tenants from the buildings it had purchased, and had various government agencies occupy the buildings for a while.  But then the County let the buildings deteriorate until they sat boarded and empty for years, a considerable eyesore in a town by then struggling against blight.

In 1961 the County announced that not only would it raze #25 and #29, it would also purchase the two buildings to the east, #35 and #37, and raze them too.  This the County proceeded to do.  What had been from Norristown’s beginning the very core of downtown, the site of numerous businesses, became the entrance to a parking garage.  But that took quite a while; the project’s impact on Main Street stretched out over 17 years, from the County’s purchase of two buildings in 1954 to the completion of the parking garage in 1971.  Much verbiage was expended as to how the new garage would solve the downtown parking problem, but by the time it opened downtown was a ghost town and the parking wasn’t needed.

The recent newspaper article announcing the impending end of #43 East Main contained a statement that should be considered as ominous: “The work [of renovating the entire County complex] is expected to take a decade…”  The financial figures that follow are substantial, but the extended time is what renders the County’s construction program problematic—at best—for a reviving Norristown.  The next decade will be crucial for Norristown, and constant disruption, noise and traffic blockages in the core of what you are trying to revive is not going to help.

But can anything actually be done to mitigate the effects on downtown of the proposed work?  How much influence does Norristown have with the County these days?  Any at all?  But maybe it doesn't matter.  Back when the County complex was built, the Borough still possessed economic clout, although that was waning.  There was a Norristown Chamber of Commerce and a number of influential merchants of long standing in the region.  All this did Norristown absolutely no good, as it turned out. 

Will things be better this time?  My research about the last time never turned up anything that would even suggest evil intent on the County's part, but the results were devastating nonetheless.  So, even assuming the best intentions on the part of the County, those working to revive Norristown should pay close attention to what's coming.  History may--or it may not--sort of repeat itself, but knowing history--understanding what happened in similar circumstances before--can only help to swing your chances toward the latter option.  That's definitely what you want.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Outside Your Boundaries, Or Beyond Your Control

The opening post in this series contained the statement that my positive outlook for the Norristown area of Southeastern Pa. (hereinafter referred to as Norristown/Bridgeport) was based largely on what is happening outside the borough(s).  This post outlines the broad situation, in simple terms and with a metaphor.  I’ve long ago lost track of how many metaphors have been applied to Norristown, so one more won’t matter a great deal.

The subject is property values.  For that, think of the central Montgomery County area as a reverse pizza.  In this metaphor we are only talking about the bread, and measuring how tastefully (read “profitably”) it rises.  Unlike real pizza, the actual flatbread center portion (Norristown/Bridgeport) is small, surrounded by extensive yeasty bread crust.  While “flat” is something of an exaggeration, the area’s housing values contrast sharply with the rising values of its surroundings.  Yeasty can derive from greatly different circumstances, and I offer the townships of Upper Merion and Worcester as evidence.  Two more contrasting townships can hardly be imagined, but the property values in each have risen sharply and show no signs of dropping any time soon.

It is this difference in property values drives the revival of old towns that had become flatbread surrounded by the yeasty suburbs.  The greater the difference the greater the incentive, all other things being equal.  Of course, they are not, and that is where the difficulty begins.  Those who live in the central municipal flatbread long to see their own bread rising, and experiment with recipes as they can afford them.  That is because in the real world, the baking process is always ongoing, and yeast can be injected at any time.  The question is, what mix of yeasty ingredients will work for YOUR town?  There are recipes aplenty, but they may—or they may not—work, depending on how relevant they are to the specific reality of a town.

I’m only going to focus on one ingredient that has a yeasty result, for two reasons: one, because it comes the closest to being guaranteed, and two, because Norristown, Pa. will experience it.  I call it “access to transportation.”  This phrasing is deliberately vague, because it means far more than owning an automobile.  Pretty much everyone has to do that, usually because you have to be able to get between your home and work that might be far away.  Even if you have the opportunity to utilize alternate transportation—and Norristown/Bridgeport do—you will probably need to drive to the parking lots at the transportation stations, as only a very few will be able to walk to them.  I’ll return to the subject of alternate transportation in a later post, because Norristown/Bridgeport stand to benefit from a new one.  It is still in “the planning stage,” and therefore nothing to bank on.

So I focus on those who must drive between home and work.  Cars need roads, but not all roads are created equal.  In Southeastern Pennsylvania today, the quickest path to urban reinvigoration comes from a nearby exit off at least one limited-access highway, because this greatly extends the potential commuting range for both residents and businesses.  Such a location, plus “buildable land” (often available in old industrial towns) are what developers are looking for.  The Conshohockens lie at the intersection of two such highways, and possesses (or at least it used to) buildable land in a scenic location.  That is the fundamental reason for all that is happening there.

Development grows around connections to limited-access highways, and the Conshohockens provide relevant examples.  It then spreads out, in a complex equation that, for prospective buyers/renters involves distance, driving time, quality of location, price, and one’s willingness to sacrifice one or more of those features incrementally to improve others.  But as development grows, so does traffic congestion, so the equation is constantly shifting.

The central point is that, as the yeasty growth of property values in nearby proximity to an intersection continues, the steadily increasing price difference will inexorably drive development toward flatbread areas.  The specific reality—in all directions—will be determined by the shifting conclusion about how far away you will be from work, and that’s as much time as distance, remember.

If everything else remained the same, this process currently evolving in the Conshohockens might—emphasis might—eventually benefit Bridgeport.  Norristown, probably not.  But something else that is scheduled to happen will offer Norristown its best “access to transportation” since the arrival of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the mid-20th century.  Bridgeport stands to benefit also.  That will be the subject of a future post in this series.

Access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike could be the step required to place Norristown/Bridgeport squarely in the sights of local developers.  I more than suspect that several are already well into researching specific properties, market demand and expected timing.  The area wants both new businesses and new residents, but expect to see more of the latter than the former.  That’s fine, because people who live in an area have a greater interest in it than those who just work there during the day.  Of course you want people of a higher economic standing than those who have tended to migrate to the area in recent years.  Different demographic groups make different contributions, but most of all you want couples, preferably young, who either have children or are planning a family when the time is right.  Such people are the foundation of a reviving community, and often the most willing to take a chance on a neighborhood or town that might still be a little sketchy on the safety/cleanliness scale, but still might be on the verge of turning around. 

This is where I segue from outside your borders to beyond your control.  Once a prospective new family has satisfied itself about their neighborhood’s safety and cleanliness (they are directly related, of course), the quality of the local school district become the next big question.  This may be the one advantage that Bridgeport has over Norristown, but their respective situations demonstrate the unfortunate fact that a critical factor in a municipality’s attractiveness—its school system—is also beyond its control.  A school district transcends municipal boundaries and operates under entirely different regulations because it has entirely different goals.  The district takes a portion of your tax money in what is a cooperative venture, but is not directly accountable to municipal officials for how it is spent.  This aggravates all municipalities involved, but for different reasons.  The flatbread that is Norristown/Bridgeport takes proportionate blame for the statistical performance of two school districts.  Neither is considered an asset by their district neighbors.

The irony, of course, is that a better community produces a better school system.  If you have a dynamic, growing and economically improving municipality, its residents will send their children better prepared and supported to the school district, which will reap the benefits.  Schooling can make things better, and it can make things worse, but both directions are relative, depending on where along the economic scale the community exists.  The public school systems—and teachers in particular—are routinely vilified because they cannot undo the neglect and deprivation that their students from lower income families have experienced before they get to school and which continues during those all-important years.  There is a direct correlation between student economic circumstances and student achievement, and it is the only one that can be substantiated with research.  Not race, not ethnicity, not religion, not anything else.  Once again, it’s all about The Benjamins.

This is the last I will have to say about such an important subject.  My focus is on municipalities.  Please do not consider that by not discussing the subject I am shunting it aside or down anyone’s priority list.  I most certainly do not, and no one should.

Next time: another potentially huge issue outside Norristown’s control, and a history lesson on why it is important.