Friday, June 3, 2016
I’m taking a break from posts about the future of Norristown, Pa. to pick up on my other current blog series that examines its upriver neighbor, Phoenixville. I have been asking the question “Why Phoenixville?” for some time now. Why is Phoenixville the only town on the lower Schuylkill River that is experiencing a locally generated revival? (remember, I differentiate it from what is happening downriver in the Conshohockens). The question was a major focus of my recent East Coast trip, culminating in my talk to a gratifyingly large audience at the Phoenixville Public Library.
Thus it came to pass that a speaker about the recent history of Phoenixville came armed with more questions than answers. I outlined the Borough’s history of emulating the other river towns, not just in its structure but also in the reason it came into existence, and the arc of its history, both in the good and then the bad times. But then I focused on the period since about 1980. I had good, well-researched explanations for pretty much all the basics of Phoenixville history up to that time, but not after. No one else does, either, I admitted, and asked for their help.
At the end of my talk, several in the audience offered spontaneous thoughts. I also asked them to email me their thoughts on the subject, and have since received several excellent responses. They vary greatly in length, from short lists to extensive essays. I continue to study them, but one theme dominates by its presence, in both the spoken comments that followed my talk and the written ones that have since been submitted. A few mentioned it specifically, others referenced events that demonstrate it. Regardless of how it was phrased, Phoenixville’s spirit of “Community” stood head and shoulders above any other subject. It was described in different ways, using different terms, but they all were basically describing the same thing. We are on to something here, for sure.
I reprint below a substantial excerpt from one email, because it asks my “Why Phoenixville?” question—in its own way—but only after offering, by example, the fundamental answer.
“December 6, 2014 will live as a day of infamy in the hearts and minds of residents of Phoenixville Pennsylvania. Sitting down in front of my computer, that Saturday, I could barely believe my eyes when I read “Vandals Torch Firebird”. It had been exactly one week since my wife and I moved into our new home in the area once called “Ironsides”, just west of the borough line. We had moved from West Chester, a town thought to be on the up and up. Prior to that we have lived in some of the less fortunate river towns of Reading and Pottstown. The Schuylkill flows through my veins. We had attended Firebird festivals a few years earlier and looked forward to this one, our first as newly minted residents. Seeing as the bird had been torched, this seemed a wash now that it was a fait accompli.
The details were sketchy, but what was certain was at 3:30 AM fire was reported out at Friendship Field. By the time the crews arrived the bird was a goner. A call had been made to the community for help, I felt the need to be a part of it. Although it was a cold rainy day with many boxes yet unpacked, as a retired carpenter, I knew I could give them a hand, even if I didn’t know anybody out there at all, a strong force was nudging me towards the door.
Arriving at the scene of the crime I found an amazing sight. Crowds of people lugging pallets, old lumber and anything else flammable in nature across the muddy fields, deeply rutted by the firetrucks that had managed to only save one wingtip. Hendrik [The Firebird Festival’s single-named founder, leader and visionary] had put the call out to the community for anything that could be had to give a long-shot chance at rebuilding a bird. At the curbside, a line of pickup trucks emptied piles of donations from many of the community’s businesses along with tons from local attics and garages. Finally Hendrik announced “We have enough!” With the light rain cooling the ash pile of the old bird, we got down to the business of giving life to a new one. Although not the bird that once had been, our collective effort produced a worthy stand-in and just a few hours later, to the roar of the crowd, it then also succumbed to immense flames.
So, what does this mean? Wouldn’t any other small town, given the circumstances, pull together and match it? I believe most small town residents would say, “Yes we sure would.” If they could, or could not, is it not really as important as why should Phoenixville be the place to pull this off?”
Why indeed? That’s what I seek to find out. The spirit that induces a brand-new resident (and not, technically, of the Borough itself), along with so many others, to offer what they can to save a community event is clearly central to any attempt to answer the question “Why Phoenixville?”
As a historian, I note regretfully that most of the responses to my question have come from recent residents, who moved from elsewhere. This raises several interesting questions, some of which I shall address in future posts, but for now I would like to ask the Borough’s older residents (that’s in length of residence, not necessarily age, although obviously the two go together) to be heard, and speak/write of “the bad old days,” those decades after the final demise of the Phoenix Steel Company. What was the nature of Phoenixville’s “Community” back then, or even earlier, during the long post-war decline? Did the spirit die and was reborn, or did it survive, nurtured by the few faithful during the hard times? This kind of knowledge would go a great way toward answering the question “Why Phoenixville?”
If you have any thoughts, I’d like to hear them. Please email me.
PLEASE NOTE: CHANGE IN PUBLICATION SCHEDULE
I have been publishing this blog every two weeks, on Fridays. Now, I need to create space to undertake my next writing effort, as it will be a very different subject from those on which I have so far focused. Thus, beginning after this post, I will publish a new “The More Things Change…” post on a monthly basis. It will appear on the first Friday of each month. This post, coming as it does two weeks after my previous one, is the last according to the old schedule. As it appears on the first Friday of June, it is also the first post under the new schedule. My next post will be on Friday, July 1st. I hope to compensate with longer, more thoughtful, essays. I thank you, in advance, for your patience and for your continued support.
Friday, May 20, 2016
I utilized my most recent blog post to differ with the published opinion of Stan Huskey, editor of the Times Herald newspaper, that “the business of Norristown should be business.” Such an attitude, I argued, fails to appreciate how history has changed the realities of living along the lower Schuylkill Valley. He recently replied, prompting this post in return.
First, I must clear up one not-so-minor point before getting to the relevant ones. Stan wrote in his column that
“Tolle believes that business doomed America to the Great Depression.”
I don’t believe any such thing. Here is what I actually wrote in the disputed post:
“It was a basic assumption of the times. Of course, that assumption and others closely-allied to it led to the Great Depression, but never mind that for now.”
“It” was the attitude summed up in Coolidge’s expression “the business of America is business,” and it definitely led to the Great Depression. I am in very good company on that one.
But never mind that for now. We are not talking about old, no-longer relevant aphorisms, but about the changes that rendered them that way, and how understanding these should alter a municipality’s traditional outlook and priorities. It’s really more about attitude than actions, because actions derive from the interaction of attitude and assumptions. Many of the attitudes held by Norristown residents and their assumptions about “the good old days” need to be fundamentally altered for them to apply today and in the future. Still, I believe there is less that divides us than that which unites us on this subject. Here is a quote from a post dated October 2, 2015, that summarizes my general approach: “The point is not whether or not a municipality should try to attract businesses, but rather what kind of businesses it should try to attract.”
What triggered this initial series of posts about Norristown was my learning that the Municipal Council had put together a financial package to ease the way onto Main Street for a restaurant. A restaurant is what I have termed a “service” business. My definition means that its primary market is local, a combination of within town and not far away. A municipality should not focus on bringing such businesses to town, let alone pave the way financially. “Service” businesses will begin to arrive—of their own volition—as a town’s population increases due to people moving in who possess disposable income. You do not need to “bring” such businesses to town; scarce resources are better spent making the town itself safer and cleaner, to attract the base clientele that any such recreation business needs.
Yes, that’s “recreation business.” I didn’t think that Stan meant the return of a steel mill when he said “business,” and he should understand that when I say residence and recreation, I am referring to businesses. Not only are they businesses, they are the type that attracts ancillary businesses. Today, such businesses like to locate in picturesque river valleys, particularly if they are also accessible to the major road network. Residence and recreation appear to be doing fairly well for Conshohocken and Phoenixville these days.
In the final analysis, the only real disagreement I have with Stan’s explication of his stance about business comes with this statement:
“But let’s cut to the chase here, Norristown can be the cleanest, safest place on all of Pennsylvania, but if there isn’t anything (read: businesses) downtown to attract people, they’re still not going to come….Bring an upscale boutique to town….Open a new distillery, which is happening on Main Street….Build a thriving arts district with a variety of offerings, which we’re doing with the now-established Theatre Horizon and the return of the Centre Theater….And then bring a restaurateur to town and let him or her see the crowds coming out of the theaters and he or she will want to open an incredible new place that is going to attract even more people to town."
If Norristown were to become even close to the cleanest, safest place in all of Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t need to attract either businesses or people. Both would be beating down the doors to become part of such a community. You wouldn’t have to bring a restaurateur to town, because he or she would have already heard all he or she needs to know. You can’t simply “Bring an upscale boutique to town”; that’s not how it works. Upscale boutiques locate among communities of upscale people. Want to “bring” upscale businesses to town? Focus on the town. Up-and-coming communities do not need to attract businesses; the fact that they are up-and-coming is sufficient. That’s why you focus on the community—on its people—and not on attracting businesses.
One final note, if I may. In his riposte, Stan observed that
Clean and safe are one of the key components of revitalization, and if Tolle had been following along with the bouncing ball he would know I’ve been writing about that as well, and he did reference one of my columns from last year, so…
I do, in fact, read Stan’s columns on a regular basis, and have for longer than I can remember. He has been a consistent advocate for Norristown, one that the community definitely needs. His repeated return to the subject of property tax demonstrates that his grasp of the fundamental issues is sound; there is really no more important issue than that one. The fact that this is my first published disagreement over the years should indicate that we are not that far apart in our viewpoints.
I am less certain that he reads my blog posts (although they are available in the Times Herald digital edition). This is no place to repeat—yet again—some basic truisms that I have offered before. So I simply ask Stan—and you all—to read my series of posts entitled “Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come,” which were published from 10/2/15 through 11/13/15, and the most recent series on Norristown’s pending revival, which began on 1/29/16. They explain why The Business of Norristown Should Be To Make It A Safe And Clean Community.
Let me end this post by reaffirming my continued, unqualified support for the next “Norristown Rising” roundtable. In Stan’s words, it will focus on
“What do we need to do to make sure Norristown is clean and safe?”
That’s the issue, the biggest issue of them all. I encourage you to show up, and make your voice heard. This one is about YOU.
Friday, May 6, 2016
Norristown, Pa., has several advocates, some in positions of authority and others who simply care and try to organize the community to move forward. Few, if any, are better placed than Stan Huskey, editor of the local newspaper, the Times Herald. He may not be in authority, but he certainly possesses a bully pulpit. He organizes the “Norristown Rising” roundtables, and decides on their topics. That’s why I take no pleasure in disputing a recent pronouncement of his, but I must.
To promote the most recent “Norristown Rising” roundtable, Stan laid out a vision for Norristown, saying,
“Personally, I’m going to have to go with the Calvin Coolidge theory that the business of Norristown should be business.”
I respectfully disagree. History suggests something quite different. I view Stan’s position as an example of remembering history instead of learning from it. Stan is correct in his memory of the past, and of Calvin Coolidge. While that pithy expression about business has become attached to Coolidge’s name, it was equally applicable at every level of government in pretty much every place during his day. Back then, Norristown government reflected the Coolidge attitude, as did almost all municipal, county and state governments. The business of Norristown was business. It was a basic assumption of the times. Of course, that assumption and others closely-allied to it led to the Great Depression, but never mind that for now. The real point is, as I often phrase it, “that was then; but this is now, and things have changed.”
Boy, have they! In fact, some very important things have changed a full 180 degrees. Back in “the good old days,” the business of every Schuylkill River town was business, both manufacturing and commerce. Factories fill the floodplain, with the main commercial street close by. The two lowest priorities for the floodplain were residence and recreation. Well, guess what? Both the factories and commercial streets are gone now, and as both Phoenixville and the Conshohockens can testify, the growth industries are residence and recreation.
If the Norristown Municipal Council were to make business their business, they would be making an enormous mistake. That would be a misapplication of scarce resources. I have already identified a municipality’s two highest priorities, and business wasn’t one of them. It ranks high, but well after Clean It Up and way below Make It Safe.
Don’t jump to the opposite conclusion, that I am in some way “anti-business.” Nothing could be further from the truth. First, I fully support an earlier Huskey question, “Is Norristown business-friendly?” That is a super-important question, and one that Norristown should strive to make true. On that subject and others closely related, I refer you to a previous post, on October 2, 2015, entitled “Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come, [Part I].”
My point in that post was businesses that service the local population will establish themselves when that population is adding people with disposable income, most likely younger. Financial incentives to lure such businesses are a bad bet and worse policy. Save that for those businesses that are considering locating in town, but will not depend on locals for their market. They are your financial net gainers.
But most of all, make it your policy that people come first. Make It Safe and Clean It Up. Then they—both people and businesses—will come to Norristown/Bridgeport. As for people, I’m not talking about those who know that their housing voucher goes further in those communities. They currently constitute a disproportionate component of the population, so no one should cry foul if their consistent numbers become a smaller part of the population (Of course, they won’t cry foul, they’ll cry “Gentrification,” but I’m getting way ahead of myself here).
I am speaking of those people—they tend to be younger—that are law-abiding and possess disposable income (there should be no further qualifications). So what will bring such people to Norristown/Bridgeport? To repeat: Residence and Recreation. Along the lower Schuylkill River, what was last is now first, because, well, that was then and this is now. History is all about change.
As for businesses, let’s face it, they will probably be bars and restaurants, i.e., recreation. But mix in some new riverside residences, and once word spreads of a safe, clean pair of communities with a growing nightlife that face each other across a beautiful river, directly accessible to several trails, all else can pretty much follow. This includes those businesses that might want to locate in such a community that is also directly accessible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just as an incentive for their employees. They need not have any connection to Norristown at all, as long as they pay their taxes. They will be the ones that create the rush-hour traffic jams (yes, the New Norristown must actually seek the return of the very same thing that helped to destroy Old Norristown, but I’m getting way ahead of myself again here). But all things considered, wouldn’t that be a net gain?
I am much happier to support the topic of the next “Norristown Rising.” Stan phrases it as a question:
“What do we need to do to make sure Norristown is clean and safe?”
That IS the question, not the only question, but the most important one by far. It’s what I’ve been saying all along. So attend this one, and make your voice heard.
Having begun with a charming but no longer relevant aphorism, let’s close with another, still relevant if significantly modified. It’s the one that goes “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” In truth, it is those that attempt to repeat history who are doomed. Don’t just remember history; learn from it.
Friday, April 22, 2016
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.”
Friday, April 8, 2016
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.