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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 3, 2017

Does Opposing Columbus Day Mean Erasing Local History?

It’s time to return to my series on immigration, and spending Columbus Day last month in San Francisco provided an interesting prism through which to view the conflicting images of Christopher Columbus that co-exist in the U.S.  I followed the ceremonies at Norristown’s newly-refurbished Columbus Monument as well; together, these two celebrations say a great deal about contesting ideals in American society, but nothing about Columbus himself.  At the end of this post, I’m going to ask a few questions of my readers who live in the towns along the lower Schuylkill (and, of course, anyone else who wishes to comment), about my take on this subject.
I began my series on immigration by focusing on Italians, and then was moved to discuss the image of Columbus among Italian-Americans by my friend Hank Cisco, himself a long-time activist for Italians in his home, Norristown, Pa.  He sent me a group email with a link to an article in the Italian American Herald.com, that asked the question “Columbus Being Pushed out of the Picture in America?”  This opened a door—an ethnic one—through which I had not before passed.  My post of 5/5/17 was a response.  I confessed my inability to see anything through an ethnic lens, and the fact that I, along with most of my generation, was taught to view Columbus as the vanguard of Europe’s “civilizing” efforts in the Western Hemisphere, not as an Italian here, per se.  I had seriously underestimated the significance of Columbus to Italian-Americans specifically.
Norristown’s Columbus Day Celebration appears—based on local media coverage—to have focused on the Italian aspect of the legacy of Columbus, as it has from the beginning.  State Representative Kate Harper was quoted as saying, “In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day as a national holiday and today we credit Christopher Columbus with Italians’ immigration to the New World and what is now Pennsylvania….Currently there are 17 million Americans of Italian heritage in the United States and 1.4 Americans of Italian heritage right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Italian Americans have become one of the commonwealth’s most influential ethnic groups, with deep roots in religion, politics, arts, science, law and economic and social institutions.”  
Given the strength of the Italian-American presence in Pennsylvania, such a focus makes perfect sense.  There are several chapters of the Knights of Columbus in the lower Schuylkill Valley, in Pottstown, Conshohocken and Phoenixville (which also serves Royersford and Spring City), not to mention those just outside the Schuylkill Valley itself.  
But now let’s jump across almost the entire country, to the west coast, on the Pacific Ocean, specifically the City of San Francisco.  There, on a beautiful site near the famous Coit Tower stands a thirty-foot tall statue of Columbus, proudly gazing out over a bay of an ocean he never sailed on.  The statue itself only dates back to 1957, but San Francisco has hosted celebrations and a parade honoring Columbus since 1869.
Considering that Columbus never even set foot on the east coast of the American continent, let alone the west coast, what is a statue of him doing overlooking the west coast?  The answer to that is simple, and revealing.  In fact, it’s the very same reason that the Columbus monument exists in Norristown, Pa.; just the specific names and dates are different.
American education has long emphasized Columbus as the symbol of Western Civilization’s spreading over the North American continent, but Italian Americans have been taking concrete (and stone and steel) action to give his persona a direct contact with city and town residents for quite some time.  The inscription on the SF Columbus Monument reads, in part, “presented to the people of San Francisco by the Columbus Monument Committee, with grateful acknowledgement to [local donors].”  Local donors in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania funded the 1992 monument (a campaign directed by Hank Cisco), and its quarter-century restoration this year.
The construction of Norristown’s original Columbus Monument, in 1926, can symbolize the others that date back to that period.  When Italians found themselves the focus of anti-foreigner hysteria during this period, such statues were symbols of the fight against this discrimination.  As historian Christopher J. Kauffman wrote, "Italian Americans grounded legitimacy in a pluralistic society by focusing on the Genoese explorer as a central figure in their sense of peoplehood."  In the process, their message also linked the Italian Christopher Columbus with the “civilizing” history of the American continent. 
They were successful; while the 1920s had seen anti-Italian immigrant legislation passed by Congress, in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a National Holiday.  And the process still continues, to this day.  The town of Southington, Connecticut installed a statue of Columbus (locally funded, but not by the government) on Columbus Day this past month. 
But things have also changed.  By 1994, San Francisco’s Columbus Day Parade had evolved into the Italian Heritage Parade, in an effort to “celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans and their heritage,” in the words of the city’s Human Rights Commission.  The City of San Francisco still celebrates Columbus Day, but the School District does not.  I suspect that’s because the young Italian-Americans of San Francisco are far outnumbered by the descendants of those who have little reason to revere Columbus.  Even the dedication of that Columbus statue in Southington, Connecticut was met with protests this past October. 
Here’s the nub of the argument: does being anti-Columbus mean being anti-Italian, even indirectly, because you desire to end the celebration of Columbus Day?  I quoted the Italian American Herald in my 5/5/17 post as saying,Part of preserving is protecting and slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day, a holiday near and dear to Italian Americans.”  I wasn’t sure about this argument back then, and observed, “The statement’s phraseology demonstrates, but does not take into account the uniquely bifurcated nature of Columbus Day...”
What I do believe is that those opposing the celebration of Columbus are doing so to protest the core message, the “civilizing” of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans.  The fact that Columbus was Italian is irrelevant; he could have been Greek for all they care.  Yet he was Italian (or, at least, from a portion of what would become "Italy" almost 400 years later), and celebrating him has been a component of Italian-American culture for many decades.  Christopher Columbus the explorer has absolutely no connection to San Francisco, California, Southington Connecticut, or Norristown, Pennsylvania, but Columbus the symbol of Italian pride has a connection wherever communities of Italians have established themselves.  Sometimes symbols are needed.
So here’s my questions to my readers, particularly those of Italian heritage.  Does opposition to Columbus monuments constitute the erasure of local ethnic history?  Can Columbus the Italian be divorced from Columbus the symbol of European Colonization?  Can he be celebrated in some communities while being reviled in others?

Everyone is invited to respond, of course, but I freely confess my desire for opinions from those with an ethnic connection, because they are more likely to diverge from my own.

And for those of you who would like to ponder a deeper question in all this, here’s one: As America slowly evolves into a multi-racial society, what is the future, not just of Columbus Day, but of the European arrival and takeover as a “civilizing mission” component of American history?

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Bike Trail Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Port Indian

Last month, I wrote in support of the Chester Valley Trail’s being routed through Bridgeport, Pa., and across the Schuylkill River to join the Schuylkill Valley Trail in Norristown.  I termed the proposal “exciting,” and said it “offers a great deal of potential.”  I haven’t ridden a bicycle for a great many years, but I know that bike/walking trails can deliver benefits to a community, and I know this from personal experience.  Every community’s experience differs, but I will take this opportunity to relate how one community benefitted enormously.  I know because I was there as it happened.
Just upriver from Bridgeport, on the opposite bank of the Schuylkill River, lies the community of Port Indian.  I lived there for thirty-six years, and I can state, without fear of contradiction, that the adjacent bike trail is the best thing that ever happened to Port Indian.  I don’t expect that to be replicated elsewhere, and certainly not in Bridgeport, but if you’re looking for an actual success story, the one I am about to tell is hard to beat.
Port Indian encompasses a stretch of land in West Norriton Township, bounded by the Schuylkill River on one side and the old, elevated, Pennsylvania Railroad embankment on the other.  The name is an entirely unofficial designation for those homes accessed by East and West Indian Lane.  Both roads predate township regulations, and thus were never formally accepted by the Township.  That makes Port Indian a “private community,” which basically means that the Township is not responsible for anything, from streetlights to street paving.  A Civic Association arranges these things, and must raise the money to pay for them.
Every property in Port Indian has a riverfront; all Port Indian residents live along—and, on occasion, in—the river itself.  Let me also testify to the beauty and serenity life in Port Indian offers, before I move on to that “on occasion, in” bit. 
The Schuylkill River often floods Port Indian; the only question is “how high?  The east end of East Indian Lane is high enough to be safe, but all of West Indian and a portion of East Indian Lane lie at a low level.  This stretch, a solid majority of the properties, floods frequently.  This fact has always made “how to get out quickly” important to each resident.
The key to the problem is this: the only ingress/egress road to the low-lying areas passes under a double-arched stone bridge, part of the railroad embankment.  One arch goes over Indian Creek and the other over the access road.  This presents two problems.  First, there is no clearance under the arch for vehicles of any height.  This kept such vehicles as trash trucks from passing under the bridge.  They had to exit the road, ford Indian Creek, and then climb up the opposite bank.  And then repeat the process in reverse on the way back, of course.
Much more important however, is the fact that the access road below the arch is the lowest point in the entire community.  In other words, the only escape route for the vast majority of residents floods first, before the rest of the road. 
The combination of difficult access/escape and periodic floods combined to make Port Indian largely a “summer community.”  That is being polite.  Township locals referred to it as “Dogpatch.”  For a long time, water-warped shacks served by wells and outhouses were prevalent.  But in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, a new generation of residents began to live there year-round, and thus had to address the community’s physical issues.  Several improvements were made, but the issue of ingress/egress remained unsolved. 
Then came what was known back then as the “Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway,” coming up the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia.  It utilized the old Pennsylvania track bed, ripping up rails, then grading and asphalting a smooth path.  Its initial goal was Valley Forge, which meant it would use the embankment that bordered our community. 
The project was initially met with hostility by every township through which it passed and every community that lay anywhere near it.  As the bikepath neared Norristown, Port Indian residents began to pay attention, as the path passes very close to many houses.  Some were opposed, citing dangers of increased trespassing and theft, just as those downriver had.  But some of us, mindful that we actually had no leverage at all, argued for a different approach.  Let’s welcome the bikeway, we said, and see what we can get them to do for us.  I made the initial approach, to John Wood of the County Planning Commission, and was well-received.  They were pleased—and initially astonished—that a nearby community would actually welcome the bike trail.
These talks produced just what we needed: an elevated access/escape route for our residents.  If you use the trail in this area, you will notice that beginning at the large lot on one side of Indian Creek and extending about one-third down West Indian Lane, the path is much wider than normal.  That was done to benefit Port Indian, to accommodate our vehicles.  We received permission to utilize the bike trail, including the narrower stretch further upriver, for flood evacuation.  We, in turn, built a new approach ramp to the wider section, from what is relatively high ground.  Now, for the first time in its history, residents of Port Indian don’t lose their escape route first.  And that widened stretch of road is now used by trash vehicles, which are now too large to even consider fording the creek.
The buildings in Port Indian used to be water-sodden shacks; today, new residents hire architects to design their homes.  Those who have seen the process through have largely elevated their homes.  Property values have risen a great deal (no one is making waterfront properties these days), and Port Indian has become a desired community to live in.
To be fair, I must admit that trespassing and theft has increased in the community.  What is now the Schuylkill Valley Trail offers miscreants quick access and escape, no doubt about it.  Measured against the gains, however, there is no question that the bikepath is the best thing that ever happened to Port Indian.

The same is not going to be said of Bridgeport, because it can’t.  The two situations are not analogous.  Port Indian also knew what it stood to gain, and kept focused on that.  Bridgeport doesn’t know, and I don’t either.  But that’s the thing about opportunity; it tends to be vague and uncertain.  Given Bridgeport’s post-WWII history and current condition, an opportunity to connect to an emerging and popular transportation network should be seized.  Find a way to do it.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Chester Valley Trail Will Be Good For Bridgeport

I’m suspending my blog series on Immigration yet again, to discuss an exciting proposal that has been presented to one of my eight subject towns, Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.The proposal offers a great deal of potential, but it comes with a catch, a big one.  The task is to find a way around this catch, because the opportunity should not be wasted. 
I support the routing of the Chester Valley Trail through Bridgeport to connect with the Schuylkill Valley Trail, and encourage residents to view this not as a problem, but as an opportunity.  I am not saying accept the proposal as is, but find a way to get it done with as little damage as possible.  It will be worth it.
No, I don’t drive the bridge or DeKalb Street anymore (although I used to, on a regular basis); this is an outsider’s perspective, one that I believe can contribute to the discussion.  My point is not about the present, but the future, based on a study of the past.
What’s needed is a refocusing, from the personal and the present to the community and the future.  The former sees largely loss, while the latter offers opportunity.  And the key to shifting focus from the present to the future can be found in the past.  History can help you gain this perspective, if you understand history as CHANGE, and look for patterns rather than just memories. 

Here the historical pattern to understand is importance of access to and location along the dominant transportation networks of the day.  Bridgeport, and the other towns along the Lower Schuylkill River, once possessed both.  Each river town was founded around the intersection of the early roads and the Schuylkill River.  The 19th Century railroad network nurtured the river towns, Bridgeport most definitely included, for a century and a half, and underlay their development into true communities. 

But that changed.  The coming of the new post-WW II road network bypassed these same towns, Bridgeport again included.  Today, only the Conshohockens have a direct connection to this network, and the consequences of that have literally transformed both towns.  Pottstown has access (more or less), but its location along the road network tends to isolate it.  Norristown is getting a connection, and hopes are high.
And Bridgeport?  Well, Bridgeport has always sort of benefitted from the prosperity of Norristown, and I am already on record that Norristown’s chances for future prosperity largely derive on that new connection to the road network, so maybe.

But if you're looking for a vehicle to haul Bridgeport out of the sloth of stagnation onto a faster track, don't bet on the automobile.  The automobile played a crucial role in the destruction of old Bridgeport, and shows no sign of altering that role in the future.
The proposal before Bridgeport has nothing to do with the automobile, or road networks at all.  In that peculiar way of history, it represents both the past and the future, based on CHANGE.  One of the routes of that old, long-abandoned railroad network that nourished both Norristown and Bridgeport is now hosting a new network, one still in development, whose potential cannot yet be guessed.  They aren’t going to recreate the old Bridgeport, but they will play a part in shaping the new.

The future, especially for old river towns, doesn’t lie in the automobile, but in what is broadly called “alternative transportation.”  That’s what this old/new network is all about (that and the current obsession with fitness, of course).  And that is just a component of the larger question, i.e., how to get outsiders to learn about Bridgeport/Norristown—and others—and see the opportunities they offer?

A network of trails offers at least a partial answer.  People have been traveling through both Bridgeport and Norristown by automobile for some time now, and not many have seen either as the town of opportunity.  Why don’t we add a different mix of people, particularly when that mix is weighted toward exactly the type of people a reviving town hopes to attract?

One of those commenting on a Facebook post about the proposal questioned how many people in Bridgeport will actually use it.  He may well be right, particularly in the immediate future, and he brings up the central point, the reason why you want this trail to pass through Bridgeport.  It isn’t about local residents using it, but about “outsiders.”  They’re the ones you want to attract to your town, and a heavily-utilized bike connection can only help.

The outsiders who will use these trails have been given many names, from intensely supportive to rather derogatory, but as people, the vast majority have one thing in common:  they possess "disposable income," as evidenced by their bikes and gear, which are pretty costly.  These are exactly the people you want to come to Bridgeport, or at least be aware it exists.  Awareness of the Borough if you are driving through on Monday through Friday is minimal, but passing through on a bicycle (not to mention walking) over the weekend will impart a whole new understanding of the trail's surroundings, the Borough of Bridgeport.

But you don’t just want people passing through on their way to someplace else, you want them to see something locally and be attracted to it.  What is there for them to see, be attracted to, and begin to think more about the area?  There are some small, specific answers to that question, but the broad answer is obvious, if often overlooked: the riverfronts of both towns.  Both Norristown and Bridgeport possess unexploited riverfronts; proper development can make them area attractions.  I thus repeat my earlier thesis that Norristown’s—and Bridgeport’s—return to prosperity will derive from their relationship to the Schuylkill River.

That means you must get outsiders to the river, to experience its new beauty.  Cars are only one method; important, to be sure, which is why I promote the Lafayette Street Project’s potential.  Cars must be accommodated but accommodating them must not dominate the process.  Alternative Transportation—the whole gamut—is a wave of the future, and one that both Norristown and Bridgeport should ride.    

Bridgeport Borough Council favors the Chester Valley Trail project, subject to some changes.  I commend Tim Briggs, State Representative, 149th District, for recognizing the Trail's potential and supporting it.  The necessary changes can be made.  Don't let a loss-focused myopia block the kind of creative thinking this proposal represents.  A better future depends on it.

Friday, August 4, 2017


This month, I am suspending my series of posts on illegal immigration in order to respond to the recent wave of gun violence in Norristown, Pa., my favorite town.  Since January 1, there have been ten incidents where people have been shot.  This culminated in early July with two fatal shootings over the span of four days.  One victim was sixteen years old.

Amidst the community grief, Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot has spoken the crucial truth that needs to be addressed:

“I can guarantee, unless you’re in a situation that’s a complete aberration like the D.C. sniper, rarely do you get shot by somebody, (and) they don’t know your name, you don’t know theirs, ….Let’s focus on the people who are using guns to commit violence, those who choose not to talk about their relatives and friends who they know are carrying guns. That’s the crowd that really needs the tough conversation.”

I couldn’t agree more.  That’s why I am reprinting a slightly abridged copy of my post of October 16, 2015.  It discusses what I consider to be the central issue in this complex web of factors necessary to keep “peace on the streets,” the relationship between the people and their police department:

“….A municipality has two—and just two—real priorities, that are head, shoulders and torso above everything else.  This week I write about the first, the most important one of all, and I will continue to use Norristown as my example.

Let’s call that most important priority “security.”  Far and away a municipal government’s most important task is to ensure that its citizens feel secure in their homes and out in public.  Thus, there is no more important relationship within a municipality than that between the people and those who provide their security, the police department.  In case you haven’t noticed, that relationship has been the subject of much disagreement (although little true discussion) after some horrific events nationwide.  I’m going to add a historical perspective (surprise!) to the issue, because there is nothing new about it.

A long time ago, in a country far away, I was a participant—at a very minor level—in an intense disagreement about the relationship between people and security.  This was actually the biggest issue of the several extant in that place at that time, although this was not fully appreciated.  Simply put, the question was this: must you bring security to the people, or do the people themselves bring security?  We ended up trying the latter because we could not accomplish the former.  At the very local—hamlet and village—level, the people were organized into part-time soldiers and assigned to guard their own villages.  Sounds logical, right?  It didn’t work.  They remained inside their vehicles during the day and their compounds during the night, looking to themselves and pretty much ignoring what was happening in the nearby villages they were supposed to be guarding.  An additional issue was that they looked on the people as a source of revenue and extorted whatever they could.  So the people, left on their own, cooperated with them during the day, but with the insurgents during the night.  Getting information was hard, and that information was unreliable.  “Don’t snitch” is not an American invention.

There is a parallel to the situation in our nation’s urban areas today, and it is not terribly far-fetched.  Many residents dwell in what we used to term “contested” areas.  That meant that the other side’s influence was well established among the people.  Now, residents fear the gangs and the bad individuals, not guerrillas, but as it was then, have no particular love for the authorities either.  So, because the bad guys live nearby, and can move about amongst them—and their families—people keep their mouths shut, the police grow more frustrated and the downward spiral continues.  The more things change…

Today, we sort of encourage people to protect themselves—through Town Watch, for example—but arming them is a very different matter on this side of the Pacific.  We thus depend on the professionals, the full-timers.  That’s a huge difference, but here’s where the parallel comes in: our professionals today tend to do the same thing today as our armed private citizens did over there back then.  They live largely in their vehicles and their stations, both day and night, which makes them strangers

We all lament the demise of the “cop on the beat,” and for good reason.  I had the privilege of touring Main Street, Norristown, Pa. with Hank Cisco, a former police officer and current town “ambassador.”  He brought home to me just much interaction took place between the beat cop and those on his beat, and how daily familiarity made cops much more observant and aware of their surroundings.  He—and they—exemplified the opposite approach to what we see today.  That daily, casual, friendly contact bred an understanding and a trust, and that paid off in information offered by a grateful citizenry.

Today, by contrast, the average resident in a “contested” area mostly sees the police just cruising by, looking at him.  They interact personally with a police officer only when he (or she, now) gets out of their car and approaches them.  They are automatically suspicious (“It increases my paranoia, like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car”) and their attitude will depend largely on what the cop then pulls out, from citation book to club to gun, but to them each represents only varying degrees of bad.  This is an unhealthy relationship, and the tragic results of such unhealthy relationships have played themselves out in many cities in recent months. 

That’s why I am pleased to commend Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot for taking major steps to increase friendly contact between his department and the local residents.  His campaign has several facets.  The Norristown Police Department now has a presence on social media, and it goes far beyond a Facebook page.  The Department actively utilizes such popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with focused and relevant sites, primarily  Nextdoor.com (which I have previously praised).  Cooperation between the residents and the police using this secure site has enormous potential to improve the community.  That’s a huge step forward, but social media cannot replace face-to-face contact, and Chief Talbot emphasizes that also.  It can be an event, such as “Coffee With A Cop,” held last June, but I particularly like the full time policy he initiated of offering the police station and its parking lot as safe zones to undertake transactions such as those on Craigslist.  The list goes on, and Chief Talbot is only just beginning.

Let’s hope more such innovative ideas to improve police/community relations make their appearance in Norristown.  They will go a long way to building that trust that true revival depends on.  Let’s also hope other local police jurisdictions—urban ones in particular—also take steps to reverse the decades-long decline in the relationship between people and security.  If people feel secure in their homes and out in the community, then all else can follow.  If they don’t, then nothing positive can follow.

I believe Chief Talbot is on the right track, and that this tragic run of events is an aberration in an otherwise upward course for Norristown.  The recent tragic events have only strengthened my views expressed above.