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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, April 7, 2017

Maintaining A Sense of Community: A Very Big Job For This Very Small Town

Last month, I wrote about the very small town (current population, some 1300 people) of West Conshohocken, Pa., which is literally besieged by vehicle traffic, due to hosting an intersection of interstate highways within its already tiny boundaries.  The feeder roads and ramps to the interchange have not only taken land that used to be houses and playgrounds, they have divided what remains into small, isolated pockets.  I saw in this scenario a chance to inquire whether a sense of community—once a prominent characteristic of West Conshohocken, as of its sister towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River—can survive under such an assault.  I concluded the post with an appeal to the residents of West Conshohocken to send me comments on the current state of their community.  I promised to write a post about the opinions I would receive, and this is it.

But first, a reality check.  If we are going to discuss a town’s sense of community today, we must first understand and appreciate just how difficult a task our towns face, through no fault of their own, even those not subjected to anything close to what has happened to West Conshohocken.  The simple fact of life today is that the deck is stacked against towns trying to retain their long-time sense of community, and the smaller the town, the higher the stack.

It didn’t use to be that way; in fact, it used to be exactly the opposite.  Every town on the lower Schuylkill River, including West Conshohocken, came into being when the technology of the times almost mandated not just the creation of a town, but of closely integrated and tightly-packed towns.  Each town, regardless of size or specific geography contained within it—because it had to—almost everything people needed: workplaces, shopping, houses of worship and sources of entertainment, all usually within walking distance.  You got to know your neighbors, because you worked with them.  Wives shopped together at just a few stores, so the proprietors got to know people as individuals.  You didn’t see everybody at worship, but you saw those who were most like you, due to the town’s ethnic churches.  As regards the (scarce) leisure time available for entertainment, the world of these towns may have been limited, but local theatres brought the outside world to a town’s residents, first by hosting many of the day’s touring entertainment options, and later through films.

When people lived, worked, shopped, worshiped and relaxed, all within the same town, they felt a strong sense of responsibility toward the community they had created.  Thus each town, knowing that for anything short of a major disaster it was largely on its own, created its own community protection, with a professional police force and one or more volunteer fire companies.  The fire companies, in turn, did a great deal more than just fight fires; they became, together with the ethnic churches, the core social organizations of each town.  These community protectors were also staffed by community residents, further cementing the bond to one’s town.

This idyllic picture is a huge generalization, of course, and one important point it disguises is important here:  the smaller the town, the fewer people there were to staff the fewer industries, patronize the fewer local shops, worship at the fewer ethnic churches and so on.  This was, and still is, relevant for West Conshohocken.

But whether in large towns or small, that was then; this is now, and things have changed, by pretty much 180 degrees.  Today, in virtually every aspect of daily life—work, shopping, worship and entertainment—the cultural incentive is to look outward, away from where you actually live.  What percentage of a town’s residents actually work in the same town?  You do not see your neighbors at work like you used to, and that has weakened communities everywhere.  And shopping?  If you live in one of my subject Schuylkill River towns, I’ll bet you don’t do much shopping there (except, of course, if you are seeking trendy things on Bridge Street in Phoenixville).  I’ll spare you a rendition of what has happened to the ethnic churches along the lower Schuylkill River, but nothing is sadder, more damaging to the sense of community, than the closing of such a church, and even West Conshohocken has been affected. Last, but by no means least, tectonic change in communications have rendered entertainment into something you almost can’t find in town anymore, particularly a small one.  It’s so readily available in every home, why go outside?  There are still big events, of course, and they aren’t held in the river communities any more (except maybe Phoenixville, again).

These changes have made it much more difficult for a smaller town than for a larger one to create and sustain a sense of community feeling, and West Conshohocken has suffered from them all.  Then, of course, there has been the interchange.  This is a physical divider, separating an already small town into even smaller, and largely isolated, segments.

So that’s how this outsider views West Conshohocken, beset by far more than the usual impediments to community.  That’s why I asked for responses from West Conshohocken residents.  A summary of them follows, but first, let me make it clear that the number of responses does not allow me to make a claim that any one of them is representative of the community as a whole.  Second, people with a grievance are more likely to air it than those who lack such a stimulation.  This hold true under almost every scenario, and the current status of West Conshohocken is no exception.

With those caveats in mind, here are some generalizations I derive from listening to those who actually live within the community.

First, the vast majority of the replies by residents spoke not of the West Conshohocken community today, but that of their childhoods.  I suspect, from their phraseology, that this is a silent statement about the way things are today, but it is also evidence that the town’s smallness helped to sustain a close sense of community, despite the many other drawbacks.  Community is all about personal relationships, and West Conshohocken residents were profuse in their memories of them.  As one resident put it, “West Conshy was the best place to grow up; everyone knew each other or if they didn’t they knew some in your family.”  This apparently applied to an earlier Police Chief, of whom it was said, “…he didn’t need to chase anyone, he knew all of our parents.”

Whether the memories are silent statements or not, those that addressed the question of community today were close to unanimous in their opinion, and it wasn’t favorable.  Most who claimed to have lived there all their lives echoed the words of one who said, “it has changed, not for the better.”  Today, “it would be nice to have a few things again other than buildings and houses,” said another.  A life-long resident who lives “across the street from the blue route off ramp” has it particularly bad, suffering from noise and vibration as “the trucks go by all hours [of the] day and night.”  One statement in particular seemed to sum things up, striking an obvious chord in me: “This isn’t West Conshohocken anymore, it’s just a place people need to travel [through] to get where they’re going.”

     But one response served to add some needed balance to the picture.  It came from a member of Borough Council who—significantly—is not a life-long resident.  The intersection drew him to West Conshohocken, as it does for others, because it provides “immediate and direct access” to the major destinations in the region.  The fact that someone of relatively short residence can be elected to such a neighborhood position also reflects the ongoing change within the Borough.  He is living testimony to his claim that, “There is an on-going balance being struck between residents whose families have lived here for generations and newer residents.”  But the most promising part of his response—for me, at least—was his use of the phrase “on-going.”  Adjustments to change often take longer than the change itself, and square in the face of such enormous obstacles, West Conshohocken continues the fight.  The end result is still uncertain, but I believe the Councilman is correct when he claims, “there is still a lot of fight in us.” 

They are going to need it.

Friday, March 3, 2017

It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog That Matters, Remember?

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,.”
                                                                                                               (overused cliché of unknown origin)

It’s time for a change of subject.  I write about national issues, using the eight towns on Pa.’s lower Schuylkill River as my specific subjects.  My general issue of late has been diversity, with the focus on immigrants to the Schuylkill Valley, then and now.  That has meant that I focus on the largest and most diverse among my subject towns.  But this month I am going to take a look at a town that is not only the smallest, but also the least diverse of the eight, West Conshohocken.

West Conshohocken deserves more appreciation than it gets.  Every one of the eight towns has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, particularly after a brief post-WW II prosperity, but West Conshohocken has suffered well out of proportion to its relative size.  Circumstances of birth and location have always worked against it, but its residents still managed to create a vibrant, if miniscule, community, built around the traditional anchors, its ethnic churches and volunteer fire company.  The debacle that spanned the sixties, seventies and the early eighties left little of what used to be, but the community survived.  Then, in yet another blow, this one quite literally to the body, it was West Conshohocken’s fate to host the instrument of regional renewal, the interchange(s) of Interstates 76 and 476.

The result, if measured solely in property values, has been spectacular.  I, as an outsider, can see that quite readily.  But I, as a professional attempting to add historical understanding to the toolbox of those seeking community revival upriver, have to also ask about the cost to the community.  It think it’s an important question, with relevance to those upriver also.  It’s also a question that can only be answered by the community’s residents.

Numbers have always worked against West Conshohocken, because it has always possessed the smaller—or later—ones compared to anyone else.  It was the last borough birthed on the lower Schuylkill, in 1874.  It was a healthy baby at first, with the second largest initial population of the eight towns.  It was doomed, however to be the runt of the litter, due to circumstances of timing and location.  The timing problem was its late delivery, and its location problem was that it was just across the Schuylkill River from Conshohocken.  The 1880 Census listed the brand-new borough of West Conshohocken as housing 1,462 residents.  By that date, however, Conshohocken had already been a borough for twenty-four years, and possessed a population of 4,561.

Conshohocken’s close proximity had a lot to do with its much smaller neighbor remaining so small.  The larger borough’s established and large commercial sector just across the river has always had a dampening effect on commerce in West Conshohocken, particularly after the Matsonford Bridge was “freed.” 

West Conshohocken illustrates perhaps the best of any lower Schuylkill River town how first survival and then growth depended on how it managed a dichotomy that required combining two extremes: distance and closeness.  Distance, or rather the difficulty of achieving it, founded both Conshohockens, as it did every other river town, in this case via Matson’s Ford.  The Schuylkill at that time as a considerable barrier, and points at which it could be crossed in relative safety became well known.

Each of the Schuylkill River towns began as one half of a river crossing.  Those enterprising enough to locate themselves at such crossings were the first businesses, and employers.  Travel over distances thus brought each river crossing into being, and sustained its early growth.

As a result, the commercial offerings of every such emerging town were for a considerable time focused more on those who passed through than those who lived there.  That began to change when a new way to conquer distance entered the Schuylkill Valley: the railroad.  In not too long a time, traffic along the river, using its floodplain, began to exceed that crossing the river at those special points.  This easier, quicker and cheaper access to distances brought industry to the river towns, and then the immigrants to work in the mills and factories.  This is where closeness enters the picture.

Connections to distance built the towns, but the need for closeness determined how they were built.  The physical appearance of West Conshohocken, as well as its sisters along the lower Schuylkill, is due to the fact that the overwhelming percentage of its occupants had to walk from home to work and back again during the week.  They then had to repeat the process to and from another location on Sunday, plus similar small journeys to obtain life’s necessities in the era before refrigeration.  Work, housing, worship, shopping, everything was built in close proximity to everything else, because it had to be.  West Conshohocken followed the pattern, in smaller numbers and amidst some of the more challenging terrain of any river town, and packed in what it could as closely as it could.

Each river town managed this balance of extremes during the eras of the horse and wagon and the railroad, but were mortally challenged by the automobile and the truck.  The death of the railroads severed the close connections of each town to the wider world, while the automobile and the truck required a great deal more space within each borough to accommodate them than had the railroad.  There was too little room for the expansion of streets—and the creation of parking lots—that the automobile required, and the result devastated the borough shopping areas.  If West Conshohocken lost less in raw numbers than any other river town during this period, that was because it had the least to lose. 

The automobile revolution would fundamentally change every town, and for the worse, but none would suffer worse than West Conshohocken, whose curious fate it was to suffer along with the others during a long period of decline, then physically host the instrument of regional revival, that quintessential symbol of late 20th Century America, the Interstate Highway Interchange.  For West Conshohocken, that meant, on balance, more suffering.

The blows came in two stages.  First, an exit off the brand-new Schuylkill Expressway was planted on its soil.  Adding insult to injury, it even became known as “the Conshohocken exit.”  But the big one was the second, which arrived with the construction of what began as the “Blue Route,” first appeared as the “Mid-County Expressway,” and was completed as Interstate Route #476. 

The 1980 publication of Montgomery County, The Second Hundred Years caught the process at mid-point, and the chapter on West Conshohocken contains this revealing quote:

“[West Conshohocken] has no sewers, no doctor, no lawyer, and no pharmacist.  Although the borough has been devastated by the coming of the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route—it lost commercial enterprises, 125 houses and the taxes they paid—the residents seem content in their small, friendly community.”

As the opening and closing sentences point out, West Conshohocken never possessed several of the usual standard features of urban life before the Second World War, but managed establish a true community nonetheless.  But make no mistake about it; the new superhighways did indeed devastate West Conshohocken.

The physical devastation is the most obvious.  In all, as much as 25% of West Conshohocken residences may have been sacrificed to the superhighways, according to my friend Jack Coll, Conshohocken historian par excellence.

West Conshohocken paid an additional penalty, as the land lost to straightened roads and widened streets quickly filled with automobiles and trucks.  These vehicles represent the prosperity that the Interchange has brought to the region, but expediting their movement through town, at the expense of anyone who might think of walking anywhere, has become the necessary policy.  These roads—and the flood of vehicles on them—have sundered West Conshohocken into what to this only periodic visitor seems like isolated sections.  Walking within the Borough of West Conshohocken requires following an indirect route, crossing the roads only at a few specified points, in the brief period in which pedestrians are allowed, and even then often weaving between cars blocking the walkway.

So here we have a town, always small, but which today houses fewer people than it did when it first appeared, almost 150 years ago.  Some of the picturesque old buildings remain, but the Borough has no old downtown, because it never had one at all.  The Interstates have brought prosperity to both Conshohockens, but the smaller borough has paid by far the greater price.  The cumulative effect has been to render what had once been a small but vibrant (and all the more closer-knit due to its size) community into a regional traffic bottleneck cut into sections by wide roads, a place where few live but through which a great many pass on a daily basis.

These things are easily visible to outsiders like myself.  But the answer to the effect of all this prosperity on the community of West Conshohocken can only be determined by hearing the views of those people who actually comprise that community, those who live there.  I follow the Facebook pages devoted to West Conshohocken, and am quite willing to believe that there is a lot of fight left in this little dog. 

That’s why I conclude this post with an appeal to the residents of West Conshohocken to read this post and send me comments on the current state of their community.  I’ll follow up this post next month with one on the results of my request.  I also post a link in broadly urban-oriented Facebook pages, and believe that the experience of this tiny community in the face of such tectonic forces will find an audience.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Italians Then, Hispanics Now: Perception Vs. Reality, Yet Again?

In my First Friday post in October of last year, I published the first of a series about ethnicity and immigration, focusing as always on my subject towns along Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  Much of the inspiration for this came from my friend Hank Cisco, the Ambassador of Norristown.  He is a man with an amazing memory, and among the many memories he related to me were those of the suffering and discrimination Italians faced in Norristown, Pa. in the early years of this century.  In this, Norristown was hardly unique; in fact it demonstrated yet again why the town, its people and its history, are so very evocative of American history in general.

Just recently, Hank inspired me again, with a Facebook post on his timeline.  It contains a meme with a photo of Italian immigrants waving small American flags, and the following text:

“Legal Italian immigrants didn’t wave Italian flags coming into America.  They didn’t riot and try to stop the election process.  They didn’t try to make America speak Italian.  They learned English.”

The comments on this post contained several references to immigrant ancestors, and how hard they worked to earn a place in the American Dream.  Both Hank and his commentators speak for the way things actually were.  Italian immigrants—not to mention others, including Jews from many countries—lived honest, hard-working and law-abiding lives. These people did arrive, go to work—at whatever was offered—and quietly build lives for themselves and their children.  This was the reality. 

But as I pointed out in my first post, the public perception of Italians was something quite different from the day-to-day reality.  As early as 1891, before there actually very many Italians in America, eleven of them were lynched in New Orleans, by a mob that included several local prominent citizens, because they believed these strangers had murdered the Police Chief.  The lynching took place the day after a trial had acquitted them, because the mob believed the jury had been bought.  And this was early in the story.  By the 1920s, as I quoted popular author Bill Bryson, “Wherever problems arose, Italians seemed to be at the heart of things.  The widespread perception of Italians was that if they weren’t Fascists or Bolsheviks, they were anarchists or Communists, and if they weren’t those, they were involved in organized crime.”

In other words, in the early decades of the 20th century, there was a substantial gap between the perception of Italians and the far more mundane reality.  But many years have passed, and Italians have now entered the American body politic in both reality and perception.  That perception is now more congruent with reality, recognizing that excepting the bad element that exists within every such group, the vast majority of Italian immigrants—and the others—lived just as Hank and the post’s contributors pointed out.

Why was there such a gap between the perception and the reality of Italian immigrants to the U.S.?  There is always a gap between perception and reality, on pretty much any major subject.  Still, claiming Italian immigrants were either Fascists, Communists, Anarchists or criminals clearly had no basis in reality. That is the truth that Hank and his respondents make clear in that Facebook post.  Yet, it was what people believed.

The answer to the question “why did people believe that?” is complicated, but a shorthand version isn’t:  people always have been, are now and always will be suspicious of anyone that is “different.”  Such people possess what Brett Harte referred to as “the defective moral quality of being a stranger.”  It’s always been about different languages and customs, but in America, how light their skin was has had a lot to do with it.  I wrote in an earlier post about how the predominance of darker skinned Italians from Sicily played a part in generating hatred, although they are pretty much accepted as white by now.

Norristown was the scene of such ethnic hatred and distrust, and that unpleasant scenario played out over a very long time.  Rank discrimination against Italians was the norm until after the mid-20th century, and lingering resentment of their growing influence fueled the bruising political battles among ethnicity-based Borough Councilmen that contributed so greatly to Norristown’s decline in the century’s second half. 

And it lasted longer than you might think; indeed, I’m not sure it is entirely gone today.  I remember a conversation I had about twenty years ago with a friend who was also a politician/officeholder in the Norristown area at the time (I’m not going to come any closer to identifying him).  He launched into a tirade against “the people who have always caused most of the trouble around here.”  When I asked who they were, he replied, “You know, the people whose last names end with a vowel.”  I suppressed a smile (he had clearly forgotten how my last name is spelled) and I realized he was talking about Italians.  

That’s anti-Italian feeling lasting over one hundred years in the Norristown area, because I’m not sure he was alone in his opinion.  But by that time, anti-Hispanic feeling was growing, spurred by the growth of the town’s Hispanic population, and Italian Americans were part of it.  The current anti-immigrant attitude is now bolstered by the “illegal immigrant” argument first created as a reaction to Italians.  The irony just keeps coming. 

And here we are today, amidst a considerable negative reaction to the latest group of (largely) dark, swarthy immigrants.  I have been trained to look at subjects like this; it’s a professional thing.  That’s why I ask whether the enormous gap between perception and reality that Italians and other ethnic immigrants endured in the early years of their arrival might also exist today in regard to Hispanics.  As I wrote in my first post, “could Hispanics today—and perceptions of them—be playing a role similar to that of the Italians back then?”  Fortunately, that role no longer includes being lynched, but the attacks against Hispanics (not to mention those against Middle East refugees) clearly echo what Italians had to suffer for decades.  Are today’s immigrants arriving only for the “free stuff,” with no desire to work?  Do they “riot and try to stop the election process”?  Or might the reality be quite different, as it was with Italians and so many other ethnicities?

Given the text of the meme Hank published, I feel it is safe to say that a perception/reality gap may exist today, one that may be as large as the one Italians suffered under for so long.  By now, it appears that Italians have migrated from one side of the gap to the other.  Does this help Norristown?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Attention Norristown: No Turnpike Interchange, No Revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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