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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 7, 2016

Hispanics Are The New Italians. History Says That May Not Be A Good Thing.

The towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River were built by successive waves of immigrants, and no group settled in greater numbers than the Italians.  Today we celebrate their success in achieving the American Dream.  We have largely forgotten that their arrival triggered a national reaction, an expression of America’s “other side,” a combination of racism and ethnocentricity.  Today we are seeing a resurgence of that reactionary attitude, against the newest large wave of immigrants, Hispanics.  In what can only be described as bitter irony, many of those hostile to these new people are themselves the proud descendants of the people that triggered that same reaction upon their arrival in this country.

The 1920s saw a major turning point in U.S. immigration history, and Italian immigrants—and people’s opinions about them—were central to what happened.  As busy as Ellis Island had been in the late 1800s, the early years of the 20th century saw an even greater surge of immigrants.  Between 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War, some ten million people arrived on our shores.  1907 was the peak year, with over 1 million people arriving, primarily at New York.  The migrations of the previous century had brought people different from our English forefathers to these shores, but these new 20th century immigrants even more different, too different for many people.  Many of these were the people from southern Italy.  This fact would have a lasting impact on the American view of race and ethnicity. 

The First World War brought this massive movement of people to a complete stop, of course.  At war’s end, the number of desperate people in Europe who would have welcomed a chance to come to America was very much larger than it had been, and immigration began to rise again.  America, however, was in a very different mood by the 1920s.  Italians and the other “Industrial Immigrants” had arrived in a time of great economic expansion, when industries desperately sought new workers.  By 1920, a postwar recession had people worrying about new immigrants taking away jobs.

This was just one part of an era, America’s attempt to return to “normalcy.”  The Progressive Era was an increasingly distant memory as America elected as president Warren Harding, a man whose sole qualification for the job was that he looked “presidential.”  The early 1920s then saw a reexamination of several traditional American policies, with immigration prominent among them.  The shameful result was the first attempt to structure America by race.

By the 1920s, while every new ethnic group could claim to have faced discrimination, Italians were being viewed with the most suspicion.  As best-selling author Bill Bryson, in his study of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, caught the mood of the time: “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.”  He quotes a New York Times article as saying that it was “perhaps hopeless to think of civilizing [Italians] or keeping them in order, except by the arm of the law.”  A University of Wisconsin sociologist (in a statement quite evocative of today) insisted that the crime rate had fallen in Italy only “because all the criminals are here.”  Such widespread allocation of blame had previously been reserved for Jews, and they continued to suffer from it, but the huge number of Italians made them far more obvious targets. 

This negative attitude against Italians was in no way unique; it actually followed the traditional American pattern.  Americans have always rated their component peoples on a positive-to-negative scale.  Ethnicity and Religion help to place the markers between peoples, but the prime determinant is skin color; the lighter you are the better. That’s why, by 1920, the huge numbers that had arrived from the south of Italy provoked such concern.  A few tall, blonde Lombards were one thing, but boatloads of those dark, swarthy Sicilians were quite another.  

Congress decided to take action, and created The House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization to take a look at the situation.  The Committee appointed as its expert advisor a man named Harry H. Laughlin, perhaps the most racially extreme supporter of what is politely known as “negative eugenics,” which in Laughlin’s case meant to “purify the breeding stock of the race at all costs.”  He meant the Caucasian race, of course, rather narrowly defined.  He offered to a rapt audience of Congressmen “evidence“ that ranked the comparative quality or degeneracy of various ethnic groups, and Italians did not fare well. 

Fortified by these “facts,” the Committee promptly wrote what became the Emergency Quota Act upon its passage in 1921.  Note the word “Emergency”; Laughlin had done his work well.  The Act was the first attempt to restrict immigration on a national basis (the West Coast had already been legislating against Chinese and Japanese immigrants).  This was unprecedented, but the method was even more radical: restrict immigrants by nationality.  Its overall purpose was clearly reactionary.  The Act was the first attempt to freeze the components of the American people according to a selected numerical relationship among them.  It restricted a country’s immigrants to 3% of the number of residents from that country living here in 1910.   Under this formula, the countries of northern and western Europe were allowed considerably more new immigrants to the U.S.

With emergency measures taken, Congress took a longer look at the numbers and did not like what they saw.  They took further action by passing the Immigration Act of 1924, which itself encompassed the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act.  This Act lowered the percentage of a country’s citizens allowed into the U.S. to 2%, but more significantly, made this number according to the 1890 Census.  This was a deliberate move against Italians (although not against them alone), most of whom had arrived after that year.  It was also effective.  Immigration from Italy during the early 1920s, already much lessened by the 1921 Act, was cut a further 90%.  It is estimated that between 1900 and 1910, some 200,000 Italians immigrated the U.S. annually.  Following the 1924 Act, that number dropped to about 4,000.  Storing up trouble for the future, the Act also helped to plant the concept of “illegal immigrant” in the American mind.

The Acts of the 1920s also contained some provisions—and one omission—that resonate today: it greatly restricted the immigration of Africans, and banned both Arabs and Asians outright.  It did not, however, set any limits on immigrants from Latin America.  These attempts to preserve the nation’s racial and ethnic balance effectively capped entry across our eastern and western borders but neglected our southern border. 

This provides a delicious irony to the subsequent history of immigration to our country in the 20th Century.  This protection of our seacoasts worked pretty well, even though a more liberal approach crept in with the extensive reworking of the entire immigration quota system in 1954.  That “maintain the existing ethnic balance” thing largely continued, if a great deal more subtly.  Or so people thought.  We managed to at least keep down the numbers that might have crossed the oceans, but not those who could walk.

So now here we are, not quite one hundred years after our national attempt at maintaining a nation dominated by its residents from northern and western Europe, and it was all pretty much a waste of time. A new ethnicity—Hispanics—has arrived in large numbers, despite all the legislative and enforcement measures enacted to prevent just such a thing from happening.  Oh, and Asians have developed a substantial presence also.

This raises a question: could Hispanics today—and perceptions of them—be playing a role similar to that of the Italians back then?  If so, then the irony of Italian-Americans being prominent in the voices being raised against this new immigrant group should be appreciated.  This is a relevant question everywhere, but particularly relevant to the still-stagnant towns along the lower Schuylkill River, which need the type of stimulus historically provided by the successive waves of immigrants.

Among these, the immigration issue is most important to the largest of these towns, Norristown, Pa.  More Italians settled there than anywhere else in the lower Delaware Valley, by far, and almost all of them were from the southernmost part of Italy, Sicily.  As fate would have it, their town now has the largest number of Hispanics, by far.  The more things change...

The purpose of this essay was not to minimize the maltreatment suffered by other ethnicities during their entrance into American society, particularly Jews, for whom such a reception had long historical traditions.  It is simply to point out that the recent immigration to the U.S. by Hispanics, primarily Mexicans—and the reaction to it—adheres broadly to a pattern we’ve seen before, at least so far.  It’s the next step in that pattern that is disturbing, because it is so uncertain, and history might sort of repeat itself, because some people certainly are.

That’s why I’m devoting this next series of posts to immigration, its past significance to the Schuylkill River towns and its important future.  There are lessons to be learned here, so that history does not follow the same pattern it did back in the 1920s, when Italians were the newest—and most suspect—presence in our urban communities.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Why Is DeKalb Street One Way? A Brief Lesson About History…And Change

A recurrent theme in my writing is that things change, and change is the only constant in history.  Yet the works of man, from our institutions and governmental structures to our roads tend to remain, long after the conditions that gave birth to them have changed, often fundamentally.  This time I am going to talk about roads; specifically DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa.  That’s because Norristown is on the cusp of a renewal, and there are some old things remaining that should change in order to help that revival.  The layout of DeKalb Street is one of them.  It’s in the works, actually, but it has been “in the works” for some time now, and deserves more attention.

An April Times Herald article discussed the long-pending plan to make DeKalb Street two-way, and found a consensus among those it spoke to.  This fact alone makes it both unusual and newsworthy (this is Norristown, after all), but that should not obscure the subject itself.  Everyone agreed that making DeKalb Street two-way would be a good thing, and they are correct.  One respondent remarked that “The designers of this one-way street are dumb,” and commented on the danger the street presented.  He is quite correct about the danger, and there are several more reasons that DeKalb Street should be two-way, but the designers of the street were not dumb.  They were competent men attempting to solve a problem that existed a long time ago.  But that was then; this is now, and things have changed.  They have, in fact, changed fundamentally.  But comprehending just how total that change has been is going to require some imagination from those of you of young to moderate years, particularly if you live in the general area.

First, I should point out that DeKalb Street had been a two-way street at its initial layout, and second, its intersection with Main Street marked the core of downtown since the opening of the DeKalb Street Bridge.  Here is where imagination comes in, because you need to picture the sidewalks at this intersection—in all four directions—bustling with customers on their way to an array of stores open and lit, beckoning them within.  One of my all-time favorite interviewees, the late Mary Early, quoted her mother as often saying to her, “I’d love to live at Main and DeKalb; everything happens at Main and DeKalb.”  She was referring to the Depression times, by the way, so you can imagine what it was like after the end of the Second World War and rationing, for people anxious to forget the previous decade or so.  Downtown Main Street began to enjoy good times once again.

But the period after the end of the war brought some things to Norristown that quickly began to be a major problem.  They weren’t new by any means, but now they came in overwhelming numbers.  “They” were automobiles and trucks.  Not too many compared to today, but far more than downtown, and Main and DeKalb in particular, could handle.  Both streets had been laid out long before the advent of automobiles, and there was simply no room for expansion.

Here’s where the second piece of imagination comes in, exactly the opposite of the first.  I first asked you to picture something that isn’t here—a crowded, prosperous downtown—now I need you to erase your mental image of what is there: all those big highways.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike was on its way, and would arrive in the bucolic farmland of King of Prussia in late 1950, but none of the others existed.  The Schuylkill Expressway was on its way to meet the Turnpike, but none of the Interstate highways existed, because the program had not been created yet. 

The area’s two major roads were U.S. “Shield” highways, Route 422 and Route 202, and they were the problem.  That’s because in Norristown, Route 422 was Main Street and Route 202 was DeKalb Street.  That made the core of downtown Norristown a major crossroads, and not just a regional one, but also a national one.  Route 422 had always been a largely local route into and out of Philadelphia, but Route 202 was different.  It was the only parallel competition for Route 1 between New York City and points south, and the only feasible route for those living west of the coastline and Philadelphia.  The idea of vacationers bound for Florida—or NYC—passing through downtown Norristown may be hard to envision, but I told you this required some imagination.  Thus, by the late 1940s, the local residents, eager to resume their traditional shopping in downtown Norristown, found themselves delayed, if not blocked outright, by cars and trucks on DeKalb Street, which were only passing through, often to major distances a long way away.

Cars were by far the most common, but trucks offered problems of their own, mostly related to their size and weight.  While researching What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls, I greatly enjoyed listening to Hank Cisco relate the story of the police truck weighing station at DeKalb and Lafayette.  The truck drivers hated it, calling it “Little Russia.”

Norristown had a traffic congestion problem even before the Turnpike arrived, and given that King of Prussia was to be the termination of this major highway, all its traffic had to go somewhere.  Norristown feared that much of it would head north for New York along Route 202, and thus right through the Borough on DeKalb Street.

Unfortunately, in trying to deal with this problem, Norristown was caught in a bureaucratic net.  The Borough did not have final authority over either of its two main streets.  Although technically national highways, both routes were actually the responsibility of the Commonwealth, for both funding and implementation.  Main Street figured in these calculations also, but I will confine the narrative to DeKalb Street.  Main Street also become one-way (at a different date), but reverted several years later.    

Highway engineers thus faced what was becoming an all-too frequent decision in this time of unprecedented growth:  who gets priority on the streets, local residents or those passing through?  By September, 1948, the answer was clear.  Both DeKalb and Swede Streets were to be converted to one-way.  Burgess William March declared his disagreement, saying “We in town should get first consideration; too much thought is being given to the traveler from Florida to Maine.  Let us give the residents first thought.”

Borough Council did its best to placate the Commonwealth, and attempted to expedite traffic by keeping DeKalb Street two-way, but banning street parking along its downtown stretch.  Council rescinded the effort in December, 1948, except for the period between 3 and 6 PM, when the meters would be bagged.  The no parking experiment had brought about no improvement in traffic flow, and local businesses were unanimous in opposing the loss of parking spots.   

The Commonwealth was not going to be gainsaid.  In October, 1951, Borough Council, reluctantly but unanimously, voted on a traffic plan for both north/south and east/west traffic through Norristown.  DeKalb and would be one way northbound between Lafayette and Johnson Highway, while Markley Street would be one-way southbound along the same stretch.  After several legal requirements were met, DeKalb and Markley Streets became one-way on November 17, 1952.

Giving priority to passers-through on DeKalb Street over the town’s residents didn’t kill downtown, but it didn’t help, either.  Still, as I said above, things have changed.  To keep DeKalb Street one-way would be dumb.  Pedestrian safety is a major consideration, but there are broader ones.  There are more nuanced and erudite ways of expressing this, but here’s a simple one: if you are trying to revive your downtown, you shouldn’t have one of your two major roads only take you away from downtown for 90 percent of its distance.  New attractions are beginning to appear in Norristown, and all roads should lead there, DeKalb Street most definitely among them.

This issue deserves more attention than it is getting.  The April Times Herald article that recorded the consensus of opinion also noted that the process had begun earlier, but echoed the old refrain that "Two public meetings in 2010 were sparsely attended by residents..."  Making DeKalb Street two-way again is a necessary part of the plan for reviving Norristown.  As this may be the only Norristown subject about which there is unanimity of opinion, the public should be pushing this.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Why Phoenixville? Some Thoughts From Residents

During my most recent tour of Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, I spoke at the Phoenixville Public Library on April 11, and concluded my talk on the Borough’s history with my question “Why Phoenixville?”  Why is Phoenixville, alone among the towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River, experiencing a locally-driven resurgence?  I asked my audience, as local residents, to email me what “why Phoenixville?” meant to them.  The response has been outstanding; I have received several thoughtful essays of various lengths, and this time want to address more of the points they have made.  My last post on Phoenixville (June 3rd) focused on the spirit of community that seems to link all of the contributions I have received.  This time I will take up other points, closely related to “community,” but worthy of separate consideration.

Interestingly enough, few of my correspondents are native to Phoenixville; most had moved there, and relatively recently (within the last twenty years).  This means that they were attracted to the new Phoenixville, the town as it is.  “Why” is the subject of these posts, and it is important to understand what they are writing about.  But this opens a deeper question, the type loved by historians.  I’ll address that later, but for now, more praise for the new Phoenixville, from those who chose to move to this small town in Southeastern Pennsylvania, instead of others nearby.

Who are those new residents of Phoenixville?  This observation from one correspondent does a good job of summing it up: 
 “…a whole generation of people who can only find jobs in the desert corporate suburbs, but want some sort of town-like community. We crave what our parents rejected…

The work description was by no means a consensus (two of my contributors were carpenters), but seeking a “town-like community” certainly was.

Proximity to jobs is a major factor, regardless of profession.  The days when the vast majority of a river town’s residents also worked there are long gone.  Tech and Pharma companies in Chester County and along Route #422 in Montgomery County offer jobs, mostly skilled.  The development around the intersections of Rt. 422 has spawned a wide variety of new companies, and thus jobs. 

The decision to move into an old town instead of a new housing community is clearly an individual one.  Many of the employees at these new business locations moved into the equally new housing developments nearby.  But some of them don’t want to live in such places.  They seek to live in a “town-like community.”  So far, so good, but there are other similar towns nearby along the river.  What has attracted so many to Phoenixville, but so few to Spring City (to name only one alternative)?

Travel time is one factor, to be sure.  One writer says she and her husband settled on Phoenixville after deciding that Spring City and Royersford were too far away.  The acceptable level of travel is, of course, also an individual decision.  It is also entirely by automobile, as no alternative transportation exists west of Norristown (in Pennsylvania’s climate, bicycles don’t count as a year-round alternative).  Websites periodically publish “length of travel time to/from work” statistics; I am looking forward to seeing how Phoenixville and Conshohocken compare.  As Phoenixville is adjacent to no Interstate highways, would the travel times of its residents be shorter than those of Conshy, whose residents can access two?

One correspondent offered an acute observation about these new job centers and their paradoxical effect:

 “Phoenixville benefited greatly by the development of the Great Valley Corporate Center and the office development south of Collegeville. While initially not too many people who worked those jobs lived in Phoenixville proper, there was a spillover effect that helped the Borough, and importing those middle-class (and upper-middle class) jobs to the area exposed the Borough to more people and potential future residents. I find it somewhat ironic that those sprawly office parks-- generally responsible for killing small downtowns-- in this case actually might have helped.”

While we are at it, let’s acknowledge another turnaround in the effects of change on our society.  Just as the shift of jobs from within our old towns to outside helped to hollow them out, so to did the emergence of new shopping centers along the area’s larger roads (and particularly at their intersections).  This had an enormous effect, before the malls even appeared.  They were the bane of our old downtowns in the immediate post-war era, attracting the then-new residents in the first automobile suburbs and slowly starving the traditional downtowns of customers despite the huge population increase then underway in the adjacent areas.

Yet several writers referred to “Plenty of shopping all reachable by major roads” as one of Phoenixville’s charms.  This reflects a major historical change in our society; our old towns were built when most people had to walk to both work and shopping (not to mention worship).  Today, people are used to commuting to work and shopping at some distance from their homes, all thanks to the automobile.  No one expects to shop downtown for the basic things, from food to furniture.  These are available at “big box” stores or, increasingly, online.  Phoenixville is an excellent example of an old downtown repurposed for “boutique shopping” and entertainment.  Stores whose specialty offerings could not pay the rent in a mall can thrive in a closely-knit community, and such entertainment options such as micro-breweries (but mostly bars) find them a welcoming environment.

How strange (and thus, how typical of history) is it that these two characteristics of the post-WWII move to the periphery that helped to destroy our old downtowns are, in this much later time, helping to regenerate this one?  That’s why I keep repeating my mantra: That was then; but this is now, and things have changed!

Travel time to work and shopping are important, but the condition and status of the town itself are clearly more so.  Phoenixville has a decided edge over other towns both up and down river in that it has retained—and repurposed—a larger percentage of its beautiful old buildings along a classic American “Main Street,” in this case named Bridge Street.  Central to this ability to cast a spell to both old and new is the Colonial Theatre, the last local survivor of the golden age of movie theaters.  The importance of this treasure as an anchor in the “town experience” cannot be overstated.

Still, as with virtually every old town seeking revival, the secret is Phoenixville’s walkability.  This encompasses a great deal more than just reasonably level geography, but geography certainly helps.  One correspondent had previously lived in Conshohocken, and found Fayette Street’s grade simply too steep, and moved to Phoenixville (while my combination of age and physical decrepitude makes me sympathetic to this point, I must remember that I am not among the demographic that reviving towns seek).  Both towns feature access to the Schuylkill Valley Trail, but that is common to every river town from Philadelphia to Pottstown now; it’s a matter of how this fits into a larger plan to make your particular town attractive.

Walkability actually means pedestrian-friendly (read “wide”) sidewalks, an allowance for business (read “food and drink," but not in that order) on those sidewalks, and a host of small touches that all derive from a deliberate focus of both government and voters on people, not automobiles.  The result is a true sense of community, one that evidences itself regardless of conditions.  One new resident remarked on this: "I loved it when there was a blizzard and we walked downtown (for us, just across the bridge) for coffee and saw everyone out, some on skis, just associating with each other."

Mind you, that Phoenixville’s main street is named Bridge Street should remind us that vehicle access to the river was the reason the Borough came into existence in the first place.  As that is one aspect of history that has not changed, Phoenixville will increasingly be torn by the by-now classic struggle between pedestrians and automobiles, particularly downtown.

In my June 3rd post, I spoke of the predominance of new residents in the responses to me thus far.  That trend has continued.  It largely reflects people who were attracted to what Phoenixville is TODAY.  A more fundamental question lies in the background.  How did Phoenixville get to be the way it is today?

So, I repeat my appeal from that post:

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?”

 I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions.  Please email me.