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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, June 26, 2015

Why It’s Better To Be An Outsider

I write and publish regularly on the small town urban condition, using the towns of Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River as my examples.  Thus my primary topic is urban life; what it was like back then and how that evolved into what it is like now.  You already know that I never lived in any of the towns about which I write, and some of you are bothered by this.  Well, here are some further confessions.

In giving the present a context from the past, I often find myself writing about—or at least mentioning—ethnicity.  The history of the towns on the lower Schuylkill River is an often-repeated sequence of the arrival of different ethnicities, the discrimination they had to endure and their eventual assimilation, and it’s still going on. 

The fact is, however, that I am an outsider, to both urban life and ethnic heritage.  This is by no means an apology; I believe my personal history has aided me immensely in the study of both subjects.  Not only have I never lived in any of the towns about which I write, my understanding of both urban life and ethnicity comes overwhelmingly from research and observation.

I am neither urban born nor urban reared.  I was brought home from a hospital in a medium-sized Kansas town to one of those prefab and trailer residences that grew up around our universities after World War II, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.  Upon receiving his degree, my father moved us out of Kansas, an act for which I shall forever be grateful.  After a few years in Michigan, it was on to New York.  Not the city, although my father was a professor at Brooklyn College.  He determined to move us to that new way of living, the automobile suburbs, on Long Island, even farther out than Levittown.  For many years this required him to commute daily on the Long Island Railroad, about which little more needs to be said, at least by me. 

Yes, I grew up in the environment I have come to despise, and I am relatively certain that this enhances my occasional comments on suburbia.  In the late 1950s, a Long Island developer had purchased some farmland, torn out the trees and removed the topsoil, then subdivided it into ¾ acre lots.  On this he mass-produced three types of houses, but mostly two-story Colonials (my neighborhood was part of a second phase development that followed the Levittown of one-story Cape Cods on ½ acre lots).  My family bought one of them.  Where I grew up there were no corner stores, no churches, no recreation facilities, not even any trees.  Just houses, very much alike, one after another along gently-curving streets.  If you wanted to do anything more than visit someone else in the same development, you needed a car.

Do I even need to mention that not a single person of color inhabited a house in that development?  Mind you, it wasn’t the fault of the development; the entire school district had exactly one black family, that of a school administrator, and I don’t remember any South or East Asians.  For me, “diversity” meant having Jewish friends, and some of my WASP friends looked askance at me for that.

Which brings me to the subject of ethnicity, or “people who are different from us.”  Not only am I a WASP, I descend from the very core of waspishness, England.  My direct ancestor first arrived on these shores (Maryland, actually), in 1663.  He appears to have come over as an indentured servant.  That was, briefly, contractual slavery for a set number of years; an effective recruitment tool for the down-and-out who could not afford to leave but would not be missed.  This fact accounts for why inducements to discover my ancient family crest have never moved me.

Such an origin offers several topic threads to pursue.  It does allow me to look upon almost all of my U.S. readers as “newcomers,” and period of one’s arrival in this country is all pretty much the same to me.  Are your ancestors Irish?  Their arrival was met with disgust by the local Protestants.  They were considered sub-human, dirty, clannish, drunken louts, prone to crime.  Or are you descended from the Italians, Poles, Russians and other peoples that arrived later?  Then your family history recounts how they were treated by the descendants of those earlier arrivals, including the Irish: in exactly the same way.  But now you are an “American,” and a new wave of immigrants is arriving, Hispanics.  How many of you view these newcomers through the same ethnic stereotype that your ancestors were subjected to, utterly oblivious of the irony?  I can only sigh sadly when I hear self-described “real Americans” speak out against immigrants.  The more things change…

What interests me most, however, is the subject of ethnicity itself.  I have met a great many people who use ethnicity to describe themselves.  This is foreign to me.  “My people” originated in England.  Is English even an ethnicity?  Does anybody refer to himself as an “English-American”?  “Englishness” is tied to religion just as much as being Irish or Italian, but that religion is Episcopal (the Americanized Anglican Church), and that makes it quite a different thing.  A religion of convenience rarely becomes the cornerstone of one’s life.  It certainly didn’t for me.

Even if I am an “English-American,” don’t you think that after some three and a half centuries resident in the United States (and no record of wives possessing any strikingly different last names), ethnicity might no longer be a personal issue with me? My heritage might explain my love of English folk music (Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is perhaps my favorite album), but then again, I have never had the desire to learn Morris Dancing.  As for food, well, the less said about English food traditions the better.  So what do ethnic baggage do I carry courtesy of my ancestors?  None that I have ever been able to discern.  I’m not a hyphenated American, just an American; a mongrel, a mutt (although not widely cross-bred).  At times I despair that only at some indefinite future date, when everyone’s ethnicity has been stored away in some dusty memory hole, will we find true community in being an American.

I believe that these two circumstances of my upbringing have enabled me to take a fuller measure of the history of life along the river, because none of it was implanted in me by childhood experiences.  Writing history—as opposed to memoirs, biographies, etc.—requires distance from the subject, both of intellect and emotion.  It is in that sphere that I write, not just of eight towns on the lower Schuylkill River, but of urban life and ethnicity in general.  I’m going to publish my second example of this next month.  It focuses on urban life, and ethnicity is woven into the text.  I’d like you to read it, of course, but I would also like to hear from you afterward, about my approach and what you think of the results.  I look forward to them all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Perception Versus Reality, One Year Later


They asked for a year.  A year has passed.  It’s time to check in and ask questions. 

On May 9, 2014, I published a post about Norristown, Pennsylvania’s new program to improve resident perception of itself, specifically the question of personal safety.  I attended the press conference that announced the “Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force,” which I quickly learned was not aimed at improving the public safety situation in the town, but to convince residents that their condition was already good.  The reality, they claimed, was actually much better than the perception of that reality.  As Council President Bill Caldwell phrased it, “Urban communities often get a bum rap for being places where random crime happens and we’re here to tell you today that this is not what happens in Norristown.”

I admit to expressing some skepticism.  After all, this was a PR event to announce the beginning of an extended PR campaign, which is pretty much a working definition of “grandstanding.”  What I found most heartening was that after the dog and pony show, Norristown Council members asked the public to give them a year before making a judgment.  I believed that to be a fair request, and said so.  Here is how I phrased it: 

"The joint press conference was totally a media event...that provides a clue as to how we should receive it.  As with the pilot episode of any show that we find promising, we should exercise “temporary suspension of disbelief.”  The first-rate cast stuck tightly to the script and delivered their lines with the necessary panache, producing an uplifting message, as intended.  Even ye who are without sin should not stone this cast; first let them actually act, and judge the result by how it plays out before your eyes.  Will the show deliver on the promise of its pilot?  You really need to stay tuned for this one."

I did cheat a little, writing about this perception versus reality thing in December of last year.  I did so because Pottstown had climbed on the “things are better than everyone thinks” bandwagon, complaining that people who spoke and wrote of Pottstown’s problems really didn’t understand the situation.  But this is probably a bad time to voice that opinion, given that Pottstown last month saw some 30 people arrested for their involvement in a gang war.

But let’s use this one-year anniversary to discuss Norristown.  It has spent the last year tending to the public’s perception about safety, and thus about the police department itself.  Talk about good timing.  For those of you that may have been in a coma for the last few months, they have not been good ones for police-community relations across our nation.  The general public has discovered that their perception of how things were in places as far apart as Ferguson and Baltimore (not to mention that of their respective police departments) did not match the reality on the streets.

I’d like to think that the convergence of tragic events that we have been witnessing in the media will lead at least a few more people to conclude that the manner in which local law enforcement conducts itself needs to change, whether it is a large city or a small town.  So how does a small town like Norristown fit in?  More than you might think; urban police work is—or should be—undertaken pretty much the same way regardless of the size of the urban area.

Just how does a police department earn the trust of its citizens?  By enforcing the law fairly, equally and with consideration for people as human beings, of course.  It’s easy to say, but not so easy to do.  A recent article in the Pottstown Mercury added to the evidence that Norristown may actually be onto something.  If so, then the reason may be Police Chief Mark Talbot.

He began the interview by accepting responsibility, on behalf of his department, for the state of things in town.  He didn’t pull out the usual complaints about uncaring residents, or social media.  Here is how he phrased it:

“That means that myself and the Norristown Police Department at the end of the year, or even at the end of the day, accepts the fact that we’re responsible for crime and the quality of life in our community,” he said. “We don’t point to bad people doing bad things, or citizens not helping us enough. We own it. It starts with that.”

But it isn’t just about the police.  Like all law enforcement officials, Talbot knows that citizen involvement is crucial to establishing peace on the streets.  “You can’t shut people out of the conversation. If they feel like you’re not listening to them, they will find another way to be heard, whether in a letter to the editor, or they will use social media,” said Talbot. “We would rather they come to us first….If you talk to people in the neighborhood and tell them what's going on, they will talk to you and tell you what they know."

Talbot has been impressing this approach on his department since he took over the post two years ago.  Is it working?  Official statistics say that crime in Norristown has dropped by 20% over the last two years.  Talbot, in his interview with the Mercury claimed that “people are telling us they feel safer now in Norristown than they have in a long time.”  That’s certainly a good start, but remember I focus not on the reality or the perception as much as the gap between them.

In my December post, I advanced my belief that the best way to improve the public’s perception of the situation is to improve the situation itself.  Remove the fear, and people’s perception of reality will improve.  Statistics say things have improved, so now I want to hear from YOU, the residents of Norristown.  It’s a simple question:

Do you feel safer now, in your home and on the streets, than you did a year ago?

Is lowered crime in Norristown a reality?  Statistics say so.  What is your perception, and why?  Does anyone see this as a result of the “Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force” (it was to involve more than one agency), or could there be a simpler, more personal reason?  Let me know what you think.

Either way, could you communicate that to Pottstown?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Will A New Exit Be A New Opportunity?

I’m a big supporter of transportation alternatives to the automobile.  But I also live in the real world, and in that world too many places have too few such alternatives.  Even those with the best alternative connections cannot depend on them entirely, or even primarily.  I thus find myself in the odd position of saying something positive about a new road connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Municipality of Norristown is an excellent example of good connections connections not being nearly good enough.  Norristown’s rail links to Philadelphia are among the best in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Regional Rail Line to Center City and the Route 100 line to 69th Street intersect at the SEPTA Transportation Center on Lafayette Street.   A substantial parking garage and connections to local bus lines make Norristown a regional transportation hub.  Rail connections have helped the long-suffering town, but a road now under construction holds the promise of a great deal more, and not just to Norristown.  Its completion will mark yet another twist in the tangled relationship between Norristown and the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the sixty-five years that they have coexisted.  Back in 1950, Norristown spurned a connection to the Turnpike; today it sees one as its salvation. 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike arrived in the pastoral farmland known locally as “King of Prussia” in late 1950.  This was, for a brief time, its “Eastern Terminus,” but everybody knew that the Commonwealth was committed to completing the Turnpike from state line to state line, so the terminus was temporary.  Plans for another extension followed quite shortly, in fact, and the public release of a preliminary map caused an uproar in Norristown.  The reason was a turnpike exit planned for Norristown’s eastern border with Plymouth Township.  The entire business and political community (okay, mostly the same people) arose in virulent opposition, headed by the man who knew something about virulence, Borough Councilman Paul Santangelo.  His ward lay directly adjacent to the affected area, and change out of his control was a non-starter for him.  To be fair, however, he wasn’t in his usual role of opposition, but stood with virtually everyone else in opposing this exit, which they were sure would hurt downtown Main Street.  Letters, petitions and caravans to Harrisburg were employed, and The Commonwealth actually listened.  It relocated the exit to where it still is, further into Plymouth Township, to connect to Germantown Pike.  

Well, downtown Main Street collapsed anyway, and Norristown notables and merchants could only observe with real pain the different trajectory those areas close to the Turnpike exits experienced.  Mind you, the Turnpike had a “Norristown Exit.”  The sign said so.  Unfortunately, said exit did not connect to Norristown.  In fact, until recent upgrades improved the situation, a driver had to pay very close attention to a couple of very small signs or find himself well up Germantown Pike before realizing the problem (I have always wondered whether this was deliberate, by a Turnpike Authority smarting from the overwhelming rejection Norristown administered to its original plan).

So it followed that Norristown, which at first glance on a map (remember that archaic item?) appeared to be located at the center of a road transportation network, was actually, upon closer inspection, seen to be isolated from it.  Later generations of Norristown activists would rail against this lack of a true connection, while time largely erased the memory of whose fault it really was.  The Turnpike’s “Norristown Exit” remained a local sick joke for a very long time.

But all that is changing, and Norristown will, at long last, have a real connection to the Turnpike.  This connection will actually lead to Norristown, Lafayette Street to be specific.  You will be able to use it within…well…years.  The target date as of now is 2020, but we should all expect that to slide.  They always do.  A press release by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission dates the origin of the effort to 1999, when the County funded a study about the idea, but it had been batted around for years before that.

Now, finally, physical evidence is beginning to mount, and the future can be at least dimly ascertained.  Work in Norristown to upgrade Lafayette Street is well along, the stretch through Plymouth Township is under construction and PennDot recently announced that it had obtained funding to construct the Turnpike intersection itself. 

Josh Shapiro, Chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners, calls the project “a game changer, as it will be a key part of revitalizing Norristown, improving access to both municipalities, increasing smooth traffic flow and reducing congestion on Ridge Pike and Main Street.”  He might very well be correct to call this a “game changer,” but if it is, then the increased activity it will foster will also generate additional traffic, so don’t get your hopes too high about the “reducing congestion” part.

Another—and much more significant—reason is that this project will definitely have a considerable effect on Conshohocken and perhaps even on Bridgeport.  It will provide the former with a second access point to the Turnpike.  That is definitely going to impact traffic on Fayette Street and Matsonford Road, as some drivers from both boroughs will discover that the new route is actually better for them.  In the larger view, it will both relieve the fear of some about success “choking” Conshohocken, and may be the key to yet another surge of development (toward another “choking” perhaps?).  It will open up Conshohocken Road for development , which means Plymouth Township may gain more than Conshohocken in such a new surge, but few will be unhappy about spreading the new wealth around, except those in the area during rush hour.

While the new interchange/road will directly affect Conshohocken, I'm keeping an interested eye on Bridgeport.  Connections to major roads are coming closer and closer to the borough.  A Lafayette Street connection to the Turnpike would be the nearest yet, just across the river, and promises a much quicker journey to the Turnpike than driving down U.S Rt. 202.  Could a new travel route tempt more people to take advantage of the considerable price difference Bridgeport offers over its surrounding areas?  The contrast between West Conshohocken and Bridgeport is remarkable, considering how close they are and is solid evidence that accessibility to major roads is a determining factor.  Those roads are getting steadily closer to Bridgeport, and at some point may swing the pendulum of prosperity toward the borough.  Time is money, which includes commuting time, so the appearance of a major new connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike is going to have a much broader effect that just on Norristown.  Count on it and plan for it; you know that the land development specialists are already doing both.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Forgetting History, Part II: It’s All About CHANGE

On October 24th of last year, I published a post entitled “When It Comes To The River, Forget History and Start Anew.”  In it I made an observation so fundamental and so important to urban activists that I do not hesitate to repeat it:  “it’s not about remembering history, it’s about learning the lessons that history offers.”  It is all very well and good to remember the facts of history—and nostalgia always sells—but understanding history is the important thing, because it actually offers learning that you can put to good use.

At the core of understanding history lies an appreciation of the importance of CHANGE.  It’s simple, really; if things did not change, there would be no history, only genealogy.  And no one would be trying to make things better, because the concept of “better” would not exist.  There would be no “good old days,” because all days were always the same.  So, history is only about change, with variations of the question “why?” applied to them.
     In my earlier post I phrased my point about understanding change more specifically:

"In Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, one of those lessons is that history provides almost no guide for the present or the future.  Not only have things changed, they have virtually reversed themselves.”

In other words, the best way to apply history to the future of my subject towns is to determine the most important elements of that past, and then try to visualize their exact opposite.  That will get you pretty close.

Take my previous example, the river itself.  Today, the Schuylkill is a Pennsylvania Scenic River, and deserving of the title.  People enjoy being in it, on it or near it, and municipalities benefit from their interest.  Back in the “good old days,” however, the Schuylkill River was little more than an industrial sewer.  It stank, and quite a few unpleasant things floated on or in it.  Consequently, people avoided it to the extent that they could.  You simply cannot find a better example of historical reversal than comparing these two chronological variations of the same reality.  This great change also came about quite quickly.  Some progress was made in the first half of the 20th century, but the real change to the Schuylkill began after the Second World War. 

But not all change is for the good, and the second half of the 20th century provides ample evidence of that truth also.  A change in a second fundamental reality, that of Transportation, did great damage to each of the river towns during this same period.  In truth, combined with the collapse of industry, this post-World War II change delivered the heaviest blow, because it began to reverse the realities upon which each community had been erected.

There is considerable irony in this, because previous changes in Transportation up to that point had been progressively better and better for the river towns.  Each town appeared in the first place because of the transportation needs of the region’s early settlers, i.e., needing to ford the river.  The Schuylkill Navigation and the first turnpike era contributed in a small way, but each town prospered only after the railroad arrived and connected them to the wider world.  By the mid-20th century, that connection spanned the globe.

Within each town, it was even simpler.  Several methods of transportation made their appearance on a town’s streets during their history, but one internal transportation reality continued almost unabated well into the 20th century: most of a town’s residents walked to work, to shop and to worship.  The physical legacy of that truth is obvious in the crowding today of automobiles on streets and properties that were clearly not designed to accommodate them, or even take into consideration their existence.  This transportation reality made our towns what they were, and what we remember them most fondly for being: true communities, encompassing sleep, labor, worship and recreation, all within the town’s limits, or nearby. 

But after the Second World War, the automobile and its spawn combined to virtually reverse the earlier spatial order; the old urban centers of business—and the roads that had accessed them—could not accommodate the numbers of people now traveling by themselves wrapped in their individual metal containers.  These old centers declined in value, while what had (largely forever) been open fields could accommodate large numbers of automobiles (Ample Free Parking!), were put to that use and became the new centers of retail commerce as well as residences.  Wealth and capital flowed to them, hugely increasing their value.

Today, how do you survive without a car?  How many residents of a Schuylkill River town work in that same town?  The jobs are gone.  As for shopping, the commercial downtowns have disappeared everywhere but Phoenixville, where the old downtown now serves fewer of the old functions.  To go shopping in the new locations, you need an automobile, unless you have a high tolerance for both waiting and walking.  As churches continue to close, the distance between worshippers and their edifice steadily lengthens, and more people need a car to get there.

To further the irony, the automobile and the problems it causes will not only continue to afflict each river town in the new millennium, but each town will make all efforts within its abilities to attract MORE OF THEM.  An overall increase in the number of automobiles on a town’s streets is a sign of increasing prosperity (unless the are just passing through, going from somewhere else to somewhere else, of course).  Whether it’s new businesses or new residents, more automobiles will be one result.  Talk about a two-edged sword.

So far, I have introduced one reality that has changed the Schuylkill valley for the better and one that has changed it for the worse, pretty much at the same time.  The River and Transportation have always been—and continue to be—fundamental to the condition of the river towns and their residents.  Both of the examples I offered last October and this one deserve more attention, and I will give them that in my new book, They’ve Been Down So Long/Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, to be published soon. 

But there is a third reality that has been equally fundamental to the growth and prosperity of the river towns throughout their history.  Not only did it reverse itself at the beginning of the 20th century, with considerable negative effect, it proceeded to reverse itself again by the century's end.  The subject is more than a little complicated, and I will be addressing it in the future.  I will post about this twice-reversing reality because it--and a clean river--are ones that the residents of the Schuylkill River towns can turn to their advantage by their own actions.  New ideas about how to utilize the river to benefit its towns are met with hopeful interest, but few ideas are even offered to utilize the changing of this third fundamental reality of life along the Schuylkill.  There are many reasons why, but none of them good.  More about this in the future.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Every Party Needs A Pooper, That’s Why They Invited Me

I had a great time on Tuesday, April 14, at the “Conshy At The Crossroads” panel discussion, held at the Washington Fire Company building in Conshohocken.  Part of the reason was that I got to throw the wet blanket of reality on the “don’t worry, be happy” approach of my fellow panel members.

Don’t get me wrong; my fellow panelists, Jerry Nugent, Montgomery County’s Director of Development and Ray Weinmann, who has direct experience in Conshohocken development, are knowledgeable and experienced men.  They are “development experts;” I am a historian.  I actually found myself in agreement with them on several subjects.  One example would be the proposed development known as “One Conshohocken.”  I join them in their opposition; it is simply too much in too small a space too centrally located. 

It was just that, as you would expect men in their position to do, both offered reassuringly upbeat predictions about the future of both traffic and community in Conshohocken.  It’s a matter of professional perspective.  They largely share one, while I come at the subject from a very different profession.  Optimism about Conshohocken’s future predominated at the table, even concerning the two subjects I have been writing most about:  the potential division between the old and the new residents and…wait for it…TRAFFIC PROBLEMS.  On the question of whether current development might result in “two Conshohockens,” Ray Weinmann opined that time will heal any split between renters and owners in the new Conshohocken.  On what proved to be the most popular subject—TRAFFIC—Jerry Nugent contended that traffic problems in the borough can be “solved,” largely by preventing left turns. 

That left it up to me to, yet again, to be the Wet Blanket.  I would agree with Ray Weinmann that time will likely solve any division within groups of residents, but I would also argue that the amount of time required is way too much to just sit back and wait for that kumbaya moment.  Both borough government and residents need to take action now, before division becomes apparent.  Time heals all wounds, but wouldn’t it be better to avoid inflicting them instead?  He is also right that new offices will spin off other jobs, because the office workers will need services.  While these businesses may make for daytime scenes of bustling prosperity, and perhaps even provide a few jobs for locals, they will be part time and mostly minimum wage, and the businesses will shut down when their office worker customers leave for the day.  Such services only accentuate the differences between what Conshohocken offers its inhabitants.

Jerry Nugent brought his unparalleled local expertise to the panel, and gave everyone an excellent summary of what was happening.  He remembered a prediction that some 40,000 square feet of office space were going to be built in Conshohocken, then reminded us that over two million square feet have been built already, with another million square feet in the pipeline.  His optimism about Conshohocken’s future derives from a professional’s point of view.  He sees success largely in numbers, and the numbers are certainly there for Conshohocken.

It’s not so much that I disagree with either man, only that I ask different questions, with different priorities.  I am rather less “optimistic” about Conshohocken than were my fellow panelists.  As a social historian, I am concerned about Conshohocken’s future as a community.  It’s not going to be what it once was, but what is it going to be?  I have researched the realities that led to the Borough’s founding, growth and prosperity, and find that virtually none of them are applicable today.  The old realities bred a proud, internally-focused community.  What forces exist today that would bring people together and instill a sense of pride in Conshohocken?

At a rather more amateur level, I regret that more consideration is not being given to sustainable construction in a community that will possess these new structures for a long time.  “Impermeable surfaces” does seem to be the rule, and I haven’t heard anything about green roofs, to name just one component of a more energy-efficient community that could be rising.  As a supporter of alternative transportation, I simultaneously applaud the fact that 20% of the people who commute to work in the Borough do so by train (one of the highest numbers in Southeast Pennsylvania), and lament that it is not higher.  How can this be improved? 

As for traffic congestion, I’m not going to repeat what I have already said in previous posts.  I remain unconvinced that it will be “solved,” because I believe that is not possible.  That’s not a knock on Conshohocken, because I believe that about any urban grid of any size, in today’s United States.  Has a traffic congestion problem been “solved” anywhere?  And what do you mean by “solved,” anyway?

I am in the final editing process of my new book, and I will have much to say about Conshohocken, past, present and future.  Here’s a sneak peak at a relevant paragraph:

  The new structures and their built-in garages will likely meet most of
the immediate parking need, but the insertion of these vehicles onto the
Borough’s streets is already causing headaches, and much greater ones
are on the horizon.  Borough streets have also been straightened, widened,
given turning lanes and more, all governed by a carefully-timed system of
traffic lights, but there is only so much even financially well-lubricated
Conshohocken can do with its old urban grid.  The new arrivals, whether on
their way to or departing from their new parking garages, will overwhelm
the downtown streets during rush hour at the very least.  The legend of 
             Conshohocken traffic jams is only beginning.”

Call me a wet blanket, but I heard nothing at the first “Conshy At The Crossroads” to change my mind.  That paragraph will be in my book.

The event, sponsored by the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com, drew a good audience, considering that it was held on not only a weekday night, but also the night before our national "tax day."  Our moderator was Naomi Starobin, editor of WHYY's Keystone Crossroads.  She did yeoman work trying to keep things on course and on schedule, which can be difficult when residents are asked to offer questions (particularly when they ask their question in the form of an extended statement).  This was but the first of several planned for this year, and I strongly recommend that Conshohocken residents attend those to come.  This one was intended to provide a general background to the developing situation, but residents wasted no time getting to the nitty-gritty subjects, primarily traffic.  I'll bet that is also a primary subject for all of the upcoming events, despite what their titles might indicate.  Anybody disagree?
 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Focus on the Landlord, Not The Tenant

I wrote a two-part series on February 20th and March 6th about the effort—and time—required to remove a Housing Choice Voucher from a woman who was clearly abusing it.  My focus was on how hard it is to get something like that done, but I did mention the contrasting actions of the two landlords involved in the ongoing scam.  I want to return to that point, because those contrasting responses illustrate an important fact that we often lose sight of when discussing the “Section 8” issue.  We obsess about obnoxious tenants, but ignore their landlords.  That is a serious mistake.

The lady in question pulled her scams on two landlords.  One reported her, in an attempt to protect his property from further damage.  She then moved, and found a landlord who didn’t care what she did.  During the several month period when a neighbor was monitoring both her activities and the slow-moving wheels of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, there is no evidence that her new landlord so much as lifted a finger to address the issues his tenant was causing in the neighborhood.  The contrast between their attitudes demonstrates the difference between a landlord and a slumlord, and why we should at least match our anger at welfare cheats with anger toward those who enable them.

But first, a point about the importance of landlords to a healthy urban community.  Critics of urban life tend to use the percentage of rental units as something of a shorthand for the health of an urban community.  The implicit assumption is that the lower the percentage of rentals—and the higher the percentage of home owners—the better.  That impression is not correct if utilized as an assumption.  While we all acknowledge the importance of homeownership, the simple fact is that not everyone can—or should—own a home, particularly in an urban area.  Rental units always have been, are now and always will be a significant component of any urban neighborhood (in the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I rent an apartment).

The second problem with fixating on rentals vs. homeowners is that a focus on the raw number of rentals is not productive, because it misses the central point.  Forget the percentage of rental properties; there is a much more important question on which to focus:  are those who own the rental buildings LANDLORDS, or are they SLUMLORDS?  To me, there is a clear distinction between a landlord and a slumlord.  Both own rental properties to earn a profit, but their similarity pretty much ends at that point.  Landlords maintain their properties, and try to ensure that their tenants obey the rules and the law.  Slumlords maximize their profit by avoiding maintenance and don’t care about what their tenants might be doing.  Slumlords find Housing Choice Vouchers too lucrative to resist, and let their properties steadily deteriorate while they squeeze out the maximum profit from them.  Landlords may accept a Voucher, but continue to maintain their property in a good condition.  This means that good landlords are a necessary nutrient for a healthy community, while slumlords are a cancer that saps a community’s health.

Remember: most of the tax money we pay to support “Section 8” actually ends up in the pockets of landlords.  The Voucher holder never touches it; it goes straight from the Housing Authority to the property owner/manager.  We focus on the tenant because he or she provides the obvious evidence of the program’s faults, but we ignore the owner.  If property owners cared for their properties, couldn’t the number of Voucher atrocities be cut substantially?

The answer to that question borders on the obvious, but what can residents of towns afflicted with slumlords and rotten tenants actually do?  Individual efforts, as I recounted earlier, are always difficult and can be dangerous.  Municipal governments have proved to be largely incapable of conceiving and initiating any programs to tackle the problem.  So, if it’s dangerous to do individually and you don’t trust your government, how about a private company?  Isn’t it the grand American capitalist tradition to look to private initiatives instead of just waiting for those from the government? 

“Betterlandlord.us” is just such a company.  The firm is based in Utah, where it has established a successful track record offering an approach it calls the “Better Landlord Program.”  The first step is a survey that involves identifying all rental properties in a municipality (including those with “shadow landlords”) and mapping them, then analyzing the costs of providing services like police and code enforcement to these properties.  It uses the information gathered to set licensing fees for rentals.  These fees are the “stick” to prod landlords into joining the program.  Betterlandlords.us offers offers classes for property owners on how to become better landlords, briefing them on good property management practices, borough ordinances and how to attract better tenants.  Property owners who take the course sign an agreement that they will take steps to reduce crime, vandalism and blight on their properties.  If they don’t complete the course or follow the agreement, they are terminated from the program and forced to pay the licensing fees for their properties.  Those who follow the program have the fees waived.  The company claims that it provides a sufficient "carrot" by pointing out how landlords can make more money through property improvements and an improving rental market.  Such a program must be established by a municipal council, which votes it into place, allocates funds for the initial study and then establishes the licensing fees.   There is flexibility in both the rules and the fees that allows each town to customize the program. 

Utah is far away, but some dedicated residents of Pottstown discovered the program and brought word of it to the Schuylkill Valley.  I want to offer major kudos to the Citizens Action Committee for Pottstown for recommending the program to their borough council.  Council voted (unanimously!) to undertake the program and allocated $18,500 to produce the initial survey.  Pottstown’s citizen activists tell me they are having trouble determining how much progress has been made to date, so we should all hold our opinions about how things are going to go.

I also found it fascinating that the Citizens Action Committee was invited to present the program to the Neighborhood Watch of Phoenixville.  Considering how everybody writes about how well Phoenixville is doing and how bad Pottstown is, the fact that residents of the former town are advising the latter demonstrates that reality is more complex than is publicized, and that no matter how well a town is doing, there is always room for improvement.

Will the “Good Landlord Program” work in Pottstown?  Will it be implemented in Phoenixville?  Stay tuned.  I will be following developments and reporting back to you.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The “Pottstown Expressway”: Opposite Ends, Opposite Fates

A development proposal has just been presented to West Norriton Township, Pa., my home of long residence, that allows me to revisit the subject of a previous post.  The fact that this new tidbit provides additional evidence that I was right the first time probably influenced my decision.

Picture if you will a road, a rather new and modern super highway, lanes separated by a median, accessible only by grade-separated cloverleafs, pretty much the whole nine yards.  It is very heavily traveled, in both directions.  At each end is a housing development.  They are by no means mirror images of one another, but both were built to take advantage of the new highway and the traffic it would bring.  That traffic has materialized, and more than had been planned for (surprise! surprise!).  The development at the road’s eastern end not only prospers, it has recently offered plans for a dramatic increase in units.  The one at the western end?  Opinions differ, but only in varying degrees of disappointment.  Why should this be?  For starters, because one development is adjacent to King of Prussia while the other is in Pottstown.

The fate of these two projects, one at each end of a new road, is testimony to how the construction of a road can be sold to the general public as one thing, when it is actually something quite different.  The road about which I write is U.S. Route 422, and I have written about it before, in my post on February 20, 2014 (Why Did They Build The “Pottstown Expressway”?).  That post contains what you should know about the project, but here is a brief summary: The road was sold to the public (who would pay for it) as a benefit to a needy community at one end.  Its true purpose, however, was to open for development the land along the road itself, to the benefit of a very different group of people.

The success of the road’s real purpose is beyond obvious, whether you live in the area or just have to drive through it.  This post is essentially just piling on, but the contrast between the two ends of the road has many facets, none of them good for Pottstown.  That deserves to be better known.

The two housing developments in question were built to take advantage of the same two things: a scenic river along which people would want to live, and a new, modern road to connect the new residents to their workplaces some distance away.  That very same combination—with a much stronger road component—is what drives the current building frenzy in the Conshohocken area, but it attracts the roving eye of entrepreneurs wherever it occurs.

It did so at each end of the "Pottstown Expressway," and two entrepreneurs chose to build housing developments at those points.  Pottstown Borough Council approved the Hanover Square Townhomes project in 2005.  The site had earlier hosted Mrs. Smith’s Pies, and great hopes were entertained for this repurposing of abandoned land.  Ownership changes and the economy postponed groundbreaking until 2009, after which the construction site was sold again, this time to Cornell Homes Inc.  It initially offered townhouses for sale, but the lack of response led to offering some for rent.  This has had decidedly mixed results.  

The eastern site is also an old industrial one, repurposed.  The area is known as Betzwood, after an early industrialist, and has hosted several occupants, but its brief early 20th-century turn as a movie studio for Lubin Films is its chief claim to fame.  It sits at the foot of the high bridge over the Schuylkill at that point, not quite at the end of Rt. 422, which is just a short distance away after crossing the river.  Brian O’Neill, who specializes in converting former “brownfield” industrial sites (and is a major player downriver in Conshohocken), won approval for what became “The Lofts at Valley Forge.”[1]  Additional units were later built on the same site, just downriver from The Lofts, and named Riverview Landing.  Its website inexplicably identifies Eagleville its location, but it is really in West Norriton.

While Hanover Square emphasizes affordability, The Lofts and Riverview Landing aim rather more upscale.  The Lofts pitches itself as “luxury waterfront homes for the Philadelphia and King of Prussia area.”  True, it is a considerably more picturesque location than that of Hanover Square, although marred by the huge bridge virtually overhead.  The bridge, of course, is what quickly connects their residents to King of Prussia, so its looming presence be damned.  Without it, there would be no Lofts at Valley Forge or Riverview Landing in the first place.  Want more evidence of success at this end of the road?  The Lofts and Riverview Landing are about to be joined by an additional 1,330 more apartments in four large buildings, somehow squeezed into the same site.  West Norriton has received the Conditional Use Request, and unless the township commissioners somehow grow a backbone and insist on more than one entrance for all these people and their cars, we can expect construction to start in due course.

So, it’s location, location and location, right?  King of Prussia is happening (and for those who crave something different, Phoenixville is nearby), and Pottstown isn’t, despite the “lifeline” road having been in place for some years now.  No one calls it the “Pottstown Expressway” any more; that was just a campaign slogan.  It’s just Route 422 now.  You can read a great deal about Route 422, its traffic nightmares and proposed solutions, but you won’t read anything about how it has energized Pottstown, because it hasn’t.  Then again, that wasn’t its real purpose in the first place, remember?  That was just the “party line,” and if you control the terms of the discourse, you determine the result. 

Is it any wonder I use the school cartoon I do to accompany my links on Facebook?




[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I must confirm that I, upon discovering that the original plans for The Lofts called for the destruction of the only two remaining buildings from the Lubin area, contacted the late Dr. Joseph Eckhardt, the leading authority on the Lubin studios.  Together we successfully lobbied for their retention.  I must also note that as this is written, a request has been made to West Norriton Township to allow the conversion of these two buildings into residences, in addition to all the others.