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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 25, 2014

The History of a Volunteer Fire Company: Preserved in Alcohol?

The loss of a volunteer fire company is a grievous blow to any community.  It is a loss that cuts much deeper than just that of fire protection.  Norristown’s Humane Fire Company officially closed its building at #129 East Main Street in early 2012, a site it had occupied since 1852, the year of its formation.  The reason was an all-too-common one these days: the dwindling number of people willing to be volunteer firefighters.  The company merged with the Norristown Hose Fire Company, and moved its equipment.
     
The Humane Fire Company is gone, but its building—and more important, its history—will not be lost.  Two partners have purchased the building, and obtained the necessary financing to renovate it and open a microdistillery called “Five Saints”.  This could be an outstanding addition to Main Street when it opens in January, 2016.  The project has the full support of Norristown Municipal Council, as it should.

It’s good news that the building will be saved, and a microdistillery might be just the type of trendy new spot that will bring people to Norristown for recreation, which is the best news of all.  But there is one more reason to celebrate, and it’s the one I want to highlight.

The building’s new owners have pledged to preserve the old firehouse’s memory, and make it the central component of their local identity.  Norristown residents, regardless of whether they even drink or not, should be pleased about that. Such a pledge could mean many things, and only time will tell.  I am all in favor of preserving an old firehouse, but I hope that the new occupant’s commitment to telling the story of the building it calls home will go beyond displaying curious hats, items of brass and yellowed photographs.  That’s nostalgia, not history, and the Humane Fire Company was an important part of the real history of Norristown.  That makes it a potentially rich source of badly needed knowledge about the way things really were “back in the day,” and we can all use more of that. 

Volunteer fire companies used to exist everywhere, but they were of particular significance to our smaller towns.  A town’s volunteer fire companies are, together with its ethnic churches, the best windows into its past.  Even the obvious things about these companies have meaning.  The fact that Norristown’s different fire companies have different color schemes was not accidental; they symbolize the ethnic affiliations of their founders.  When you look below the surface, you find even more meaning woven into their very existence.

Volunteer fire companies came into existence because fire was the omnipresent danger in those towns during their period of growth, but they were social organizations first and foremost.  They may not actually have been all that effective at their primary task until well into the 20th century—the history of the Schuylkill River towns is rife with accounts of devastating fires—but ultimately their most important function was as symbols of civic organization and individual belonging.  This went way beyond parades, the social function for which they are best known.

Their influence overlapped with that of the ethnic religious congregations in each town, because they were reflections of those groups.  These ethnic populations set the tone within each town (largely in their order of arrival), and the fire companies reflect that history.  Geography played a part, of course, because each company was established to serve a specific physical area.  Still, ethnic discrimination shaped who lived where in a town of any size, making geography largely an expression of ethnicity.  Who could join what department and who couldn’t was universally understood, if not openly expressed.  In the larger towns on the Schuylkill River, size allowed repetition, which meant that the different volunteer companies could divide along ethnic lines.  In the smallest ones, this was much more problematic.

Another reason fire companies could discriminate was that they had a large pool of applicants to draw from.  The 19th century (and well into the 20th) was also a time that membership in local organizations was absolutely central to the social life of both individuals and families.  No mass media meant no mass culture; very few people focused much attention beyond their narrowly-defined communities.  Community organizations—civic, service, religious and commemorative—flourished.  Volunteer fire companies were prestigious organizations, and membership in them was highly desired.  Ethnicity and location determined what company a man might join, but the underlying reason was that in those days men lived and worked in the same town, and thus had a vested interest in protecting it from fires.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  We no longer live in a locally-centered culture; we have much more free time than in the old days, but also a great many more calls on it.  Perhaps the most important change for firefighters is the fact that today very few people live and work in the same town; the availability of volunteers can be chancy.  Thus volunteer fire companies have come to depend on paid firefighters to staff the houses, but still face the prospect of consolidation and closure.  Their loss means that rich sources of local history are disappearing.

There is so much that the history of a volunteer company can teach us about the history of our towns, and how much has changed since the glory days of both.  The fact that ethnic discrimination lies at the foundation of that history has been almost ignored in the telling of their history.  They are the subjects of such veneration, and the reality of their time is so distant from us, that they have become myths themselves, each with a carefully shaped and polished appearance designed to obscure the truth that lies within.

Norristown’s Humane Fire Company was no exception.  John George’s partner in this effort, Louis “Jay” Rachelli, might have a personal reason to promote an understanding of its central—if unpleasant—truth.  The Company’s location on East Main Street made it the only company located in the east end, and the population of the east end was overwhelmingly Italian.  Yet as late as 1950, the Humane Fire Company had never admitted an Italian member.  That little fact should serve up some interesting questions, of course.  Did this policy change, and if so, when?  What about Norristown’s other companies?  How long did they retain their original complexion?  Do they have any remaining traditions about membership?

I have been writing frequently of the need to know the truth about our past if we want to make our future better.  That's why words and phrases like "racism" and "ethnic discrimination" are peppered about my blog posts.  In this post I have simply added one more component to the picture and, I hope, thereby opened one more door to that better future.  This isn't about uncovering dark secrets; fire companies and what each represented are part of the history of our towns.  The fact that they did not display the attitudes of today should surprise no one, nor should anyone try to sugar coat history out of some misplaced sense of shame.  This was a time when overt discrimination against any number of "others" could be openly practiced, so ethnic divisions among fire companies must be understood in context.  Our volunteer fire companies played a role in shaping our communities that was both vital and multifaceted.  The fact that one or more of those facets are displeasing to the modern eye is not a reason to obscure them.  It is, rather a reason to highlight them, because only the truth will make you free.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Out With the Old, In With the New (Last—and First—of a Series)

This week’s post marks the conclusion to Phase One of my series about what happened to our urban areas after the Second World War.  I have mixed them in with other observations about the specific history of my subject towns, the eight along the Schuylkill River between Reading and the Philadelphia.  My approach to all has been to attack the myths that surround the history of post-war urban decline, and to substitute more accurate understandings.  I use the phrase “more accurate understandings” in recognition of truth’s infinite complexity, and of the many aspects it presents to its seekers, of whom I am by no means the last word. 

I find it convenient to divide the timeline of post-World War II urban history into two phases loosely based on Acts of the Federal Government.  Phase One dealt with those that together brought on the widespread decline of our older urban areas.  I term them “The Originals”.  They include government acts from the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and are grouped because they were enacted in ignorance of the consequences they would have for America’s urban areas.  There are a rather large number of other subjects I could have—and perhaps should have—addressed in Phase One.  That will undoubtedly be true of those that follow in Phase Two; it’s a space requirement.

My treatment of Phase One is complete, sort of.  I have only touched on the subject of limited access highways, both the Interstate and its predecessors, which have had enormous consequences across the nation.  The earliest—and biggest—consequence to Southeastern Pennsylvania came from the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Schuylkill Expressway, both initiated before the Interstate System, and later incorporated into it.  On that subject I refer you to my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street To The Malls.  What is perhaps the second biggest consequence to this area is still happening.  I will be discussing this quite significant topic in this blog in the not-too-distant future.

This post will complete The Originals, and will introduce the different approach I will employ in discussing my next series of topics.  Always remember, please, that there was, in truth, no such division into two phases as I posit.  It’s just an attempt to make a complex subject more accessible.  So this final post in the first series doesn’t really “complete” anything at all, nor does it begin with anything truly new.

Phase Two encompasses efforts I group together as “Those Intended to Undo the Damage of the Originals But Which Caused Problems Themselves”.  I have to tighten up that title a bit, but it does get the basic point across, so for now I’ll refer to them as “The Undoers”.  These will often be Federal Government Acts that were written as the consequences of the earlier events and actions were becoming manifest, and which created new programs and approaches to deal with them.  The relevant point is that several of these Acts date back to the 1970s, and a great deal has changed since then, both in how the efforts themselves are administered and how they are perceived.  These stories are complicated enough, but then there are the State Acts and local programs that have been passed to meet similar needs.  Throw in a court decision or two, and things get quite complicated.  These Acts, programs and decisions have already been subjected to several decades of the myth-making process, and many have been so encrusted with coats of blather and layers of hype that their real nature is often barely discernible.  It’s going to be fun.

In truth, my last/first subheading refers to a change in my approach more than in the subjects themselves.  This blog offers urban history in the support of urban activism, and future posts will focus on the activism part.  The subjects for Phase Two are part of history, but I will approach them through examining their current aspect at first, as they are not just current issues, but “hot button” topics.  Yes, I am speaking of Section 8, Deinstitutionalization, Immigration, those topics.

Be warned: I’m not going to spend any time debating the premise behind these government programs that I choose to discuss.  In other words, if you object in principle to “welfare” programs (or at least those that benefit people, if not corporations), you’re pretty much out of luck.  To employ perhaps the most obvious example, I consider “affordable housing” to be an important issue, and will not discuss whether such programs should exist at all, but how well the ones that do exist perform their needed task.  That is a significant distinction, but it does not imply automatic approval, as you will see.  I will fit in some history, to put every subject in context.  Those “hot button” topics in particular call out for some correction of the myths that have become fixtures of popular belief. 

These posts will be mixed in among what I hope will be less inflammatory posts that focus on other things happening today.  As has always been the case, I draw my most of my specific subjects from recent news about events in my subject towns, and I don’t know what that is going to be any more than anyone else.  Still, I expect the stream of reasons why I named tis blog “The More Things Change…to continue unabated.

My approach will change, but the fundamental motive behind what I do and how I do it has not, and will not.  Misunderstandings beget mistakes.  If you base your actions on myths instead of the facts, you are doomed to fail; to the extent that you allow myths to direct your actions, you will fall short of your goal.  We all share the same goals, so we should share the same understanding of the better tactics to achieve them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Was “The Melting Pot” A Myth In Your Town?

Over the past six months, I have taken several opportunities to excoriate the automobile suburbs (“the crabgrass frontier”) for the pernicious effect they have had on both our urban areas and our race relations.  It’s time I try to balance the books a little.  I have encountered a respected scholar who has something very good to say about those very suburbs.  I find his take on the subject fascinating, because it also fits quite closely with my current theme, inspired by the continued closing of Catholic parishes in Bridgeport and the Conshohockens, of how ethnic/religious discrimination and nativism helped to shape the towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  The connection between the two lies, surprisingly enough, in one of our nation’s most cherished myths.

There may be no more deeply held claim about the United States than that it is a “melting pot,” where ethnicities and races amalgamate into that uniquely blessed person, the “American”.  We retained our hyphenated racial/ethnic/religious identities, but managed to subordinate them and cooperate to build the greatest society the world has ever seen.  But was the melting pot truth or just another feel-good myth?

If we actually did as the myth claims, it had to be in that period since World War I.  If you have an eastern or southern European lineage, then the great immigration boom that brought most of your ancestors to America around the opening of the 20th century had been throttled by the mid 1920s.  Immigrants continued to arrive in the succeeding decades, but in much smaller numbers.  Absent new and different arrivals, the new ethnic groups largely acclimated to their new land, and even assumed a degree of political power within their communities.  This initiated the period our parents taught us to believe was “the good old days,” when people were honest, worked hard and rejected government handouts.  This was also when the concept of the melting pot made its appearance, celebrating the work-together attitude of Americans despite their different ethnicities and backgrounds. 

A recent claim that the melting pot was a myth arises not from the Left, where one would expect to find it, but from the Right.  The Cato Institute’s leading Libertarian scholar, Brink Lindsey, has offered a very interesting take on the subject in his book The Age of Affluence.  Simply put, he says the melting pot was an American myth for most of our history, and he credits the new post World War II automobile suburbs as the mechanism that turned myth into reality.  As he puts it,

“Part of Suburbia’s novelty lay in how it united people across regional, class,
ethnic, and religious lines.  Blasted by critics for their white-bread
homogeneity, suburbs took the myth of the American melting pot and made
it a living social reality.” 

This is quite a claim, but before we examine it through the lens of ethnicity in my subject towns, we must take notice of the one classification Lindsey conspicuously does not mention: race.  He slides right over the point on the way to his thesis, and even a cursory knowledge of American history requires us to admit that the melting pot allowed little black input.  Lindsey ignores this point, but I have emphasized how the automobile suburbs actually contributed to residential segregation.

But what about Lindsey’s claim that it took the post-war suburbs to bring people together across ethnic and religious lines?  Region and class have always played a part in our interior isolation from each other, but when we speak of the melting pot it is the mixing of ethnicity and religion that we are discussing, so that’s where we should focus.

Lindsey offers a broad refutation of a widely-held belief, so we must be careful in examining such a claim.  The first major distinction is to separate the situation in large cities from that in the smaller urban areas.  The existence of ethnic enclave neighborhoods in large cities prior to the Second World War is well documented and understood.  They had been long established by that time, spanning generations.  Their boundaries were unofficial but both recognized and respected.  Young men in particular knew which streets were safe to walk, and those where “intruders” were at risk, usually from young men from “the neighborhood.”  The violence that actually resulted from this pales against what takes place routinely today, but such subdivisions of a large city had a firm foundation in the ethnic and racial divides that existed within our cities at that time.

But what about our small towns, for example your old “home town”?  Is Lindsey correct?  Was “the melting pot” a myth in your town?  Let’s pick the admittedly quite arbitrary date of 1950 to examine this question, and focus on the time before that.  By that date, small town America still remained largely strong and vibrant, but the automobile suburbs were beginning to drain away long-time urban residents.  This was the sunset of “the good old days” that so many people lament, and to which they wish we could all return.  It is a good point to divide our analysis of the melting pot into the old—in our traditional urban areas, and the new—in the automobile suburbs.

I can speak with some authority only about the ethnic/religious divisions within Norristown prior to 1950, because I have researched the subject.  My research has also produced some insight into Bridgeport’s situation at that time.  Such knowledge as I have accumulated, I must confess, suggests that Lindsey has a point.

In 1950, Norristown was still one of the more egregious examples of a town riven and divided by ethnic conflict.  The first crisis came when the Irish began to arrive.  They were “ghettoized,” as we term it today, but that was only a rehearsal to what would happen when the Italians began to arrive.  This influx was much larger, and Norristown simply directed its Italian immigrants to the east end of town, the least developed, with the most shanties and shacks.  This became an unwritten law, and as late as 1950 kept all but the most well-off Italians within the area east of DeKalb Street and south of Fornance Street.  This made an ethnic divide into a geographic one.  This did produce one unintended result, Italian political power in the East End, and thus in Norristown Borough Council.  You could read about this dispute on a political level, but you also lived it on a personal level.  Everyone I interviewed about growing up during the years before 1950 was adamant about the subdivisions with Norristown, and each described them in the same way, only from their individual vantage point.  To those growing up during this time, Norristown’s internal divisions determined where you could safely go, where you didn’t dare, and which ethnicities were not allowed to even date one another.   The evidence on this is consistent: in “the good old days,” Norristown’s melting pot did not even heat up. 

Here is a fascinating piece of evidence concerning the melting pot in Bridgeport, taken from an editorial in the official publication celebrating the borough’s Centennial in 1951:

“The intermingling of people of widely varied, cultural and religious
 backgrounds has not altogether been smooth.  One strand frequently
 sows its dislike of another.  Certain elements in the community want to
favor people of their extraction in public office.  As a result of this racial
prejudice, little cliques form in many organizations and do everything to
discourage other people from taking part in them….This is not an Italian
town.  This is Bridgeport.  The celebration of Bridgeport’s 100th anniversary
shows that it took people from many lands to build the borough.  Let not
a few try to turn it into sinkhole of bigotry and racial prejudice.” 

It is clear that the author uses “racial” where we would use “ethnic,” as the African American population of Bridgeport was very small at this time, and totally without political influence.  The usage also provides insight into the mindset of people in our towns during this era, adding indirectly to the evidence.

What is fascinating is how such a frank statement made its way into an official publication, which normally allows no such thing, regardless of the town or the occasion.  Of course, a single statement, even such an authoritative one, is not sufficient to support any conclusions about Bridgeport’s political and social fabric prior during its heyday before Second World War.  Yet it does suggest that Bridgeport shared yet another issue with its larger neighbor across the river.  I would encourage local historians to look into this.

But what about the other river towns on which I focus?  My knowledge of how varied the ethnic/religious mix was among these towns is little more than superficial, yet sufficient enough to require an examination of each individual location, because differences among them exist, and were important.  I thus address this issue in the form of a request to those of you who grew up in these other towns, or whose parents did, during the ostensibly “good old days”.    Remember, we are speaking of the period largely before 1950, so what stories did your parents tell you about your town in “the good old days”?  Were Royersford, Spring City and West Conshohocken even large enough to demonstrate internal ethnic/religious divisions in the first place?  If your parents lived in the larger towns, who were their friends, who could they date, and who couldn’t they?  Where there places where it was safe to go, and those where it wasn’t?  What unwritten rules existed, and were they based on geography or on ethnicity?  Could Italian Catholics date Irish Catholics?  How about Slovaks and Ukrainians?  Or Jews?  Ask those who remember; you substitute the actual nouns involved in your personal stories, those you learned growing up.

I would very much like to know what your local research into family and community turns up, so feel free to contact me.  I repeatedly encourage my readers to look into the way things actually were in their old neighborhoods or towns; only understanding the truth about our problems allows us to craft effective solutions to those problems.  But always keep in mind that what is often said of genealogy is also true of local history: don’t get into it if you aren’t prepared to handle the unpleasant surprises you are sure to encounter as the myths you so cherish founder on the rocks of reality.  When that happens (and it will), try to remember that the end result—knowledge something closer to the truth—is worth the effort, and even the anguish over lost dreams.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Racism Perverted The American Dream

Now that I have your attention, just what “American Dream” am I talking about?  There have been so many, or at least so many uses of the phrase.  Most of them tend toward the philosophical; the superficial ones usually mention “freedom,” while the more sophisticated revolve around “a better life for the children, and their children.”  I’m not going to disagree with this, but I am going to talk about what those two terms actually meant during our history.  That’s why I’m going to nominate “home ownership” for the best phrasing of the American Dream, because it addresses just what “a better life” and "freedom" actually meant to real people, and to a large extent still do.  For a concept to be as old as our early immigrants and as current as today, of course, its literal meaning has to change, and this one has.  The ownership part hasn't, but the amount required has.

Look beneath every claim that our first settlers came over for some variation of “freedom,” and you will find they came over for property, because in those days property was freedom, or at least the basic requirement.  The desire to own one’s own property was the real motivation for the vast majority to come here, and its variations once here have made consistent appearances throughout American history.

Back in the pre-industrial age, it wasn’t so much about the “home” part; the focus was on land, because it was needed to sustain continued occupation of that home.  Land was the reason the vast majority of the original immigrants—and a substantial portion of later immigrants—came here in the first place.  The very first visitors to the western world were searching for quick riches, but the immigrants came in search of the one thing Europe had run out of a long time ago: available land.  Countless generations of the European poor came of age knowing they had no chance of ever owning land; those Hessian mercenaries so castigated in our history were nothing more than European peasants who had only their lives to sell, in a far away place from which most of them never returned.  They didn’t really expect to, not in those days of very chancy travel and no government accountability, but the reason many of them chose to stay was the same that had brought their unplanned adversaries here also: land.  Not only was there acreage beyond the imaginations of downtrodden Europeans, nobody owned it (okay, we are not considering the Native Americans, but neither did the immigrants).

The idea of sufficient land for everybody lies unspoken behind the philosophy of our Founding Fathers.  It was the fundamental assumption about the experiment in Liberty they came to call The United States of America.  Thomas Jefferson immortalized this concept as “The Yeoman Farmer.”  A tenant has a home, but was at the mercy of his landlord.  A peasant may own land (although he usually didn’t), but not enough.  Only someone who not only owns land, but owns enough to provide him and his family with sustenance plus surplus has the ability to resist economic, social and political pressure, and can thus be a free man.  This is also the reason why so many otherwise eligible white men couldn’t vote during the Colonial and Federal periods; they did not meet the wealth requirement, and thus were not trusted to exercise their franchise free of external influence.

The Industrial Revolution changed all this, because it changed everything, but it also took a while to happen.  As the 19th century proceeded, the transition from growing items for local consumption to growing items for sale on the market—in other words, from agriculture to agribusiness—led inexorably to the need for larger and larger parcels of land in order to be successful, and the consequent and equally inexorable decline in the number of farming families.  This was disbelieved and resisted, of course; into the 20th century there was a national movement dedicated to claiming that the traditional 40 acres was still enough to support a family, despite all evidence to the contrary.

By the 1920s more people lived in cities than on farms, but the decline in farm families did not have nearly as much to do with this remarkable historical achievement as did the preceding decades of mass immigration.  The Industrial Revolution had led to the need for larger and larger parcels of land for a resident farm family to be self-sustaining, but it also stimulated something close to the exact opposite to accommodate all those new arrivals.  It did so by providing to an unprecedented portion of the western world’s population an alternative means of securing their daily bread: wage labor.

Thus, despite the fact that a vast majority of the immigrants to the United States in the decades around the turn of the century came from an agricultural background, most were directed to urban areas, and rather unwillingly became part of that emerging concept, the “working class.”  These people did not give up on the idea of owning their own residence, however, but quickly realized that their quest was no longer for “land.”  In the new industrial cities the dream of land ownership transitioned into the only format possible, ownership of a house with little—if any—more land that what it sat on.  It just had to be located near to where he worked and she shopped.  They bought the best homes available under these restraints, which usually were shacks cheaply built specifically to lure those for whom home ownership remained their version of the American dream.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle has reminded several generations of readers that the fate of many new Americans who participated in this conversion was to fall victim to predatory lenders and venal administrators, with tragic results.

But the transition continued, and—very gradually—a set of rules emerged to mitigate what happens to individuals and families that attempt to negotiate with corporations, in the field of real estate as well as others.  I said “mitigate,” not “correct,” because the rich taking advantage of the poor has not exactly disappeared from our society.  An American middle class did come into being, and home ownership was virtually a requirement for entrance, at least for a married couple.

The evolving American dream of ownership also explains the appearance of the “suburb.”  Planned residences to provide a quiet, bucolic escape from an ugly, noisy, dirty and polluted city began to appear in America quite early in the 19th century.  They were only for the truly rich at first, and they spread slowly, commensurate with the drop in the wealth requirement for entry into them, to which the railroads made a substantial contribution.  These “railroad suburbs” also further embedded a system of residential segregation by race.   Many people of all classes might be disturbed by the movement of black people into their neighborhoods, but only the most well off had actually possessed the means to move to where such people were unlikely to be found.  The railroad suburbs allowed more families of less wealth to move, and the nature of African American distribution began to change.  While the early “Main Line” suburbs saw the rich bring their black servants with them and house them nearby, the steady arrival of a larger number of the less wealthy (I really have to express it that way) into the expanding suburbs led to precisely the opposite result: the grouping of African Americans within carefully delineated enclaves, progressively more distinct from the community norm.

After the Second World came the “automobile suburb,” about which I have had a word or two to say previously.  The transportation revolution, an unprecedented national prosperity and government spending combined to offer a new variation on the old theme of ownership, not lots of land to support the family, nor a shack or house packed tightly against many others, but a nice house on (initially) one eighth acre of land.  You weren’t isolated as was the farm family, or crowded into unhealthy quarters as so often in the cities.  It seemed like an ideal opportunity, and a great many seized it.


This migration to the crabgrass frontier brought forth a resurgence of traditional American real estate practices in new forms required by the new opportunities.  Racial segregation reached new levels of effectiveness in the automobile suburbs, effectively creating prosperous white rings around a decaying black core.  Within the cities themselves, a predatory financial community “redlined” poorer neighborhoods to death.  The result of these factors—and many others—served to not only maintain but to increase the overall level of residential segregation in the United States.  An unprecedented opportunity to achieve what should have been the true American dream—Inclusive Diversity—was squandered.  Racism perverted this latest version of the American dream, just when technology and economic progress offered the tools to realize it for everyone.  We continue to deal with the consequences. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Nativism Is All Around Us; We Just Don’t Call It That

My post two weeks ago about the closure of Catholic Churches in Conshohocken and Bridgeport offered the unpleasant historical truth that these churches came into existence through a combination of ethnic prejudice and nativism.  I made a passing reference to how ethnic prejudice and nativism are actually different things, although they do fit together so very well, and always have.  I want to follow up on this, beginning with a classic combination of both.  I will then argue that while ethnic prejudice has declined substantially within the Schuylkill River towns (although it is making a comeback), nativism still exists, virtually undiminished.  Not only that, it exists in every town in the region (I won't go any farther than that, although I am tempted).  Every one of them.  People just don’t call it that, because that would upset the nativists, with social ostracism the likely result.

To start, let’s consider the following combination of both ethnic prejudice and nativism:

More than a decade ago, while at the Norristown/Montgomery County Public Library engaged in research for my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls, I happened to read a very recent letter to the editor of the Times Herald that not only stuck in my memory, I will never forget it.  The subject of the writer’s ire was the influx of Hispanics into Norristown, but the letter itself was addressed to the “Americans” (his word) already here, who, he contended, were simply allowing the foreigners to come to the community, collect in hovels, work for lower wages and steal local jobs.  He was quite angry that his fellow Americans were letting this happen.  When I finished the letter, I saw that the writer had an obviously Italian surname.  To a historian, the irony, which appears to have totally escaped him, was blindingly obvious:  a century earlier that exact same letter could have appeared in the Times Herald—close to word for word—and the immigrants it warned "Americans" against would have been Italian.  Incidents like this are why I titled my blog “The More Things Change…”

This writer’s comments would usually be cited as an example of “nativism.”  They are, but the letter contains both both nativism and ethnic prejudice, and distinguishing between them isn’t easy.  The ethnic prejudice component of his remarks is obvious, and I doubt any of you need much introduction to ethnic prejudice anyway, so I won’t offer any.  Nativism needs some clarification, however, because it is much more prevalent than most realize.  It negatively affects communities everywhere, even when issues of ethnicity, or race, are not present.

Nativism actually has multiple meanings, most of them scholarly, but we are focusing on its most well-known variant, the belief system that desires favored status for the established and the known over the new and the different.  When discussing examples, the emphasis is usually placed on the different part.  The influx of Hispanics into Norristown motivated that Italian-American letter writer to virtually repeat the slurs hurled at earlier generations of his own people.

But newness is a part of it too, and at the very bottom, it’s what nativism is actually about.  To the writer, Hispanics were upsetting the local scene, replacing everything from old familiar stores to older and even more familiar churches.  Ethnicity figured into his nativism, but chronology usually trumps even ethnicity.  Distaste for and discrimination against the Italians who began to arrive late in the 19th century was not limited to Protestants and the Irish; later arrivals discovered that a caste system had developed with the Italian community (in addition to those imported from their homeland), that of native-born versus immigrant.  The earliest-arriving Italians, who had suffered such discrimination from fellow Catholics, birthed a generation that proceeded to look down upon and mistreat the newer immigrants, who were not only Catholic, and not only Italian, but may even have come from the same area in Italy.  The elderly gentlemen I referred to a few posts ago about selling his home to African Americans also told a most compelling story that supports this.  As a youthful Italian immigrant to Norristown in the first decade of the 20th century, the worst abuse heaped on him was by Italian-Americans of the first generation born in America.  That made them “Americans,” and they seized every opportunity to express their disdain for people who were of the same religion and ethnicity as they, but who were new.

This is true nativism, the automatic devaluing of those whose time of arrival in the area is more recent than yours.  A preference for the established and the familiar over the new is the core of nativism, and it provides the most frequent demonstration of its continuing power.  Ethnicity or race--even class--need have nothing to do with it.

Your best chance of encountering nativism today is to attend a municipal meeting that features a pending issue of controversy that can’t be pinned on ethnicity or race.  There are lots of these, and they usually center around a proposal to tear down something old, build something new, or both.  You can’t recognize a nativist physically, except that they tend to be older.  This isn’t a generational thing, however; it’s about time in local residence.  Nativists are almost invariably the community’s mature to senior citizens, because older people will by definition be the longer-term residents while the newer arrivals are more likely to be young.

But once they begin to speak, you’ll have no problem recognizing them.  They are the ones who invariably preface their remarks by stating how long they have lived in the community.  Their meaning is implicit, but obvious: as long time residents, their opinions should count for more than those of newcomers.  If you haven’t been around as long as they have, you can’t possibly have the best interests of the community at heart the way they do; you actually want to change things, but that means newness, and that’s what nativists fear most.  They know best what should be done, and very rarely does that mean advocate for change.  The old voice that supports the new is not so much rare as noticeable by its isolation. 

There is, of course, an ironic contradiction in all this.  Nativists themselves represent a previous influx of new residents to the area at some time in the past; local reproduction simply does not account for the enormous population increase in Southeastern Pennsylvania (or anywhere else, for that matter).  But they are oblivious to the fact that they were once the newcomers, and that their arrival changed things, upsetting what had been customary before.  Now, however, they are the established ones, and all further change must cease; all is to remain they way they set it up because, well…

People tend to arrive in communities in waves, in response to incentives both large and widespread (about which I have written) and small and local, such as a new superhighway or a new development.  Over time these people can develop a substantial awareness of each other, or at least their common interest in keeping things the way they were when they arrived.  This is what gives local nativists their power at the ballot box.  In our communities, nativism is the reason the same established local political figures remain in office, resisting not just the electoral challenge of newcomers, but the whole concept of a new approach or just a new idea.  They have lost the distinction between the office and its occupant, and interpret challenges to their personal authority as challenges to the welfare of their community.  They do this secure in the knowledge that those who they chronologically represent--in residence more than age--and who have voted for them several times before, are going to turn out at the polls in greater numbers than those vocal, pesky newcomers, keeping them in office and new ideas for their community on hold.  Sound familiar (fill in name of municipality here)?  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Whose "Gaming The System" Costs You More?

Let’s talk about those cheaters that cause your taxes to rise while the environment around you goes downhill.  I’ll bet you know who they are, or at least think you do.

As a historian, I offer to this subject that fact that “gaming the system” is only slightly younger than the system itself, any system.  Those who can, do, and they use what the system has given them to work with.  The poor always have, do now and always will; this too shall always be with us.  So have the rich, of course; that’s how a great many of their ancestors earned fortunes in the first place.  Several of our Founding Fathers were smugglers who deeply resented the British Crown’s efforts to curtail their law-breaking, and this grand tradition has continued.

Today’s America witnesses the constant volleying back and forth of “truth” about who is doing the cheating, who is to blame, etc., ad nauseum.  Mind you, I’m not talking about the system itself, so whether you approve or disapprove of Section 8, or any “welfare” program on principle should not enter into it at this point, nor should your opinion of how tilted toward property owners our legal system is.  We’ll have that discussion at another time, trust me.  We are limiting this particular discussion to CHEATING, which I hope we can all agree is bad.

So I invite you to ignore the national discourse for the purposes of this conversation, and make your own personal comparison: whose gaming the system costs YOU, the taxpayer more?  Whose degrades your neighborhood more?  For those of you who would argue that the malfeasance of the poor puts the greater financial burden on you, I’ll offer a classic example for our comparison.  Or, if you prefer, pick your own example to use.  It can be a true incident, to which you can testify or under which you may have suffered, or you can even assemble a collection of stereotypes to use, if you are so inclined.  You pick your weapon.

My examples of gaming from the top and the bottom both come from the same town, which is only fair.  I said "town" because the two examples don’t come from Detroit, Baltimore or any of the well-known examples of urban decay, but from the Borough of Pottstown in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a community of some 22,000 people.

Remember, this is all about the Benjamins, so try to total up how much you think each example is costing you by cheating, lying, ignoring the law and general antisocial behavior.  Figure in the cost of the police having to pay attention, the courts, the decline in property values, EVERYTHING, for both examples.  Read, and decide.

Is there any more stereotypical example today of gaming from the bottom than this headline from the Channel 69 website last May?  “Drug Ring Operated from Government-Subsidized Housing, Police Say.”  The leader of this alleged drug ring was identified as one Edward Tillman.   The operation utilized more than one location, but had been headquartered for over a year at the Bright Hope Village, in the 400 block of West King Street, Pottstown, which is, in fact, a subsidized housing complex.  That’s all the information I can pass on about this specific crime, unfortunately.  This is a criminal case, still to be decided, and the law is not free with information about such cases.  That's one reason I invited you to substitute your own example.

I can do a lot better with my example of gaming the system from the top, because it involves a civil case.  It is thus on the public record, in most of its painful detail.  It also took place over a much longer time.  The police knew about it, but it was a matter for the civil courts, so the violator was allowed to continue what he was doing.  I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Golden Cockroach (.com or Facebook) in providing me with the facts:

In 2004, one Mr. Andrew Soule purchased a property at 440 King Street Pottstown, for $75,000, using a mortgage from Fannie Mae.  By 2007, Andrew Soule was falling behind on his property taxes.  The Borough filed tax liens on the property from 2007 through 2010, when it finally took action to collect on the liens.  The exact amount of taxes owed is uncertain, but a knowledgeable estimate puts it at about $15,000.

During the period from 2007 to 2010 Andrew Soule rented the property at 440 King Street; the tenant forced to leave by foreclosure had been paying $1,200 per month to live there.  Soule performed no maintenance during this period (a photo exists of the house at the time of foreclosure to back this up), and with not paying any taxes, he was pretty much pocketing the entire amount. 

In 2010 the bank foreclosed on the property (in other words, Soule wasn’t making his mortgage payments either), and ended up owning the property.  Andrew Soule’s total default was $99,425.10, and some potential creditors did not participate in the legal actions, so the actual amount is unknown, but greater for sure.

In 2011 the bank sold the property through a Fannie Mae auction for $19,425.00 to one Luigi Fischer.  Luigi Fischer is Andrew Soule’s cousin, and has not been seen since shortly after the auction.  Gee, do you think he might have been a front?  The house sits empty to this date and is accumulating another set of tax loans.  Did I mention that Andrew Soule owns the property next door at #444 King Street—which sits empty—and a number of other properties in Pottstown, on which he has also defaulted?  No matter; we are comparing only single examples, after all.

Try to run the math on just this one property of one slumlord's complete refusal to live up to his legal and contractual obligations—pay no taxes, do no maintenance—while collecting up to $1,200 a month, for four years.  That doesn’t take into account the time and money spent by the Borough going through the legal motions they knew were pointless.  That’s where I get to add the expenses of police and municipal administration to my example; he made them jump through hoops, and laughed all the way to the bank.  THEN HE RECYCLED THE PROPERTY TO EXPLOIT IT ALL OVER AGAIN.  My friends at Golden Cockroach have exposed this travesty, and may have put a crimp in this slumlord’s plans.  I certainly hope so, and if I can add to his Internet Walk of Shame I am proud to do so. 

So, how do my examples compare, or how does mine from the top compare to mine (or yours) from the bottom?  Whose flaunting of the law do you think cost the taxpayers more money?  Which example brings down a neighborhood more?  I said I would let you decide.

I’m sure you have a multitude of other versions of your example, but so do I.  Mine was just one building of just one slumlord (who owns several), in a not very big town, who is by no means finished stealing from you, the taxpayer.  Those like him often own the rancid buildings from which you see drug dealing; it’s but one way they rip off the people at the bottom, whose cleverness may equal theirs, but whose resources certainly do not. 

I don’t expect that this one comparison will cause you to let go of your closely held viewpoint about what’s wrong with our country, but all I ask is that you absorb the lesson and multiply it by the countless number of people who do pretty much the same thing.  As always, I ask you to make your decision based on “the Benjamins,” not some comforting collection of myths.  We should all be angry at EVERY attempt to cheat and steal from ourselves and our communities; we should seek out and vigorously prosecute ALL examples from wherever we find them.  But shouldn’t we be angrier at those who cost us more, who do our towns and cities more damage?  Should we not focus on them more, and allocate more resources to their prosecution and conviction?  You would think so, particularly when the comparison isn’t even close.  But I don’t see that being the case.

I would submit to you that gaming the system from the top is much more effective than from the bottom, and that it costs you, the taxpayer, a great deal more.  There two fundamental reasons for this: first, because the gamers at the top have a lot more money to play with, and second, because their ancestors wrote the rules of the system in the first place.  We still live within a legal system that was created to give primacy to the rights of property over the rights of man.  That was the "original intent"of our Constitution and our inheritance from the English common law.  It was also a subject on which our founding fathers waxed eloquently and at length.  All those misguided liberals from Theodore Roosevelt on have added laws aimed at reducing that imbalance, and the resulting laws have offered new ways to game the system from the bottom, but money still talks.  Of course, as Bob Dylan reminds us, "money doesn't talk, it swears." 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Why So Many Churches in the First Place?

I began this blog in April of last year.  In November, I decided that I would publish on a weekly basis.  I had my articles on urban history pretty much outlined in my mind, but they were only going to be about every third post.  I was less confident about the current subjects I would tackle, realizing that I would need recent events to provide relevant topics, and I had no idea what those would be in the future.  I needn’t have worried.  Day to day events in the Schuylkill Valley have provided the subjects for so many posts that I am now stressed about the accumulating backlog.  I have added to that stress by bumping those stories for this week’s subject, from very recent news.

The news?  Another closure of Catholic churches in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Archdiocese just announced which churches will be closed and their parishes subsumed into already existing ones.  The effect was widespread, but the towns along the Schuylkill Valley were hit particularly hard.  Bridgeport will lose its only remaining two Catholic churches and become part of Sacred Heart Parish in Swedesburg, Upper Merion.  Conshohocken will also lose two churches, and West Conshohocken will lose the only one it has.

The announcement evoked waves of both shock and nostalgia, the latter with good reason.  The closings really should come as a surprise to no one who is aware of the Catholic Church’s downward regional membership trend, not to mention the increased secularization of society in general.

As I read through the many comments lamenting the loss and evoking the memories of these churches, I came across one on Facebook by an individual (who shall remain nameless) about the situation in Bridgeport that I much admire, and quote it here:

All of those churches were built by immigrants; why haven’t they attracted any of the new immigrants to Bridgeport area?  We should always have been a welcoming church and not exclude people because of their ethnic background.  There is no reason that a town as small as Bridgeport should have separate Catholic churches.”

The writer is quite correct about the origins of the churches, and his remarks exemplify the modern ecumenical approach to religion.  Unfortunately, the existence of the many churches themselves (not to mention those that have closed already) testifies that religion in American history has not been quite so accepting of differences as many would proclaim today.

Not only were the Schuylkill Valley Catholic churches built by immigrants, but the story behind their construction is a microcosm of American ethnic and religious history itself.  It’s an all-American tale, with ethnic prejudice and nativism (they are not the same thing) playing the lead roles, ably supported by religious animosity and racism.

Let’s put the religious animosity thing in the background first.  The earliest settlers in Southeastern Pennsylvania were a diverse lot, but they shared two things in common: they were from northern or western Europe, and they were Protestant.  Mind you, they were rather fractured themselves along ethnic and religious lines, and they would endure the decline of their churches also, but theirs is not our story today.

The Protestant descendants of these early European immigrants had pretty much settled in and assumed the reins of local control under the new Republic when they were confronted by the first of what would be repeated migrations of strange people quite literally coming up the Schuylkill.  They actually came up the railroad (which came up the Schuylkill Valley), as far as it had reached, then got off and went to work building its route from then on.  They were the Irish.  They were considered close to sub-human; they were dirty, brawling alcoholics, who often faced the sign “dogs and Irishmen need not apply” when looking for work.  They were consigned to the poorest parts of town and exploited in every conceivable way.  Worst of all, they were Catholic.  As they began to accumulate in the nascent industrial towns, they upset the traditional control of the region's Protestants.

Both unwelcome in Protestant churches and possessing absolutely no desire to worship there anyway, once enough Irish had accumulated in a community, they organized and built their own church.  Most of the Irish settled downriver; they quickly came to dominate the Conshohockens, and played a large part in the growth of Norristown and Bridgeport, but their numbers and influence was less farther up the river.  St. Matthew’s Church in Conshohocken was the town’s first, organized in 1851 by its Irish residents.  West Conshohocken’s early residents could use St. Matthew’s, and it wasn’t until 1888 that enough Catholics had settled on the right bank of the river for St. Gertrude’s Church to appear.  They were Irish.  The presence of St. Patrick’s in Norristown just across the river also delayed Bridgeport’s Catholics building a church.  St. Augustine’s was Bridgeport’s first Catholic church, established by its Irish residents in 1892.

Each town on the lower Schuylkill River thus already possessed a Catholic Church when the next wave of immigrants began to flood our shores, some of who also came up the Schuylkill Valley on the railroad.  They were greater in number, and they hailed from Europe, but from southern and eastern Europe, not western and northern, and most of them were also Catholic.  This is a great oversimplification, as this group of immigrants possessed a great variety of religious doctrines and different homelands, but it will suffice to make my point.

So what happened?  Did the Irish, remembering how badly they had been treated, resolve to treat these new fellow-religionists better?  Of course not; if anything, they treated the new immigrants worse, although the later generations of the Protestant elite did contribute their part, just as their ancestors had done to the Irish.  Ethnicity trumped religion; an Italian Catholic or a Polish Catholic was not welcome in an Irish Catholic church, period.  So, the Italians and the Poles and all the others did the best they could until they accumulated enough of themselves to build their own church.  In Conshohocken, Polish Catholics established St. Mary’s Church in 1905, while Italians established Saints Cosmas and Damian Church in 1926.  Bridgeport’s Italians also opened Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in 1926.

See the pattern?  An Irish Catholic church is the first to be established, which then offers the back of its hand to later arrivals, because, although they are Catholics, they are “different.”  Italians, Poles, and the others were routinely not welcomed in Irish churches, but, in truth, would rather worship and celebrate with their own peoples regardless.  They wasted little time and less effort trying to join existing churches, and set about establishing their own.  Ethnic prejudice and nativism are why there were so many churches in these immigrant-built towns. 

Amid all of this, keep in the back of your mind that Racism thing; as the repeated waves of immigration populated the Schuylkill Valley, regardless of one’s opinions about Catholics (or Protestants), or about this or that European ethnicity, all could—and did—combine in despising black people the most and treating them the worst.  It’s an American tradition.

To bring things back to the present, I ask this question:  What do the Bridgeport and Conshohocken churches mentioned in the paragraphs above have in common?  Answer: They are all being closed by the Archdiocese in this current contraction.  They have been in the crosshairs of history for some time now, and their demise long forseen.  The flow of immigrants dried up beginning in the 1920s, courtesy of the U.S. government.  But the churches still thrived, at least until after the Second World War.  Within each municipality, ethnicity continued to be the most often employed means of self-identification.  However as the era of mass communications and that of mass mobility merged, the local ethnic churches lost their centrality as ethnic identity exerted a lesser pull with each succeeding generation.  They young moved away, leaving the borough congregations to age and wither.  A yearly festival would bring many back to eat, enjoy and reminisce, but the sustaining attendance of family groups inexorably decreased, and once in a while wasn’t enough.

One final point concerning Bridgeport: the Facebook poster I quoted asked why the Bridgeport area has not been attracting any of the new immigrants.  In fact, it has, and not too there many are happy about it.  I am speaking of Hispanics, another of the many historical spillovers from Norristown to Bridgeport. As a historian I find this fascinating, and I’m not even going to make any comments about history repeating itself.

Bridgeport and the Conshohockens find themselves at a turning point in history (I’ve made this point about Bridgeport before).  Their ethnic churches made them the communities they were, and the ethnic churches are all but gone, as is the local focus the churches provided.  Current trends differ greatly between Bridgeport and the Conshohockens, but they have this in common: the old community ties that generations developed and could point to with pride—those that defined the communities themselves—are disappearing.  What will take their place?