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

Gloria Steinem

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Before Section 8 and “Half-Way Houses”…a reminder


My previous blog located both Section 8 and “half-way houses” as issues that would bedevil Norristown after the mid-70s, and reminded readers that Norristown’s decline had begun much earlier than that.  My book, What Killed Downtown? identified the collapse of Main Street as virtually complete by 1975, making it perhaps the first component of decline to fully manifest itself.  I concluded the blog with a reminder that Norristown police were forced to institute a K-9 patrol on Main Street in 1972 to assure a public grown nervous over crime, years before anyone had even heard of “Section 8.”

If we can’t blame Section 8 or “half-way houses” for problems that had surfaced earlier, then perhaps we can accept that Norristown’s problems—and, by extension, those of so many other municipalities—were both broader and grew from deeper roots than can be explained by any simple reference to one or two specific actions.  Those of you who cannot accept this had best cease reading here, as the discovery of facts can have a disturbing effect on one’s preconceptions, and I would not wish to be held responsible.

By the mid-1970s Norristown, in company with countless other urban communities of all sizes, had already seen a substantial number of its more affluent and more connected residents flee to suburban lifestyles of varying economic wealth.  The buzzword for this migration is “white flight.”  An interviewee in my book summed it up by saying “We all eventually sold to black people.” In Norristown’s case, the image is incomplete.  While middle and even working class families were leaving in the 50s and 60s, their more affluent neighbors had already left.  By 1950, the borough’s traditional economic and political elite, the descendants of those who had arrived the earliest, had already exited the mansions on DeKalb and West Main Streets, often for the “Main Line.”  There is a substantial argument to be made that they did not leave because black people were moving into the neighborhood, but because Italians were.

Norristown’s history, like that of so many other municipalities, is the story of successive waves of immigrants arriving, exhibiting their strange languages and customs and disconcerting the existing population, even when the municipal services we take for granted today barely existed, and those that did hardly constituted a tax burden.  But to focus on ethnicity or race with the perspective we now have is to miss the fundamental point.  That point is economic:  each wave of arrivals was of a lower economic standing; a better life was their common reason for coming in the first place.

In the 20th century, Norristown’s population changes, while producing a statistically stable overall population (the number of those arriving was very close to the number of those leaving), had an enormous cumulative financial impact.  Very broadly phrased, the 20th century saw the steady departure of those residents whose economic contribution to the borough exceeded their need for services, to be replaced by those whose need for services exceeded their economic contributions.  Within this context, the most valid one in a worldwide market economy and local tax-based services, race or ethnicity become the irrelevancies they are.  In fact, to blame an ethnicity or race is to serve those groups whose economic power do the actual manipulating, to their own profit.

Today’s call to properly understand how “the more things change” is this:  the occupation of “slumlord” has proven to be historically profitable long before Columbus ever saw the Atlantic Ocean.  Here in America all that has ever been required is identifying a community with depressed property values (although an inattentive or corrupt municipal administration is always desirable).  Local slumlords profited by cramming poor immigrant Italians into the East End in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the process has continued, shifting to African-Americans, and more recently, Hispanics.  

I will end this brief introduction to an enormously complicated issue by offering a thesis that is likely to raise the hackles of many:

Section 8 housing and half-way houses were a SYMPTOM, not a CAUSE, of Norristown’s decline.  They would both enlarge and accelerate that decline, but to focus on them (and explicitly or implicitly, their inhabitants) is to blame the victim, not the perpetrator.

Let’s hear what you think of that thought (I can’t wait!), and in future posts I will elaborate and explain why I believe it to be true.