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

Gloria Steinem

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Putting a Myth in its Place

We have not yet determined when "the good old days” actually were, but by the end of this post I believe there will be no argument that any answer to the closely-related question “when did things begin to go wrong?” must be found long before 1975.  Both the specific “things” and the specific dates will vary location by location, but they were everywhere by the 1970s.  The numbers from the federal Census offer the most fundamental evidence that this was so. 
Each of the eight towns along the Schuylkill River between Philadelphia and Reading demonstrated constant population growth between the arrival of the railroad in their town in the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century.  This means that labor was in demand in the new factories or the expanding old ones, attracting new residents.  This labor had to walk to work, so the densely populated, urban-structured boroughs steadily sprouted new buildings.  These were truly “The Good Old Days,” a period of growth, prosperity and community.  Favorable locations at the intersection of railroads and local roads lay at the base of this prosperity, because this attracted the industries.  The larger boroughs augmented their industrial prosperity by developing a commercial sector that serviced both the local inhabitants and those in a trading area around it, utilizing both local roads and “light rail” (trolleys).

Then things began to change.  If a net rise in population indicates prosperity, then a net decline suggests the opposite.  West Conshohocken’s population peaked with the 1930 Census.  Conshohocken’s population peaked in 1950, that of Pottstown and Norristown in 1960, and that of both Bridgeport and Spring City in 1970.  Their populations began to decline in the years afterward.  The period between the 1970 and 1980 Censuses saw this decline become close to universal.  Even Phoenixville, which has demonstrated an overall population rise through the 2010 Census, lost population between 1970 and 1980.  In fact, of the eight towns in the Schuylkill valley between Philadelphia and Reading, seven lost population between 1970 and 1980.  Royersford, the exception, recorded a net gain of eight people.  Let's also not forget that during this decade Conshohocken and Royersford gutted their downtowns via Urban Renewal, with Pottstown not far behind.  In Norristown, various forms of private enterprise accomplished essentially the same result.  The disturbing trend of declining population was not confined to the Schuylkill valley by any means.  Lansdale, the area’s third largest borough, also steadily lost population after 1970.
Even an introductory assessment of these basic numbers demonstrates that the years 1950 to 1980 were rough for Southeastern Pennsylvania’s older towns, not just those along the river.  I would also submit to you that this period was equally as hard—and in some cases harder—on older communities across Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation as well.  We will not follow that trail because of our local focus, but the evidence is overwhelming.  Major economic and social forces swept over the United States during this period, permanently altering what many Americans had begun to assume was a natural and continuing condition of prosperity “the American way.”
The Census offers only the most basic guide to what was happening.  It population designation is a net number; it does not reveal how many left, or how many arrived, only the numerical difference between them.  It also does not indicate what kind of people left, why they left, what kind of people arrived, or why they arrived.  Once past the numbers themselves, this is the real story.  It is also a very misunderstood story.  I will deal with this story, about the economic and the social forces that had become pervasive by 1970 (at least in their local context), in future posts.

Even the basic numbers demonstrate that things had begun to “go wrong” long before 1975.  That year is actually late on our timeline, because it more correctly marks the time by when several local government were taking truly radical actions that had nothing to do with subsidized housing (agreeing to raze the core of one’s downtown counts as “radical”).  If there is one thing we can ALL agree on, it’s that by the time local government takes anything resembling radical action, the problem is already well established and everyone knows about it.
The post-1975 Federal program known as “Section 8,” which has survived as “subsidized housing,” was designed as a response to the combined economic and social forces that had been sweeping the United States since shortly after the Second World War.  It deserves a place in any discussion of the problems afflicting America’s urban areas after 1975, but not the fundamental one that so many ascribe to it, because so much had gone wrong before 1975.  The “good old days” were long gone by the time Section 8 appeared on the scene.

To Summarize:
--Subsidized housing is a SYMPTOM of a town’s decline; its arrival was a sign that decline was already well under way. 
--Subsidized housing may itself contribute to further decline; the question is how much.

P.S.  This is not the last you will hear from me about subsidized housing.  I promise.  It’s part of the story, but a part that needs to be understood in its proper context.  So let’s lay the myth of SUBSIDIZED HOUSING to rest.  We will return later to the subject of subsidized housing, assessing its rightful place in local history.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Wrong Attitude

I actively solicit—and truly welcome—reader comments on my blog posts.  I make it a point to focus on controversial subjects, and the subjects themselves originate from what I learn from you.  A reader of this blog has responded to my question “When were the Good Old Days?” with an opinion that I consider significant, although I do not agree with it.  This gives me the opportunity to make a point long planned, except for its time of insertion in this blog.  That time is now.
The writer begins his reply to my question with an observation about the closing of Norristown State Hospital.  He is on solid ground with this, on a subject I shall discuss in the future.  He next shifts to national politics, and to his main point.  His phraseology makes him an extreme example of a type whose numbers give every appearance of being substantial.  People may not be comfortable with the totality of his claim, but what he says strikes a responsive and sympathetic emotional chord among many.

I reprint the fundamental point of his letter here in full:

“We must remember it’s not about Dems vs. Reps.  It’s about We the people vs. the Government.  It’s about an illegitimate government, and that is Federal and LOCAL.  It’s about government that has lost it’s rightful purpose, to serve and protect, and now is the enemy of free spirit.”

To hear such rhetoric about the Federal government is rather common these days, and that aspect of it shall not concern us here.  The writer did, however, go out of his way to capitalize LOCAL, so he clearly meant our municipal and township governments, both the elected and those who occupy the many boards, authorities and committees at the local and county level.  I can at least agree with the writer that in our municipalities it’s not “Dems. vs. Reps.”, or at least it shouldn’t be.  From that point on, however, we part ways. 

While it is unlikely that too many people would agree totally with his opinion (I hope), his blanket condemnation of those in government resonates with many.  I have attended a considerable number of local government public meetings over the decades, and the sight of residents angrily asking why the council/authority/board/committee is not working “for the people” has been commonplace. 

This blanket assumption that government is inherently oppressive, and that those in it are engaged in a behind-the-scenes plot to enrich themselves and fritter away everyone’s hard-earned tax money fatally skews the viewpoint of those who allow it to dominate.  Such an assumption processes life’s experiences through a very dark lens, one that predisposes far too many toward easy, soul-satisfying judgments about people and issues that deserve a more nuanced and balanced examination.  Those afflicted with this syndrome tend to be grouped among a community’s “apathetic” citizens, but they deserve a category all their own, for they exert an influence that is quite different from that of true apathy.  It is, in fact, much worse, because whereas a characteristic of the apathetic is that they don’t care enough to comment, let alone act, nihilists of this persuasion care too much to realize the negative effect of either.

I term this “The Wrong Attitude” for two reasons:
.     It’s not true.
.     It’s counterproductive.

I shouldn’t have to produce facts to substantiate my first point (remember, we are talking about LOCAL government here).  These people really are your neighbors; they are much more like you than any at the state or federal level.  Why would they join in this alleged massive conspiracy in our boroughs and townships?  What’s in it for them?  It certainly isn’t money.  We are after all, talking about governments caught between the rising costs of providing the services you all expect and the political death that results from raising taxes.  Where is the opportunity for self-enrichment?  Not all that many years ago the combination of better economic times, a more trusting public and a much less intrusive press did allow such activities, but those conditions have virtually disappeared.

Not only is it ridiculous to assume that local officials are both venal and incompetent, it is counterproductive to let them know you think along those lines.  Once you develop such a reputation, they will smile and politely give you your say, but they are not actually listening.  That can be unfortunate when you really do have a solid point to make. 

Please do not read the above as a blanket endorsement of any, let alone all, local elected or appointed government officials, but only as a denial of any claim that they are ipso facto venal and/or oppressive.  They may be lazy, they may have the wrong vision for your community, and they may actually be incompetent.  Each one deserves careful scrutiny on a regular basis, and should be called to account if the facts so warrant.  Distrust can be healthy, but beware of reflexive disbelief.  Blanket condemnation of and disassociation from your local governments can only lead to them being allowed to operate without the necessary scrutiny.  That, in turn, will only help those assumptions about lack of accountability and purpose become self-fulfilling.

While you are exercising the due diligence that today’s laws governing lawmakers give to you, you should begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt about why they sought election or appointment.  Then, as you examine their actions, recognize that they are very liable to see a situation in different terms than you do, often because of the requirements of their office or position.  They may be wrong, but they didn’t just suddenly go over to the dark side.  It is your right as a citizen to judge, but do so according the facts, as unfiltered as possible by some underlying assumption.

As a final point, let me further distance myself from those with “the wrong attitude” by encouraging any of you across the region that are dissatisfied with local conditions to actually run for office, or volunteer to serve on a board.  You, and your attitude of working toward community improvement are greatly needed.  Just don’t be surprised if, having achieved your goal, some people begin to view you in a different way, perhaps even those who know you well.  It’s part of the price you pay, and part of why that so-common attitude is wrong:  those who serve in local government are not takers, they are givers.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Further Thoughts About 1975

My previous post offered 1975 as an important date as we try to establish “when things began to go wrong” in the Delaware Valley.  The year marks the earliest appearance of a factor many people consider to be very important: “subsidized housing.”  The date is not so cut-and-dried as it seems, because Federal housing assistance programs appeared during the Great Depression, and a 1965 Act established the first housing subsidy.  However, the amendment to the Federal Housing Act known as “Section 8” that took the housing subsidy program to a new level and into the national discourse was passed in 1974; hence the significance of 1975:

If “things began to go wrong” before 1975, “subsidized housing” had very little to do with it.

As I also noted last time, my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls pronounces downtown Norristown “dead” by that date.  Surely the collapse of the region’s largest center of retail commerce and services constitutes something going (very, very) wrong in Norristown.  Two conclusions must follow: (1) Norristown’s decline began before Section 8 ever saw the light of day, and (2) we must examine—and give serious weight to—other possible causes of Norristown’s decline.

1975 is certainly a significant dividing line date for Norristown, but what about the others in the Schuylkill Valley?  Can we extend the 1975 dividing line to other communities despite their individual differences?  For now, let’s shift our gaze both up and down the Schuylkill, to the other “river boroughs” (yes, I know that Norristown is no longer a borough).

There is considerable evidence that suggests yes, 1975 is important to other communities.  Consider Conshohocken:  the differences between it and Norristown are considerable, and size is only one of them.  Yet the much tinier Conshohocken also had a downtown, smaller but relatively as bustling and vibrant to the local community.   The record shows that the deterioration of its downtown had reached such a point by 1965 that the Conshohocken Planning Commission asked the Montgomery County Planning Commission to develop an urban renewal plan.  In 1974 the borough received a multi-million Urban Renewal Grant and proceeded to bulldoze the 25 core acres of downtown, leveling buildings and evicting residents in the process.  We should consider this evidence that things had started to go wrong before the arrival of Section 8.  Even a superficial look at Conshohocken’s history suggests that the decline of Alan Wood Steel and Lee Tire, and the jobs they offered, might lie behind downtown’s demise.  In the case of Conshohocken, therefore, we are looking at economic, not social reasons behind the beginning of the borough’s decline.  Does that make sense to you, veterans of Conshohocken?  In thinking about this, don’t rule out the possibility that after 1975 subsidized housing played a major part in the borough’s continued decline, just try to place it in perspective.

And what about Pottstown?  It is closer to Norristown in size than to Conshohocken, or any other river borough, for that matter.  It developed a commercial downtown second only to Norristown among Montgomery County river boroughs, one that was the hub of its own region.  Pottstown was, however, an industrial town, and thus more like Conshohocken, although not as tied to one or two major companies.  Still, the nationwide decline in our steel and automobile industries lies behind the declining fortunes of both, and those boroughs in between.  Pottstown did not engage in urban renewal to the extent that Conshohocken did, but the responses of both boroughs were more similar than that of Norristown, which repeatedly rejected the lure of government money during the time we are discussing (much to the dismay of its own planning commission, of course).  Pottstown has also experienced more population diversity than Conshohocken, and “subsidized housing” continues to be a hot topic there.  Those who remember Pottstown may simply have more (bad) options to choose from. 

There are many variables at play here.  Still, regardless of the specific date of this or of that, what we are searching for here is what people—that means you—believe to be the most important thing that happened, and when.  But what if you can’t decide on just one thing?
If you can’t, that may be because all the options you are considering actually qualify; there may be more than one event or trend, and they might be quite different, but each important in its own way.  That is why the When remains our focus for now.  It doesn’t mean we are done with subsidized housing as a suspect in our investigation.  Far from it.

So what say you veteran residents, advocates, those who moved out of either Conshohocken or Pottstown, or for that matter, any of the boroughs in between?  When did things “start to go wrong” in your town?  Was it before—or after—1975?  Remember, we said start to go wrong.  There doesn’t have to be only one thing, or even one thing at a time.  Tell me what they are, and we will get to them in this blog.