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

Gloria Steinem

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.

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