"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.