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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 20, 2013

Community Voices

A Blog Recommendation:
A few posts ago I recommended two websites and a specific post from another site.  I now add another site to my “recommended reading” list.

Elena Santangelo, a lifelong resident of Norristown and a prolific author, publishes the blog Norristown Diary, in which she make incisive comments about her home town, what’s wrong, and what is needed to make it right.  She pays attention to what’s happening, does her homework, and is a passionate voice for Norristown.  I have carried a link to Norristown Diary on my blog site for some time (if you are viewing this on a Patch site, you won’t see it), and long ago meant to mention her work.  I highly recommend it.  Check it out, frequently.

A Growing Facebook Alliance
The Internet has been put to work for many causes.  It is capable of uniting people by enabling communication among those of like mind, regardless of the distance or obstacles between them.  One of the most exciting developments is its use by individuals and organizations that are dedicated to reviving their local communities.  For too long these people have struggled in isolation, their numbers and their passion largely negated by the combination of political and business interests that possess local power.  They too often buy into the belief—spread by those very same interests—that their cause is theirs alone, and that “outsiders” cannot contribute and are not welcome.
That is simply not so; such an attitude is merely a parochial view of one’s existence that seems to be a component of the human condition.  There is nothing so special about any community that a properly-informed outsider cannot grasp, and those who are properly informed grasp the fact that the afflictions of America’s urban areas are shared.  Those who share a common affliction have many reasons to band together, the best being that it increases their power.
There should be a network of websites and blogs that focus on individual urban communities, each with an awareness of each other.  A specific geographic area could be the nucleus of such a network, but there is no reason that the alliance of groups could not eventually spread across state boundaries.  The local area networks should, in turn, be aware and supportive of similar groups, regardless of how far away they might be. 

Facebook is an ideal location for such a movement to take root, and it looks like that is beginning to happen.  Major kudos here to Golden Cockroach from Pottstown, a primer mover in this effort.  They have begun to use Facebook to both promote improvement of their own community and to network with those from other communities.  I have recommended their website before, and now want to make people aware of their Facebook page also.  They take direct aim at the real causes of decay in Pottstown.  They mince no words, take no prisoners and accept no excuses.  Like them, join them and make people aware of them.

Another Facebook page that deserves major kudos:  Tenant Association of Allentown

This Facebook page also takes aim at the same causes of decay, the ones that exist in far too many urban areas.  Allentown is a city, not a borough, and much larger than the urban communities between it and Philadelphia.  Still, the problems of cities tend to be the problems of boroughs, writ large.  The people behind the Tenant Association are trying to organize the powerless victims of urban blight and expose the legal travesties of slumlords.  They also pull no punches, and do not cower when attacked.  They fight back, with the truth.  Like them, join them and make people aware of them.

What I like most about both these sites/pages is that they focus on the true culprits for the condition of our boroughs: slumlords and the municipal officials and administrators who allow them to avoid the law and profit by doing so.  It’s long past time we stopped talking about “the people who live in places like that,” and focus on the people who own places like that.  When you are looking for the real causes of events, always follow the money.  (Spoiler Alert:  I will have more to say on this subject in future posts)

As evidence that distance in this day of the Internet means nothing, let me also recommend Liberty of Bellevue, Pa., which operates both a website and a Facebook page.  Bellevue may lie west of Pittsburgh, but it is a borough on a river that dates from the mid-1800s.  Does that sound familiar, residents of boroughs along the Schuylkill?  Check it out; you might have more in common than you think.  You can find both its website and Facebook page in my “Links” section.

I’m Less Certain About This One:
I recently discovered a Facebook page entitled “Morethanthecurb–Conshy Voice.”  It is locally oriented, seeking posts about Conshohocken.  I was pleased to see it, Liked it and attempted to post on it asking Conshohocken residents to help me understand what is happening to their town.  Unfortunately, my posts were deleted immediately.
I’m going to recommend it anyway.  There is need for discussion about Conshohocken, where much is happening.  That’s why I previously recommended and still link to Conshy.org, and why I now recommend this page.  Concern about speeders on Fayette Street is a good start toward community awareness, and contributors can build on that, without taking away anything from the page’s purpose.  It’s new, and appears so far to be largely a solo effort.  When I last checked, it had only two Facebook friends and I was one of them.  You may not see anything from me on it, but I will continue to view it and learn from it.  You could too.

These websites and Facebook pages promise to be the beginning of a supportive inter-community network, an alliance of many determined to advance the common cause of all.  If any of you know of other such Facebook pages or websites, tell me about them, and I will help to spread the word.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How Far Back Does It Go?

It's all very good and well to speak, as I did in my previous post, of a century of growth and prosperity for the boroughs of the Schuylkill Valley and call them “The Good Old Days,” but can we select a date when they started to come to an end, a date after which “things began to go wrong”?  The long answer is no.  By this I mean that no carefully researched and inclusive academic study would ever allow itself to reach such a conclusion; there are just too many local variables.  The short answer, however, is yes, as long as we recognize that any such date—a boundary between historical eras—is both arbitrary and imaginary, and whose only reality is as a marker of very deep waters.  It’s a guide, not gospel, but it helps to put things in perspective.

So here is my thesis:  “things began to go wrong” for the boroughs along the Schuylkill River (and by no means them alone) after the Second World War.  It took time for this to show up on the local level, because the seeds were laid by actions of the Federal Government in the years immediately after the war.  In fact, borough downtowns seemed to undergo a revival just prior to 1950, with the end of rationing and the switchover from war to civilian production meeting the long-anticipated “pent-up demand” of people who had done without during the Depression and the war.  This was pure inertia, however, in the period when people had no more options than they had always had, and thus shopped in the same locations they always had.  An upcoming post will discuss the actions of the Federal Government in the post-war period, to outline just how badly the cards came to be stacked against our urban areas.
By 1950, the river boroughs had begun to notice that things were changing.  If you had driven across the DeKalb Street Bridge into Norristown in 1950, the first sight to greet your eyes would have been old, abandoned factories along the water’s edge.  They had once housed Norristown’s thriving textile industry.  Technological change (and the search for cheap labor) had long before hit that local industry hard.  The true nature of things had been postponed by the wartime demand for soldiers’ clothing, which had by then ended.  

You might be asking yourself “how can this be?”  Wasn’t the 1950s that era we refer to longingly when we point out unpleasant economic or social facts about today?  Wasn’t it the era of real men and real steel, the start of “The American Century,” when U.S. products and military might bestrode the world (except for the Communist world, of course)?  Don’t we long for the days when Ward Cleaver came home from his steady job in a good enough mood to appreciate stay-at-home wife June’s immaculate appearance, neat-as-a-pin  housekeeping and carefully prepared meals?  Back then “made in Japan” was a comedian’s punch line, and China an economic nonentity, right?
Actually, yes to all of the above, up to a point.  The late 1940s and early 1950s were the takeoff period for a time when a larger portion of the human race achieved an higher level of economic well-being than had ever happened before in the history of man.  The U.S. was at the center of this, and the prime mover.  That must not be forgotten, and should always serve as context for what I write later, but the economic prosperity and social stability of the 1950s that now casts such a rosy glow on our national psyche did not reach every level or location of society.  The unpleasant historical reality, in fact, is that for America’s urban areas, large and small, the engines of this economic miracle delivered not growth, but decline; not prosperity, but decay.
Some evidence of this thesis, again from Norristown history, and one of the reasons I choose 1954 as Norristown’s turning-point date:  in that year the Commissioners of Montgomery County purchased two buildings adjacent to the Public Square.  These were the very core of downtown.  They occupied the lots labeled #1 and #2 for the first sale of properties in “The Town of Norris” in 1785, and had occupied prize positions of place in a long-prosperous downtown.  As I relate in my book, this was not so much a decision on the County’s part as a decision to avoid making a decision; much uncertainly lingered around downtown for a long time, doing considerable damage.  Still, although continuing to examine other alternatives, the County Commissioners had elected to purchase Main Street properties.  These very same County Commissioners (two of them, anyway) were Republicans, who, if their claims for fiscal probity are to be believed, threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.  They were not about to pay much for property they were not sure they even wanted in the long run.  There were also no other reported bidders for the properties.
The actual numbers involved are unimportant, rendered moot by decades of inflation.  The implication, however, is clear: by the early 1950s even choice Main Street properties no longer had the value they had displayed for so long.
By the 1950s, that value was to be found in the suburbs, not the towns and cities.  The Cleaver family lived in the suburbs, as did the Andersons and the Nelsons (OK, the Nelsons were a little upscale).  Our national TV-inspired nostalgia over the 1950s derives from our memory of those too-good-to-be-real families in the equally idealized suburbs.  Even then, some reality could be found on TV, at least in how it represented life in the city.  The Kramdens lived in the city.  Compare the set representing their apartment to those representing the homes of the Cleavers, Nelsons and Andersons.  See the difference?  That difference would grow.

We have by now gone as far back in history as we are going to go.  This is an artificial stopping point to be sure, but I had to select one somewhere, and “after the war” has a sound factual basis.  From now on we will be moving ahead chronologically, but for the area’s urban centers, it will be all down hill.  The story begins with the Federal Government, but my next post on this subject will be one last look at “The Good Old Days,” and why the concept is a myth.