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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Logan Square: What It Was, and What It Wasn’t Quite

     News broke this past May that a mortgage foreclosure will probably send Logan Square up for Sheriff’s sale.  For most of you, even in the Delaware Valley, the name Logan Square probably means nothing.  Those who are aware of it—mostly in the Norristown area—probably associate Logan Square with a recent financial debacle involving a proposed hotel and movie studio that will end up costing the county taxpayers a bundle. 
     A few, however, particularly the Norristown area’s older residents (and some farther afield who also heard the news), remember Logan Square as a shopping center, what it was designed and built to be.  The key here is “designed,” and that’s what makes the history of Logan Square relevant.  I would, in fact, make the following argument: the creation of Logan Square was a seminal event in the commercial history of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a piece of local history that deserves to be better understood, and more widely appreciated.
     Today, shopping centers proliferate in Southeastern Pennsylvania (and elsewhere, I am told).  They range in size from strip malls and local road intersection centers to the King of Prussia Mall, shortly to be the biggest of them all.  Yet it wasn’t too long ago that the first one appeared somewhere other than the Main Line, and that somewhere was the north end of Norristown.  It was called Logan Square.
     What makes Logan Square’s history significant is that it was the first local shopping center planned solely for the automobile. There is some dispute over where and when the actual “first shopping center” appeared in the U.S., but Suburban Square in Ardmore has the honor of being the first planned shopping center in the Philadelphia area.   Its design inspired the design of Logan Square.  But while Suburban Square, which appeared before the war, was designed to accommodate the automobile, it was deliberately built adjacent to the heavily used Main Line rail tracks.  Logan Square, by contrast, was a very early example of what would soon become common, a shopping center accessed solely by automobile.  A trolley line ran nearby, but it was clearly on its last legs by the end of the war, and was not counted on to deliver customers. 
     Well into the 20th century, shopping centers outside Philadelphia were located where they always had been, in the towns and boroughs, usually along a Main Street.  We called them “downtowns.”  They had not been planned, they had evolved, and in the process grew rather like Topsy (it’s a generational reference; ask someone older than you).  Unfortunately, they grew in the horse-and-buggy days, when no one had yet heard of the automobile, let alone the concept of parking.  The automobile began to proliferate after the First World War, and by the eve of the Second the downtowns of Southeastern Pennsylvania were already feeling the resulting crunch.  Afterward, things got worse, much worse.
     In the late 1940s, a few forward-thinking entrepreneurs, recognizing early how the automobile would render virtually every urban downtown unsuitable for future shopping, thought of designing a new kind of shopping center, one built around the automobile.  In other words, one with ample, free parking.  Our downtowns could not be adapted; they had to be replaced.  One such entrepreneur was Joseph Butera, who, advised by his uncle Harry, then the dean of local real estate agents, decided to locate his new idea at the very north end of Norristown, at the intersection of Swede Street and Johnson Highway.
     Logan Square opened in 1954, after a construction phase that lasted only a little longer than the struggle to get the project approved in the first place.  Norristown’s downtown merchants fought it bitterly.  History has demonstrated that their fears were justified.  Logan Square was a full frontal challenge to the shopping tradition that downtown Norristown represented.  It quickly stole Sears from Main Street, where it had been since 1934, and continued to accommodate other stores that left downtown.
     Logan Square prospered, for a brief period of time.  Then the other neighborhood malls began to appear.  They tended to be smaller than Logan Square, but they were more convenient to the residents in the new developments around Norristown.  The King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting Malls did not exactly help, either.
     The story of Logan Square’s decline is a complex one, and such things as the local economy and management decisions certainly played their part.  Nothing is inevitable, but hindsight allows us to see clearly both what Logan Square was, and was it wasn’t quite.  As a historian, and leaving aside the complex local specifics, I see the story of Logan Square as something close to a tragedy, a pioneering idea that began a movement, and then fell victim to the movement it heralded.
     That movement was to the periphery, away from downtown.  That movement has taken place, leaving our traditional downtowns barren and crumbling.  Logan Square began the movement, it just didn’t move far enough.  It was doomed at birth by a decision that seemed bold and progressive at the time: to locate an entirely new shopping center where it did.  The actual municipality is not the point; had Logan Square been located just across the street (Johnson Highway) in East Norriton Township, it would probably have suffered the same fate.  The fatal flaw was in the center’s access roads.  Don’t let the term “Johnson Highway” fool you.  It was a two-lane asphalt street when Logan Square opened, it lacked traffic lights, and it did not connect to any major local highway.  It also came to a dead end one block east of the center.  Swede Street south led down through Norristown, and thus to a desired market.  Unfortunately, it also led out of town, where it intersected with the much larger and much more heavily trafficked Germantown Pike.  Outside of town was where the new residents were appearing, and in short order a whole array of mini shopping malls sprang up at the intersections of not only Germantown Pike and Swede Street, but also at the intersections of Ridge Pike, Butler Pike, and the list goes on.  These new residents needed many things to make their new houses into homes, and it was just too difficult to get to Logan Square, given the other alternatives.  As long as Sears remained, hope remained, but Sears finally left, long after it should have, and joined the crowd at King of Prussia Mall.
     Had Logan Square been located out in a surrounding township (other than Upper Merion, of course), it might have survived.  If the center itself did not survive, its buildings would most likely still be in use, however modified.  The shopping centers of comparable size, or even smaller, located at the intersections of major local roads, have had a checkered history, but are still sites of commerce, and some are still shopping centers.  Ground at the intersection of the local highways around Norristown still has commercial value; whether Logan Square’s site within Norristown still does will be decided at auction.  The urge to see the contrasting fates of Logan Square and its surrounding malls as a metaphor for post-World War II urban history is irresistible.  How many of you were part of it?