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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 19, 2014

Parochialism Might Be Your Town’s Biggest Weakness

This week I deal with a question that has appeared frequently in response to my recent series of posts on the Conshohockens and that addresses an important issue: How can you understand what [fill in the name of your town here] was like if you didn’t live there?  My readers don’t phrase it that way, of course; they just assume it can’t be done.  This is an example of Parochialism, an attitude that is not only wrong, it is counterproductive.   

It is, unfortunately, very commonly held.  One of my greatest pleasures during my years working for the Historical Society of Montgomery County was getting to know a woman named Florence Young, known to everybody as “Johnny.”  She was a grand lady, witty, gracious, and a volunteer at the Society for decades.  She contributed greatly to preserving the Society’s collections during a period of leadership and funding stagnation.  She possessed an extraordinary mind, still razor-sharp when I met her, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Norristown social history.  She knew who was descended from and related to whom, and I was never around her but that I wished I had a tape recorder with me.  When I began to research What Killed Downtown? she was one of the first people I contacted.  I began a recorded interview by assuring her that I was going to write a history of downtown Norristown, not of Norristown itself.  She gave me that sweet smile and paused (telling me what was coming), then replied, “No offense, but you couldn’t.”  I disagreed, but silently, and I did not take offense.

I have since expanded my study and writing to encompass the eight towns along the Schuylkill River below Reading, and have often encountered the same response (usually expressed less politely).  A reader took great exception to a recent Facebook post about Norristown because,  Further more you don't live anywhere near Norristown!!”  My two posts about West Conshohocken have also aroused some anger, including a reader who expressed the reason for her anger, “I just do not like it when someone who has never lived here tries to sum things up simply when our history is diverse and complex.”  She is correct about the nature of her town, but not about who is qualified to write about its history.  I have been professionally trained to do just that.

Another reader struck to the heart of the matter when, responding to my question about whether West Conshohocken still possessed a reason to exist, she wrote: Who would ever ask a question like that?  Oh yea, someone who’s never lived/experienced West Conshy.”  She has a valid point.  It is unlikely that such a question could be asked about anywhere by anyone who grew up and still lived in that place.  That’s where a professionally-installed sense of perspective is required.  One of the foundations of graduate study in history is the understanding that one should never attempt to write about a subject he/she has personally experienced, precisely because of that loss of perspective.  I attempted to ignore this wisdom during my PhD studies, only to learn just how correct it is.

I am pleased by the sense of community pride that these comments to my posts evidence, but considerably less so by the belief that I could not possibly know anything about a particular town because I did not ever reside there.  I have attacked this belief before, because it cripples community efforts to make things better.  It’s an example of Parochialism, i.e., narrowness of interests, opinions or views.  I believe, on the contrary, that it is quite possible to be both interested and helpful to a local community’s efforts to better itself without being a resident of that community.  The only issue should be: do I possesses useful knowledge?  You can judge that by what I write, whether a specific post applies to your town or not.   There is a consistency to my approach, based on research.  I have studied the history of the lower Schuylkill Valley, within the broader context of my study of urban history, which, in turn, lies within the context of American history itself.

Please understand that a great deal of my training was in how to find and analyze local sources of information.  That usually means written by people who actually did live in the community, and includes such sources as newspapers and diaries.  A historian such as I who renders his/her work in broad strokes and primary colors depends on such sources, for their close, immediate perspective.  I am a voracious reader of local accounts of all the locations I am researching.  As regards the Conshohockens, I have previously acknowledged reading everything Jack Coll writes, and cheerfully do so again.  I have cultivated relationships with the sources of local history in the other Schuylkill River towns as well, whose assistance I also openly acknowledge.  The writing of history is a collegial effort; it cannot properly be done alone.

For the record, I make no pretense at being an “expert” (whatever that is) on any of the towns about which I write, with the partial exception of Norristown, which I have studied at some length.  I have, however, done considerable research on the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill River, and believe myself generally knowledgeable about their broad historical arcs.

The pattern is clear.  All eight towns have commonalities that are much more important than their differences.  They all came into existence for the same reason and they all assumed a common shape, again for the same reason.  None varied much from the regional pattern of a riverside mill town, although Norristown, as the county seat added a new dimension.  They all grew into locally-focused communities, whose residents largely lived, worked and worshipped within the municipal boundaries.  That work was in the “smokestack” industries, and these provided the jobs for the successive waves of immigrants that would populate each town.  They all prospered, subject to the vagaries of the national economy (e.g. The Great Depression), until they all fell on hard times after the 1950s.

I am a historian, but if you have been reading my posts, you have encountered my favorite expression: “That was then; but this is now, and things have changed.”   The fundamental realities of life along the river have changed, and thus the once-common condition and histories of the river towns have begun to diverge.  I offer the Conshohockens, Phoenixville and Pottstown as examples of that divergence.  The Schuylkill River towns are no longer all alike, but neither do they exist in their individual vacuums.  The force besieging the Conshohockens is the same, and I would like to think that both municipal governments and residents realize that, and that their response should thus be as united as possible.  Last week I pointed out yet another similarity between Pottstown and Norristown, one of many.  Bridgeport’s ethnic issues reflect its closeness to Norristown, and their resolution will also.  Royersford and Spring City have always been “the twin boroughs,” and still share a great deal, despite occupying different counties.  The list goes on, except for Phoenixville, and that will be a subject I address in the New Year.  This means that all those truly interested in the improvement of their community should stay abreast of what is happening in other communities like theirs.

My point is that sheer accumulation of knowledge about the past is fascinating and to be encouraged, but for those whose focus is the future, it is irrelevant.  Knowing what has changed is necessary if one desires to improve his/her present and future.  I try to put urban history in the service of urban activism, because activists will continue to make mistakes as long as they continue to believe in myths about why things are the way they are.  The odds are stacked heavily against them as it is, and Parochialism only makes things worse.  This is not about listening to me, it is about listening to all those who can aid you, regardless of their physical location.

The experience of your town is not unique, and ideas for a better future need not come from within your town alone.  What has worked elsewhere in towns similar to yours is worth considering, and what hasn’t should just be rejected without wasting your time.  Your knowledge of what might work, what probably won’t—and of the distinction between them—is crucial for the future of your community. The problems that each community faces are much larger than the community itself, and no community by itself can be a match for them.  Those who are united in understanding this, who realize that they are truly “all in this together,” and are willing to accept the help of knowledgeable “outsiders,” will fare better in this unequal contest.  Shared knowledge can only improve the otherwise very bad odds that our older urban centers still face.  That’s why I do what I do.

There will be no post on Friday, December 26.  May all the blessings of the Holiday Season be yours, and remain with you in the New Year.  This blog will return on Friday, January 2.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Perception Versus Reality, Revisited

It’s been a refreshing change to write about how millions of dollars competing for access to a community can cause problems, but now it’s back to rather more gritty subjects, because they are more widely shared along the lower Schuylkill.  That means crime and public safety, all viewed through one of my favorite contexts, that of Perception versus Reality.

Back on May 9, I published a post that discussed the activation of  “The Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force,” an effort launched with some fanfare and the presence of all three county commissioners.  What I found fascinating about the program was that its goal was not to improve the quality of life in Norristown, but to convince the public that the quality of life in Norristown was already good.  Council President Bill Caldwell set the tone by proclaiming that “Urban communities often get a bum rap for being places where random crime happens and we’re here to tell you today that that is not what happens in Norristown.”  Thus speaketh the authorities, both of Norristown and of Montgomery County.

I tried to throw the Wet Blanket of Reality on all this by observing that I knew several rational, informed people who judged Norristown to be a less safe place to live than they wish on the basis of their experience with that very reality.  In other words, they live there.  I predicted that changing these more informed perceptions would take a lot more than just making law enforcement more visible.

At the conference, the principals asked the public to give them a year before making a judgment, and that was a fair request.  It has now been seven months since that new initiative was launched, so it’s not too early to check in for a preliminary survey.  So, residents of Norristown, Pa., I have two questions:

First: Do local events in the last six months suggest that Norristown’s “Quality of Life” initiative is contributing to making the streets safer?
 If so, kudos, but remember that such a change of mind was not what the Initiative sought.  It was designed to help you believe that you already were living in a safe, secure community.  That was the “reality,” remember? 

So that’s my second question: Have you realized the error you have been making all this time, and the reality that Norristown is a safe community in which to live, work and play?  If so, then the “Norristown Quality of Life” initiative has truly been a success.  Quite frankly, a majority “yes” to the first question would be achievement enough, but I don’t want to rule anything out.

While I wait for responses to these admittedly loaded questions, I want to return to the basic perception vs. reality dichotomy issue as it concerns urban safety.  Norristown authorities claim that the town suffers from a bad perception/good reality problem.  It turns out (not altogether surprisingly), so do the authorities in Pottstown.  As with Norristown, the Pottstown authorities are upset with all the “negative publicity” about public safety in the Borough.  Various elected leaders have voiced this opinion, on more than one occasion.  I believe I have been included among those so identified, if only in a minor way.  I take pride in that.

Strangely, the Pottstown Mercury seems to have joined the chorus that people just don’t know how good they have it in their urban world.  A recent editorial cast “THORNS to those who vent their frustrations about Crime in Pottstown on social media and in conversation rather than trying to do something about it.”  It then proceeded to make several dubious statements that speak to the perception/reality issue.

Before I proceed, let me go on record as agreeing with the basic truth behind that initial statement.  Pottstown residents have been noticeably reticent to get active in the cause of civic betterment.  The number voicing their concerns online is larger than those who do get involved, no question.  This is the truth, but a truth that extends to a great many more municipalities as well.  No one deplores that more than I do, but it is a fact that cannot be denied.

Now for what I didn’t like about the Mercury’s editorial.  A correct—but narrow—view of its phraseology says it condemns only those who speak but do not act.  But what if speaking is part of the action?  A number of residents are concerned enough about the situation on Pottstown’s streets to establish Facebook pages and websites to publicize the Borough’s issues.  In my view, these people aretrying to do something about it.”  Allowing others to vent frustrations is only a byproduct of their efforts.  

The editorial rightly points out the fact that those who complain far outnumber even those who take even that basic first step, attending meetings of the Borough Council.  Those who do attend, however, and who keep trying to organize ways to make things better, are the same ones who administer the Facebook pages and even websites.  They spread the word about what is happening around town, rather better than the Municipal website.  These pages and websites, in turn, continually implore their neighbors to get involved, beginning with attendance at meetings.  At the risk of repeating myself, these residents of Pottstown ARE the ones trying to “do something about it.”   

If the Mercury was trying to improve people’s perception of Pottstown, its next comments did not exactly help: “To date, the crime victims have been people who were associating with those committing the violence.  The incidents of violent crimes being committed against innocent victims is not any higher in Pottstown than anywhere else.”  I don’t exactly find that reassuring, and certainly not something to post on “Positives in Pottstown.”  The same thing might have been said of Chicago in the Twenties; the gangsters were pretty much killing each other, right?  If I don’t think much of this, what about the “innocent” people who actually live in Pottstown?  Many would dispute whether such a claim has any reality behind it; is this just their perception?

But my favorite is this conclusion: “Pottstown needs a plan to improve the perception and reality of crime here; it doesn’t need more detractors.  Sound familiar?  Does anyone besides me find it disturbing that “perception” takes precedence over “reality” in that sentence?  If “perception” is the big problem, then Pottstown need only look to Norristown.  It is implementing a plan to improve people’s perception; perhaps they should send Pottstown a copy.   

A municipality can generate its “objective reality” from statistics, and call them facts.  But the question of one’s personal safety on the streets and at home is definitely an example of what I meant in my original post when I wrote that the facts are all well and good, but perception is much more important.  Statistics are cold comfort when one’s reality says something different, particularly if that reality is predominately fear.  And, I would suggest, the best way to improve the public’s perception of the situation is to improve the situation itself.  Remove the fear, and people’s perception of reality will improve. 

Municipal governments have more than enough problems confronting them; they ought not to consider the most concerned of their citizens as part of that number.  It’s a natural enough tendency, to blame those who publicize an area’s problems to the world for making the problems seem to be worse than they actually are.  Those of us of sufficient years recall when an entire section of the country employed such a tactic, arguing that if “troublemakers” would only cease their outcries, then the rest of us would see the “reality,” and wouldn’t be as concerned.  That was then; in today’s information age, attempts to impose a gag rule are not only hopeless, they are quickly proven to be, in “reality,” counterproductive.

We celebrate the child who is honest enough to point out that the king has no clothes, but only because it's a fairy tale.  We possess rather less tolerance for adults who make the same observation.  Some (like myself) can be dismissed as "outsiders," but by far the greater number are those who actually live in places like Pottstown and Norristown, and experience the reality of their streets. 

People who just bitch, just bitch.  Those who go to the trouble to set up and administer Facebook pages and websites, attend borough meetings and continuously implore others to get involved are among any community's most valuable citizens, and should not be placed in the same group as the bitchers.  Communities need more of these people, particularly communities like Pottstown and Norristown.  They should be not be demonized, because their perception is of the reality in their towns.  Because of that, they must not be ignored. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part VI:  The Credit, The Blame And The Responsibility

As I promised last week, I’m going to close out this blog series on Conshohocken’s past and future by assigning the credit, the blame and the responsibility for what is happening and what will happen.  The credit and the blame are easy to place; it’s the responsibility that will be tricky.  That’s where the Wet Blanket of Reality comes in.

First, the easy part.  There is no argument about what has brought this all about, just whether you assign to it the credit or the blame, and that pretty much depends on your point of view.  The intersection of two Interstate highways in West Conshohocken is the reason for all that is happening around it.  As I pointed out, the development of the area around an intersection of two major travel routes is a process that is both global and much older than capitalism, so the Conshohocken experience is nothing unusual at all (okay, from a historian’s point of view).

How it’s happening is a function of our capitalist economic system.  Industrial capitalism has moved on, but the modern “services” version is producing the details for the development of the “Conshohocken Exit.”  This new version recognizes no political boundaries.  What is happening in Conshohocken is exactly the same as what is happening in West Conshohocken, minus the actual intersection.  It cannot be stopped, and the influence of local municipalities is largely limited to trimming its physical manifestations around the edges.  That unpleasant truth must be recognized when we attempt to assign the responsibility for what we don’t like.

I’m going to use O’Neill’s new apartment complex proposal as an example of what happens when well-funded developers come to town, and to illustrate why “responsibility” is a difficult thing to properly assess.  I have not looked at the details (or researched the specific facts) of the project, but I am trained to detect patterns, and what is happening hews closely to one of the basic patterns seen in communities, over and over again.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1:    A Municipal Council, alarmed by size/nature of a developer’s proposal, rejects it.
Step 2:   Negotiations ensue, and a SLIGHTLY modified proposal is offered to the Council.
Step 3:   Council approves the “new” proposal, as quietly as possible.
Step 4:   Public reacts with “WTF?”
That’s pretty much the way it went down for O’Neill’s latest proposal for apartments along the riverfront.  Borough Council, justifiably alarmed at the scale of what is happening to Conshohocken, found sufficient objections to the zoning relief being desired to deny the project when it was first presented in September.  Negotiations nonetheless ensued, and less than a month later a “special meeting” was called to reconsider a modified proposal (in other words, they didn’t even wait for the next regularly scheduled meeting).  The changes were minimal, but they were sufficient; two Council members switched their votes and the new version passed.

Then came the public reaction.  It largely held to the pattern, holding members of Council responsible. The meeting was described as “questionable, off-schedule, and even as “a secret meeting,” and the Councilmen who changed their votes were identified.   Subsequent publicity has identified the two as “Leading the way to the demise of Conshohocken.”  There has been an upsurge of resident awareness, (which is all to the good) and even an attempt to establish how “developer friendly” each member of Council is.  One post sums it up by saying, “…we are scratching our heads.  When are local elections already?”

I am late offering to be the Wet Blanket of Reality to all this, because Morethanthecurve.com has already done the job, offering by far the most rational assessment of the affair.  The site reminded its readers that the project was a “by right” development; the zoning code allows apartments to be built there.  It also pointed out that looming over everything was the matter of O’Brien’s lawsuit against Conshohocken, and “concern that an existing legal action over the project could receive a favorable ruling from a judge and then Borough Council would have no influence over what would be built.  Through the settlement they were able to negotiate and get some concessions.”  Unfortunately, its subsequent dialogue (I use the term advisedly) with a reader demonstrated that even reality does not influence the opinions of some, but kudos to Morethanthecurve.com for trying.

My assessment of the O’Neill affair to date is largely the same, from painful experience.  I have seen this pattern happen in my township upriver, and in several other places.  Large developers employ packs of legal eagles, which feast on the ordinances and zoning codes of each locality on which they descend.  They examine each word, sentence and paragraph, looking for a flaw, a weakness, an opening into which a legal wedge can be inserted.  Once they find one and the developer acts, the locality is pretty much screwed. It is then faced with an unpleasant choice: either fight the proposal and probably lose, or “negotiate,” while a very large sword dangles over its head.  If they choose the former course and lose, they have no control over what happens.  If they “negotiate,” they can at least get a fig leaf or two to help conceal the surrender.  The two Council members who switched their votes may have been motivated by some version of this.  If so, and the facts sustain this assessment, then it was a defensible choice, albeit an unpleasant one.  You don’t spend the taxpayers' money on legal fights you are pretty sure you are going to lose, so you hold your nose and cut the best deal you can.  The pattern is unfortunately all too common, and illustrates the tilted playing field between government and private enterprise.  After all, the sanctity of private property is “The American Way.”

Morethanthecurve.com’s most salient observation was this, however:

“So if this approval concerns you, your issue isn’t with the developers, but the zoning code for the Borough…If you are concerned about the health of the riverfront, traffic, etc., your efforts should be focused on changing the zoning code.” 

I am pleased to second that thought.  O’Neill’s proposed development—and, in fact, most of what is being proposed along the riverfront—lies within two “Special Zoning Districts” established in 2001 and amended in 2005.  These two districts were an attempt to provide for “orderly development” of the riverfront by “a mix of uses, including residential.”  There was never any question about O’Neill’s right to build; Council could only trim around the margins.  That zoning code, by the way, was changed as recently as 2013, when the allowable height of buildings on the riverfront was lowered from 250 feet to 75, among other things.  The zoning code can be changed again, but only if Borough residents realize how important it actually is, and push their elected representatives to change it.

So, residents of Conshohocken, where does the responsibility actually lie?  The zoning code was rewritten to promote riverfront development, and that is exactly what is happening.  It is easy to blame “politicians,” (and, on occasion, justified), but you should understand the serious legal restraints under which your elected representatives operate, and the potential catastrophically expensive results of following their own hearts instead of the recommendations of their legal counsel.  We proclaim rather too strongly that “the people rule,” when it’s much more complicated than that.

I will close this series of posts that might appear to be throwing a wet blanket on the rebirth of the Borough of Conshohocken, Pa. by offering one final consoling thought:  too much money pouring into a small community will create problems, but it is better than too little money, or no money at all.  Just ask the towns upriver.  I am reminded of the old saying, "Money can't buy happiness, but crying in a Mercedes beats crying on a bus."
Even if you're stuck in traffic.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part V:  Residence and Recreation…For The Favored Few?

I introduced my series of blog posts about Conshohocken on October 24th by pointing out one of the 180 degree changes time has wrought on the lower Schuylkill Valley.  I was talking about how what had historically been the lowest priorities for the riverbanks of every town—residence and recreation—were now the highest.  All should be happy to hear that the new development is producing open space and recreation opportunities along Conshohocken’s riverbank, where they have never been before.  I am all about alternative transportation, open space and community recreation, and so I applaud these aspects of what seems to be emerging in Conshohocken.  Unfortunately, I also have my suspicions that all three may prove to be less significant builders of community than is everywhere else the case.

I have already written about alternative transportation, which connects Conshohocken along the river and would help to connect it as a community.  The questions involving open space and recreation are much broader, and require stepping back to review a basic issue first.  This issue tends to get lost among the news about this building, that property and a whole lot of money arriving.  Fortunately, it isn’t necessary for an outsider such as I to introduce it.   A post from the Facebook page “Conshohocken Real” has already laid it out:

        "Are we okay with taking the river away from the people?"  

The specific subject was O’Neill’s proposed almost-600 unit apartment complex, but the question is appropriate for the entire waterfront.  The old, dirty vestiges of an industrial past are almost gone.  Conshohocken’s riverfront is seeing—and will soon see more—new buildings, either residences or workplaces. As virtually the entire riverfront is being redeveloped, isn’t it at least theoretically possible for Borough Council to foster that development with the whole community in mind?  This would have been unthinkable in “the good old days,” but isn’t this a rare—almost unique—opportunity to visualize the new Conshohocken as an integrated, vibrant community and to take actions to ensure development proceeds along that route?

Time for a reality check.  First, “Conshohocken Real” phrased the issue in a rather populist manner, and as a historian I am compelled to point out that you cannot take something away from those who never possessed it in the first place, and “the people” of Conshohocken never possessed the riverfront.  Yes, a few did, due to our private property/free enterprise system, but they did not purchase it for either their own residence or the recreation of others.  By the time they had installed their railroads, furnaces, foundries and power looms, no one with any money wanted to either live or recreate along the river anyway, so the issue never really came up.

Second, Conshohocken has already had the opportunity to design and build a planned, integrated development of just a portion of the land being affected now, and it didn’t happen, largely (but not entirely) because of timing.  The Borough is now doing it the old fashioned way, parcel by parcel, with purpose and implementation under the control of each individual applicant who owns each parcel.  What is built where will have nothing to do with community needs, but will be strictly a function of the most profitable use of a particular piece of property.  Writ large, it’s “The American Way,” in an interpretation recently demonstrating political strength.  It has produced in Conshohocken where community planning failed, and it will continue to dictate both the product and the pace.

Thus the riverfront is again being carved up as private property because, in truth, it never ceased to be that.  Still, developers know that inclusion of terms like “open space,” “recreation,” and the like help to smooth the application process, so expressions of these terms are sprinkled among the buildings that appear in the conceptual drawings.  That’s why O’Neill’s current proposal for not quite 600 new apartments comes with a “boardwalk” and a dock.  I suspect that the details of both these concepts are still somewhat hazy.  A boardwalk could mean anything, and as a long-time resident along the river, I can assure you that a public dock without a nearby public boat ramp is pretty much just a site to fish from.

The larger question is not about the nature of the benefits themselves, but in who will have access to them.  A beautiful riverside view must be purchased (or rented), and individual companies will determine who gets the best view from their new office buildings.  As for recreation, the story is more complex.  Access will vary according to the activity, at least to some extent.  Consider that time-honored Pennsylvania sport, rowing.  A Borough-owned strip of riverfront land will house the “Conshohocken Rowing Center.”  The building itself is financed by the two schools whose rowing programs it will house, Malvern Prep and the Haverford School.  Those are pretty upscale, not to mention private, programs (okay, rowing is a pretty upscale sport), but a community rowing program is supposed to be included.  Sounds good for a limited number of people.  But how about more common, less specialized utilization of open space and recreational areas?  What other more broadly based recreational opportunities could be made available along the river, and what will it take to bring them about?

Then there is the question of broad community access to these benefits.  They will all be located in the lower valley.  How easy will it be for the residents up the hill to utilize them, meaning actually get to them?  How many wide, busy streets will they have to cross?  Will the new recreational benefits help to unite The New and The Old, or will they give The New a privilege by location, further dividing them?  The Conshohocken Rowing Center is a good idea, but it is also evidence that even outsiders can obtain access to the river by paying money.  Is money to be the operative factor?

Questions are easy to ask, particularly semi-rhetorical ones like those above.  When we begin to get into the issue of responsibility for actually achieving what we want--or failing to--we must simultaneously examine the restraints those in positions of responsibility must operate within.  That means the second point of my reality check above deserves greater scrutiny.  It will be all too easy to place blame incorrectly for what is probably going to happen.  So, I will conclude my blog series on Conshohocken next week by throwing the wet blanket of reality over the chances of obtaining the utopia I have spent the previous weeks promoting.  It's my way of balancing the books.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part IV: How To Be More Of An Exit AND More Of A Community

I have been sounding the alarm these past few weeks about the downside to what is happening near the Conshohocken exit of the Interstates in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  I have suggested that the Borough faces—right now—decisions that will determine its future, and have phrased that future as a choice: either a community, or just an exit off the Interstates.  Nothing is quite so simple, of course, and to give an example, I am going to clarify my stance on the all-important issue of transportation by making the apparently counterintuitive argument that Conshohocken can be more of a of a community if it becomes more of an exit.  This does not apply to the automobile; the choice it presents is both stark and clear, and is as I have expressed it.  The more that Conshohocken structures itself to accommodate the automobile the more it mortgages its future as a community.  It most definitely applies to what we today call “alternative transportation.”  Conshohocken is doubly blessed in this regard, and should work to take greater advantage of that fortuitous fact.  The Borough as a community can only benefit.

I have previously made the point that “A livable town is a walkable town.”  Today, walking counts as alternative transportation, along with bicycling and public transit.  This is but one of the many 180 degree turns that history has made along the Schuylkill River.  What had been the primary means of transportation during the glory days of the Schuylkill River towns has all but disappeared, but its remnants constitute the core of what we today call “alternative.”  In the old days, the railroad delivered everything, from raw materials into the towns and factories to finished products from them to the world.  Its lighter cousins, in turn, knit Conshohocken into a regional network.  They delivered the better off to their jobs during the week and all classes of workers to the countryside for recreation on the weekends.  The bicycle fad preceded the automobile fad, and even a few adventurous women joined in.  Still, when all is said and done, walking was the primary means of transportation for the vast majority of Conshohocken residents.  They walked to work, they walked to shop and they walked to visit friends in the neighborhood.  The result?  The proud, tightly-knit, community-centered population of Conshohocken, Pa.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  The rail era is over.  Light rail is gone, and isn’t coming back anytime soon.  But a survivor, the Norristown Regional Rail Line (I still want to call it the R6), still delivers people to and from the Borough.  This is a means of transportation to which Conshohocken should want to be even more of an exit than it is today.  Every new rider is one less driver congesting the roads.  I would like to think that a portion of The New coming to the Conshohockens to either live or to work will arrive and leave on it.  It’s a limited connection, but only Norristown has anything better, and it’s just upriver on the same Regional Rail Line that passes through Conshohocken.   

The railroad has also delivered to Conshohocken two other form of alternative transportation, albeit rather indirectly.  I speak of the old mainstay and one not nearly so old but experiencing quite a comeback, i.e., walking and bicycling.  Back in the old days, two railroads ran through Conshohocken.  The trackbed of the Reading is now the Norristown line, but that of the long-gone Pennsylvania Railroad now hosts The Schuylkill River Trail.  Conshohocken was an early beneficiary, and as the trail has been extended, improved and connected, the number of people employing “alternative transportation” through town has steadily increased.  Businesses that cater to trail users are beginning to find Conshohocken a potentially profitable location.  The current campaign to bring a bicycle shop to the Borough is an early sign of what will happen.

The New that will reside along the riverbank will find the Schuylkill Valley Trail to be convenient, perhaps even enticing, as they are expected to be a younger demographic.  Few will likely use it to commute to and from work, but weekends will be another story.  Those who reside elsewhere and utilize the Trail (not all of whom ride bicycles) will likely find Conshohocken attractive, if just for a brief refreshment stop.  The Borough’s scenic location will draw a great many people who will not arrive in motor vehicles.  That’s all good; for them, and for the town.

In marked contrast to my previous comments about an becoming an exit for automobiles, Conshohocken’s future as an exit on alternative transportation should actually be encouraged, for the general good of all.  Whether you are riding on the train or moving yourself along the Trail, you are not contributing to traffic congestion, oil prices and environmental degradation, to name but three of many bad things.  The latter two may be somewhat ephemeral for Conshohocken residents, but the first is emphatically real, and getting worse.  Thus, the more who employ “alternative transportation” (this phrase sounds so strange to a historian) to or from their residences on weekdays or weekends, the better.

But there is much more to the story, and additional reasons for promoting these old-but-back-to-being-popular means of getting around.  “Alternative transportation” is also closely associated with improving urban livability.  If anything should be obvious from a study of American history, this should be.  Communities actually existed back when today’s alternative means of getting around was the primary one.  It follows that while becoming more of an exit for alternative transportation will be a good thing, promoting alternative transportation within the Borough will be even better.  It will be great to have riverfront businesses and residents benefitting from those who come and go, but it will be even better if Borough residents find it easy to get around town, and the riverfront benefits are shared. 

Let’s be realistic, of course.  Old railroad trackbeds are perfect sites for bike and walking paths because trains could only surmount low grades.  Much the same is true of the new users.  Much of Conshohocken, in considerable contrast, sits on a steep hillside.  Still, a great deal can be done for the area in which a considerable portion of the population are coming to reside, and decisions concerning roads in that area should take into account the transit needs of the residents of the whole town.  This is where transportation becomes subsumed into a larger issue, that of community access to the riverfront.  That issue most definitely needs to be addressed and I will do so in my next post.

But for now, let’s accept two concepts: First, it will be a good thing if the new Conshohocken becomes as much an exit off the Schuylkill River Trail as it is off two Interstate highways.  Second, it will be an even better thing if the new Conshohocken is structured to allow some old-fashioned ideas to demonstrate their current relevance.  The first is going to happen regardless.  The second will require action by the Borough Council, supported by the population, because it will be opposed by the developers.  That makes it much less likely to happen.

Conshohocken can only benefit by becoming friendlier to its readily available means of alternative transportation.  It would be not just ironic but tragic if the community-building aspects of alternative transportation are shortchanged.  If it only become much easier to leave or enter Conshohocken on foot or by bicycle than to get to other parts of town, then the full benefits of alternative transportation will not be realized.  The age of the automobile and the Internet works against the human instinct for community.  An emphasis on "alternative transportation" is a proven antidote to these decentralizing forces because it promotes both inter-personal and intra-community connections.  Building both is essential if the new Conshohocken wants to call itself what the old Conshohocken certainly could: A COMMUNITY.