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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A New Year, An Old Issue

    As a historian, I cannot resist the opportunity to begin the new year with an old issue, particularly when it reminds me why I decided to title my blogs “The More Things Change…” and “…The More They Stay The Same.”  My opportunity derives from an editorial in the December 9 edition of the Times Herald, which was entitled “Norristown’s DeKalb Street Should be two-way.”  I agree, and can base my support at a more fundamental level than the boost to local commerce the change would bring, although I also agree with that.  One-way on DeKalb Street is but one physical example of something continuing to exist long after the reason for that something has ceased to exist.  Our physical—and even more, our political—landscape is littered with such specimens (and you haven’t heard the last from me on this subject).  For DeKalb Street, those reasons have not so much ceased to exist as they have changed 180 degrees.  Might that also be the situation where you live?
     One-way on DeKalb Street is a legacy of a very different time: before the suburbs, before the Interstates, when our smaller downtowns were the cores of robust economic and social activity.  The local conditions that led to the one-way have not only changed, they have virtually reversed themselves.  One-way on DeKalb Street survives as a solution that no longer has a problem, and by its continuation creates its own problem, as an obstacle to Norristown’s revival. 
     While many in Montgomery County may be aware this situation, few probably realize how old the issue is.  Norristown Borough Council formally made DeKalb Street one-way northbound—and Markley Street one-way southbound—in November, 1952.  I’ll also bet that most of you reading this probably do not know (unless you have read my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street to the Malls), that the change to DeKalb Street was supposed to be only the first step of a plan approved a month earlier.  The second step would have made Main Street one-way eastbound and Lafayette Street one-way westbound.  That portion of the plan was not implemented until 1964 (and Airy Street became the one-way westbound).  Those who remember the 1964 change to Main Street rarely link it to the 1952 change to DeKalb Street, but both were parts of what was initially labeled “The Comprehensive Plan.”
     Norristown’s leaders were not the only ones who believed that the situation demanded a “comprehensive plan”; so did the Commonwealth’s Department of Transportation, and behind them the Federal Government.  The pressure they exerted was ultimately greater than that of Norristown’s local business establishment, which is saying something at this period in local history.  The problem was traffic congestion (and parking, the flip side of the issue), brought on by the physical interaction of two groups of people: those who were trying to get to downtown Norristown to shop, and those who were just passing through.  Both were numerous then, for reasons that no longer apply. 

     Let’s quickly review “the good old days”:  shoppers in the late 1940s flocked to downtown Norristown, as their predecessors had for almost a century, and they did so on the very same roads as had their predecessors: Ridge Pike (the old “Road to Egypt”), which was Main Street within the borough, and DeKalb Pike (the not-quite-as-old “State Road”), which was, of course, DeKalb Street within the borough.  By this time, however, they were arriving in automobiles.  So also were those borough residents who now owned a car, and had no desire to walk downtown as their predecessors had.  Downtown now had to deal with them both.  The roads into Norristown, as well as the streets within, had been periodically upgraded, and the borough had modified its main streets to the limits a downtown designed for the horse and buggy era allowed.  Norristown had earlier changed its parking layout from diagonal to parallel, to both widen the streets and end drivers having to back out against the flow of traffic.  Many things were tried, but the changeover to automobiles was placing an intolerable strain on both the old roads to Norristown and the streets within; their intersection at the core of old downtown was the vortex of a congestion issue that already exceeded borough boundaries, because the shoppers in their cars were not alone.
     Main Street was at that time the route of U.S. Route 422, the U.S. “shield” designation given to that road which had traditionally led from Philadelphia to its northwest (and has been during its life both Ridge and Germantown Pikes).  DeKalb Street was then the route of U.S. Route 202.  This is important, because in this time before the Interstate Highway System, U.S. Rt. 202 was the primary road to New York City for anyone who found himself west of Philadelphia.  This included a substantial number of trucks.  Thus Norristown Borough set up a truck weigh station on lower DeKalb Street just beyond the bridge, but never anywhere along Main Street.  The trucks then traversing DeKalb Street heavily and Main Street rather less so weren’t the behemoths of today, but they were more than adequately sized to cause problems, particularly when they were added to the considerable number of automobiles on the same streets in search of parking.
     This was an intolerable situation, and was soon to be made worse, as the eastern extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was due to arrive at its new terminus in 1950.  Lacking any large connecting roads (the Schuylkill Expressway was underway, but well behind schedule), all involved foresaw a huge addition to the number of trucks exiting the Turnpike and heading for New York, which meant on DeKalb Street right through the middle of Norristown.  Bureaucracy being what it always has been, the one-way change was not enacted until two years after the Turnpike had arrived in the sleepy countryside of King of Prussia, and only half enacted at that.  That’s because those involved at the local level were acutely aware of what needed to be sacrificed if through traffic was to be expedited.  That sacrifice was downtown. 
     Norristown, like so many other urban communities during the triumph of the automobile, was faced with a fundamental dilemma: whether to give priority to getting traffic through town as easily as possible, or to helping people access local stores.  At issue here, along with traffic direction, was the issue of curbside parking.  This complicated the issue in a major way, but also allowed what could be pitched as a compromise: make Norristown’s two primary streets one-way, but retain curbside parking for local businesses.  Expediting traffic won the day, but not as much as some state and federal level planners had wished.  DeKalb Street came to represent this compromise, while the importance of Main Street merchants kept things as they had been, at least for a while; but it too eventually became part of the “Comprehensive Plan.”

    But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  The shoppers have almost disappeared, as have the stores they were seeking out.  The traffic passing through is not only less, it is completely different.  Large trucks now have much quicker ways to get to New York, or pretty much anywhere else, routes that do not involve passing through Norristown.  The considerably fewer people who still drive to downtown encounter equally fewer drivers on DeKalb Street that are just passing through, and these are far more likely to be people driving cars (okay, maybe SUVs) between their jobs in King of Prussia and their homes in the nearby townships than drivers of large trucks.  One-way on Main Street was eliminated some time ago.  DeKalb Street is no longer U.S. 202 (at least technically, as frequent users have learned to adapt), yet it remains one-way.
     Why?  The Times Herald editorial was spot-on about DeKalb’s traffic pattern putting a damper on local commerce.  The stores already on DeKalb would benefit, and the change would likely assist the arrival of new ones.  There may be ramifications to such a change from an area-wide perspective (and, if so, they deserve further study), but it is difficult to point to any one obvious reason why the change back to two-way should not happen.  People and organizations should get behind this movement for change.

     One final thought:  the family-owned Meyers Drug Store on DeKalb Street has been witness to all of this, from the traffic jams born of a temporary prosperity to having to buzz in customers individually for security reasons.  Wouldn’t it be appropriate if this street survivor could also see the return of a downtown packed with shoppers?  One-way on DeKalb would help make it so.