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

Gloria Steinem

Saturday, February 22, 2014

It’s About the Benjamins, Remember? (Fifth in a Series)

     So far, we have identified a significant psychological motive for people to leave our urban areas after the Second World War as well as several Federally-funded financial incentives that enabled them to do just that.  As these two forces interacted, America began a shift to a suburban culture, first homes, then shopping centers and then the jobs themselves.

    There is a great deal to the story of how thing changed in our urban areas, and a much has been written on the subject.  The vast majority of the histories that trace the rise of the suburbs at the expense of cities and towns are organized along racial and/or ethnic lines.  This approach does well presenting what happened because it employs common, familiar groupings.  However, it is susceptible to misuse by those who are predetermined to view race or ethnicity as causal factors.  Such a discourse can be used (and often has been) to perpetuate division and discord.

    I’ll have more to say on the subjects of race and ethnicity (trust me), but I am asking you to view what happened through a different prism.  I won’t be avoiding race or ethnicity, but will consistently suggest a different form of analysis, one that is much better if your goal is not just to understand what happened, but why it happened.  If you have been reading my posts, you probably already suspect how I am going to approach the subject.  It’s about the Benjamins, remember?

    Here’s some evidence to introduce my treatment of this controversial topic:

    In 1962, the University of Pennsylvania published in book form The Norristown Study, selected academic research articles together with an editorial overview of Norristown history between 1900 and 1950. An interdisciplinary graduate school research project had blanketed the borough, researching its documents and interviewing its residents.  The project produced several Ph.D. dissertations, some of which were abstracted in the book.  The project’s supervisor also offered general conclusions to tie the papers of the study together.  One of those conclusions was that, by 1950, virtually all of Norristown’s business and social leadership had already moved out of town, so many that, as the study proclaimed, “Norristown proper lacks a resident upper class.”

     Two quick observations to begin the process of avoiding simplistic stereotypes:

   First, they did not leave for the new automobile suburbs (in 1950, Levitt’s company had not yet purchased the land for its Pennsylvania Levittown).  They had been the owners of the DeKalb Street mansions and the fine houses of the upper north and west ends.  They were not about to move to anything new and prefabricated.  Those that moved to the suburbs more than likely moved to those on the Main Line, an address much longer established and far more valuable.  They also appear to have begun this move well before the Second World War.

     Second, they did not leave because black people were moving into their neighborhood.  Black people had lived in their neighborhood for generations, as their servants, occupying the shacks in the alleys behind their upper DeKalb and western Main Street mansions.  They certainly hadn’t bought any of the fine houses the “resident upper class” had abandoned.

    This amply established fact suggests another way to view those who left the urban areas, one that gets beyond motives.  To seek solely the motives for why people moved is to miss a significant point.  While there are a great many different reasons as to why these people left, once we move beyond individual motives, we can focus on the one thing they all had in common: they left because they could afford to.  The best off left the earliest, to the most prestigious destinations.  The loss of Norristown’s “resident upper class” testifies to this.  The less well off followed, to the less expensive Levitt-inspired suburbs, once they could afford to.

     If that’s what happened in Norristown, what about in your community?  It’s quite unlikely that Norristown was an isolated case, so here’s a subject worth researching about your town.  Had your town’s “resident upper class” also left by 1950?  Remember, we are not talking about closing their well-known business or even their professional office, just whether they had moved their residence.  And 1950 is by no means a cutoff date when we are speaking of net financial loss to your town.  It’s a subject community historians would do well to look into.

     Here’s my point:  if you are going to judge the effect of population exchange on an urban area, use a financial calculation.  Establish a sliding scale: at one end, place people who contribute the most, while requiring the fewest services; at the other, those who make no contribution to the community and who require the most services.  Rank those who left and those who arrived along this scale.  Did the exchange result in a net benefit or a net loss to your community?  This is the truly important question.  Using the example from The Norristown Study, the borough’s “resident upper class” contributed much (including civic positions at no salary), but required few services.  Those who replaced them prior to 1950 cannot possibly have ranked as high, regardless of ethnicity, race or occupation.  In other words, this exchange of net value to the community began in the negative.  The ratio would only get steadily worse in the following decades, but by 1950, the exchange had already removed those who would have rated the highest on any scale of contributions made vs. services required.  If you judge the post-World War II history of our urban communities by this scale, race and ethnicity remain informative, but cease to provide by themselves any explanation for what happened.  It’s about the Benjamins; it always has been.

     Once we accept that people left our urban areas as they could afford to, then we can apply the same analysis to those who replaced them.  This will bring us up smack dab against perhaps the most pervasive--and pernicious--myth of recent American urban history.  I'll begin to tackle that whopper when this series resumes.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Did They Build The "Pottstown Expressway"?

     Last week I recounted how the completion of a limited-access highway between the Schuylkill River and Pottstown symbolized the shift in wealth and power from Philadelphia to the suburbs.  While not quite the last link in the bypassing of Philadelphia (the final section of I-476, the “Blue Route,” had not yet opened), the re-routing of U.S. 422 to King of Prussia would contribute further to the decline of the city.  It also provides insight into the process by which our super highways were designed and built.

     Hopes for a modern highway to connect King of Prussia and Pottstown date back a long way; the thought had probably occurred to everyone who had travelled along Germantown Pike the entire distance, from town to town and stop light to stop light, for the several decades it provided the best route available.  The real push began, however, after the Schuylkill Expressway appeared on the scene.  Not just Pottstown, but the communities between it and King of Prussia, began to express official hope that the Expressway could be “extended” to the northwest.  That didn’t happen, and no concrete plan (pun intended) emerged before the public backlash to Interstate Construction gathered force.  Financing became tighter, and construction of the system largely ground to a halt before the last portions of the grand plan had been implemented.  The lower section of what was to become U.S. Route #422 became caught up in the extremely complicated maneuvering that followed.

      Thus was born the pitch to build the "Pottstown Expressway”.  The construction of a limited-access highway to replace Germantown Pike was sold to the public largely for its benefit to the long-distressed borough of Pottstown, with the new Rt. 422 cast in the role of lifeline.  Of course, connecting anyone or anything to Pottstown was not the road’s true purpose, although that would have been an appreciated side benefit.  This substantial stretch of highway was constructed to foster development in what was then still largely rural land west of the then-existing Rt. 422 on Germantown Pike.  This was “undeveloped” land, with a few ancient roads crossing it.  The intersections of these roads and the new highway would create prime commercial space, while the rolling fields close to those intersections would be perfect locations for housing developments.  Thus, in obedience to the real estate dictum about location, location and location, exactly where the new highway would be built became quite important.
     Mind you, none of this was new, in any way.  There is always a web of influence, both financial and political, around selecting the exact path of a road, and there always has been.  A thorough study of the influences contending over this project would produce some interesting revelations, and not just about how the prime commercial locations came to be.  Close to the road’s southern end, for example, it takes a very roundabout—and thus expensive—path to avoid an estate known as “Fatland” that has been around since colonial times.  Whether this was due to concern for historic preservation or because the estate’s owner was Peter J. Camiel, who was chairman of both the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Philadelphia Democratic Party at the time, is officially uncertain.

     By the way, the “Pottstown Expressway” does not actually connect to Pottstown itself, but to another limited access highway, the “Pottstown Bypass” that is technically part of the same highway, Rt. 422.  This bypass at the highway’s northern end and the high bridge over the Schuylkill at its southern end were built first, both completed by 1967 (a portion of the Schuylkill Bridge opened earlier, due to a local traffic crisis).  The short term effect was to give drivers an easy way to avoid Pottstown altogether, while teasing drivers in King of Prussia with the vista of a promised future while they were being shuttled off onto a distinctly local road, Pa. Rt. 363.  The 13-mile gap between the two was subject to numerous delays, for a multitude of reasons.  An intermediate section opened in 1978, but the Pottstown Expressway did not open from end to end until 1985.  The total cost of the highway by that time had reached  $102 million.

     The 20-year delay in the road’s construction made all the difference.  Some investors had speculated early, but after the exact route of the road was known (not to be confused with “publicly known”) the jockeying for property and financing really began.  The spasmodic appearance of the road’s sections then proceeded to play hell with even these calculations, reminding all involved that while location, location and location are important, timing is, in fact, everything.  Thus, while the eventual profit from development along the new route was basically guaranteed, the vagaries of the financial and real estate sectors served to enrich some but not others, largely according to their timing.

     Once the new highway was fully opened between King of Prussia, and christened U.S. Route 422, development did indeed take off.  It has included pharmaceutical laboratories, churches and schools, in addition to the guaranteed housing developments and shopping centers.  “Development” extends along service roads parallel to Rt. 422, and for short distances along each of the roads that intersect it, as everyone could have predicted

     But what about Pottstown?  What has been the road’s effect on it?  The most obvious physical result has been the Hanover Square Town Homes, at the foot of the old industrial district.  One hopes that its residents contribute to downtown Pottstown (an easy walking distance) in their off-hours, because few will probably work there.  The company’s sales pitch on its website features this statement:  “Hanover Square lies just off Route 422 and the Route 202 corridor [this last is something of a stretch], offering easy access to Philadelphia, 35 miles to the Southeast, and Reading, 20 miles to the northwest.”  Clearly, the emphasis is not local.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a step forward for the borough, which could use an influx of people who can afford such housing.
     Has U.S. Route 422 brought other measurable benefits to Pottstown?  I’d like to hear more from local residents on this point.

     While how much benefit the new Rt. 422 has been to Pottstown is debatable, there is no question as to its effect on all that undeveloped land along its path.  In the final analysis the new road did exactly what it was intended to do:  earn a great deal of money for those businessmen whose good political connections allowed them to purchase land in the right place at the right time, along with those politicians with good business connections.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What’s In a Number? The Route of U.S. Route 422

     Back in 1985, the U.S. Department of Transportation changed the route one of its “shield” highways, U.S. 422.  Actually, it changed only a portion of one section of the route, at its eastern terminus.  This was by no means the first such change; Route 422 had seen changes in designation several times before.  People took notice, adjusted and then went on about their business.  The opening of the final segment of the “Pottstown Expressway” occasioned the change, and in turn became part of the new route of Route 422.  The opening of this long-anticipated highway was a most welcome event, but almost totally overlooked in the celebration was the enormous symbolism behind this simple act.

     An early historian of the Philadelphia area named John Faris described the main roads out of the city as being “fan-shaped.”  They exited the city and proceeded out along the compass points from north to south (except east, of course).  Two of the earliest roads to fan out from Philadelphia to its northwest were Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike; their origins date back to the 18th century.  The former first connected a much smaller Philadelphia to Germantown, and then gradually beyond.  The latter was built out of Philadelphia following roughly the “ridge” of the Schuylkill River’s left bank, also in fits and starts.  As settlement spread to the northwest, so did these two roads, until they came together to cross the Perkiomen Creek at Collegeville.  From there one road continued on as Germantown Pike to Pottstown, gradually extending the area of Southeast Pennsylvania that could access Philadelphia.  The railroads would do the heavy lifting, but the lifeblood of local commerce flowed between Philadelphia and its northwestern environs along Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike.  They would remain the main roads in Southeastern Pennsylvania for people to access Philadelphia until the 1960s.   The opening of the Schuylkill Expressway would begin their demise as the area’s main roads, and hasten the decline of Philadelphia itself.  The culmination of this process was the rerouting of U.S. Route 422.

     Both Germantown and Ridge Pikes never needed any validation of their importance in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but the U.S. Government provided one anyway when it established the first national highway system in 1926-27.  In every region of the country, engineers (and politicians) examined the local roads, and selected from them the main ones, the ones that connected major towns and carried the most traffic.  These were awarded the “shield” designation as a U.S. highway, according to an overall numbering system.   The road connection between Philadelphia and its northwest was designated U.S. Route 422 in 1927 (Route 422 is actually much longer, but a very complicated story). 

     Over the succeeding decades, substantial changes in the highway’s actual route took place.  To greatly simplify, the shield designation was applied to both Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike for the section between Collegeville and Philadelphia at different times, while largely continuing on Germantown Pike from there.   These changes included the highway’s terminus in Philadelphia itself, which moved eastward in stages to the Delaware River.

     The designation of these local highways as a U.S. Route was more than symbolic.  They became broader lines on local road maps, encouraging travel on them, commercial development adjacent to them and residential construction nearby.  All spread population and commerce along them prior to World War II.  This meant that by war’s end, while both Pikes continued to be the primary access roads to Philadelphia, local traffic on them had greatly increased.

     The explosive population growth outside of Philadelphia after the war was initially dependent on these Pikes and their counterparts along other points of the compass, with predictable results: traffic congestion.  Strip shopping centers appeared along their paths; their intersections with the more significant local roads across their paths sprouted small to medium-size shopping centers.

     Then came the era of limited-access highways.  Such a highway made its first appearance northwest of Philadelphia in 1950, with the arrival of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Eastern Extension in the quiet farmland of Upper Merion Township, known (only locally, then) as King of Prussia.  It stopped there only briefly before proceeding to the Delaware River.  Not long afterward came the start of a Northeast Extension.  Philadelphia reached out to this new highway via the Schuylkill Expressway; a fundamental motivation (although by no means the only one) for the road’s construction was to lure traffic from the Turnpike to the city.  Roads work their will in both directions, however, and it wasn’t too long before people realized that the net value was heading out of Philadelphia, not into it.

     An entirely new U.S. 422 between Philadelphia and Pottstown was a late entry in the road-building sweepstakes of the period.  That to a degree accounts for its prolonged, section-by-section construction over a period of twenty years.  The first flush of Interstate road-building had passed, while opposition to these highways had risen, as had their costs.  The story of this route is a fascinating one, and I shall continue on with it in my next post.  For now, however, I will jump ahead to the date of its conclusion: 1985.  This new section of highway, built to interstate highways standards, became the new route of U.S. Route 422.

     Remember how I mentioned above that the terminus of U.S. Route 422 had changed over the years?  It did so again in 1985, in a big way.  Its previous relocations had moved it steadily eastward within Philadelphia, until it reached the New Jersey border.  This time, however, the terminus of U.S. Route 422 was not only moved to the west, it was removed from Philadelphia altogether.  It now ends at its intersection with U.S. Route 202, in King of Prussia.  You can still get to Philadelphia, but you have to take two additional roads (at least) to actually get there.

     By 1985, what had happened to Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike had happened to the other main roads that had always connected Philadelphia to its environs.  U.S. Routes 1 and 30 still entered the city, but they had become local roads, despite considerable upgrading.  The new main roads were the Interstate highways, and of them only I-95 actually entered Philadelphia, and by that date a bypass—I-476—was well underway.  Not an Interstate, but built to Interstate standards, U.S. Route 422 was merely joining the new main roads that direct traffic to the new regional economic and social hub of Southeastern Pennsylvania: King of Prussia. 

     The symbolism is obvious, for it describes not just changes in a region’s main roads, but of the region itself.  For fifty-nine years, U.S. Route 422 had connected Philadelphia to the wide swath of land—and its people—to its northwest.  The actual roads which bore the U.S. Route designation had served that same purpose for over two centuries.  A numerical change in 1985 symbolized the much greater change that had taken place:  for some two hundred fifty years, from the early Colonial period to 1985, the main roads in Southeastern Pennsylvania converged on Philadelphia.  Now they converge on King of Prussia.
     For Southeastern Pennsylvania that pretty much sums up the last half of the 20th century, doesn't it?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

To the Crabgrass Frontier (Fourth in a Series)

My previous post in this series concluded with an introduction to the population changes our urban areas underwent with the advent of the automobile suburbs.  Between 1945 and 1980 our urban areas, large and small, suffered a general population decline.  But the raw numbers tell only part of the story, and not the important part by any means.
      To understand what really happened, we must learn the answers two questions:

* Who left our urban areas and why?

* Who took their place, and why?

     These two questions and their answers are interrelated, because they influenced each other.  Let’s begin with the first question, and pick up where we left off in discussing the immediate post-war period. 

     Last time I focused on how the Federal Government provided considerable financial incentives to both buyers and builders for the migration to the suburbs, for the best of reasons.  But financial incentives alone cannot fully explain the national phenomenon that resulted.  

      The young veterans who bought those Cape Cods on a concrete slab could have purchased a home in an urban area, if enough had become available.  Part of the reason they didn’t was because few new homes were built in our urban areas, given the profitability of mass-produced suburbs.   So far, so good, but insufficient housing supply might explain why our towns and cities did not increase in population, but certainly not why the population declined or changed in composition. To begin to understand, we need to go back in time to a very different era, and suspend some of our current thinking.

     Part of the reason for the first phase of this movement was psychological, and could not have been overcome by any actions of urban advocates.  A social factor was at work.  It’s hard to quantify, but necessary to understand.  It was basically a component of what was known as “pent up demand”.  People had done without for a very long time, had won the war and now felt determined to live a new life, as different as possible from what they had grown up around.  The overwhelming majority of the people we are discussing, whether veterans and their wives or factory workers and their wives, had grown up in the Depression.  Whether they had lived on a farm, in a small town, a mid-sized borough or a large city, that experience had quite likely not been pleasant.  After a childhood of economic sacrifice followed by a war of human sacrifice, our young men came home to face…a housing shortage.  Little residential construction had taken place during the Depression (and even less maintenance), and the newly-returned veterans often found themselves living again with their relatives in old, shabby buildings, or with their new families in temporary pre-fab trailers while pursuing their government-subsidized college degrees.  The experience did not dispose them toward urban living, or in places very close to other people.

     Our urban areas never had much of a chance with these people; their memories and the times directed them to the suburbs.  The vast majority had not owned a home before the war; they were “first-time buyers.” They moved back in with Mom and Dad or into trailers or cheap pre-fab quarters to get their G.I. Bill education benefits, and when they graduated the new housing in the new suburbs had begun to be available in large numbers.  So they left.  Some did return, of course.  These of them came back to their long-time family homes and resumed their previous jobs or even their place in the family business.  They would provide the leadership—and the followership—for our urban areas in the hard times ahead.  But too many didn’t want to go back, and armed with a college education and a mortgage guarantee, courtesy of the federal government, they didn’t have to. 

     But the returned veterans weren’t the only ones in the first phase of this movement who were entranced by the possibility of experiencing something new, something different from how their lives had been so far.  That’s part of the psychology we need to understand, and it applied to a lot of people.   Life in a new community seemed attractive for many, particularly somewhere else than where they had been living.  After decades of depression and war, the urge to do something different, go somewhere different, spanned generations and geography.  Some moved to new homes, and some just hit the road, to travel…

See the USA in your Chevrolet,
America’s asking you to call,
Drive the USA in your Chevrolet,
America’s the greatest land of all”

     Madison Avenue picked up on this mood very quickly, and proceeded to add its contribution, which was beyond substantial.   Moving to the suburbs became the thing to do because, well, everyone was doing it; everybody said so.  That message, in many forms, first legitimized then popularized the move to the periphery.  Sensing a mass movement, popular culture coalesced to make the move seem like a continuation of America’s frontier heritage, this time to the “Crabgrass Frontier,” in the words of historian Kenneth Jackson.  Pundits invoked our “frontier heritage,” our supposed need to keep moving in search of a better life.  The frontier was a central image in the American psyche during this time; we had fallen in love with the myth of the cowboy not long after his lifestyle had disappeared, and continued to show the depth of our interest by the size of our financial commitment, from dime novels to cowboy movies.  The TV era was taking shape, and cowboys would dominate its early decades.  It all seemed to come together; everyone pitched in to sell the image, particularly those pitching something more physical to sell.

     The reality, of course, was rather different.  Forty acres and a mule had been the goal of frontier homesteaders; for this new version it was one eighth-acre and an automobile.  That eighth-acre still needed to be cultivated, but the goal was lush green grass, not a crop, and an eighth-acre is a damn sight easier to tend than forty.  On the other hand, frontier homesteaders staked out their claims on good arable land; their descendants found their land stripped of topsoil, which had been sold, and of trees, because they got in the way of mass production.  Not to mention the fact that the journey to this new frontier (before the term was formally adopted by the Kennedy Administration) was a daily one, which the automobile had made not only possible, but also faster and much more comfortable.

     But Madison Avenue—and, indeed, American popular culture—is not about reality, but about dreams.  The dream lived on, and people continued to buy into it.  The result was a movement—usually in the form of families—from the cities to the new automobile suburbs.  This movement took place in numbers large enough to earn the term “migration”.  The motives for this migration, and the urban population turnover it brought about, were mixed from the beginning.  They also changed considerably over time.  We will give that change in motive further scrutiny.

Next time: An overlooked point about who left on this migration and why.