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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, March 28, 2014

Poor Bridgeport, So Close To …?

     The people of Mexico have long had a saying that encapsulates their country’s history: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”  I would borrow that approach when speaking of the history of Bridgeport, Pa.  I have no idea as to any theological distance for either Mexico or Bridgeport, but just as Mexico’s history has been heavily influenced by its proximity to the United States, so has Bridgeport’s history been influenced by its proximity to Norristown.  Such geographic closeness has not served Mexico well, nor has the local version been a good thing for Bridgeport.

     Bridgeport became a self-governing borough in 1851; by that date Norristown had been a borough for thirty-nine years, and the seat of Montgomery County for sixty-eight years.  That gave it not only a head start, but also an insurmountable edge over its neighbor across the Schuylkill.  Norristown spurned the Schuylkill Navigation request to build on its bank of the river, so the company built a canal section along the floodplain of what would become the borough of Bridgeport.  The Schuylkill Navigation would contribute half of Bridgeport’s name, but little else.  By considerable contrast, the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad’s arrival in 1835 would begin Norristown’s rapid ascent as a community.

     Bridgeport was not very far behind in establishing its own railroad connection, but the chronological comparison does not reflect the reality of the situation.  The Reading Railroad built its line down the Schuylkill’s right bank, and opened service between Reading and Philadelphia—and thus Bridgeport—in 1839.  Unfortunately for Bridgeport, however, the Reading’s sole focus was on moving coal, not people.  The P.G. & N. to Norristown was a “general cargo” line, and that cargo included people from the very beginning.  Even after the Reading leased the line in 1870 it largely continued the general cargo practice.  On the Reading’s own line people were hardly even considered at first, and servicing them was initially sub-contracted.  Transportation of people never assumed any degree of priority along this line; many Bridgeport residents desiring to travel found that a walk across the DeKalb Street bridge brought them a much more congenial treatment.

     The most serious problems from the nearby presence of Norristown fell on the fundamental institutions any growing community must establish.  Those of both self-government and policing could be underwritten by even a slowly growing population, given the low expectations of the time.  Bridgeport was thus able to establish and maintain the modest level of local government characteristic of the times.  Those private institutions around which an actual community arises and shapes itself, however, proved more difficult to establish.  The local volunteer fire companies are an excellent example.  Bridgeport experienced in full perhaps the most common event to strike the Schuylkill River towns during their industrial heyday: fire.  Pretty much lacking revenue from commerce and, unlike Norristown, obtaining none from the presence of government, Bridgeport lagged badly in establishing a volunteer fire department.  The borough depended on Norristown fire companies for the first forty years of its existence, and beyond that, in truth.  This arrangement pleased no one.  Norristown companies rotated the responsibility for calls from Bridgeport, which caused no little ill will, and occasional claims of failure to respond.  The borough’s first volunteer fire company came into formal existence in 1891.  The volunteer spirit was there from the beginning, but several years passed before it obtained enough equipment to be an effective presence, thus requiring continued assistance from Norristown.  The Goodwill Fire Company, the borough’s second, came into formal existence in 1915, and it too required some years to achieve usefulness. 

     No newspaper ever established itself in Bridgeport and survived for more than a few years.  Bridgeport’s only trolley line was a spur of the Norristown Passenger Railway Company until the Philadelphia and Western Railway built the high bridge across the Schuylkill.  The P&W’s goal was Norristown; Bridgeport received only a stop on the line, which was later closed.

     Perhaps the heaviest, and easily the most obvious, of the many baneful effects  Norristown’s presence inflicted on Bridgeport was that imposed on the borough’s commercial district.  Norristown’s head start was never made up; its commercial sector had become the shopping location of choice for a wide swath of Montgomery County by the time Bridgeport came into existence, by which time the residents of the new borough had already been long-time customers of Main Street, Norristown, for anything more than the necessities of daily life.  The major economic reason to establish a business in Bridgeport was the toll for crossing the DeKalb Street Bridge; it allowed the establishment of small businesses providing items a family needed on a daily basis.  After the bridge was freed in 1884, even those were threatened. 

     A business directory published jointly for Norristown and Bridgeport in 1912 (the year of Norristown’s centennial as a borough) demonstrates the commercial dominance that the larger borough exercised during the “golden years” of both communities.  Every category listed stores in Norristown, but few listed any in Bridgeport.  Among the facts it revealed was that while Norristown possessed thirteen stores selling “Dry and Fancy Goods,” Bridgeport possessed none.  Norristown boasted twelve Furniture Stores, but there were none in Bridgeport.  And the list goes on; category after category lists stores in Norristown, but none in Bridgeport.  The only category that comes as no surprise is that of Lawyers; none had hung out their shingles in Bridgeport, but sixty-nine had done so in Norristown.  It was the county seat, after all.

     Any numerical summation comparing the respective business centers of the two towns would also not reflect how many Bridgeport commercial firms were actually branches of the original Norristown store.  Two prominent examples were Spillane's Five and Ten Cent Store and Daub Hardware.  Both locations of both stores would close, as commercial collapse enveloped both boroughs.

     But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  Simply put, it is doubtful that Norristown still exerts sway of any sort over Bridgeport.  It still possesses the superior transit connections it always has, although considerably diminished in both number and variety.  Little else in Norristown would deter Bridgeport from establishing anything that could be supported by a population of the borough’s size.

     But what should those things be, in this time of stagnation for most of the towns along the Schuylkill River?  Industry has pretty much gone, and it’s not coming back, at least in a size sufficient to employ more than a fraction of the borough’s residents.  A commercial resurgence is even more unlikely, because for Bridgeport, the burden of nearness to a larger, more prosperous neighbor has merely shifted from north of the borough to south of it.  Bridgeport is now “so close to King of Prussia,” that any plans for commercial resurgence should be given a very close reading.

     Let’s examine Bridgeport’s situation through a broad historical lens.  In the early 21st century, Bridgeport is enduring, as are countless small, traditional urban areas, the complete reversal of the conditions that led to its birth, growth and prosperity in the 19th century.  The residents of Bridgeport, as with those of each Schuylkill River town, found work, religion, information and entertainment, the whole package but for big-ticket items, within the boundaries of their respective communities.  As a result, each town along the Schuylkill River has historically been inwardly-focused.  The vast majority of residents not only worked within the borough, they walked to work, to church and to the store.  Bridgeport’s residents were no doubt patrons of commercial entertainment across the river, as Norristown possessed several such venues, but as with every river town, Bridgeport’s entertainment centered on the community’s churches.

     Not only have those things changed, most of them have changed a full 180 degrees.  At the dawn of the 21st century, what percentage of Bridgeport residents work in the borough?  How many walk to work, to shop, or even to church?  In this information age, do they even socialize in large groups at all?  Most significantly, the looming presence of Norristown is no longer a factor, because Norristown no longer looms.  Bridgeport is now, for the first time in its existence, free to pursue its future without significant reference to Norristown, and certainly no deference.  Bridgeport has a past as a quiet, unassuming, modestly-sized and locally-oriented community, but that past is no longer a guide for the future.

     For Bridgeport, the fundamental physical facts remain: it's a small urban area on a hillside with decent, if not exactly adjacent, transportation connections.  The housing stock is old, but there are several vacant lots and even areas.  The railroad remains a presence, but not a stimulus, and the western end of town will probably remain under the shadow of the SEPTA Route 100 trolley for some time.  Little else about the past need shape Bridgeport's future.  The borough's population, and pretty much that alone, holds Bridgeport's fate in its hands.  They should take advantage of the opportunity.