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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Discreet Charm of the Twin Boroughs

Many adjectives are being employed to describe the state of the towns along the lower Schuylkill River; I have yet to encounter “charming.”  That’s a shame, but quite understandable.  Norristown and Pottstown, the larger towns—with the larger problems—get the most attention, mostly negative, the kind that makes news.  Phoenixville, by considerable contrast, is a “happening” town, as are the Conshohockens, although what is happening there is fundamentally different.  The smaller ones assume a sort of invisibility; they don’t enter into the discussion.

So I hereby nominate two Schuylkill River towns for the title of “Charming.”  They are Royersford and Spring City.  Of the eight towns along the Schuylkill River between Reading and Philadelphia, Royersford and Spring City are the only two that deserve the appellation “charming,” because they are, in the old-fashioned sense of the term.

I said charming, not bustling, and certainly not “happening.”  Their attraction is simply their atmosphere.  They are lifestyle gems lying along the riverbank, waiting to be rediscovered.  Both are little versions of the norm for Schuylkill towns, built along the road that approaches the river and that which parallels the river, and out from their intersection near the riverbank itself.  Royersford’s Main Street descends to the river, while Spring City’s Main Street parallels it.  The downtowns that spread out from those intersections are largely empty now.  Royersford’s last remaining large downtown commercial business, the LeBow Furniture Store, a Main Street fixture since the 1940s and family owned, closed just this year.  Spring City clings even more precariously to its hillside than does Royersford.  Its Main Street offers the contrasting view of buildings along the riverside that are built out on foundations over the incline, while those on the opposite site are cut into the hillside itself. Spring City’s downtown retains more of its old, graceful buildings, with the Spring City Hotel, which dates back to 1896, at the center.

But it is the area between downtown and the river of both boroughs that has changed the most.  The industries which used to line the banks of both boroughs are virtually gone.  Buckwalter Stove Works was Royersford’s largest employer, whose payroll at its height was about 1,200.  It was located just upriver from the bridge.  Little remains but one building, preserved and repurposed with a grant.  Across the river, the Spring City Foundry Company, which sits on the site of the original 1840 stove factory, still makes cast iron products.  Today they make lampposts.  The new ones being installed in both Royersford and Spring City were made here, but so were all the lampposts in all Disney locations.  That’s pretty much it.

This is the important change, the one that has made both Royersford and Spring City quaint and to me, at least, charming places to live.  For those of us who don’t remember the industrial heyday of the Schuylkill River towns, it is difficult to image how utterly uncharming their riversides were.  Descending to the river from either side was akin to entering Dante’s Inferno.  Right up close to both downtowns—within one block at the most—were the very fires of hell that rendered iron and steel into usable items.  The factories were bunched closely together, and the cumulative heat and smoke literally hung over the area, sometimes obscuring the sun.  The riverside was a cacophony of noise; the ground itself shook and the air stank from the factories, augmented frequently by the sound and smoke of the railroad trains that delivered the raw materials and carried away the finished products.  The din was awful, as hammers pounded metal, and metal shrieked in protest.  The fewer but still numerous textile factories did not belch as much heat or flame, but the air inside, full of small bits of thread, must have been at least as unhealthy for the women crowded at their spindles.  Those industries also dumped their wastes into the river indiscriminately, rendering it little more than a fetid sewer in warm weather.  No one used it for anything if they could avoid it.  Ah, the good old days.

During the industrial heyday of the Schuylkill River towns, the objective of virtually all their residents was to live as far away from the river as their incomes allowed.  Only the poorest—the day laborers, the unskilled—lived close to the river, and then only because that's where the cheapest shacks were.  Those with steadier working class lives moved as far up the hillsides of both towns as they could while still walking to work.  The emerging manager/white collar class could afford to move farther away, particularly once local trolleys began operating.  The earliest local tycoons built homes in downtown, the better to demonstrate their wealth, but later generations would construct their mansions farther and farther away, usually up the hill.  They had private carriages, and then automobiles, to transport them.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  In fact, they have changed a full 180 degrees.  The old realities that gave birth to and shaped the river towns are gone.  Industry is one of them.  Businesses, even factories remain, but the riverbanks have undergone—and are still undergoing—fundamental change.  Now, as you descend into either Royersford or Spring City, the air is not just clean, it’s cooler, not to mention quieter.  The intersection of Main Street and 1st Street in Royersford was ground zero for noise in the good old days; now it has a small riverfront park, featuring lampposts made just across the river.  A few trains belonging to Norfolk Southern Railroad still pass through, but they carry no passengers.  The old Reading track bed now hosts bikers and walkers on the Schuylkill River Trail, along what is now a scenic river.

The future of the old riverside industrial sectors in each Schuylkill River town lies in residence and recreation.  Yet the “twin boroughs” demonstrates by their differing paths in this direction that the specific future still depends on the ancient past, the geography of the land itself.  Royersford possesses the larger riverside floodplain.  Empty buildings littered the area until after the turn of the new century, but that is changing.  South of the bridge is “Riverwalk at Royersford,” a planned residential development.  The plan had been more transformative, but the bad economic times of recent years have diminished those hopes.  Not all the old buildings have been torn down; one nearby sports a mural that evokes Royersford’s industrial past.  It should be judged as art, not history (the Reading’s locomotive is purple, and should have been green).  The recent bad economic times also explain the riverfront park; a six-floor apartment building was planned for the site, but a developer could not be found.  The Borough bought the ground and made it into a recreation area instead.

Spring City has taken a different path.  It has also refurbished and repurposed old factories for housing; not condominiums for young couples but residence communities for seniors.  There are no fewer than four such centers in the community.  One of them is in the center of town, the former Flag Factory, renovated and converted into housing.  Another is located in the old Gruber Mill farther along Main Street.  All four are for seniors with limited incomes.

Even less may be “happening” in Spring City than in Royersford, but that—and the beautiful old buildings—are exactly why I would, if forced, rate Spring City as the more “charming” of the two.  But there’s another reason I like it: Spring City is actually about to open a new library.  I feel like that statement should be bolded, or at least capitalized, and the news spread far and wide.  What town opens a new library today?  Ten years ago, a 100-year old ex-Spring City librarian died without heirs, and left $500,000 each to the library and to her church.  The library struggled for ten years to fulfill her wish for a new building.   Opposition arose, from some on borough council, who believed that libraries are a thing of the past in this digital era, but more sadly, so from the church that was the co-beneficiary of her will.  They placed every possible obstacle in the way, but when I drove by this past spring, the parking lot had just been paved.  Any town that makes such a stake in the future deserves a good one.

In the final analysis, what makes the twin boroughs charming places to live is that they have managed to retain much of what was good about the old days—the closeness of everything, beautiful old buildings—while having shed what was bad: the grime, pollution, noise, smoke and smell.  They are quiet, scenic places to live, and those are hard to find these days.  And who knows, your arrival might be the spark that allows them to be “discovered.”  The old storefronts virtually cry out for new, trendy niche businesses, and the several vacant ones suggest that the rent will be cheap.  Why couldn’t Royersford and Spring City become miniature versions of Phoenixville?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How About a Facebook Anti-Slumlord Alliance?

I began a series of posts in January of this year discussing what academics term “disinvestment,” and most everybody else calls “how things got to be so bad in our cities and towns.”  There is a lot to the story, and I am not finished.  The historical focus of this blog has, however, led me to neglect one of my most pressing duties in the present: publicizing and shaming those in our towns and cities who today practice the cruelest form of disinvestment, SLUMLORDS.  I introduced the historical series over the holidays with a post on that very subject, and feel compelled to return to it now.

Slumlords are a national problem; they infest large cities and small towns where they slowly drain the value from our stock of urban housing.  Much more to the point, however, is that they mistreat those who are most vulnerable to such treatment and the least equipped to resist, the poor.  They flaunt the law (which is fundamentally designed to protect property owners anyway), because it is usually cheaper to pay a fine than to obey the law in the first place.

Not so long ago, each group struggling against such a pervasive menace operated largely in a vacuum.  Its potential strength of both activists and supporters was limited to those in the same community.  This placed them at an immediate disadvantage (which still exists today), because the opposition was organized, funded and connected.  The only answer was to “organize, organize, organize,” to grow in both numbers and influence.  Still, regardless of good intentions and effort expended, growing itself all too often sowed the seeds of internal discord.  There are as many reasons for this outcome as there are examples, but underlying every one was a fundamental and unavoidable problem that has not gone away: human beings are complex, and largely ruled by instinct and emotion.  Thus it often happens that a group of people discovers that many of them simply do not like each other enough to even work together occasionally in a common cause.  The result is bickering and membership decline, followed by the end of both the group and the still-needed effort.  In larger communities, the essentially same problem gets multiplied when groups of people need to work with each other.  Then, in addition to the inevitable intra-group friction, you create friction between the groups themselves, because you add jockeying for power, influence and credit.  The result is even more effort expended to overcome these unfortunate but all too human inevitabilities, and consequently less effort directed at the actual objective.

But now we have the Internet, which offers an (admittedly imperfect) opportunity to enjoy the benefits that accrue to numbers while bypassing any need to actually gather together.  As Nextdoor is a great way for people within a neighborhood or community to communicate, so might Facebook be for communication between communities, regardless of the physical distance between them.

I did a quick, and quite incomplete, Facebook search for groups containing the word “slumlord.”  I found thirty-three, not counting two in Canada, one for a band and one for a soccer team.  Had I been more inventive with my searches, I am sure I would have increased the number.  I also checked into groups with the word “slum” in them, and came up with two of that separate “slum” and “lord.”  A search for pages with “tenant association” in the title produced far too many to deal with, although many obviously exist to deal with this problem, so I decided to stick with direct references to slumlords. 

I know of four such pages that do not use “slumlord” in their titles at all, and would not pop up under any search, but deserve mention.   “Scumlord Buster” in Baltimore truly walks the walk, and you should learn more about her and her work; it’s quite impressive.  “Allentown Tenant Association” and “Philadelinquency” are equally relentless advocates for tenant rights in their respective cities.  I must also call attention to my good friend behind “Golden Cockroach.”  She labors ceaselessly against slumlords in the not-so-well-known Borough of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and could use some support.  That’s one reason I write this post.  I am sure there are many more such groups in many more urban communities, and that’s the other reason I write this.

My quick and decidedly unscientific search, plus a little existing knowledge, thus unearthed with little effort more than 36 Facebook pages dedicated to exposing the evils of slumlords, subjecting them to well-deserved public exposure and aiding their victims.  Seventeen of the pages are geographically specific (I did not count “from Hell” in this category).  A few seem to seek national awareness through the wide applicability of their names.  “New Rental Laws to Protect Tenants from Slumlords” takes a needed positive tack, and deserves both national awareness and national support.  Sharing information about how such laws can be standardized and implemented could be a useful result of anti-slumlord groups using the Internet to communicate.
Numbers tell an interesting story (as they usually do), and these numbers are all over the place.  The aforementioned “Allentown Tenant Association” has 4,396 “likes,” making them the informal “best known” in my survey.  Of those surveyed that count “members,” “Slumlord Watch of Columbus, Ohio” leads the list with 431.  “Slum Lords of Augusta Ga.” with 419 members is close behind, while the wider-focused “Slum Land Lords of Southwest Pa.” has 337 members.  By contrast, five of the 36 or so pages surveyed have only one member; three have only two.  Far too many have fewer than ten.  More than one makes you a “group,” but numbers do relate to influence; low numbers, little influence.

Regardless of a group’s size, reach or intent, all can benefit from more people knowing about them and about what they do.  That’s why I am advocating a “Facebook Alliance” of anti-slumlord groups and individuals.  Such an alliance would be purely electronic, of course, which makes it doable, even by those like myself who are less than Internet-savvy.  If you already have a page, you already do the work; why don’t you spread knowledge of yourself and what you’re doing as widely as you can?  Seek out other groups and get on each other’s timelines; we’re talking about multiplication here, not addition.

Here’s what I recommend, however presumptuously, that each of these groups do, regardless of size:

First:  Get In Contact With Each Other (after doing a better Facebook search than I did).  Do it even if it’s just to say “hi, we exist, we know you exist, and we know what you’re up against.”  Each group’s efforts, if seen only by that group, are so frustrating, with few measurable successes in the face of such apathy, that a feeling of “what’s the point?” is inevitable.  That’s where “Facebook friends” can help.  Let everyone else know about you, and about each other.

Second: Inform Each Other.  Post on each other’s timeline, comment (by which I mean offer useful advice) and spreading the word.  The names and faces will differ, but much else is quite the same.  It also means spreading useful knowledge, perhaps about “New Rental Laws to Protect Tenants from Slumlords,” or whatever you, from your experience, think will benefit those fighting the same battle in different location.

Third: Seek Help When The Digital Age Can Provide It.  Publicity is an extraordinarily powerful thing is today’s world; the problem is how to get it in the first place, then how make it go viral.  Petitions are now electronic, and thus so can Declarations, Manifestos, or whatever else you can craft to gain attention.  A network of anti-slumlord Facebook pages has great potential to spread the word quickly and widely, thus greatly increasing your chances of being heard.

In fact, a network of anti-Slumlord Facebook pages has potential in a number of areas.  It offers an unprecedented opportunity to spread the word about an issue that is too complex for Twitter, and one whose difficulties and conundrums should be better understood by those involved in it.  There always has been strength in numbers, but that pesky personality thing kept rearing its ugly head.  That’s the beauty of the Internet, you don’t have to actually know, or even meet, your allies and “friends.”  Yet you can be both allies and friends, in the truest sense of the word: those who tell you when you are right, but correct you when you are wrong, and who support you regardless. 

So, spread the word about yourself to each other, and stay in touch.  You do not have to have “slumlord” in your group’s name, just an interest in righting the wrongs they do.  You can exist in a large city, a small town or anywhere else, because slumlords are everywhere.  You don’t even need to belong to a group.  If you—or your group—seek to improve your urban environment, then the war against slumlords is your war.  Join it, at least by letting others know they are not alone.

BTW: For those of you in such groups who are encountering me for the first time, here is a link to a previous post that sums up my position on slumlords.


Friday, May 16, 2014

They Call It “White Flight” (Ninth in a Series)

Several years ago, while doing research for my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street to the Malls, I interviewed an elderly man, the son of an Italian immigrant.  He related to me his backstory, greatly illuminating what it was to be poor and Italian in Norristown during its heyday.  He also, inadvertently, provided me with an equally illuminating insight into how not just our major cities, but also much smaller urban communities such as Norristown reacted to the influx of African Americans after World War II.

My interviewee had lived the American experience.  Dirt-poor in childhood and laboring under ethnic discrimination, he not only survived, he married, raised a family and served in World War II.  He had learned a trade through his G.I. Bill benefits, and by 1950 he owned a car.  Thus empowered, he decided to join those moving to the crabgrass frontier, or sort of.  He moved just a short distance, to adjoining Plymouth Township, but he did get the lawn and a little distance from his neighbors that he wanted.  He also, he admitted, effectively abandoned Norristown, returning only to his church, to which he remained very attached.  That in itself is a useful lesson, but what he did during the process of leaving is equally so.  By leaving when he did, he became (as he remembers it) the first person on his block to sell his property to an African American family.  His specific motives for leaving did not include racism, and thus I would place him in that second phase of the move to the periphery, of those enabled after World War II.  What quickly followed, however, was different.  Speaking about his old neighborhood, he admitted, “We all eventually sold to black people.”  What he also admitted (off the record) was that by the time the last white family left, the price for their house was much lower than what he had received.

His act of selling to a black family and what followed offers a microcosm of what we call “white flight,” that portion of the post- World War II movement to the periphery that was motivated by the desire to avoid neighbors of a darker hue.  This phenomenon came to national attention during the 50s and 60s.  It struck just about every urban area of any size for which a suburban area was coming into existence, and there were plenty of them, thanks to the followers of William Levitt.  The process itself has been studied, with a great many results published, in both scholarly journals and popular magazines.  It was complex and remains controversial, and cannot be summed up in a blog post.

I want to make just one point about the first stage of this historical phenomenon, the arrival of “the first black family” into a previously all-white neighborhood.  Let’s not let any recent history (or myth) color our understanding of what might have happened—should  have happened—if our society had actually been as colorblind as many of our elders seem to remember it was.  At this time in our history the new African American arrivals to a previously white working/middle-class neighborhood weren’t clutching any Section 8 housing vouchers, no federal (nor state) programs to assist minorities, no “set-asides,” no subsidies or any other “special benefits” with which you might be familiar.  They bought the property because they could afford to.  Not only did the father have a good job, more than likely his wife did also.  He may even have been a veteran, exercising his benefits under the G.I. Bill just like all the others.  The family clearly had upwardly-mobile aspirations, just like all the others.  Measured on an economic basis (like the one I suggested a few posts earlier), the first African American family to appear in a previously all-white residential neighborhood had at least as good a claim to home ownership in such a neighborhood as did the family that was leaving.  They did not represent decline in any tangible way whatsoever.

So what happened?  Did they get the chance to prove that they could fit in?  You know, keep the house painted and in repair, shovel the sidewalk, take in the kids’ toys at night, that sort of thing?  They didn’t, of course.  They simply triggered one or the other of those most visceral of reactions, fight or flee.  So well known is the flee option that it has earned its own niche in U.S. history, as “white flight.”  Don’t let the simplicity of the term fool you.  What actually happened varied greatly in detail.

The oft-abused phrase “domino effect” actually seems to apply in this case (rather more than it did to the spread of international Communism, which was allegedly occurring at the same time).  That first black family in the neighborhood did not precipitate immediate mass exodus.  But it probably did stimulate the exodus of one or two of the most sensitive neighbors, whose departure (and sale to another black family) would in turn discomfit the slightly less intolerant, who would themselves decide to leave as their individual tolerance for diversity was exceeded, and so on, in a descending spiral.  I say “descending” because the only ones to profit were those involved in the real estate transactions themselves.  The process often accelerated as it progressed, and could devastate a neighborhood’s economic value and social cohesion in quite a short time (remember, we are talking perception here, not reality).  The result was a catastrophic decline in the value of many (but by no means all) urban residential properties, brought on by the departure of the very people on which any tax base depends:  working and middle-class families enjoying ample employment.

A few managed to profit rather well from all this (they too shall always be with us), but the homeowners who sold, those who bought and the neighborhood itself all lost.  This is the point in our urban history when the irrational decline began, the one resulting not from dreams or incentives, but from racism.  Our urban areas, large and small, deal with its consequences to this day.  We can measure the economic loss in an abstract way, but the personal, individual loss and the loss to our urban areas is incalculable.  We need to face this truth without flinching, and add it to our list of reasons, making sure to mix thoroughly, as it was in real life.

Please keep in mind that we are simply blending this new factor into an already heady mix of post-war yearning, government subsidies and technology-fueled opportunities.  “White flight” made its contribution to the decline of our urban areas just as surely as did the G.I. Bill, as both were riding the crest of a transportation revolution and an unprecedented national prosperity, at least for a while.  That national prosperity included the transfer of wealth from cities and towns to the new suburbs, so while the net indicators were rising rapidly, those for our older urban areas were not.  Once the quickly-following collapse of America’s urban-concentrated “smokestack industries” added its hugely negative effects to this already lethal mix, the condition of our urban areas began a collective descent, differentiated only by the degree, extent and the specifics of decline.

The largest cities were the most affected by this loss, but the example I began with shows how widespread it was.  Of the eight towns in my lower Schuylkill Valley study group, those with the largest population—Norristown, Pottstown and Phoenixville—experienced the greatest degree of population replacement, in sharply descending amounts.  The smallest—Royersford, Spring City and West Conshohocken—avoided it almost completely.  Such preliminary findings require further study.

The visceral options open to racists were to fight or to flee, and don’t let the above deceive you for a minute into thinking that “white flight” was the only reaction of urban residents to the influx of African Americans.  There were other reactions than flight, because not all chose to flee.  Our larger cities saw neighborhoods resort to violence and intimidation to keep out African Americans.  The towns of the Schuylkill Valley saw little of that.  The smallest managed to resist the influx of African Americans almost entirely.  The larger the town the greater the influx, and the greater the flight it triggered.  

There were, however, other equally disturbing similarities, which collectively reveal that despite the hurt being so widely spread among both large and small urban areas, for specific groups of people, it really was all about the Benjamins, because they knew how to turn a nice profit out of general misery.  A brief look at this, perhaps the most sordid portion of a sordid story, and at some other techniques used to determine who moved where within an urban area, will follow when this series continues.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Perception Trumps Reality, Just About Every Time

I always began the first meeting of one of my history classes with an explanation of how I approach the subject of history itself.  My goal was to make clear how little attention I was going to pay to the so-called “facts” of history, the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN.  I was going to emphasize HOW and WHY.  You can always look up the facts, but understanding what they mean is an entirely different thing.

I would always, at the right moment, tell my students that “The facts of history really aren’t all that important anyway,” and then observe the looks on their faces.  My point was that, throughout history, people who didn’t know the facts made decisions and acted regardless, thus creating history.  My point about then and my point about today are pretty much the same, unfortunately.  Facts are all well and good, but PERCEPTION is much more important.  For those who doubt this, I offer the current so-called “debate” over the Affordable Care Act as proof.  The decisions about the ACA to come are not going to be based on the facts if organized factions of our populace have anything to say about it (Please do not take the foregoing statement as evidence that I know the facts; I’m just as confused as everyone).

Recent evidence that perception trumps reality pretty much all the time was offered on Wednesday, April 30, at Norristown Municipal Hall.  Amid that imposing backdrop several Norristown municipal officials were joined by an impressive array of County Officials—among them all three Commissioners—for a press conference.  The presence of District Attorney Risa Ferman and high-ranking law enforcement personnel seemed to telegraph a theme of public safety in Norristown.  And it did, sort of.

They were all gathered to announce the activation of  “The Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force.”  Such a title is intriguing enough, but I found its stated goals to be downright fascinating: “to decrease fear of crime, increase the visibility of multifaceted community policing and establish a more effective collaboration around policing priorities in the municipality.” 

Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand here.  They were not announcing the formation of a top-level group that will be working together to improve the quality of life in Norristown, but a top-level group working together to convince the public that the quality of life in Norristown is already good.  The problem is not the reality, it’s the perception of that reality.  Council President Bill Caldwell’s opening statement revealed the underlying assumption about the real problem with which Norristown must contend: “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.”

Their answer to this problem (the problem of PERCEPTION, not reality, remember) continued in the same vein:  “The Chiefs will present a new approach that we’re going to take to make people feel comfortable…to live, work and play in Norristown.”  New Police Chief Mark Talbott followed with his own valiant effort to bridge the reality/perception gap, proclaiming “a public commitment to do more,” then staunchly defending the “reality" that “crime is down significantly…the objective data supports this."  In other words, they were proudly announcing an unprecedented joint effort to pool the resources of many agencies to get people to realize that what everybody thinks is a problem not only isn’t as much of a problem as everybody thinks but has already become a lot better recently.  We should all accept the data, not the perception, but they are all going to do a lot more anyway.  Got that?

The message may have been muddy, but the basic issue is not just fundamental but widespread: there exists, it is claimed, a gap between the public’s perception and the “objective data” about a situation.  But why is this a problem at all?  Shouldn’t we all just accept the “objective data” and change our perception if required?  Back in the good old days, getting any information at all about a situation before you had to make a decision was often chancy, let alone you seeing any “objective data.”  But please tell me how, in this information age, when we are past mere data into something called “big data,” when we have access to multiple 24-hour streams of information and even more relational databases, can there exist such a gap between perception and reality?

Okay, that’s a rhetorical question.  We all know of this “reality gap,” because it is all around us.  Doonesbury’s “My Facts” parody is entirely too close to the truth.  In one of the great contradictions of our time, the more information we have available to draw upon in reaching a balanced, rational conclusion, the more insistent we seem to become on believing only those “facts” that support our pre-conceived viewpoint on the subject.  Objective, critical thinking has an annoying tendency to upset those cherished viewpoints, and is thus to be avoided at all costs.  Why concern yourself that what the other side is saying might be true when you can instead just return serve with some truth of your own?  Somewhere during this serve-and-volley, the net truth disappears.  It’s always “net,” by the way, because no person, no idea, no cause, no law, no ideology, no nothing is either all right or all wrong, all good or all bad.  There will be both winners and losers, regardless.  On the ground (or in Congress) the fight isn’t about ideals (let alone truth), but about who emerges financially better off when the deal is done.

I digress, but not much.  I’m focusing on a quite specific perception vs. reality situation, but one that is, I would argue, not only consistent with, but also deeply rooted in, several national issues bedeviling us today.  Some people are going to continue to believe the bad perception of Norristown’s situation because it fits so neatly into their closely-arranged universe of race, ethnicity and welfare; others will have more legitimate reasons, as I’ll bet there exists a spectrum of motives for holding tightly to one’s perception, even to the point of consciously excluding any intruding reality.

But in this specific case, how much difference is there, really, between perception and reality?  That’s an unpleasant thought to air, but I know several quite rational, informed people who have judged Norristown to be a less safe place to live than they wish on the basis of their experience with that very reality.  This rather complicates the issue, even in the presence of “objective data.”  Changing these more informed perceptions is going to take a lot more than just making law enforcement more visible on the streets.

There was a noticeable lack of specifics to back up the claims that, in the words of County Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro, “Great days lie ahead for Norristown.”  This was pointed out in the reports of the press to whom this little event was delivered.  Margaret Gibbons, who must have long ago lost track of how many similar performances she has witnessed, termed it “grandstanding.”  As a critique of the first episode of this little show, she was correct.

It also took no time at all for the congenitally so disposed to decry the press conference and its message as a “scam,” and dismiss it.  I’m not going to join them, despite having had my admittedly low tolerance for grandstanding exceeded in this case.  Such a judgment may be correct in the long run, but not immediately.  I’ve made this point before, and I do not hesitate to make it again: to simply ASSUME that something is hype, disinformation or even mendacity not only does not help, it is counterproductive, and that makes it STUPID.

The joint press conference was totally a media event (scheduled as it was for 1 PM on a workday), and that provides a clue as to how we should receive it.  As with the pilot episode of any show that we find promising, we should exercise “temporary suspension of disbelief.”  The first-rate cast stuck tightly to the script and delivered their lines with the necessary panache, producing an uplifting message, as intended.  Even ye who are without sin should not stone this cast; first let them actually act, and judge the result by how it plays out before your eyes.  Will the show deliver on the promise of its pilot?  You really need to stay tuned for this one.

The most realistic and informed statements of the day came after the conference was over, and were made by members of Norristown Council, those who are really on the spot over this issue.  Their message was “don’t prejudge; give us a chance to make this work, then hold us accountable.”  They are the ones taking a rational, unadorned approach, and will ultimately be the ones responsible for bringing perception into alignment with reality, if such a thing is ever possible.  Even if you don’t think they actually mean it, try to remember the words of the man many of you hold to have been a great president:  “Trust, but verify.”  If Ronald Reagan could apply that approach to dealing with Communists, surely you can apply it to your own local municipal government.

The best thing to do at this point is to suspend judgment (as it often is at many points).  Give Norristown’s municipal officials, the County officials, and all those law enforcement personnel the benefit of the doubt.  Then give them some time.  The press conference was conspicuously short on specifics about what they are all going to do collectively, and thus close monitoring is called for in the future.  The most important thing to remember, however, after the warm and fuzzy feeling generated by this “new initiative” has worn off, is this:  Once you have given them a reasonable amount of time and learned more about just how complex the problem really is, HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.  It’s not just your right, it’s your duty.  Don’t prejudge, but once you have determined the actual facts of the matter, don’t hesitate or let up.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Take The Trolley To The Theater

(My love of alliteration may have brought me to a new low here, but I simply could not resist using that headline)

Spring is here.  It’s time to get out and do things.  So, exercise and explore to your heart’s content, and do yourself some good.  Here’s a recommendation that might not occur to you:  Go see some live theater.  It’s hugely entertaining and intellectually stimulating, which is another basic need that likely went underserved during the dark days of winter.  Not just any theater, mind you (although I would certainly encourage that also), but specifically Theater Horizon, at 401 DeKalb Street in Norristown.

Theater Horizon is the primary draw (so far) of the developing “Norristown Arts Hill” effort.  In fact, this Saturday, May 4, is the annual “Arts Hill Festival,” an event sponsored by the Norristown Arts Council, which showcases the arts with some food, games and good old community outing fun, all along the hill up DeKalb Street.  Check it out; you’ll be glad you did!

Theater Horizon itself was created in 2005 by King of Prussia residents Erin Reilly and Matthew Decker, and quickly became a major contributor to the Montgomery County arts scene.  It’s a non-profit organization, and stages a three-show season.  A thriving arts community can be an important asset to any town, and in particular for one that is striving for revival.  That alone is a good reason to support Theater Horizon, as you will also be supporting Norristown’s nascent one.  There is another reason, also a good one.  Theater Horizon contributes to the community by offering drama classes for children and a program that uses actors to teach socialization skills to children with autism.  In other words, by buying a ticket to any of its shows you are aiding children and helping an arts community to grow, all while entertaining yourself.  That’s hard to beat.

Theater Horizon’s next show is “The 39 Steps,” which begins May 15 and runs through June 8.  The basis for the play is the well-known Alfred Hitchcock film, but it is by no means just another version.  This “39 Steps” is a two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award winning delight that is played for laughs (an advertisement says the play adds “a dash of Monty Python, which certainly gets my attention).  It features an on-stage plane crash, and over 150 characters make their appearance.  These 150 characters, by the way, are all played by a cast of four!  That alone should be worth the price of admission.

For more information about Theater Horizon, check out their website at:

Now for some advice on how to get there.  For a great many of you, your automobile is the only way, of course.  There are two parking lots close to the theater; the largest is a county lot at the corner of DeKalb and East Airy Street (which was to be the site of the “Pennrose Project,” about which I have previously written, but it’s still a parking lot now).  There is also street parking nearby, which in Norristown is free after 6PM on weekdays and all day on weekends.  For those of you concerned about parking a car on an urban street or an open lot after dark (a very widespread concern in any urban area, and by no means a knock on Norristown), your best bet is the SEPTA parking garage at the Norristown Transportation Center.  It’s at the corner of DeKalb and Lafayette.  From there, it’s a two-block walk to Theater Horizon.  The bad news is that it’s uphill; the good news is that when the play is over, the walk back to your car is so much easier.

Then again, if you are going to park at SEPTA’s Norristown Transportation Center, why come by car at all?  If you take bus, train, or the trolley, you end up in the same place, with the same walk to the theater, without all the hassle and in probably less time. 
So think about skipping the car altogether, and arriving by alternate transportation.

Okay, I’ll advocate only short bus rides for this trip; they run too infrequently and take too long for those not too close to Norristown already.  I’m going to take some heat for saying this, but I feel justified.  I fully appreciate buses, but also understand their limitations.  SEPTA buses are new and clean, but the killer is the infrequent schedule.  Given how few people I see actually riding the local SEPTA buses, I can understand any reluctance to schedule more.  It’s a classic problem in promoting alternative transportation.

The train—meaning the Norristown line up the Schuylkill—has a similar problem; it doesn’t run very often.  Still, many people live close to the tracks in Conshohocken and Spring Mill, and that makes it a short (and comfortable) ride.  Those of you who live anywhere near the line would enjoy a quick trip and avoid a lot of hassle (not to mention not crowding the roads).

But how about the trolley?  I’m referring to the SEPTA Route 100 line, which has connected West Philadelphia and Norristown since 1912, when it was built by the Philadelphia and Western Company.  Riders to Norristown in the last century got off at the original P&W station above the corner of Main and Swede Streets.  Those riders, by the way, also came from the north, as far away as Allentown, on the connecting “Liberty Bell” route, until the line was closed in the early 1950s.  That line is long gone, but the P&W portion from Philadelphia still runs, using new trolleys (technically Light Rail Vehicles—LRVs—today) on an excellent, smooth track that winds its way through some of the Delaware Valley’s most scenic countryside.

From 69th St., the ride takes less than a half hour.  The Saturday evening show begins at 8PM, so if you catch the 6:40 PM trolley, you will arrive at the Transportation Center at 7:08.  That will give you ample time to walk the two blocks—checking out Arts Hill on your way—and arrive at Theater Horizon ready for the evening’s entertainment.  If you live anywhere near any of the stops on the line—Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Villanova, to mention only a few—your trip will take even less time, and you can leave even later.  If you live anywhere close to these stops, it’s hard to imagine that driving a car would get you there in any less time.  Besides, sitting comfortably on one of the Route 100 line’s new cars beats driving any time.

Had it up to here with snow (or rain)?  This is your opportunity to get out, enjoy some live entertainment, help children and do your part to promote alternate transportation.  The bottom line is, of course, that no matter how you arrive, you will love seeing a play at Theater Horizon; it’s a great location and setting.  Most important of all, you will be supporting a very worthy cause, and helping to build a lasting arts community in a town that gets a bad rap, often from people who would actually enjoy the trip and the experience, if they would just give it a chance.

“The 39 Steps” does not begin until May 15, but I recommend you order your tickets in advance.  It’s going to be popular!  In the meantime, don’t forget about the “Arts Hill Festival” this Saturday, May 3.  Admission is free, of course, so why not enjoy yourself and do good at the same time?