"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?

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