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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 18, 2014

Out With the Old, In With the New (Last—and First—of a Series)

This week’s post marks the conclusion to Phase One of my series about what happened to our urban areas after the Second World War.  I have mixed them in with other observations about the specific history of my subject towns, the eight along the Schuylkill River between Reading and the Philadelphia.  My approach to all has been to attack the myths that surround the history of post-war urban decline, and to substitute more accurate understandings.  I use the phrase “more accurate understandings” in recognition of truth’s infinite complexity, and of the many aspects it presents to its seekers, of whom I am by no means the last word. 

I find it convenient to divide the timeline of post-World War II urban history into two phases loosely based on Acts of the Federal Government.  Phase One dealt with those that together brought on the widespread decline of our older urban areas.  I term them “The Originals”.  They include government acts from the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and are grouped because they were enacted in ignorance of the consequences they would have for America’s urban areas.  There are a rather large number of other subjects I could have—and perhaps should have—addressed in Phase One.  That will undoubtedly be true of those that follow in Phase Two; it’s a space requirement.

My treatment of Phase One is complete, sort of.  I have only touched on the subject of limited access highways, both the Interstate and its predecessors, which have had enormous consequences across the nation.  The earliest—and biggest—consequence to Southeastern Pennsylvania came from the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Schuylkill Expressway, both initiated before the Interstate System, and later incorporated into it.  On that subject I refer you to my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street To The Malls.  What is perhaps the second biggest consequence to this area is still happening.  I will be discussing this quite significant topic in this blog in the not-too-distant future.

This post will complete The Originals, and will introduce the different approach I will employ in discussing my next series of topics.  Always remember, please, that there was, in truth, no such division into two phases as I posit.  It’s just an attempt to make a complex subject more accessible.  So this final post in the first series doesn’t really “complete” anything at all, nor does it begin with anything truly new.

Phase Two encompasses efforts I group together as “Those Intended to Undo the Damage of the Originals But Which Caused Problems Themselves”.  I have to tighten up that title a bit, but it does get the basic point across, so for now I’ll refer to them as “The Undoers”.  These will often be Federal Government Acts that were written as the consequences of the earlier events and actions were becoming manifest, and which created new programs and approaches to deal with them.  The relevant point is that several of these Acts date back to the 1970s, and a great deal has changed since then, both in how the efforts themselves are administered and how they are perceived.  These stories are complicated enough, but then there are the State Acts and local programs that have been passed to meet similar needs.  Throw in a court decision or two, and things get quite complicated.  These Acts, programs and decisions have already been subjected to several decades of the myth-making process, and many have been so encrusted with coats of blather and layers of hype that their real nature is often barely discernible.  It’s going to be fun.

In truth, my last/first subheading refers to a change in my approach more than in the subjects themselves.  This blog offers urban history in the support of urban activism, and future posts will focus on the activism part.  The subjects for Phase Two are part of history, but I will approach them through examining their current aspect at first, as they are not just current issues, but “hot button” topics.  Yes, I am speaking of Section 8, Deinstitutionalization, Immigration, those topics.

Be warned: I’m not going to spend any time debating the premise behind these government programs that I choose to discuss.  In other words, if you object in principle to “welfare” programs (or at least those that benefit people, if not corporations), you’re pretty much out of luck.  To employ perhaps the most obvious example, I consider “affordable housing” to be an important issue, and will not discuss whether such programs should exist at all, but how well the ones that do exist perform their needed task.  That is a significant distinction, but it does not imply automatic approval, as you will see.  I will fit in some history, to put every subject in context.  Those “hot button” topics in particular call out for some correction of the myths that have become fixtures of popular belief. 

These posts will be mixed in among what I hope will be less inflammatory posts that focus on other things happening today.  As has always been the case, I draw my most of my specific subjects from recent news about events in my subject towns, and I don’t know what that is going to be any more than anyone else.  Still, I expect the stream of reasons why I named tis blog “The More Things Change…to continue unabated.

My approach will change, but the fundamental motive behind what I do and how I do it has not, and will not.  Misunderstandings beget mistakes.  If you base your actions on myths instead of the facts, you are doomed to fail; to the extent that you allow myths to direct your actions, you will fall short of your goal.  We all share the same goals, so we should share the same understanding of the better tactics to achieve them.