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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 17, 2014

Does West Conshohocken Still Have A Reason to Exist? (Part II)

Last week I began the story of West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.  I pointed out that it came into existence for a very good—and very common—reason.  Its history, I said, at least up until about 1980, was virtually the same as for each of the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill, albeit in miniature.  I concluded, however, by claiming that by 1980, it was clear that the Conshohockens were going to experience a very different future from those towns upriver.  That future would be, by comparison, very much better, but there would be a price to pay.  Both boroughs would pay their allotted amount, but West Conshohocken would pay far more heavily.  That has happened, and to such an extent that I questioned whether the borough still had a reason to exist.  To that end, I asked two questions:

1.  Does the reason for which the Borough of West Conshohocken was created still exist?
2.  If not, shouldn’t the whole thing be eliminated?

Those questions are, in turn, based on a phrase that I as a historian have found to be quite useful: “That was then.  But this is now, and things have changed.”  In the Schuylkill Valley, not only have things changed, most of them have changed a full 180 degrees.  This hold true for the Conshohockens, but their change—and theirs alone—also invokes my mantra, “The more things change ..(you know the rest)”  The Conshohockens came into existence because of the intersection of two travel routes, originally the township line roads, meeting the river at Matson’s Ford.  This time both are being recreated by the intersection of two roads (one of which does follow the path of the river, by the way).  These are not just any roads, mind you, but two Interstate Highways.  The Conshohockens now lie at an intersection that can be reached easily from a great distance (yes, I am ignoring traffic jams here, but so are the developers and buyers/renters).  Upriver, only Pottstown might make this claim, but both its highways and the region they access are not in as good a shape.

The intersection of these two major highways had to go somewhere, and West Conshohocken was that somewhere.  The intersection arrived incrementally, as the second of the two highways—what would eventually become Interstate 476 (the “Blue Route”)—was built in segments.  The initial creation of the Conshohocken off-ramp of what would become Interstate 76 dates back to the early fifties.  Conshohocken got the name, but West Conshohocken got the ramp, and lost ground, residences and borough revenue in the process.  By the time the whole process was completed almost forty years later, West Conshohocken had been gutted; drawn and quartered, as it were.
West Conshohocken’s total area is still listed as .9 square miles.  Its livable area is much smaller than that.  The highways took what they needed, and left the rest.  The result has been unkind to any sense of community.  The new, widened and realigned roads necessary to service the much greater number of vehicles that now pass through the Borough have, in turn, divided its remaining land into pieces, each effectively cut off from one another.  The absolute prioritization of vehicle traffic passing through has rendered it challenging to even walk from one section of the small borough to another.

That is just looking at things from a purely physical point of view.  But what about West Conshohocken’s historic sense of community identity, of its reason for being?  What was once a typical locally-focused Schuylkill Valley community, where people lived, worked and worshipped in the same town, has been rent asunder; much eliminated, parts isolated and everything local de-emphasized.  Can the fragments that remain even see themselves as members of a community at all?  Those who descend from the old days and live in the older residential sections very likely do, but as residents of what, today’s reality, or just a memory?  West Conshohocken’s historic self-image is that of a gritty mill town, overshadowed by its much larger, and even more gritty, neighbor across the river.  Both are no longer mill towns, but is West Conshohocken a town at all these days?

For a long time, the Borough of West Conshohocken served a purpose for both its residents and those in the nearby areas.  It no longer does.  The money flowing into the Conshohocken area does not respect political boundaries, and it has come close to eliminating any difference between West Conshohocken and its surroundings.  The basic components of what makes a grouping of people into an actual community once existed, but no longer. 

Much has changed along this bend in the Schuylkill River, and the pace, as this is written, actually appears to be picking up.  New office buildings and residences have physically replaced the old industries.  What that means is that with a minute number of exceptions, the new residents work elsewhere while the new workers live elsewhere.  That is a fundamental, one hundred eighty degree change from why the Schuylkill River towns came into existence in the first place.  These days, we don’t expect a town’s temporary daylight occupants to show much interest in the community, but what about the new residents, and those who will inhabit the developments currently pending?  Will these new people consider themselves residents of the Borough of West Conshohocken, or will it be just a mailing address for them?  They will pay their taxes, but how many of them will vote in local elections?  Will they support the George Clay Fire Company?  How will they view the community in which they technically live?  As anything at all?

Let’s put it another way: do they have any reason to feel of sense of community about today’s West Conshohocken?  What does the Borough—and being a part of it—contribute to their lives? 
The core of West Conshohocken has always been its ethnic churches, just as with every other town on the lower Schuylkill.  St. Gertrude’s, the Borough’s first Catholic church, founded in 1888, is now closed.  Does Sunday still promote a sense of community like it used to, and if not, has anything taken its place?  A community’s youth was the medium in which the old traditions were passed along, accepting some of those they were taught, changing others and then passing them along in turn to their children.  The Borough no longer has either an elementary, middle or high school.  The ties between the Conshohockens were not strong enough to keep their children together.  West Conshohocken students attend the Upper Merion School District, while those in Conshohocken are part of the Plymouth Whitemarsh School District.

The answer to my first question, then, is clearly "No."  What about the second one?  That's up to the residents of West Conshohocken whether to even ask, let alone decide.  It should be clear to anyone who looks that the reasons for West Conshohocken's birth no longer exist, and the reasons it sustained itself so long for so well no longer exist either.  Both these facts are true for the other towns on the lower Schuylkill as well, which is why their futures remain uncertain.  The difference is that the Conshohockens are having that future forced on them.  Conshohocken's crisis lies in which path it will follow, but at least it has a choice, albeit a limited one.  The problem surrounding West Conshohocken lies in the strong possibility that it has no choice at all.  The forces arrayed against its continuation a a coherent community arise from the exercise of the free market economy, and they are hugely more powerful that those that can be marshaled to protect the borough's traditional community identity.  The name may remain the same, but what else will, really?