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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 31, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part I:  The Old

I try to ask the fundamental questions.  I believe that, in the context of what Conshohocken in undergoing, the question I ask is the most fundamental of all.  I don’t live in Conshohocken, and never have, and don’t believe I have a voice in the specific issues that are confronting the Borough, this project or that one.  I am, however, trained to take the long view, to identify the historical patterns evident amidst the details, and for that reason what is happening in “the Conshohockens” fascinates me.  We live in exciting times: a major turning point in the history of both boroughs is well underway.  The past is past and over with; the future will not only be different from the past, that future will be different from that of the other six towns on the lower Schuylkill River, for the very first time in their collective history.

I do not remember the old Conshohocken, the self-centered industrial community with a crowded downtown.  I began to visit Conshohocken only in the middle 1980s, when I twice a week delivered first one son and then another to DeStolfo’s School of Tae Kwon Do, then located in the P.O.S. of A. building on Fayette Street.  My route took me past the old Alan Wood works, to the core of downtown before turning left up the hill, and then reversed itself for our return.  It was a depressing experience.  Years of brief, repetitive views caused me to arrange what I saw as a series of historical vignettes, as is my wont.  As I drove along Conshohocken State Road past the remnants of Alan Wood Steel, the site showed but flickering signs of life.  I tried to imagine what that stretch would have looked, sounded and smelled like in earlier times, with the furnaces in operation and the many workers passing each other between shifts, but it was difficult.  I’m old, but not that old.

Next came a passage down western Elm Street, a stretch of simple, unadorned row housing built for the workers at the then-nearby plants before the days of the automobile.  Their original occupants didn’t have cars, and didn’t need them.  Their successors did, because they had to; they could no longer walk to work.  This bit of historical timing meant that the current residents had to deal with both the lack of parking spaces for the own cars and the speed with which other people’s cars drove past their front doors.  Signs implored drivers to obey a resident-friendly speed limit, which, if memory serves, was routinely ignored.

My memories of downtown are simple: fences, just fences.  In the early 1980s downtown Conshohocken did not exist; it had been removed under the Federal Urban Renewal Program.  Therein lies a tale, for at the time the conventional wisdom was that a huge mistake had been made, and not just because of all the old buildings that had been demolished.  The critics had a point.  Conshohocken’s Urban Renewal effort was the last one the Federal Government ever contracted for.  In fact, by the time Conshohocken jumped on board, the Urban Renewal Program was already being judged a national failure.  Locally, the condition of an Urban Renewal project just up the river in Royersford should have been a sobering reality check.  Be that as it may, the contract was signed and old downtown Conshohocken proceeded to fall under the wrecker’s ball.  As with Royersford, the removal and teardown was easy to accomplish; the revival of new buildings, new businesses and new residents, not so much.

In the mid-1980s, to passersby like myself, it seemed like nothing was happening.  But appearances were deceiving.  Things were happening, but Urban Renewal had nothing to do with it.  The only project in the long record of new developments that can properly be considered as part of the Urban Renewal effort was the first one, the Pleasant Valley Apartments.  This was a “Section 8” project, and I first wrote about it back in May of 2013, because it was being pitched on a website as the first of the successes that would follow.  While the same developer was retained, what followed wasn’t Urban Renewal, but a much older and much more fundamental process.

The process that gathered steam and began to reshape Conshohocken during the 1980s was a very traditional American one: develop a large property by letting private enterprise develop portions of it at a time, for their own reasons and on their own timing.  For these developers, Conshohocken’s removed downtown was welcomed, because it saved them the cost of doing the same thing, which was what they had in mind anyway.

By the time I began to view Conshohocken on a regular schedule, the transformation of both boroughs was already well underway, but largely just in the sketches of developers.  Only the first steps had yet established a physical presence, and they had taken a long time to do that.  The process actually began in the late 1940s, when work on the Schuylkill Expressway got underway.  A small portion in West Conshohocken was one of the first segments to open, but was of little use.  The full Expressway did not open until 1960.  This certainly helped, but for several years Conshohocken was just an off-ramp of a single road, that was actually located in West Conshohocken, which received no mention.
This is where the long and tangled tale of what is now known as Interstate 476 enters the picture.  There may have been more controversial sections of the Interstate System, but few have been opposed by people with such deep pockets.  The construction of the whole road gives new meaning to the term “spasmodic.”  Delaware County was the site of my first visits to Southeastern Pennsylvania, back in the late 1960s.  I would periodically drive down Bryn Mawr Avenue, underneath a section of road upon which I never saw any traffic.  My curiosity aroused, I learned that it was an early portion of what was then known as “The Blue Route.”  It carried no traffic because it connected nothing to nothing.  Years passed and portions were built, and the promise of the future began to be glimpsed from the Conshohockens.  The connection to Norristown was welcome, with its wide new bridge, but the real northward goal was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, including its “Northeast Extension,” and that took a long time to achieve.  The southward connection was opened from Interstate #95, and with the final link to the turnpike completed at long last, the Conshohockens found themselves at the intersection of two heavily-traveled highways, the new Interstate 476 and the much-updated Schuylkill Expressway which had some time earlier become Interstate 76.

With that, the fate of both towns was sealed.  Make no mistake about it:  what has happened, and what will happen, to both Conshohockens has been and will be the direct result of that intersection of Interstate highways.  Private enterprise is succeeding where a government program failed, but its success is due to timing, and, of course, two (government financed) roads.  What has been happening to both the Conshohockens has nothing to do with either of the boroughs themselves; they just happened to be there when the connection was completed.  So were people, who by now should feel just as ignored, if not more so.

Let’s call them “The Old.”  They are those residents who experienced this multi-decade process, or their children (“Old” is a very relative term).  Often descendants of earlier residents, they are the ones who did not leave, when so many did.  They are proud of their community history and remain locally focused, as the residents of both towns historically have been.  Few now alive can remember "the good old days,” but The Old recognize their place in a long tradition, a place that may even include residence in the old family home.  Their local focus makes them the backbone of the community, as it always has.  They are also the most aware that the people who occupy the new buildings—whether during the day or the night—do not share that focus. 

The implications for Conshohocken from the influx of The New are potentially more significant than those that will arise from the buildings they occupy.  The New may be a heterogeneous lot, but they will all share one fundamental difference from The Old.  That difference may well determine what kind of community the new Conshohocken becomes.

More on that next week.