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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 24, 2014

When It Comes To The River, Forget History and Start Anew

They say that people who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.  We need to be very careful about that, however.  It’s not about remembering history, it’s about learning the lessons that history offers.  In Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, one of those lessons is that history provides almost no guide for the present or the future.  Not only have things changed, they have virtually reversed themselves.

The most fundamental change has been that of the Schuylkill River itself.  A result of that change (and only one of them) is a complete reversal in the historic relationship between the river and the towns that occupy portions of its floodplain.  The most obvious evidence of this change is seen in the Conshohockens, but that is the result of outside economic forces, not the leadership or the populations of either town.  I will focus on that part of the change next week.  This week it’s about the broader change itself.

Every one of the Schuylkill River towns, as it grew, developed the same relationship with the river.  That relationship had two aspects:  the towns drew drinking water from it and dumped sewage and industrial wastes into it.  Those activities were, in turn, largely undertaken by private enterprise, with only occasional and loose supervision by any municipal authority.  Back then, no one even thought of limiting the options of “job creators.”  It did not take long for the basic incompatibility of these two uses to become evident, and because it was much cheaper to filter water drawn from the river than to ban dumping into it, that course was followed.  The result was that the Schuylkill River, during the glory days of the towns along it, was avoided by all who could do so.  The river was little more than an open sewer, particularly in the periods of warm weather and low flow.  The riverbanks hosted the railroad and the industries it serviced, with the shopping streets very close by.  The floodplain itself, the site of both factories and railroads, was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, fiery hot, noisy and shrouded in a noxious atmosphere.  This was true in every town; only the names of the contributors differed.

This meant that of all the possible uses of the river during the glory days of the towns along its course, Residence and Recreation were at the bottom of the list.  In “the good old days” of the Schuylkill River towns, the only people who lived at the river’s edge were the economic and social dregs of the community, the day laborers, the semi-bums, alcoholics, and those who for one reason or another could not afford to live anywhere else.  The river flooded often in these lowest parts, and it stank all the time when you were living that close.  In those days, a family’s relative wealth could be determined by how far away it lived from the river.  The better off the family, the farther up the hill it lived.  As for recreation, well, there were brave attempts, some of which actually became locally popular for a brief time.  These efforts, whether private clubs or businesses, all utilized the water’s surface, of course.  If you immersed yourself in the river, the coal culm left you more grimy than when you entered, not to mention other objects or organisms that might have attached themselves to you.  Even the boaters had to contend with the smell, not to mention the steady stream of unpleasant objects floating ever so slowly downriver.  In “the good old days,” people sought their leisure on higher ground.

Since then, industry has largely departed—the biggest ones in particular—and the old, decrepit buildings it left behind have been almost all torn down.  The railroad is a mere shadow of itself, a commuter line for the Conshohockens and Norristown, and stretches that are still used—infrequently—for product transportation.  All use electric or diesel power, so smoke and some noise have also disappeared.  The departure of the industrial and transportation polluters together with government mandates for municipal sewage systems have combined to make enormous strides in cleaning up the river.  The Schuylkill now is hugely different from “back in the day.”  It deserves its place as one of the proudest achievements of the Pennsylvania Scenic River System Program.

The result of all this is that today, the relationship between the river and the towns along it has exactly reversed itself.  Residence and Recreation now top the list of popular activities along the Schuylkill River.  Today, people pay more—sometimes much more—to live along the river.  This would have been incomprehensible to everyone who lived in the Schuylkill basin prior to World War II.  As for Recreation, well, I could spend an entire post just listing the many ideas for enjoying the river that are making the news today, and could employ several posts to talk about them.  Some are traditional, such as rowing, a Pennsylvania tradition.  But history is not the point, not when it comes to the river.  Dragon Boat Racing does not have much of a history on the Schuylkill River (you can take my word for it; I’m a Historian), but the club in Norristown symbolizes just how little you need feel bound by what they did way back when, and how you can start your own traditions, from just about any source (It also reminds all potential new users of the river what we of long-time residence along the river already know:  if you don’t secure it, it will float away).

The need to actually ignore history is true not just for private groups, but for the river towns themselves, at least most of them.  As history no longer serves as a guide, those towns whose riverfronts are not in much demand, Norristown and Bridgeport to name just two, can pretty much start from scratch.  No so for the Conshohockens.  I’ve already mentioned the reason for this, but it cannot be overemphasized, because it has brought big money to the area.  That’s crucial, because a major difference between Residence and Recreation is that the former requires a great deal more upfront expenditure of capital.  New single-family houses along the river would be quite expensive, and no one is building those.  Not enough profit in it.  What we are seeing are largely condominium or rental complexes of considerable size.  They occupy former industrial sites, because rehabilitation projects for such sites (“brownfields”) get lucrative financial subsidies and because, in the right location, they can be very profitable.  There is one in West Norriton, and even a proposal pending for Bridgeport (although I am not sure of its current status).

Right now, however, the hot location for residences is the Conshohockens.  The new residences—and the new office buildings also—are evidence that the two boroughs will experience a very different future from the towns upriver with which both have always been grouped.  There is a very fundamental—and very ancient—historical scenario playing out there, one that really does repeat itself, if you view it broadly enough.  The reason is the same as it has always been: there is big money to be made.  That money is bringing about big changes, which at this point may have actually only begun.  Pottstown and Norristown would love to have even a small part of it happening in their towns.  But something’s lost when something’s gained, and the size of what is being gained suggests that the Conshohockens could lose a lot.  Last week, I inquired about what West Conshohocken might be losing.  Next week I shift my gaze across the river, but my focus remains on what is fundamentally happening to both communities.  I do so because it is all one happening, and all for the same reason.  That makes it worth understanding.

More on that next week.