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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 19, 2014

Parochialism Might Be Your Town’s Biggest Weakness

This week I deal with a question that has appeared frequently in response to my recent series of posts on the Conshohockens and that addresses an important issue: How can you understand what [fill in the name of your town here] was like if you didn’t live there?  My readers don’t phrase it that way, of course; they just assume it can’t be done.  This is an example of Parochialism, an attitude that is not only wrong, it is counterproductive.   

It is, unfortunately, very commonly held.  One of my greatest pleasures during my years working for the Historical Society of Montgomery County was getting to know a woman named Florence Young, known to everybody as “Johnny.”  She was a grand lady, witty, gracious, and a volunteer at the Society for decades.  She contributed greatly to preserving the Society’s collections during a period of leadership and funding stagnation.  She possessed an extraordinary mind, still razor-sharp when I met her, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Norristown social history.  She knew who was descended from and related to whom, and I was never around her but that I wished I had a tape recorder with me.  When I began to research What Killed Downtown? she was one of the first people I contacted.  I began a recorded interview by assuring her that I was going to write a history of downtown Norristown, not of Norristown itself.  She gave me that sweet smile and paused (telling me what was coming), then replied, “No offense, but you couldn’t.”  I disagreed, but silently, and I did not take offense.

I have since expanded my study and writing to encompass the eight towns along the Schuylkill River below Reading, and have often encountered the same response (usually expressed less politely).  A reader took great exception to a recent Facebook post about Norristown because,  Further more you don't live anywhere near Norristown!!”  My two posts about West Conshohocken have also aroused some anger, including a reader who expressed the reason for her anger, “I just do not like it when someone who has never lived here tries to sum things up simply when our history is diverse and complex.”  She is correct about the nature of her town, but not about who is qualified to write about its history.  I have been professionally trained to do just that.

Another reader struck to the heart of the matter when, responding to my question about whether West Conshohocken still possessed a reason to exist, she wrote: Who would ever ask a question like that?  Oh yea, someone who’s never lived/experienced West Conshy.”  She has a valid point.  It is unlikely that such a question could be asked about anywhere by anyone who grew up and still lived in that place.  That’s where a professionally-installed sense of perspective is required.  One of the foundations of graduate study in history is the understanding that one should never attempt to write about a subject he/she has personally experienced, precisely because of that loss of perspective.  I attempted to ignore this wisdom during my PhD studies, only to learn just how correct it is.

I am pleased by the sense of community pride that these comments to my posts evidence, but considerably less so by the belief that I could not possibly know anything about a particular town because I did not ever reside there.  I have attacked this belief before, because it cripples community efforts to make things better.  It’s an example of Parochialism, i.e., narrowness of interests, opinions or views.  I believe, on the contrary, that it is quite possible to be both interested and helpful to a local community’s efforts to better itself without being a resident of that community.  The only issue should be: do I possesses useful knowledge?  You can judge that by what I write, whether a specific post applies to your town or not.   There is a consistency to my approach, based on research.  I have studied the history of the lower Schuylkill Valley, within the broader context of my study of urban history, which, in turn, lies within the context of American history itself.

Please understand that a great deal of my training was in how to find and analyze local sources of information.  That usually means written by people who actually did live in the community, and includes such sources as newspapers and diaries.  A historian such as I who renders his/her work in broad strokes and primary colors depends on such sources, for their close, immediate perspective.  I am a voracious reader of local accounts of all the locations I am researching.  As regards the Conshohockens, I have previously acknowledged reading everything Jack Coll writes, and cheerfully do so again.  I have cultivated relationships with the sources of local history in the other Schuylkill River towns as well, whose assistance I also openly acknowledge.  The writing of history is a collegial effort; it cannot properly be done alone.

For the record, I make no pretense at being an “expert” (whatever that is) on any of the towns about which I write, with the partial exception of Norristown, which I have studied at some length.  I have, however, done considerable research on the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill River, and believe myself generally knowledgeable about their broad historical arcs.

The pattern is clear.  All eight towns have commonalities that are much more important than their differences.  They all came into existence for the same reason and they all assumed a common shape, again for the same reason.  None varied much from the regional pattern of a riverside mill town, although Norristown, as the county seat added a new dimension.  They all grew into locally-focused communities, whose residents largely lived, worked and worshipped within the municipal boundaries.  That work was in the “smokestack” industries, and these provided the jobs for the successive waves of immigrants that would populate each town.  They all prospered, subject to the vagaries of the national economy (e.g. The Great Depression), until they all fell on hard times after the 1950s.

I am a historian, but if you have been reading my posts, you have encountered my favorite expression: “That was then; but this is now, and things have changed.”   The fundamental realities of life along the river have changed, and thus the once-common condition and histories of the river towns have begun to diverge.  I offer the Conshohockens, Phoenixville and Pottstown as examples of that divergence.  The Schuylkill River towns are no longer all alike, but neither do they exist in their individual vacuums.  The force besieging the Conshohockens is the same, and I would like to think that both municipal governments and residents realize that, and that their response should thus be as united as possible.  Last week I pointed out yet another similarity between Pottstown and Norristown, one of many.  Bridgeport’s ethnic issues reflect its closeness to Norristown, and their resolution will also.  Royersford and Spring City have always been “the twin boroughs,” and still share a great deal, despite occupying different counties.  The list goes on, except for Phoenixville, and that will be a subject I address in the New Year.  This means that all those truly interested in the improvement of their community should stay abreast of what is happening in other communities like theirs.

My point is that sheer accumulation of knowledge about the past is fascinating and to be encouraged, but for those whose focus is the future, it is irrelevant.  Knowing what has changed is necessary if one desires to improve his/her present and future.  I try to put urban history in the service of urban activism, because activists will continue to make mistakes as long as they continue to believe in myths about why things are the way they are.  The odds are stacked heavily against them as it is, and Parochialism only makes things worse.  This is not about listening to me, it is about listening to all those who can aid you, regardless of their physical location.

The experience of your town is not unique, and ideas for a better future need not come from within your town alone.  What has worked elsewhere in towns similar to yours is worth considering, and what hasn’t should just be rejected without wasting your time.  Your knowledge of what might work, what probably won’t—and of the distinction between them—is crucial for the future of your community. The problems that each community faces are much larger than the community itself, and no community by itself can be a match for them.  Those who are united in understanding this, who realize that they are truly “all in this together,” and are willing to accept the help of knowledgeable “outsiders,” will fare better in this unequal contest.  Shared knowledge can only improve the otherwise very bad odds that our older urban centers still face.  That’s why I do what I do.


There will be no post on Friday, December 26.  May all the blessings of the Holiday Season be yours, and remain with you in the New Year.  This blog will return on Friday, January 2.