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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 18, 2015


Part II:  If It’s Not Racism, It Might Be Religion.  Or History.

Last week I explained one reason why I do not consider my Facebook friends who post objections to welfare and “Section 8” to be racists employing code words.  I spoke of the rhetorical trick that such an automatic accusation too often is.  I said I would ignore this trick and continue to take my Facebook friends at face value, and implored you to do the same.  That was the proper response, but it did sidestep the central issue: can you oppose welfare (in its urban racial context, mind you) and point to anything positive to support your position?  You most definitely can, and this week I very briefly outline why opposition to welfare has considerable history on its side.

If your starting point is why a Christian can oppose helping his fellow man, it’s a long story, and you have to go back rather far.  As with most differences between Christianity and what Jesus actually said, that largely begins with Saint Paul, but I’m going to skip ahead and begin with the Protestant Reformation.  Out of this event arose a great many religious sects; for American history, the most important were those we broadly describe as “Calvinist.”  From their focus on “predestination” arose what is called “The Protestant Work Ethic,” the belief that hard work—and success—are signs of “the elect,” those who will be saved.  The significance of this ideology in American history cannot be overestimated.  It was well suited to people who were abandoning everything and crossing an ocean to build a “City on a Hill” in an unknown land. 

The Puritans were the first to bring that religious aspect to the new world, but a rather more secular method of saying much the same thing had already made an appearance in the new world, at Jamestown, Virginia.  This first English settlement initially followed what we term “the Spanish Model”; i.e., the arrivals were mostly young men who expected to simply collect (or seize) the gold that was lying around and make their fortunes.  They found no gold, and soon realized that finding something to eat was even more important.  “The Starving Time” (recent evidence has surfaced that cannibalism was practiced) produced a leader in John Smith, whose enduring contribution to American history was the expression he supposedly coined to solve the problem:  “They who do not work, neither shall they eat.  He did rework a New Testament aphorism, but the judgment on those who did not work would be made by men, not God.

The religious and the secular attitudes toward those who did not labor combined to form the core of the American myth: a nation of individuals, who, untrammeled by the ancient constraints of the old world, could seek their individual fortunes as they may.  From Jamestown and Massachusetts through the period of the American frontier, this was more fact than myth.  When land could not be found locally (today we would say “jobs”), you could always “lit out for the territory,” as Mark Twain put it.  In the almost total absence of charity (or much law, for that matter), a man’s fate was indeed in his own hands, and hard work was the most likely path to a better one.  The myth grew, and was burnished over and over again with that uniquely American combination of Protestantism, individuality and manifest destiny.  But as the frontier closed, times changed and continued to change.  That oh so human longing for the better times of our youth implanted a pure form of the myth into the American psyche even as the reality became steadily one of interconnection, not independence.

The Protestant Work Ethic suffered something of a beating during the Great Society years, but American history after 1980 demonstrates a clear resurgence and even an intensification of the belief.  The Reagan revolution harnessed the growing belief that the Great Society had not implanted the Protestant Work Ethic in the irresponsible poor, but had simply increased the number of “welfare queens.”  The central rationale for opposing welfare shifted; such aid not only did not instill a hard-working, gratification-delaying attitude among its recipients, it made the poor dependent, knowing they could consume even without working.  Senator Rand Paul (R, KY) has repeatedly made this point, arguing that welfare is a “disservice” to the poor.  The result of this trend has been polarization—and mutual antipathy—between “the workers and the free loaders.” 

The Protestant Work Ethic long ago ceased to be confined to Calvinists, or even Protestants.  A great many Catholics (despite their Pope)—and even a number of Jews—subscribe to it.  It is interlocked with aphorisms everybody knows (“God helps those who help themselves,” “If you give a man a fish…”) and the rags-to-riches stories that have always inspired us.  After more than three centuries of myth polishing, several of its components have changed, of course.  The Calvinist demonstration of a frugal and modest lifestyle has fallen by the wayside.  This is the Age of Consumption.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it, you worked hard for it (or inherited it), you deserve it. 

Yet despite enormous historical change and all the evidence of a tilted playing field (Donald Trump got his start with $1 million from his father, and damn few of the ghetto-born become millionaires), belief in the importance of an individual’s efforts has not waned.  Today, amid our showing off, we abhor those that consume, but do not labor.  That’s because the taxes of those who do labor are given to those that don’t, or so the common belief goes.  That’s not wrong, just greatly exaggerated, but it is a belief deeply held by many sincere, decent people. 

Then there is the reality that work doesn’t always deliver what leisure seems to.  Those who work for a living see those who don’t standing in front of them in the checkout line and handing the clerk some paper that isn’t money.  Also, as Senator James Inhofe (R, OK) phrased it, “people who are perfectly capable of working are buying thing like beer.”  From this stems repeated attempts to restrict what welfare recipients can purchase, how much they can withdraw from an ATM, and the like.  While I am sure there is a moral concern over the evil influence of beer and a bad diet involved in this, I think anger at comparative lifestyles for the work involved is still the real motive.

Thus the dispute is only superficially a financial one.  Morality, religion and The American Way underpin the arguments.  Representative Steve Southerland (Rep, Fla), a leading proponent of cutting welfare, argues that “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me.  This is a defining moral issue of our time,” and he is far from alone. 

All of this is not to separate racism from the development of the American myth; that is not possible, and I do not attempt to do so.  And I am sure it is also true that some simply employ the “welfare is a disservice to the poor” argument to hide their true motives, perhaps even from themselves.  So, in the end, it comes down to what I argued last week and several times before: take people as individuals, assume nothing, listen to what they say and take them at face value until proven otherwise, and then do so to individuals, not groups they seem to represent.


With the year draws to a close, because I have non-Christian friends, and always seek inclusivity, I want to wish everyone a Happy Holiday Season.  You’ll hear from me again on New Year’s Day.

Friday, December 11, 2015


Part I: Are Some of My Facebook Friends Racists?

How’s that for hot-button issues?  Did I get your attention?  I am going to discuss those issues, specifically the all-too automatic connection between them.  I’ve addressed the first two on several occasions, so it’s time to add the third.  That’s because they are connected in the minds of a great many Americans.  I acknowledge the connection, but think it might be overstated.  Here’s what I mean:

Although I have attracted a worldwide audience, my subjects tend to be quite geographically specific, the classic river mill towns along the lower Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.  I derive many of my topics from reading posts on the Facebook group pages to which I belong, in particular on those dedicated to reviving these communities.  Posts about unpleasant neighbors, their landlords—or both—appear frequently.  I often read screeds against welfare and “Section 8” that not only decry these people, but also the fact that they are benefitting from the writer’s tax dollars.  Race is rarely mentioned, and I have seen no references that I would find pejorative.  Yet many would term them so. 

I also belong to several “Occupy” groups, and in them see claims that such posts evidence racism even when race isn’t mentioned.  It doesn’t matter that nothing explicitly racist is written, they say; the racism is implicit, and evidenced by “cover phrases,” designed to provide some other, and more acceptable, reason to argue what one already believes for other reasons, ones that would attract widespread disapproval if expressed publicly.  This, they say, is the real meaning behind citizen outbursts against welfare and “Section 8.”

Such an argument bothers me on two levels.  First, there are far too many assumptions built into any attempt to simply dismiss the statements of so many unrelated people with one sweeping gesture.  This suggests an ignorance—or avoidance—of well-known elements of both world religious history and from American history that offer an alternate motive for opposing welfare.  The Facebook groups to which I belong focus on urban areas.  The faces of the urban poor tend to be of a darker hue than those of their rural counterparts, and appear much more often on TV, but it’s a big leap to automatically assume that the people being scorned in the posts I read are minorities.  Even if they are, do complaints about their illegal behavior constitute racism?

My next post will discuss how anti-welfare attitudes are intertwined with American history, from the very beginning, even without adding racism.  This post, however, focuses on the aspect of this dismissive approach that I believe to be much more insidious than just its display of ignorance.

Dismissive responses maligning someone’s motives are examples of an all too frequently seen rhetorical trick. I consider the trick more dangerous because its use is not limited to “urban” issues (attention! cover phrase!), but because it has become such a staple in our national discourse, regardless of subject.

Here’s the trick: someone confronted by a perfectly legitimate question or observation and who wishes to avoid—or can’t—respond in a reasonable, factual manner, dodges the issue by attacking the questioner personally, claiming to see improper motives behind reasonable words.  This immediately shifts the focus of attention from the subject to the questioner and heaps on a little personal scorn at the same time; exactly what the person being questioned wished to have happen.  There are many phrases that cover this rhetorical trick; I call it “The Apt Response,” for more than one reason.

Given our national concern over “offending” people, they who claim to be offended—even by innocuous words—too often get away with this trick, and may even manage to avoid the original issue entirely, by describing an apparently innocuous question as racist, anti-Semitic, or some other unpleasantness.  They often double down by saying something like "By saying such a thing, you clearly are either [an unpleasantness] or [another unpleasantness].  If you give people more alternatives to think about, the less they think about the original subject.  Nobody wants to be accused of those motives, and too many readers equate accusation with evidence.  It’s a trick and nothing more, regardless of the word(s) used to divert attention.  People employ it so often because it works so well.

It doesn’t work with me, so I shall continue to take each Facebook poster’s statements at face value.  I owe that to them.  The Shadow may know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but I don’t.  Of course, they might be carefully choosing their coded phrases to disguise racism, as posting blatantly racist thoughts tends to bring too much trouble, but I see no reason to just assume that.  I try to live by the adage, “say what you mean, mean what you say,” and I shall assume the same of my readers until proven differently, and then only in individual cases.

What does all this have to do with my constant topic, urban revitalization?  Everything, of course.  This is particularly true in our smaller towns, as the “bad neighborhood(s)” are harder to avoid, and the municipality has fewer resources to combat the problem.  The issues of welfare and “Section 8” can have an outsized effect on these towns, in both their real and their perceived effects.  I have written on this subject before.  But once you add racism to the discussion, things tend to polarize.  That sends the discourse off course, usually to a sullen dead end.  One side assumes the other’s racism, and the other resents it.  The people resources of our small towns are sorely taxed to overcome such impressions, whether they are justified or not.  Honest, straightforward dialogue is needed, and assumptions about the motives behind those who disagree with you should be avoided.

I thus implore each and every one of you to recognize this rhetorical trick when you see it.  Don’t fall for it, use it instead as evidence against what the trickster is trying to get you to support.  But I’m not going to leave it at that.  There are valid historical reasons to object to welfare, at least in theory.  They are rooted deeply in American history, and have become part of our national myth.  That doesn’t make them valid reasons to oppose welfare today, but they are—again, in theory—distinct from the racist components of our history, and should be understood as such.  My follow-up post will discuss these.

I publish a post every two weeks, on Friday.  As that schedule this month would have me posting on Christmas Day, I will not follow it.  I will publish the follow-up to this post NEXT FRIDAY, December 18, and then take holiday break until New Years Day.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Why Phoenixville? Another Guest Post

The Importance of the Arts

I’m pleased to publish the second guest post in answer to my question “Why Phoenixville?”  It advocates community investment in the arts, a concept with which I agree entirely.  Not every town has a classic theater to remodel, but the arts can be appreciated anywhere.

"Put simply, the rewards of a successful theatre rehabilitation are economic, cultural, historical and civic.  By working to save historic theatres and the communities that support them, we safeguard our links to the past, cultivate a lively present and point the way to a prosperous future."
                                                                                                                          Author unknown

The Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT) has played and continues to play a prominent role in the revitalization of Phoenixville.  Since the doors of this gem re-opened, the Colonial has provided people with a reason to visit the Borough’s downtown, 360-days-a-year. The welcoming glow of our marquee was the kind of consistent invitation to visitors that was so important in 1999, when options for entertainment in town were few and far-between. The Colonial’s re-opening was a major tipping point in our downtown’s long, tough slough back from economic desolation. Many people and organizations were a part of the long term effort to bring back the energy of the downtown. The Borough simply needed the kind of energy that a vibrant movie theatre bent on becoming a performing arts center could infuse – and the Colonial Theatre (ACT) provided the spark for the revitalization that has brought us to 2015. 

It’s critical to note that none of the activity that we see in the Borough’s downtown could have happened without a strong and committed community. We enjoy a high level of civic engagement in Phoenixville. Upon arrival in what would become my new, adopted hometown, I noticed very quickly that there were a high number of associations directed by strong leaders and willing volunteer workers.  I also noticed the library, hospital, and YMCA were thriving non-profits that enjoyed the generosity of the community.  The evening when I wandered into town for the first time, people were lining the sidewalks for the Halloween parade. The year was 1987 and although there were many shuttered storefronts at the time, I learned quickly that the “bones” of this town (both architecturally and civically) were still quite strong. (Today, years later, the Chamber, the Borough, the business association and many others work together to generate and maintain the energy needed to keep people coming back. Our food truck festivals, First Fridays, Firebird Festival, and other events continue to put Phoenixville on the map as an interesting destination.)

The Colonial Theatre’s complete history can be found on our website. http://thecolonialtheatre.com/about-the-colonial/history/  It had its heyday from the 1930’s – 1950’s, which were Phoenixville’s boom years. Like other steel towns, the steel industry in Phoenixville that sustained a workforce which then supported a business district, began to wane in the 1960’s and 70’s. At about the same time, the King of Prussia Mall was built along with big box theatres. Later, the advent of movie watching at home was a new and cheaper option than the movie palaces in increasingly empty downtowns. Two men and a pipe organ happen to be one of the reasons that Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre survives today. Jim Breneman purchased the theatre in the mid-70’s in order to house his Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ. He tried to attract local talent for live stage shows while working to build local interest in his organ recitals. Upon his death, Breneman’s friend and business partner Sam LaRosa took over the business, continuing for as long as he could.  Despite the fact that that period included the toughest years for historic theatres like the Colonial, Jim and Sam kept the theatre operational for two decades primarily as a movie theatre and organ concert venue. In the same period many other historic theatres across the country and in nearby towns were lost forever to bulldozers. Without a clear vision for the Colonial or the right organizational structure in place to run the theatre, it became impossible for Sam to continue managing the theatre. So, he put the building up for sale in 1996.

I personally think that the ‘90’s provided a perfect storm of opportunity that pulled Phoenixville from the brink. Our community availed itself of every opportunity at that time, which is when the Colonial Theatre went up for sale. Phoenixville’s caring community members were ready to step-up. The Colonial held so many memories for generations of folks in Chester County. Newcomers in our town recalled similar theatres from their own childhoods and began to dream of its potential. The Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT) was formed in 1996 by a group of citizens who believed the Colonial Theatre could catalyze the town’s revitalization. Film and live performance would bring visitors back to Phoenixville. It was PAEDCO (Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation) that purchased the building from Sam LaRosa and once the non-profit was formed, PAEDCO sold the 650-seat ‘vaudeville house’ to ACT. At that time, the economy was strong.  People were excited that the Colonial would remain a centerpiece of their community – and they were generous in their support.  ACT raised $450,000 from a large group of citizens and reopened the doors of the Colonial Theatre.  On our opening night on October 1, 1999, over 300 people stood in line to once again take in a film.  On screen that evening was the wonderful German movie, Run Lola Run! – a clear indication that the Colonial Theatre would not be your grandfather’s movie house! ACT promised so much more. Ultimately, if everyone pitched in, there would be a performing arts center and the downtown would once again be a bustling shopping and dining destination.  ACT asked that our neighbors “Invest in a Community Treasure”.

Since that time, over 500,000 people have visited Phoenixville in order to enjoy a movie, concert or community event at the Colonial Theatre.  Over $2m has been raised by ACT in the first 10 years of opening in 1999 and used for improvements in the theatre. These have included a beautiful new façade, new seats, expanded restrooms, a new roof, office space and a third floor theatre/meeting space.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Americans for the Arts, and many other organizations have demonstrated a clear connection between saving local downtown theatres like our Colonial Theatre and community revitalization.  For every dollar spent in a theatre, patrons spend an additional $2.1 (the accepted multiplier) on meals, parking, and shopping. Secondary jobs are also added to local economies when theatres can drive traffic into downtown areas. In the first year of opening, 18,000 people who had no prior reason to visit traveled to Phoenixville.  One citizen who took note was the owner of Black Lab Bistro. He saw the potential and opened very shortly after the Colonial. Other restauranteurs followed suit and today, the choices for lunch or dinner are fabulous and continue to grow. A recent retail trend in Phoenixville that seems to be successful is vintage clothing and household items. There are now 4-5 lovely, small shops with curated vintage offerings. Phoenix Village Arts Center and Diving Cat Studio are two additional outstanding arts endeavors.
Many examples exist across the country of towns that have also saved their historic theatre and then witnessed the reversal of economic downturns. In these other cases, the decline begins to slow and eventually, reverses completely. The process takes time, patience, money, and vision and the same ‘perfect storm’ that occurred in Phoenixville. It begins with a committed community, the spark of an interest in downtown development and ‘walkable’ communities, newly arrived investors with vision, and a theatre ripe for renovation.

ACT recently purchased the Historic Bank of Phoenixville building next door to the Colonial Theatre, which was more recently the home of The Phoenix newspaper. In the works are plans for two more theatres and a large lobby with more patron amenities. Once the renovations are complete, ACT is likely to triple our business per expansion demand studies. With the growth in restaurants, retailers, other arts organizations, and residential development in the Borough, we are very excited about the Colonial Theatre’s next decade. We look forward to continuing to work alongside the many people and organizations who have made this revitalization of our downtown possible

Mary Foote, Executive Director                                                                                                        

Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part IV:  Put People First; Business Will Follow

I’m not going to suggest a third priority for municipal governments.  The first two stand far above the other (very worthy, mind you) contenders for prioritization.  They deserve the spotlight.  No third priority is close enough to warrant being placed beside them.  They are basic needs, the foundation. 

Unfortunately, amid the press of business within municipal governments, that truth is often overlooked; they become just two of many things to do, and are given solely to a particular department to accomplish.  That’s wrong, particularly in regard to Cleaning It Up. 

Having made such a sweeping declaration, I must simultaneously acknowledge (again) how difficult it is to give the necessary focus, and attention, to the two top priorities.  I’ve mentioned a few reasons already, but a fundamental one is so obvious that it is too often overlooked: even the most important priorities tend to be obscured by the very volume of things a municipal government must do. 

In order to keep it simple, let’s divide those many things into two groups, things that MUST be done, and those that don’t but offer compelling arguments to do anyway.  The first category is larger than you might think, and it deserves being capitalized.  One of the discoveries every new member of a municipal council (or any other division of representative government, for that matter) quickly makes is how much time is taken up by things that not only must be done, they must be done in a rigidly determined manner.  A municipal government not only must do them, it must do them according to a schedule and standards that are entirely out of its control.  These required actions not only take up a great deal of time, but also represent a significant, and repetitive, drain on the energy of municipal government personnel. 

Let’s also keep in mind that municipal council members are decidedly part time; each must continue to retain an income source from outside.  This requirement imposes strict—if variable—limits on the amount of time a council member can actually allocate to the job.  Sadly, Norristown Pa., the specific subject of these quite general posts, recently experienced the consequences when a respected, hard-working council member lost that reliable income.  It is sad, and Norristown is the less for it, but the rules are the rules. 

The legal requirements of the job are rigid, and these days there is little room (and, with social media, even less cover) for the unfortunate situations, let alone the kind of shenanigans that used to be common in “the good old days.”*  Government is all about the handling of the people’s money by a selected few, who are accountable periodically to the people for how they performed that job.  That means following a carefully laid out, not to mention repetitive, series of actions at specified times; the laws are many but clear.  This all takes time and attention, because after all, we are talking about the people’s money here.

Despite the inevitability of their actions being subject to questions of motive, from different sides at different times, municipal council members tend to get sucked into their part-time job, giving little thought to how much they are making by the hour.  I have previously argued that people who run for an office such as municipal representative are givers, not takers.  Some have disagreed, and sharply.  That’s because the exception always stands out in one’s memory.  They certainly exist (I am personally aware of a few) but they are exceptions, and constitute a small minority of the total number who voluntarily seek out these kind of part time jobs.  I would also argue that overall, greater damage is done by the honest but misguided members of a municipal council pursuing what they thought was a good idea.  Any nominations for that category come to mind?  If you can’t think of any, you haven’t been paying attention; they just keeping happening, as the individual council members come and go.

That’s why it is so important to draw up a plan—a simple one, based on the two priorities—and then stick to it (I am not, obviously, referring to The Comprehensive Plan; that is an entirely different subject for another day).  Once a municipal council has set aside time—and money—to do those things that must be done when and how it must do them, then it’s time for the two-priority focus.  Adopt a security strategy of cooperation with the community, not confrontation.  Enforce your codes; be particularly harsh on yourself.  Spend what is necessary to achieve these two priorities (exercising financial responsibility of course, which in this discussion I take as assumed).  Then, with what time and energy you have left, consider those options that just seem to keep coming down the pike, from all directions.  But look upon them as gravy, not meat and potatoes.

When considering each and every optional activity and expenditure that appears, first subject it to a simple, two question test.  One, will it make the community more secure? Two, will it help to clean things up?  If the answer to either question is yes, then proceed, despite the priority you have already put on both, because what you are already doing can always be improved upon by new ideas, if they are the right ones.

If the answer to both questions is no, then subject each project in turn to this question:  Will this project require cutting back on anything—including time—we spend on achieving the two basic priorities?  If the answer is yes, then just say no to the project, regardless of how attractive it may seem (those projects that come attached to grants, and thus appear to be “free money” are particularly sexy, and hard to resist).

You do this until the first two priorities are largely achieved (again, you can’t please everyone), then watch what happens.  When word spreads of the clean, safe neighborhoods your town offers, at discount prices compared to those anywhere near around it, the rush will be on.  You won’t have to spend money to lure businesses to Main Street; like all businesses, they will follow the people, the market, and plans/good intention be damned.  Attempts to jumpstart or shortcut that process by government fiat do not have a high success rate.  Go back to the basics and put people first.  Much will then follow.

*If you want a sustained record of collective fiscal irresponsibility, I refer you to Norristown, Pa., in the early 1970s, as briefly described in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.