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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Phoenixville? Part Three: “Community Spirit”?

Several of the replies to my question “Why Phoenixville?” referenced the town’s “community spirit;” some use the phrase itself, others point to manifestations of it.  A few have actually attempted to identify its roots, and I am grateful for these, because roots are what I am all about.  The problem comes with trying to come to grips with the concept itself.  It can be seen, and it can be expressed, but just exactly what is it?    

Community spirit is a very local example of an “ideology,” a belief system that people hold about themselves and others.  The role of ideology in historical causation is extraordinarily difficult to grapple with, because it cannot be quantified, and therefore compared to those things that can.  I am, however, very sympathetic to the attempt, because I believe that how people perceive things is ultimately more important than the facts of the things themselves.  People view reality through filters, and they make decisions on those filtered perceptions, which make history.  Still, history is a profession based on facts, so perceptions tend to get short shrift.

Except by me.  You know that already if you have been following my blog, but if not, be advised that I have an intense interest that the facts be correct, but I don’t give them primary place in my analysis.  So I am glad of the opportunity to discuss community spirit, one of the most important, yet most elusive, forms of ideology.

So what is community spirit?  You can see it, you can hear it, you know it exists, you know it’s important, but how do you measure it in ways that you can compare to other contributions to revival and assess its relative value?  That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.  I don’t expect an answer, because there can’t be one.  That’s the problem with employing “ideology” in anything more than the most general way in historical discourse.  But don’t we all know in our hearts how important “community spirit” is?

I would venture that Phoenixville has more “community spirit” than any other town on the lower Schuylkill.  You can count festivals and the like and pretend to measure it, but it’s really something you just feel.  Besides, when we ask the question “why?” we are not talking about the Phoenixville of today; its revival has achieved critical mass and feeds from itself.  It attracts the type of people who embody “community spirit.”  To point out that Phoenixville has more “community spirit” today than say, Norristown (to pick the most obvious example) does not say anything of any value to either town.  Their conditions differ too much to make such a comparison.  Phoenixville was never Norristown, but it did suffer its share of dark days.  THAT is the period we must look at to even begin to answer the “why” question.

Or maybe earlier?  Can a town posses “DNA,” as one respondent put it?  And if so, as a result of what?  I’m open to other suggestions on this point, but I would nominate Phoenixville’s history as a “company town.”  This is primarily what distinguishes it from the other towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  All had a manufacturing base, the core of which was metals and metal fabrication.  Conshohocken and Pottstown also made iron and then steel, and both can point to early settlers leading the way.  Pottstown’s steel industry was eventually consolidated under an outsider, Bethlehem Steel.  Conshohocken retained a close connection to Alan Wood Steel, even though it moved outside the Borough itself (Alan Wood had been a Conshohocken resident), but Phoenixville’s connection to the Phoenix Iron (later Steel) Company is on an entirely different level. 

To say that the Phoenix Company had a massive physical imprint on its namesake town is to understate the obvious.  It’s a mixed legacy, to be sure.  The Company eventually owned almost all of the land around lower French creek, and what wasn’t suitable for production had “workers housing” built on it, which made it the Borough’s biggest landlord, in addition to being the biggest of pretty much everything else.  Much of Bridge Street was its creation, from office buildings to hotels.  Its leaders built their mansions on the best ground.

Bridge Street and the mansions were lasting gifts, but the company’s initial legacy upon its death was a substantial “brownfield” around lower French Creek.  Nobody cared much about pollution in “the good old days.”  A brownfield can be cleansed, and the remaining structures (let’s not forget the Foundry and the “Sample Bridge”) repurposed, so that mixed legacy tends toward the positive.  If no one is counting money spent ameliorating pollution, even more so.

Then there is that question of an ideological legacy, and here is where things get tricky.  In American history, the phrase “company town,” has several different examples, and few of them were good for their workers.  The claim is that the Phoenix Company was different.  People speak of its “inclusivity,” and see the Company’s legacy as a positive one in ideological terms.

There is less question about another legacy, one that the Borough's history of unionism has bequeathed.  Unionism is an ideology, and one that promotes a spirit of community among its workers.  When we are talking legacies, however, this creates a problem.  In American industrial history, company and union were antagonistic, and never more so than in a “company town.”  In theory, two such opposing forces should have bred two equally separate—and contending—ideologies.  It is difficult to see how they could have blended to jointly underpin a spirit that embraces the whole community.

Yet there is evidence; in Phoenixville the steelworkers union was more agreeable than in many towns, although whether that was a positive thing or not is debatable.  The last “heat” of steel at the plant took place in 1976, but the final closing did not happen until 1987.  By that date, the president of the steelworkers union declared his men (those few who had held onto their jobs amid repeated layoffs) to be “the lowest paid steelworkers union in the country.”  They had demonstrated a greater willingness to sacrifice, accepting both wage and benefit reductions.  All to no avail, of course.

Are we talking separate legacies here?  Perhaps the focus of Company ideology is on its proud place in U.S. industrial history, rather than its actual local actions.  Or is the Company’s legacy largely physical, while that of the workers is the ideological taproot of the community and its “spirit”?  Could these two usually opposed factors have somehow combined in their legacy to Phoenixville?  Perhaps enough time has passed that the beautiful physical legacies have become so integral to the image—and the reality—of Phoenixville as to replace the memory of a profit-driven company that held a community in the palm of its hand.  What is the population’s general opinion of the town’s industrial history?  Speaking of which, is there a difference on the subject between the attitudes of the longer-term residents versus those who have recently moved there? 

I ask a lot of questions, but even more about Phoenixville, for the causes of success are harder to evaluate than those of failure.  The Borough displays abundant community spirit, but is that a recent thing, since revival took hold?  How important was this spirit, compared to the great physical remains, or the input of money, or of other potential causes, to the revival that has taken place?

I seek some answers, from which I hope that Phoenixville benefits, but my hope is to see them applied to other towns on the Schuylkill, which could certainly use them.  That's why I seek the deeper answers, the historical ones.  Phoenixville is unique today, but that is a very recent development; the Borough began to revive before it became "trendy."  So I continue to ask why, and I continue to need your help in finding some answers. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Phoenixville? “Walkable streets, a downtown to go to…”

The response to my opening post in this series has been excellent, and I thank everyone who took the time to comment. I am very encouraged, and I hope that this exchange of information continues.  Several of you took some time to offer detailed observations, and I will be getting to at least some of them, because they make good points.  But I want to begin with a more general comment I received, because it echoes the basic theme of my whole approach to urban revival.  It reflects just what Phoenixville’s revival is all about, and the great contrast with what is happening to Conshohocken.

A lady wrote to tell me “why Phoenixville” for her and her husband, who are not from Pennsylvania, but moved there after checking it out.  She didn’t offer a historical “why,” but a cultural one.  In Phoenixville, she says,

“…we walk our dog down to Bridge Street and the Farmers Market, greet/meet neighbors along the way…”

To me, that pretty much says it all.  First and foremost, the walking part; a livable town is a walkable town.  The automobile only pits residents against one another, over everything from safety priorities to “owning” a shoveled parking space.  Second, Phoenixville possesses “a downtown to go to.”  How many other towns on the Schuylkill River can make that statement?  Okay, Norristown’s West Marshall Street, but isn’t that pretty much about it?  That downtown also isn’t just Starbucks or wine bars; the Farmers Market is a community destination, as is the Colonial Theater, and there are more.  Third, the opportunity to “greet/meet neighbors along the way” may be the most important component of all.  That comes from walking, of course, not driving, but it also speaks to the type of people who live there; those who experience the community from outside, not isolated in some new high-rise apartment.

This comment excellently summed up how Phoenixville is conducting its ascent, and the type of people it attracts as new residents.  This couple came, liked what they saw, and decided to not just stay, but contribute to what was happening, even if just by walking downtown (and actually talking to people!).   But why was what they liked there at all? 

As a historian, I believe we must begin by giving credit to where credit is due, and some of that goes back a long way.  Phoenixville has the best-preserved “Main Street” (it’s Bridge Street in Phoenixville) of all the towns on the lower Schuylkill River.  Many great buildings were lost, but others survived, enough to anchor a modern revival of an old time downtown.  The importance of historic preservation cannot be overstated.  A Phoenixville that had to rebuild all of Bridge Street would not have become the Phoenixville of today.  Those old buildings are a legacy that far exceeds their property value.  Thus, when we are apportioning credit, we must make sure to look far enough back to acknowledge those who contributed to this.  I suspect there are many names, both of individuals and of companies.

Still, a town’s revival isn’t just a matter of having old buildings on an even older street.  The physical components were present in Phoenixville, but the purposes they were put to made all the difference.  Phoenixville’s nightlife gets most of the ink, and those old buildings are great settings for just that, but I suspect that the writer of the comment I am referencing and her husband are not in the age demographic that is found in those places on Friday and Saturday evenings.  People who come into town to party make a town “trendy,” stimulate business and certainly make a contribution.  But it is the people who live in the town, who pay taxes and vote, who are the backbone of the sense of community that has arisen.

People are attracted to small towns for different reasons, of course.  In my previous blog series on what is happening to the Conshohockens, I predicted that a great many of the people who will move there will do so primarily because the location offers quick access to two Interstate highways.  They may choose Conshohocken over similar locations because of the area’s great natural beauty, but that will be the clincher, not the motivation.  I also questioned how many will actually take a sufficient interest in their new home town to get involved, and whether their primary interests might conflict with those of the existing residents uphill.  My concern is about Conshohocken’s future as a community, not just valuable real estate.

Nobody is moving to Phoenixville for its great access to Interstate highways.  They aren’t very far away, but rush hour traffic on the local roads from Phoenixville to them makes the journey take rather long.  People who move to Phoenixville are attracted by what the town itself has to offer.  Of course location counts; Phoenixville’s surroundings are rich in history and culture, and there is no point in making a distinction between the Borough and its adjacent townships in that regard.

I would argue strongly that what Phoenixville has to offer begins with “walkable streets and a downtown to go to.”  Without those two, a town’s revival may be measured in economic terms, but not in those things that really go into making a town a community.

That’s the beginning, the basic requirements.  But they aren’t enough by themselves, and piecing together the story behind Phoenixville’s revival will require the addition of several more components.  That’s why I repeat my call for contributions, because there is a lot more to be said.  I plan to say more, but as always, I take my inspiration from what people in the Schuylkill Valley say and do, and the many people responsible for Phoenixville’s revival each know more than I do.  A historian cannot make bricks without straw, and that straw must come from the knowledgeable, as many of them as possible.

Several of the comments I have received speak of Phoenixville’s “air,” its “DNA,” and its sense of “tolerance and inclusion.”  Some attribute this to religion, but more often to traditions left from when Phoenixville was a “company town.”  These are subjects I want to address, so if you have thoughts on this, let me know soon.  I would like to consider them before I write about the subjects themselves.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why Phoenixville?

Historians ask a lot of questions, but all of them are designed to eventually provide an answer to The Only Real Question:  Why?  That’s why we amass facts and dispute their significance.  Who, What, Where and When are necessary, but ultimately only Why matters.  So here’s a fact: Phoenixville, Pa., is the only town on the lower Schuylkill River undergoing a locally generated community revival.  I employ the phrase “locally generated” and “community” to distinguish what is happening there from what is happening to the Conshohockens.  As I have written, both the Conshohockens are essentially being overwhelmed by outside forces.  Phoenixville, by contrast, is not only retaining its community-centered identity, it is strengthening it.

So why Phoenixville? 

In 1980, Phoenixville stood in company with the other towns on the lower Schuylkill; Its industrial backbone had virtually disintegrated and its once-prosperous commercial section was suffering, just like all the others.  Thirty years later, and only Phoenixville has crafted a rivival on its own terms.  Pottstown, Spring City, Royersford, Norristown and Bridgeport remain in stagnation, still seeking what Phoenixville has found.

I don’t know "why Phoenixville," but I am very interested in finding out.  I am asking this question, and putting it not just to Borough residents themselves, but to every reader who can contribute something.  An understanding of the underlying (i.e., the “real”) reasons will help to sustain Phoenixville’s upward momentum, and could be very useful to those towns on the river that still stagnate.  That makes such an understanding a goal worth seeking.

That’s why I am not going to discuss (at least not initially), Phoenixville’s current “trendiness.”  Such an appellation had to follow revival, although as with the other subjects just below, success can be reinvested, and what begins as results can contribute to future success.

I’m also going to quickly discuss and dispense with the two other things for which Phoenixville is most widely known.  Neither of these are reasons for revival; they represent only opportunities, but Phoenixville has taken both and literally run—or paraded—with them.  That has made them continuing contributors to community revival.  The first is the Firebird Festival, which builds on the fact that Phoenixville possesses the perfect name for a reviving town.  The myth of the Phoenix is that of a new, vibrant creature reborn from the ashes of a previous existence.  It’s the perfect metaphor, and in Phoenixville’s case one that is literally appropriate.  Phoenixville has also received a big break from a most unlikely source: a “B” movie (at best) called The Blob, which has become a national cult favorite.  Here we must also credit Phoenixville’s penchant for historic preservation, for if the Colonial Theater—the site at which the “people flee in panic” scene was originally filmed—had fallen to the wrecking ball, there probably wouldn’t be any Blobfest.

All public events are about having fund, and the Blobfest is a pretty good example, fun that is both growing and expanding in concept.  The Firebird Festival is certainly about having fun, but it is about rather more than that, and provides a more promising avenue of exploration about the phenomenon that is Phoenixville.  The Firebird Festival exploits both Phoenixville’s name and its industrial history, but it is a community event that is increasingly all about creativity, a concept more easily connected to the myth of the Phoenix than a B Movie, even one that has achieved cult status.  Its organizers seem to be deliberately creating an East Coast version of Burning Man, employing its “use up and promise to do again, only better” approach to stimulate newer, broader and even more committed festivals each year.  There is, unfortunately, a downside to betting everything on the gradual build up to a climactic act of consuming by fire.  The Firebird Festival discovered this last year, as Burning Man did a few years ago.  This approach seems to tempt those who would preempt a community festival with a little personal vandalism.  Still, it didn’t deter Burning Man, and it won’t deter the Firebird Festival.

Phoenixville’s name, its connections to pop history (and even more significant, to industrial history) are gifts that other river towns greatly envy.  These unique assets must be acknowledged, but the point is that they have been exploited properly, and have become woven into Phoenixville’s image as a reviving town.  The same is true for the many other events that populate the calendar in Phoenixville.  The Borough boasts a great many community festivals and celebrations, including rather more organized runs than Blobfest.  There are more than can be listed here, let alone described.  Yet these, even together with the big ones, are not causes for revival; they are results that have been reinvested and now contribute also.  But results of what?

As regards these events, one thing is certain:  while Phoenixville can give thanks to those gifts history has bestowed upon it, those gifts have been very well exploited.  The popularity and usefulness of all these efforts did not just magically appear.  Their success derives from the vision and hard work of the people who seized these opportunities and made them contributors to a strong community.  Yes, Phoenixville possesses the raw materials, but their contribution to revival was by no means automatic, and the right people had to be in place.  Phoenixville seems to possess such people in the private sector, and they are numerous. 

So, continuing on the subject of people, we can list people in the private sector for sure.  But how about the quality of leadership from elected municipal officials?  This has to be a community decision, because the evidence up and down the river is ambiguous.  Some Conshohocken residents claim that the Boroughs’ breakthrough required an infusion of “fresh blood” into municipal government.  Pottstown activists tend to agree that such an infusion is sorely overdue in their town, and focus on the Council Chairman, who has been in office for 15 years.  Yet Phoenixville recently saw the retirement of the man who had been its mayor for 13 years, to the applause of everyone for his achievements, not his departure.  Both are boroughs, but of different variations.  Norristown was a borough, but changed its municipal structure, then changed it again.  It has no mayor, “new blood” sits on Council, but the town continues to stagnate.  Clearly, no conclusions can be drawn from this small sample, except perhaps that it depends on the people, not the structure.  I look forward to hearing from you on just that subject, because that’s where the real differences come in.  

I'm sure there is more to be said about people (partially because there are people I plan to mention), and I want to hear about this from you.  But not just about people, because while a community revival must have the right people, there is much more to it than that.  There are more fundamental reasons for Phoenixville's resurgence, and it will take some time before enough evidence is in for conclusions.  At this point I am still in search of theses, and that's where you come in.  This is a long term project, and I will be holding forth again, but what I am really trying to do is stimulate discussion.  Together, let's amass the facts, so we can seek the answer to "Why Phoenixville?"

P.S.  I will be posting on my blog every other week for the next two to three months, as I finalize the manuscript for my new book, to be published this spring.  My next post will be on Friday, January 16.