"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.