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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, March 20, 2015

Go Down To The Crossroads On April 14th

I’ve written several blog posts about what is happening to Conshohocken, Pa., and on Tuesday, April 14th I’ll have to opportunity to talk on the subject.  I will be one-third of a panel discussion entitled “Conshy at the Crossroads,” to be held at the Washington Fire Company, 36 West Elm Street, Conshohocken, at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6:15 p.m.  I will be joined by Jerry Nugent, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority, and Ray Weinmann, president of The Weinmann Group, who helped to develop Conshohocken’s 25-acre Urban Renewal Area during the 1980s.  Our moderator will be Naomi Starobin, editor of Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting collaborative led by WHYY that focuses on problems and opportunities facing Pennsylvania’s urban areas.  If you are in Southeast Pennsylvania on that date, I would love to see you there.

This is actually the first of several planned events on the subject of what is happening to Conshohocken, sponsored by the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com.  It will require several to cover all that is happening, but this one will be your introduction to the subject, and should not be missed.  History will be the focus, to set the stage for the more detailed subjects that will follow in future “Conshy at the Crossroads” meetings.  The April 14 event’s press release bills me as one of “three redevelopment experts,” a title which I appreciate, but do not feel I deserve.  I am a historian, and my focus on supporting urban activism has led me to learn much about “redevelopment,” but through a lens that delivers relevant lessons from the past, not a focus on current redevelopment projects.  I will thus have little to say about this or that specific project, but rather more to say about the potential effect of their accumulation. 

“Conshy at the Crossroads” is an excellent title for this planned series of get-togethers, because the metaphorical allusion is based on the physical reality (yes, the crossroads are actually in West Conshohocken, but it never gets first billing anyway).  The intersection of two major transportation routes at a location of considerable natural beauty is the fundamental reason for all that is happening to both boroughs.  Supporting credit goes the long-defunct Urban Renewal Program, for saving potential developers much of the cost for demolition of existing buildings.  The quick increase in development proposals with the end of economic hard times is also evidence that timing is still everything.  For the combination of these reasons, the time is now.  Conshohocken is indeed at a crossroads.

The stated purpose the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance is to “promote the maintenance of the borough’s character as it grows,” and it is the borough’s character on which I will focus.  The specific challenge facing the Conshohockens is how to fashion a community identity from the two quite disparate groups that the current activity will generate.  I have previously phrased them as The Old and The New, but the important difference is WHY each has chosen to live there.  I hope for the opportunity to speak to this.

In all honesty, however, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain a town’s character when the physical and social conditions have changed as much as they have since the days when Conshohocken—and each of the other towns on the lower Schuylkill River—grew to maturity and prosperity.  That character—and the fierce pride in which it was expressed—was the result of a combination of historical circumstances, none of which now apply, not only to the Conshohockens, but also to pretty much any town these days.  Conshohocken, as with every other town on the lower Schuylkill River (at least) was, during its “glory days,” a community, in every sense of the word.  The residents who lived in each town also shopped there, worshipped there and found entertainment there.  The town was almost the totality of their lives.  They also could reach each of their necessary destinations on foot, because every town, in the almost complete absence of individual transportation, congregated everything close to everything else.

That last part about everything being close to everything else remains, because Conshohocken is still the same size it always has been, and so are the vast majority of its properties and streets.  Pretty much everything else has changed, though.  Today, only a very small percentage of Conshohocken residents both live and work in the borough.  The shopping has largely disappeared and many of the religious congregations and parishes have either moved or expanded out of town.  As a result, pretty much every adult needs an automobile to perform those basic functions of going to work, shopping or worship.  

Therein lies the fundamental problem, because Conshohocken was not built for the automobile, neither while in use or parked, especially parked.  All attempts to accommodate an old urban structure to prioritize the flow of traffic are ultimately futile.  Yet the deluge of new residences along the riverside will bring with them a great many more cars, and there is no other choice than to attempt to deal with that fact.  I expect to act (as usual) as a wet blanket to anyone who attempts to posit a pleasant future for Conshohocken traffic.

Still, the automobile is only a conveyance, and in the final analysis it is people who will write Conshohocken’s future.  Automobiles will bring them to the borough, and will take them away, but if they only live there while working, shopping and worshipping elsewhere, what will give them a sense of community, a sense of actually belonging?  And if they live in the new residential developments along the river, what is to connect them with the town—and the residents—on the hill above them?  The New residents will effectively create new neighborhoods, set amidst the many promised recreational inducements.  Will The Old, up on the hillside, be able to share in these welcome improvements?  Given the traffic, how much hassle will it be to even get there?

The fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile will continue to bedevil Conshohocken, but a much more fundamental contradiction is developing, as an entirely new community arises at the foot of an old one.  If The Old and The New cannot find shared reasons to love their community and to work for its betterment, what kind of community character will result?  How will it be possible to maintain the borough’s character when virtually all the physical and social conditions which brought the borough into existence and nurtured its growth have changed a full 180 degrees?  How much of the old pride can be saved?  Must Conshohocken instead fashion an entirely new character in response to modern times?

These are tough questions, and kudos to the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com for what they are attempting to do.  I’m honored to be a part of it, and hope to see you on Tuesday, April 14, 7:00 PM at the Washington Fire Company, for the first installment of “Conshy at the Crossroads.” 

Here’s a link to the event’s Facebook page.  Check it out!


Friday, March 6, 2015

Crime and Section 8: Blaming a Victim?

Last week I related the tale of a few Pottstown residents who decided to fight back against the crime and drugs in their community.  They hounded the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA) to remove a Housing Choice Voucher from a woman who was blatantly violating the rules.  It took many months, but was eventually successful; in fact, these citizens were rather more successful than the Pottstown Police Department in dealing with this woman.  I commended this last week, and I shall continue to do so.  But I have a question about the affair, one that attempts to introduce some perspective into the issue, which I believe is sorely needed.  This is why I often refer to myself as the “Wet Blanket of Reality,” and why I am never radical enough for those who see the world through the lens of their ideology.  I know better, but here goes.

It’s time to ask the question that has been nagging at me as I read the continuing Facebook and blog posts about this story.  Section 8 is the featured topic, but isn’t this story really more about crime than Section 8?  Tracey Accor continued to have the MCHA (that means you, the taxpayers) pay a portion of her rent for much too long a period of time, but the abuse of Section 8 may have been the least of the offenses committed by her and the various residents of 377 N. Charlotte Street during their residence there.

Why the greater focus on one of her targets—the Voucher Program—than on the perpetrator and her crimes?  Aren’t we in a sense blaming a victim?  Yes, the way the Housing Choice Voucher Program was written and is administered virtually invites abuse, but that excuse does not fly with people, so why apply it to government programs?  Isn’t abuse abuse, regardless? 

There is definitely a very relevant factor here, not so much rational (read “financial”) as visceral, but no less real or important for that fact.  To see daily evidence of criminal activity is certainly cause enough for anger, but to know that your neighborhood criminal is living on your dollar, partially subsidized by a program designed to help the needy but otherwise law-abiding, really sticks in the craw.  Facebook’s “Pottstown Homeowner at Large” put this feeling quite succinctly: “Here we are, working, paying our taxes and contributing to society, but by us doing the right thing we are enabling others to do ‘nothing’.”  The writer was being kind; taxpayers are enabling such people to do positive harm to their communities, and that is much worse than nothing.

The results of this quite legitimate feeling, multiplied by the many who experience something like it somewhere else, produce a tragedy no one intended, and visits it on those who don’t deserve it.  The voucher program’s weaknesses and glacially slow procedures turn people not just against the criminal who abuses them, but the program itself.  The law-abiding neighbors of its abusers are victims, and have collected a multitude of very personal—and thus quite valid—reasons to hate the program.  The greater number of victims here, unfortunately, are those voucher holders who do obey the law and the program regulations, because they don’t have to live anywhere near the violator to be hurt.  It is this last group of people that scammers like Tracey Accor truly victimize, because amid the almost daily evidence of a criminal mentality, the thing people tend to remember is the Section 8 Voucher part.

We simply must establish a sense of perspective, and see the problem for what it is, a criminal problem, not a Section 8 problem.  Section 8 is most certainly part of the problem, and in its present form cannot be the solution.  But to conflate “Section 8” with crime is to do a great disservice to the complexity of the reality that is the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

So, keeping with my reality thing, what does the future hold for the program, and thus for the innocent victims of its shortcomings?  There are—in theory—three broad options regarding the future of Housing Choice Vouchers.  In truth, however, two of those are not options, because they require government action.  Only the third is possible, because it can be undertaken by private citizens.

First, the government could simply eliminate the program.  To those who recommend this, I ask only, “as opposed to what?”  If you think your neighborhood and your community’s streets are unsafe now, just try to image them after a substantial source of income for many malefactors is cut off.  Calls to simply eliminate the program are many things, beginning with un-Christian.  They are also pure posturing, designed to score visceral points without having to actually be serious about the issue.  Simply eliminating welfare programs solves nothing, and will only make things worse.  It won’t happen.

Second, Congress could undertake a wholesale, thoughtful rewrite of the program, addressing the flaws that everyone knows about by now.  If anyone thinks that the Republican-led Congress will undertake such an effort any time in the near future, please contact me.  I have a bridge to sell you.  And please, don’t write me about how a Democratic Congress wouldn’t do this either; that’s not relevant to reality, and therefore another example of pure posturing.  When either political party comes up with an improvement, then my attitude will change.  I'm not holding my breath, and neither should you.

What this means is that we all must continue to live with (and perhaps next to) the results of a horribly flawed program, because our government is not going to do anything.  In the face of this unfortunate truth, that leaves only the third option: people, within each of our communities, not just attacking the Voucher Program, but focusing on those who violate it.  That’s the only real option, if your goal is to make things better, and not just bitch.  Let’s not just give thanks for those citizens willing to undertake such a thankless, repetitious task as prodding a Federal Agency, but emulate their example.  Citizens must get involved, report Housing Choice Voucher violations to the Authority and then keep on hounding it relentlessly.  That’s what the citizens in Pottstown that I wrote about last week did.  The story demonstrates what can be done, but fully acknowledges the time and effort required.  To call something time consuming, difficult and productive of—at best—only a “small victory” is pretty much the definition of a “wet blanket,” but that is the reality. 

If you ask the people who hounded the MCHA for a long time just to remove one voucher from its holder, I’m not sure they would say things are really any better.  N. Charlotte Street in Pottstown has much greater problems than abuse of a Housing Choice Voucher, witness a recent headline about drug and weapons seizures a few blocks up from our subject building.  But it also still has those citizens I wrote about, and others who keep the public’s focus on the problem, so there is hope.  We must remember that for them, the problem is not only real, it’s real close.  That makes what they do not only a thankless task, but also a downright risky one.  Perspective must tell us that also.

Perspective also says that the people I wrote about last week only lit one candle in the struggle against urban crime, so the view is not much improved.  But what if many others, in other communities, undertook such actions?  Even a wet blanket couldn’t put out the fires they would kindle.

Note:  I will resume my current blog schedule in two weeks, posting next on Friday, March 20.