"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!


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