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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 29, 2015

Will A New Exit Be A New Opportunity?

I’m a big supporter of transportation alternatives to the automobile.  But I also live in the real world, and in that world too many places have too few such alternatives.  Even those with the best alternative connections cannot depend on them entirely, or even primarily.  I thus find myself in the odd position of saying something positive about a new road connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Municipality of Norristown is an excellent example of good connections connections not being nearly good enough.  Norristown’s rail links to Philadelphia are among the best in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Regional Rail Line to Center City and the Route 100 line to 69th Street intersect at the SEPTA Transportation Center on Lafayette Street.   A substantial parking garage and connections to local bus lines make Norristown a regional transportation hub.  Rail connections have helped the long-suffering town, but a road now under construction holds the promise of a great deal more, and not just to Norristown.  Its completion will mark yet another twist in the tangled relationship between Norristown and the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the sixty-five years that they have coexisted.  Back in 1950, Norristown spurned a connection to the Turnpike; today it sees one as its salvation. 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike arrived in the pastoral farmland known locally as “King of Prussia” in late 1950.  This was, for a brief time, its “Eastern Terminus,” but everybody knew that the Commonwealth was committed to completing the Turnpike from state line to state line, so the terminus was temporary.  Plans for another extension followed quite shortly, in fact, and the public release of a preliminary map caused an uproar in Norristown.  The reason was a turnpike exit planned for Norristown’s eastern border with Plymouth Township.  The entire business and political community (okay, mostly the same people) arose in virulent opposition, headed by the man who knew something about virulence, Borough Councilman Paul Santangelo.  His ward lay directly adjacent to the affected area, and change out of his control was a non-starter for him.  To be fair, however, he wasn’t in his usual role of opposition, but stood with virtually everyone else in opposing this exit, which they were sure would hurt downtown Main Street.  Letters, petitions and caravans to Harrisburg were employed, and The Commonwealth actually listened.  It relocated the exit to where it still is, further into Plymouth Township, to connect to Germantown Pike.  

Well, downtown Main Street collapsed anyway, and Norristown notables and merchants could only observe with real pain the different trajectory those areas close to the Turnpike exits experienced.  Mind you, the Turnpike had a “Norristown Exit.”  The sign said so.  Unfortunately, said exit did not connect to Norristown.  In fact, until recent upgrades improved the situation, a driver had to pay very close attention to a couple of very small signs or find himself well up Germantown Pike before realizing the problem (I have always wondered whether this was deliberate, by a Turnpike Authority smarting from the overwhelming rejection Norristown administered to its original plan).

So it followed that Norristown, which at first glance on a map (remember that archaic item?) appeared to be located at the center of a road transportation network, was actually, upon closer inspection, seen to be isolated from it.  Later generations of Norristown activists would rail against this lack of a true connection, while time largely erased the memory of whose fault it really was.  The Turnpike’s “Norristown Exit” remained a local sick joke for a very long time.

But all that is changing, and Norristown will, at long last, have a real connection to the Turnpike.  This connection will actually lead to Norristown, Lafayette Street to be specific.  You will be able to use it within…well…years.  The target date as of now is 2020, but we should all expect that to slide.  They always do.  A press release by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission dates the origin of the effort to 1999, when the County funded a study about the idea, but it had been batted around for years before that.

Now, finally, physical evidence is beginning to mount, and the future can be at least dimly ascertained.  Work in Norristown to upgrade Lafayette Street is well along, the stretch through Plymouth Township is under construction and PennDot recently announced that it had obtained funding to construct the Turnpike intersection itself. 

Josh Shapiro, Chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners, calls the project “a game changer, as it will be a key part of revitalizing Norristown, improving access to both municipalities, increasing smooth traffic flow and reducing congestion on Ridge Pike and Main Street.”  He might very well be correct to call this a “game changer,” but if it is, then the increased activity it will foster will also generate additional traffic, so don’t get your hopes too high about the “reducing congestion” part.

Another—and much more significant—reason is that this project will definitely have a considerable effect on Conshohocken and perhaps even on Bridgeport.  It will provide the former with a second access point to the Turnpike.  That is definitely going to impact traffic on Fayette Street and Matsonford Road, as some drivers from both boroughs will discover that the new route is actually better for them.  In the larger view, it will both relieve the fear of some about success “choking” Conshohocken, and may be the key to yet another surge of development (toward another “choking” perhaps?).  It will open up Conshohocken Road for development , which means Plymouth Township may gain more than Conshohocken in such a new surge, but few will be unhappy about spreading the new wealth around, except those in the area during rush hour.

While the new interchange/road will directly affect Conshohocken, I'm keeping an interested eye on Bridgeport.  Connections to major roads are coming closer and closer to the borough.  A Lafayette Street connection to the Turnpike would be the nearest yet, just across the river, and promises a much quicker journey to the Turnpike than driving down U.S Rt. 202.  Could a new travel route tempt more people to take advantage of the considerable price difference Bridgeport offers over its surrounding areas?  The contrast between West Conshohocken and Bridgeport is remarkable, considering how close they are and is solid evidence that accessibility to major roads is a determining factor.  Those roads are getting steadily closer to Bridgeport, and at some point may swing the pendulum of prosperity toward the borough.  Time is money, which includes commuting time, so the appearance of a major new connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike is going to have a much broader effect that just on Norristown.  Count on it and plan for it; you know that the land development specialists are already doing both.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Forgetting History, Part II: It’s All About CHANGE

On October 24th of last year, I published a post entitled “When It Comes To The River, Forget History and Start Anew.”  In it I made an observation so fundamental and so important to urban activists that I do not hesitate to repeat it:  “it’s not about remembering history, it’s about learning the lessons that history offers.”  It is all very well and good to remember the facts of history—and nostalgia always sells—but understanding history is the important thing, because it actually offers learning that you can put to good use.

At the core of understanding history lies an appreciation of the importance of CHANGE.  It’s simple, really; if things did not change, there would be no history, only genealogy.  And no one would be trying to make things better, because the concept of “better” would not exist.  There would be no “good old days,” because all days were always the same.  So, history is only about change, with variations of the question “why?” applied to them.
     In my earlier post I phrased my point about understanding change more specifically:

"In Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, one of those lessons is that history provides almost no guide for the present or the future.  Not only have things changed, they have virtually reversed themselves.”

In other words, the best way to apply history to the future of my subject towns is to determine the most important elements of that past, and then try to visualize their exact opposite.  That will get you pretty close.

Take my previous example, the river itself.  Today, the Schuylkill is a Pennsylvania Scenic River, and deserving of the title.  People enjoy being in it, on it or near it, and municipalities benefit from their interest.  Back in the “good old days,” however, the Schuylkill River was little more than an industrial sewer.  It stank, and quite a few unpleasant things floated on or in it.  Consequently, people avoided it to the extent that they could.  You simply cannot find a better example of historical reversal than comparing these two chronological variations of the same reality.  This great change also came about quite quickly.  Some progress was made in the first half of the 20th century, but the real change to the Schuylkill began after the Second World War. 

But not all change is for the good, and the second half of the 20th century provides ample evidence of that truth also.  A change in a second fundamental reality, that of Transportation, did great damage to each of the river towns during this same period.  In truth, combined with the collapse of industry, this post-World War II change delivered the heaviest blow, because it began to reverse the realities upon which each community had been erected.

There is considerable irony in this, because previous changes in Transportation up to that point had been progressively better and better for the river towns.  Each town appeared in the first place because of the transportation needs of the region’s early settlers, i.e., needing to ford the river.  The Schuylkill Navigation and the first turnpike era contributed in a small way, but each town prospered only after the railroad arrived and connected them to the wider world.  By the mid-20th century, that connection spanned the globe.

Within each town, it was even simpler.  Several methods of transportation made their appearance on a town’s streets during their history, but one internal transportation reality continued almost unabated well into the 20th century: most of a town’s residents walked to work, to shop and to worship.  The physical legacy of that truth is obvious in the crowding today of automobiles on streets and properties that were clearly not designed to accommodate them, or even take into consideration their existence.  This transportation reality made our towns what they were, and what we remember them most fondly for being: true communities, encompassing sleep, labor, worship and recreation, all within the town’s limits, or nearby. 

But after the Second World War, the automobile and its spawn combined to virtually reverse the earlier spatial order; the old urban centers of business—and the roads that had accessed them—could not accommodate the numbers of people now traveling by themselves wrapped in their individual metal containers.  These old centers declined in value, while what had (largely forever) been open fields could accommodate large numbers of automobiles (Ample Free Parking!), were put to that use and became the new centers of retail commerce as well as residences.  Wealth and capital flowed to them, hugely increasing their value.

Today, how do you survive without a car?  How many residents of a Schuylkill River town work in that same town?  The jobs are gone.  As for shopping, the commercial downtowns have disappeared everywhere but Phoenixville, where the old downtown now serves fewer of the old functions.  To go shopping in the new locations, you need an automobile, unless you have a high tolerance for both waiting and walking.  As churches continue to close, the distance between worshippers and their edifice steadily lengthens, and more people need a car to get there.

To further the irony, the automobile and the problems it causes will not only continue to afflict each river town in the new millennium, but each town will make all efforts within its abilities to attract MORE OF THEM.  An overall increase in the number of automobiles on a town’s streets is a sign of increasing prosperity (unless the are just passing through, going from somewhere else to somewhere else, of course).  Whether it’s new businesses or new residents, more automobiles will be one result.  Talk about a two-edged sword.

So far, I have introduced one reality that has changed the Schuylkill valley for the better and one that has changed it for the worse, pretty much at the same time.  The River and Transportation have always been—and continue to be—fundamental to the condition of the river towns and their residents.  Both of the examples I offered last October and this one deserve more attention, and I will give them that in my new book, They’ve Been Down So Long/Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, to be published soon. 

But there is a third reality that has been equally fundamental to the growth and prosperity of the river towns throughout their history.  Not only did it reverse itself at the beginning of the 20th century, with considerable negative effect, it proceeded to reverse itself again by the century's end.  The subject is more than a little complicated, and I will be addressing it in the future.  I will post about this twice-reversing reality because it--and a clean river--are ones that the residents of the Schuylkill River towns can turn to their advantage by their own actions.  New ideas about how to utilize the river to benefit its towns are met with hopeful interest, but few ideas are even offered to utilize the changing of this third fundamental reality of life along the Schuylkill.  There are many reasons why, but none of them good.  More about this in the future.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Every Party Needs A Pooper, That’s Why They Invited Me

I had a great time on Tuesday, April 14, at the “Conshy At The Crossroads” panel discussion, held at the Washington Fire Company building in Conshohocken.  Part of the reason was that I got to throw the wet blanket of reality on the “don’t worry, be happy” approach of my fellow panel members.

Don’t get me wrong; my fellow panelists, Jerry Nugent, Montgomery County’s Director of Development and Ray Weinmann, who has direct experience in Conshohocken development, are knowledgeable and experienced men.  They are “development experts;” I am a historian.  I actually found myself in agreement with them on several subjects.  One example would be the proposed development known as “One Conshohocken.”  I join them in their opposition; it is simply too much in too small a space too centrally located. 

It was just that, as you would expect men in their position to do, both offered reassuringly upbeat predictions about the future of both traffic and community in Conshohocken.  It’s a matter of professional perspective.  They largely share one, while I come at the subject from a very different profession.  Optimism about Conshohocken’s future predominated at the table, even concerning the two subjects I have been writing most about:  the potential division between the old and the new residents and…wait for it…TRAFFIC PROBLEMS.  On the question of whether current development might result in “two Conshohockens,” Ray Weinmann opined that time will heal any split between renters and owners in the new Conshohocken.  On what proved to be the most popular subject—TRAFFIC—Jerry Nugent contended that traffic problems in the borough can be “solved,” largely by preventing left turns. 

That left it up to me to, yet again, to be the Wet Blanket.  I would agree with Ray Weinmann that time will likely solve any division within groups of residents, but I would also argue that the amount of time required is way too much to just sit back and wait for that kumbaya moment.  Both borough government and residents need to take action now, before division becomes apparent.  Time heals all wounds, but wouldn’t it be better to avoid inflicting them instead?  He is also right that new offices will spin off other jobs, because the office workers will need services.  While these businesses may make for daytime scenes of bustling prosperity, and perhaps even provide a few jobs for locals, they will be part time and mostly minimum wage, and the businesses will shut down when their office worker customers leave for the day.  Such services only accentuate the differences between what Conshohocken offers its inhabitants.

Jerry Nugent brought his unparalleled local expertise to the panel, and gave everyone an excellent summary of what was happening.  He remembered a prediction that some 40,000 square feet of office space were going to be built in Conshohocken, then reminded us that over two million square feet have been built already, with another million square feet in the pipeline.  His optimism about Conshohocken’s future derives from a professional’s point of view.  He sees success largely in numbers, and the numbers are certainly there for Conshohocken.

It’s not so much that I disagree with either man, only that I ask different questions, with different priorities.  I am rather less “optimistic” about Conshohocken than were my fellow panelists.  As a social historian, I am concerned about Conshohocken’s future as a community.  It’s not going to be what it once was, but what is it going to be?  I have researched the realities that led to the Borough’s founding, growth and prosperity, and find that virtually none of them are applicable today.  The old realities bred a proud, internally-focused community.  What forces exist today that would bring people together and instill a sense of pride in Conshohocken?

At a rather more amateur level, I regret that more consideration is not being given to sustainable construction in a community that will possess these new structures for a long time.  “Impermeable surfaces” does seem to be the rule, and I haven’t heard anything about green roofs, to name just one component of a more energy-efficient community that could be rising.  As a supporter of alternative transportation, I simultaneously applaud the fact that 20% of the people who commute to work in the Borough do so by train (one of the highest numbers in Southeast Pennsylvania), and lament that it is not higher.  How can this be improved? 

As for traffic congestion, I’m not going to repeat what I have already said in previous posts.  I remain unconvinced that it will be “solved,” because I believe that is not possible.  That’s not a knock on Conshohocken, because I believe that about any urban grid of any size, in today’s United States.  Has a traffic congestion problem been “solved” anywhere?  And what do you mean by “solved,” anyway?

I am in the final editing process of my new book, and I will have much to say about Conshohocken, past, present and future.  Here’s a sneak peak at a relevant paragraph:

  The new structures and their built-in garages will likely meet most of
the immediate parking need, but the insertion of these vehicles onto the
Borough’s streets is already causing headaches, and much greater ones
are on the horizon.  Borough streets have also been straightened, widened,
given turning lanes and more, all governed by a carefully-timed system of
traffic lights, but there is only so much even financially well-lubricated
Conshohocken can do with its old urban grid.  The new arrivals, whether on
their way to or departing from their new parking garages, will overwhelm
the downtown streets during rush hour at the very least.  The legend of 
             Conshohocken traffic jams is only beginning.”

Call me a wet blanket, but I heard nothing at the first “Conshy At The Crossroads” to change my mind.  That paragraph will be in my book.

The event, sponsored by the Conshohocken Revitalization Alliance and Morethanthecurve.com, drew a good audience, considering that it was held on not only a weekday night, but also the night before our national "tax day."  Our moderator was Naomi Starobin, editor of WHYY's Keystone Crossroads.  She did yeoman work trying to keep things on course and on schedule, which can be difficult when residents are asked to offer questions (particularly when they ask their question in the form of an extended statement).  This was but the first of several planned for this year, and I strongly recommend that Conshohocken residents attend those to come.  This one was intended to provide a general background to the developing situation, but residents wasted no time getting to the nitty-gritty subjects, primarily traffic.  I'll bet that is also a primary subject for all of the upcoming events, despite what their titles might indicate.  Anybody disagree?