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

Gloria Steinem

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.