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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Would You Want To Make Bridgeport Like Conshohocken? (Part II of a Series)

Last week I posted a (very) theoretical proposal that I believe would make Bridgeport like Conshohocken. I predicted that “property values will rise, new housing will be built, new residents will settle in town, and if things work out well, maybe even an office building or two.”  I then asked: “What’s not to like?”  What I didn’t ask was the most fundamental question: why would anyone want to emulate Conshohocken in the first place?  That’s this week’s topic.

A quick review: the idea was little more than history repositioned for the automobile age.  Its centerpiece was a new Ford Street bridge, with an improved Ford Street south to DeKalb Pike, a vehicle connection to the new Lafayette Street and a foot/bicycle path to the Schuylkill River Trail.  Together they represent merely upgrades to what used to be before, substituting the automobile (and truck) for the railroad, and upgrading the roads proportionately.  Remember, it’s a regional transportation proposal, because nobody is going to invest millions of dollars to revitalize just Bridgeport.

Wait a minute.  Am I not the person who wrote not so long ago that “history offers almost no guide for the present or the future”?  Yes, that was I, on October 24, 2014, to be precise.  I have since followed that up with more than one discussion about why this is so.  It’s because fundamentally important things have changed, and greatly.  Transportation is one of them.  In the old days, “access to transportation” meant accommodating the railroad (or perhaps its lighter cousin).  Over the course of the 19th century, access to rail transportation transformed the towns on the lower Schuylkill River into bustling, prosperous communities.  Accommodating a rail connection underpinned a community’s growth and development.  But today “access to transportation” means accommodating the automobile, and the automobile only destroys communities.

Any regional transportation connection such as I have outlined would affect the surrounding areas in an economically positive way, but what about the impact on its host, the Borough of Bridgeport?  Financially, it would also be a net positive for the borough, particularly if a business or two were to relocate to take advantage of the new connection.  That would mean greater tax revenue, and Bridgeport could certainly use more of that.   I should note at this point that Conshohocken is one of two river town building a new government/police administration building, with rather more state-of-the-art communications than nearby towns possess.  The influx of business and people—but primarily business—is funding that.  Never underestimate the positive impact of money on at least some community institutions.

Housing values would also rise.  Just look again at the Conshohockens.  West Conshohocken, just down the road from Bridgeport, has been proclaimed the best place in Pennsylvania to buy a home, and Conshohocken, not much farther away, ranks sixth.  You would have to go several places down the list before you come to Bridgeport.  But I ask you, what do those rankings have to do with the boroughs themselves?  The principal factors—Interstate highways and good school systems—would remain the same even if both borough entities ceased to exist.

The fundamental question is this: the value of your house excepted, just why would you want Bridgeport to become like Conshohocken?  A community is not measured by economic indicators alone.  In fact, they don’t even count for very much.  A better road connection to the Turnpike would transform Bridgeport, but with pretty much the opposite effect that the railroad had.  The economic statistics will rise, and even might approach bustling, but the borough’s sense of community would likely wither and die.  By this I mean that better road connections for Bridgeport would do pretty much what great road connections are doing for Conshohocken: greatly increasing property values while debasing its traditional strong sense of community.

An upgraded Ford Street could be a positive boon to those arriving from north of the Schuylkill, and for King of Prussia to the south, but it would basically divide Bridgeport into two halves, one on each side of the street.  Crossing between those two halves would be severely restricted in both location and duration, because the emphasis will be on moving cars along Ford Street, not people across it.  Cars will still back up during rush hour, of course, so add traffic congestion to the daily mix.  A similar process is happening in Conshohocken as we speak, dividing the borough between the new residences and offices along the floodplain from older parts of the borough up the hill. 

Once such a makeover is in place, expect more people come to live in Bridgeport, and maybe even some who come to work there.  Those who come to work will leave for somewhere else in the evenings, and cannot be expected to contribute much to the new Bridgeport beyond revenue.  But how about those who come to stay, the new residents?  Will they contribute to a revival?  First ask yourself the basic question: why will they move there in the first place?  Probably not for work in Bridgeport.  What investment will they feel—and make—in the community?

In a town, with many people living so close together, shouldn’t “community” be a goal somewhere up there with making money?  If you are going to live in close proximity to others, shouldn’t the word “community” take on greater value?  I have been writing about my fear that Conshohocken’s reinvention, imposed on it from outside, will not be accompanied by a resurgence of the community pride that has always been Conshohocken’s trademark.  I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Bridgeport doesn’t have to be like Conshohocken, and if it avoids that fate we should all be pleased.  The borough, having lost pretty much everything that once made it distinctive, at least has close to a clean slate with which to work.  That has its downside, as repurposing beautiful old buildings can contribute greatly to a community’s revival, but you have to work with what you have.  A new group is forming with revitalization its aim, and I applaud that.  I (and others) may have advice to offer, but the plain truth is that the impetus for revival must come from within the Bridgeport community itself, not from outside.

A part of that emphasis should be examining ideas that have worked elsewhere.  On the lower Schuylkill, there are two models for reinvention: the Conshohockens and Phoenixville.  The Conshohocken model is not the one to follow; Phoenixville is, and I will return to that subject in the near future.