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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, August 21, 2015

When Did Phoenixville’s Renaissance Begin?

Last week’s guest post by Shannon Mannon of Activate Phoenixville Area (APA) proved to be very popular.  In fact, it’s my most viewed post to date.  That is understandable, because Shannon’s love for and commitment to Phoenixville shone clearly.  Her essay was truly a “love letter.”  Shannon’s essay offered several threads to pursue, but as a historian, I have to start with one that is critical to addressing the question “why Phoenixville?”: when did the borough’s renaissance begin?

“When did [insert your subject here] begin?” is one of the most debated questions in historical inquiry.  The result is always disagreement as to the “correct” answer.  There is no consensus definition of “began,” either, even when you have major events and convenient dates.  The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and we went to war.  Okay, but that war had begun in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, right?  Yes, but the Japanese invaded China several years before that, and it was the Japanese who got us into the war, so shouldn’t their invasion of China count?  And what about Germany and Italy making sure Spain would be at least neutral during the same period?  If this is the way it is with such easily definable—and infinitely discussed—events, what about those of less fame and considerably less analysis?

I deal with the question of when something “began” in my first book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.  When did Norristown’s classic American Main Street downtown begin to decline?  Here’s a hint:  sooner than you think!  I can back up my claim with statistics, but how about when the decline ended?  No so easy, but I think I make a good case.

Still, other—and conflicting—cases could be made.  This is largely because life—and therefore time—is a continuum, a heterogeneous unity where every part differs from every other part, but in such subtle gradations that no boundaries exist within the unity itself.  The corollary is that ALL such boundaries are both arbitrary and imaginary.  Yet without boundaries and categories, all you would have is “hippie history,” where “everything’s like everything, man.”  That would be no help to anyone at all.  So we establish all sorts of groupings of reality’s elements, because we need to.  We talk about them, promote them, disagree over them, but in the final analysis we should understand that they are all imaginary while we continue to employ them.  Unfortunately, there are few concepts harder to keep in mind.  I offer our current political discourse as an example.

Historians, as you might expect, tend to give the “roots” of an event much attention.  You must look at the period before it became obvious that something was going on if you want to know why it is going on.  The result within our profession is that not only do we dispute the time when something “began,” we also dispute what ”began” actually means.  As a result, that arbitrary and imaginary date when something “began” gets pushed back further and further. 

As we collectively understand history better, we appreciate the minute but inexorable pace of “change.”  Pretty much everyone else settles for easily definable “periods” with exact dates for boundaries.  The terms of presidents has pretty much replaced the reigns of kings for such purposes, but the change in very few of either actually signifies much.      

Phoenixville could prove to be an excellent example of disagreement over when it renaissance “began.”  Shannon referred to 2003, as “decidedly pre-renaissance”.  But it’s not that simple, and Shannon came to understand that.  In her words,

But the bones were all there – a walkable downtown, a diverse population, an intimate small town feel in close proximity to Philadelphia and the bigger suburbs….As a new Phoenixville transplant, what I hadn’t yet learned, was the community underground of leaders who had been working for decades to poise our community for the explosion in growth / engagement we benefit from today…. the founding parents of Phoenixville, who stuck around after the mill closed, jobs were lost, and decades of pain, and darkness ensued. How these visionaries lit a flame of hope, and fanned it with their belief that this Phoenix would rise again from the ashes. Painstaking project by project, committee meeting by committee meeting, these heroes built up the foundation our community to poise it to rise greater than before.”

Here’s a question: might those “founding parents” who endured the hard times have a different idea as to what constitutes the beginning of “revival” than someone who had recently arrived?  They have a very different perspective, after all.  I suspect they might they date its beginning before 2003, but I am sure they could not all agree on any one year.

Could statistics—population trends, borough issued building permits, tax receipts and the like—help to answer this question?  Tangible results may offer a date (or more likely, a date range) that things began to coalesce, at least among those components that can be calculated.  Yet we must remember that tangible and measureable results only appear after several components have already coalesced.  People had indeed worked for decades prior to 2003 to revive Phoenixville.  That makes those positive economic indicators an example of results, not causes.  They thus have limited usefulness in answering that all-important question “WHY?”

Let’s return to the question of perspective.  Even after statistical analysis had identified the date (range) when categories turned positive, wouldn’t something like “when Phoenixville’s renaissance began” ultimately be determined by your perspective anyway?  If we consider statistics as results, or at least only a partial answer, then we need to identify those less quantifiable but still necessary other components.

I believe that’s where the long-time residents can add a great deal to our discourse.  I would love to know when those hometown heroes—the ones who “stuck around”—think Phoenixville’s renaissance began. If you qualify as an “old time” resident (and I will let you define what that means), then chime in with your opinion, regardless of length; take as long as you need.  You can either comment on this blog, or email me directly at: mike@michaeltolle.com

Either way, you have a chance to add important, but too easily ignored, pieces to the puzzle.  I guarantee you that I will read what you send me, and perhaps even publish it, in part or in whole.  Let me know what you think!

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