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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, January 29, 2016

Are The Auguries Favorable for Norristown, At Long Last?

I’ve enjoyed speculating about my international audience (and speculation is the best word I can apply to it) during my first two posts of this year.  But now it’s back to the U.S.A., specifically the lower Schuylkill Valley in Pennsylvania.  If my primary goal was to maximize my pageviews, I would write every future post about Phoenixville, Pa.  But it’s time to return to the real world as shared by many more small towns than that of Phoenixville, including five of its fellow towns along the lower river (I don’t count the Conshohockens).  I again address specifically the condition of Norristown, but with something of a twist.  I’m actually trending confident on the town’s future.  That may be difficult to do at this point, given the snow situation in the Borough, so my timing is not exactly good, but oh well.

I know that County and municipal officials have been talking about good times coming for a while now, and I’m late to the party, but I don’t see my role as that of cheerleader.  I’m not from Missouri, I’m from Kansas, but that’s close enough.  I too got to be showed.  That’s happening.  A picture—hazy yet evolving—is taking shape.  It’s rather like a paint-by-number set with only a few of the colors filled in.  That picture is of a Norristown undergoing a revival, at least that’s what I think I see.  The primary colors are being painted in, some for the first time, and they are the important ones.  Some are being applied, as projects currently underway, but too early in the process to affect much yet.  Others are just sitting there, waiting to be applied, in the form of plans or perhaps even dreams.

First, let me confess that the method by which I arrived at this less-than-certain conclusion is no more scientific than casting bones or reading the entrails of a sheep, but at least it is based on facts.  In fact (sorry about that), it is utterly deficient in any sort of what is usually termed “feeling.”  People in a town—or at least some of them—can sense, feel when their town seems to be turning a corner, just as they sensed it declining.  It’s partially based on facts, as they see new businesses appearing, or old ones being spiffed-up, and it’s partially wish fulfillment.  Even so, the test is whether it is contagious.  Do others feel the same thing?  If so, then it’s real.

I can possess no such feeling.  This is the view from outside, although in this day of social media, access to the inside is a great deal better than it used to be.  I pay close attention to what is published about the towns on which I focus, particularly when “published” is by amateurs.  They will say what they actually think.  I discern, amass and sort this collection of items, then attempt to assess them, absent those emotional elements that residence within the town may have implanted in me, in either a positive or negative way.  This isn’t a replacement for your feelings, those of you who do live in these towns, not by any means.  It is merely additional information, to strengthen your appreciation for what is happening.

There is an advantage to viewing from the outside; it can offer a wider perspective.  That’s what motivates this post, and those to come on the subject of a Norristown revival.  I base my optimism more on what is happening outside the borough, although not entirely.  There are several components to this emerging picture, which I will take up in future posts.  Not all of them are positive, but I will leave those to the last.

Those “primary colors” referred to above are the three fundamental realities of life along the river.  A town’s relationship to them has determined the status of each; always has and always will. The problem is that the realities change.  Today, each trend positive for the Norristown area.  This is the first time that all three have pointed in that direction in far too many years.  That is what I shall focus on, and explain what I mean.  Keep in mind, however, that the favorable state of the three fundamental realities is not, by itself, sufficient to bring about a revival.  The residents and their leaders must take advantage of them. 

Notice I said “the Norristown area.”  That’s because no revival of Norristown is possible without an accompanying revival of Bridgeport.  The two towns lie largely in full view of one another, and the people and businesses everyone wants to attract to either will have to like that view if they are going to show up and put down roots.  Norristown and Bridgeport rose together then declined together, and must again rise together if either is to rise at all.  Norristown will get most of the attention in the posts that follow, but Bridgeport will not be ignored.

The fundamental realities are all trending positive, so the key to the future will be the reception Norristown’s people give to these realities in their current form.  While I consider all three changing realities as positive, that’s a net conclusion.  Nothing is ever solely positive for everyone.  Only one reality approaches that standard, and I will discuss it.  Another has some negativity built into it, but that must be accepted, together with steps to minimize that result.  The third reality is the tough one.  I believe that its recent changes are quite positive, and I can point to history to support my conclusion.  Nonetheless, an unpleasant fact of our current times is that a portion—perhaps a substantial one—of Norristown’s people do not see the changes in this third reality as positive at all.  Too many would already classify the current situation as a negative, and if what I consider to be a positive trend continues, the portion of the borough’s population that comes to consider this a negative may well increase.  If this portion proves to be substantial, then Norristown’s path to revival will be longer, more tumultuous, and it will not take the borough nearly as far as it should and could.  I’ll close this blog series with a discussion of this issue, but I want to begin—and continue for as long as possible on a positive note.

Next time I will address the evolving situation just outside the Norristown area, which is the prime driver of both specific projects and a better feeling about the future.  If this situation continues to evolve along recent lines, the Norristown area will become more and more attractive to better-off people and businesses.  A potentially great opportunity looms; can Norristown and Bridgeport take advantage of it?