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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, March 25, 2016

Okay Smart Guy, What About Pottstown and Phoenixville?

In my previous post I spoke of one way in which the fundamental reality of Transportation has begun to flow in a positive direction for Norristown/Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.  This is the under-construction “Lafayette Street Expansion Project,” the best news to arrive at this point along the Schuylkill River in quite some time.  I concluded with an introduction to my next subject, how Norristown can take advantage of the quite favorable condition of its most fundamental reality, The River, the very reason the town was built in the first place.  I will flesh out that subject in my next post, but first I need to clear up some questions involving the relationship between limited-access highways and town revival.

The central point of my introductory post in this series about Norristown/Bridgeport was the claim that upcoming access to a limited-access highway could be the needed spark for revival.  I referenced the Conshohockens to support my point.  Those two neighboring boroughs do so in spades, as they connect to not just one such highway, but at the intersection of two, and the result has been a remarkable influx of both businesses and residences.

So far, so good.  But two questions should occur to anyone following my theme.  First, wasn’t Pottstown the target of a new limited-access highway some years ago?  It doesn’t seem to have helped much.  Why Not?  Second, and more broadly, how do I explain Phoenixville?  The Borough thrives in the absence of any “access to transportation” as I have defined it.  So how important is “access to transportation,” really?

These are pretty much the two polar ends of critique, and both raise valid questions.  I have already addressed both subjects, in diametrically opposite ways.  I can explain the first, but admit to having but a few clues as to the second.  That’s why I’ll discuss Phoenixville first.

“Access to transportation” does not guarantee revival, and as Phoenixville demonstrates, is not even necessary.  It is, however, the event most likely to set a revival in motion.  The revival of our old industrial towns can have many sources (although “industry” isn’t one of them), a fact that has been amply demonstrated already and continues to be.  More fundamentally, I also contend that no one component—even “access to transportation”—is sufficient by itself; they must interact in a positive manner.  That was the final message of my previous post.

I must also admit that I have decidedly mixed feelings about gaining a town’s connections to a limited-access highway.  There is much to be gained, but much is going to be lost.  The Conshohockens demonstrate why I am concerned, as old Conshohocken and its long-time residents are being overwhelmed by the influx of new people, whose view of the borough and their responsibility toward it differ markedly.  “Old” Conshohocken knew what it was and was proud of it.  Can a new consensus self-image of Conshohocken emerge, and what would it be?  Still, as I observed previously, five of the boroughs upriver—Norristown, Bridgeport, Royersford, Spring City and Pottstown—would love to have even a small version of Conshohocken’s problems if they replace some of the current ones.

But Phoenixville is literally a case of its own, with a revival that has nothing to do with a new connection to one or more limited-access highways.  Nobody moves to Phoenixville because of its access to Southeastern Pennsylvania’s network of major roads, but they have been moving nonetheless.

I have published a series of posts—some of them guest posts—about the Borough’s revival, all beginning with that same question: Why?  That’s because I don’t know why Phoenixville—alone among the towns on the lower Schuylkill River—has enjoyed a locally-based revival.  Thus I seek answers from residents who have experienced the change.  The response has been excellent, but I am by now means done; there is so much more to learn.  I will return to this subject, and continue to invite your thoughts and comments on this fascinating issue.  I will address it specifically during my talk in the Phoenixville Public Library (co-sponsored by the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area) on Monday, April 11, and look forward to hearing from those who have actually lived through the process.

Potttstown’s situation is much easier to explain.  In fact, I already have, in a post published on February 20, 2014.  I include the link below, but here is my basic point: The “Pottstown Expressway” does not demonstrate the failure of a highway connection to revive a town, because aiding Pottstown was not its intended purpose, as its design demonstrates conclusively.  Although the new highway was pitched as a lifeline to an ailing borough, that was just for public consumption, as public taxes would pay for it.  The highway was designed from what me might call a broader viewpoint.  It was the final component of a new U.S. Route #422, to replace an overburdened Germantown Pike.  The whole point was to bypass the towns that Germantown Pike had always served, Pottstown being only the largest of them.  Its true purpose was to provide access to the land between King of Prussia and Pottstown, first for developers and then their customers and their customers’ customers.  That stretch contained a substantial amount of “buildable land” back then, much of which has been since built on.  The new U.S. Route #422 did the job it was designed to do, as everyone who sits gridlocked on the highway during rush hour(s) should understand.  Keep in mind also that the road was not even designed to connect to Pottstown, but to the much older “Pottstown Bypass,” making it easier to avoid the town altogether.  My post about the “Pottstown Expressway” will tell you what you need to know, but more about public marketing than about roads reviving old towns. 

The new Lafayette Street/Road, by contrast, is much shorter.  Although it will foster development along the stretch of Plymouth Township that it crosses before it gets to Norristown, and maybe even northern Conshohocken, new construction in Norristown was its true goal, unlike that of the “Pottstown Expressway.”  Even more important, as I began to discuss last time, is the fact that the new road goes right into downtown Norristown, terminating close to the riverfront.  I will return to that subject in my next post, and discuss why that is so important.

Here is the link to the full post about the "Pottstown Expressway":