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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, April 22, 2016

People Were Once The Strength of the Schuylkill River Towns; Can It Be That Way Again?

I have just returned from my speaking tour of towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  It was a fruitful visit; I learned a great deal, which I hope to integrate into my future posts.  But in keeping with my current blog series on the impending revival of Norristown/Bridgeport, I’m going to briefly summarize what I said at the Montgomery County/Norristown Public Library on Wednesday, April 13th.  

The entire history of the towns on the lower Schuylkill River can be summarized under three fundamental realities: The River, Transportation and People. The River underlies everything else, and that of Transportation has been responsible for the most dramatic and obvious changes in the river towns, but throughout their history it has been People that have been responsible for their growth and development.  The river towns were what their residents made them.  That was always true, remains true today, and will be true tomorrow. 

The period after the Second World War saw one reality—the River—begin its slow change toward the positive, from open sewer to scenic playground.  At the same time, however, the reality of Transportation turned decisively against the old river towns.  Once fully integrated into the rail network, they found themselves isolated from the new network of limited-access highways.  Some still are, but Norristown/Bridgeport will, within a few years, gain a new connection.  That connection will lead directly to the now clean river and its banks, now denuded of industries.  Opportunity awaits there.

The story of fundamental change to the River and to Transportation takes place largely after the Second World War.  But the fundamental reality of People was the first to turn negative, back in the early decades of the 20th century.  The First World War and then a reactionary U.S government virtually shut off the massive flow of immigrants to the United States that had characterized the late 19th century.  By the late 1920s, a new immigration structure was in place, which attempted to freeze the numbers of each ethnicity that could enter in the future.  This ended the waves of immigrants that had filled the Schuylkill River towns (among many others) during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the decades that followed, the river towns suffered from this lockdown, but few realized it.  Their residents became “Americans” but hyphenated ones.  They retained their ethnic identity and continued the social isolation that always divided their towns.  As the younger people left for the automobile suburbs, their world became steadily less representative of a changing America.  This added to the isolation that the fundamental change in Transportation visited upon the river towns.  This veneration of the past without the regeneration that had characterized the past via immigrants had a stultifying effect on the old river towns.  This simultaneously hallowed the memory of their specific ethnic heritage while eliminating the memory that they all—or their parents—had been immigrants at some point.

But The River now flows in a positive direction, and Transportation stands ready to direct bountiful interest to the common waterfront of Norritown/Bridgeport.  But what about People?  My motto—“that was then; but this is now, and things have changed”--reverberates on this subject, because much has indeed changed.  But something that hasn’t changed—hostility towards immigrants—threatens to limit the potential benefits of this alignment.

The periodic infusions of energy, hope and ambition in the new arrivals drove local prosperity during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  After almost a century of stagnation, it is doing so again, particularly in Norristown.  The new immigrants are Hispanics, those from Mexico in particular.  Until quite recently, they were so few as to be uncounted.  Today they are at least a statistical presence in every river town, but once again Norristown leads the way with the new immigrants.  They constitute roughly one third of Norristown’s population.

I consider this to be a great opportunity for Norristown/Bridgeport.  Unfortunately, history is (sort of) repeating itself, because too many residents, forgetting their immigrant past, have chosen to view this as a burden on the town and make the same arguments that were applied to their own ancestors.  Added to this is the dispute about “legality,” which certainly wasn’t a consideration back when the Irish and then the Eastern Europeans arrived on our shores.  Almost the only way you could be denied entry was by individually possessing some unwelcome disease or condition, and unaccompanied minors were routinely allowed in.   Of course, if you were trying to enter on the west coast, and you were Chinese or Japanese, things were different, but never mind that for now.

But for too many, “legality” is only a convenient excuse to justify the traditional American dislike and distrust of “the other,” one of the less exemplary components of the American character.  The legal issue can only be settled in Washington, but while we wait for a decision, why not take advantage of a situation that you can’t change?  Why not accept—and assist—the people who want to work and contribute?  Their potential vastly outweighs the negatives they bring, as it did for the Irish, Italians, Jews, and the many Eastern European ethnicities that preceded them.  Don’t think so?  Just walk down Main Street in Norristown, then do the same on West Marshall Street.  The difference is starkly obvious.  Main Street shows a few signs of life, but West Marshall Street is awash in new businesses, almost all of them Hispanic.  Government—at any level—did not bring this about; people did.  There is a lesson here about who is actually responsible for urban revival.

What adds to—and can greatly multiply—this opportunity is the coincidental fact that Norristown, alone among the river towns, no longer possesses a Caucasian majority.  In fact, it has no majority at all, only minorities—Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic—of almost equal numbers.  The time when some could complain that that an oppressive majority was thwarting their progress is long gone.  That excuse just doesn’t work any more.  In truth, there are no more excuses.

This new population balance makes Norristown a potential laboratory for the racial and ethnic reconciliation that will be required to take full advantage of the opportunity that the River and Transportation are delivering.  Failure to follow this path will only limit—and may even abort—the potential rebirth that awaits both Norristown and Bridgeport.

These lines from the second-to-last paragraph of They’ve Been Down So Long...sum up my message:

“Norristown thus has a unique opportunity to absorb and apply the lessons of history and ensure that the errors of the past are not repeated.  With no majority ethnic or racial group, and a community-wide dissatisfaction with the status quo, Norristown is ideally suited to attempt a combination of racial and ethnic reconciliation….Setting such an example could be Norristown’s greatest contribution to the twenty-first century.”

Anyone interested?