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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, August 5, 2016

Why Phoenixville? Some Thoughts From Residents

During my most recent tour of Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, I spoke at the Phoenixville Public Library on April 11, and concluded my talk on the Borough’s history with my question “Why Phoenixville?”  Why is Phoenixville, alone among the towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River, experiencing a locally-driven resurgence?  I asked my audience, as local residents, to email me what “why Phoenixville?” meant to them.  The response has been outstanding; I have received several thoughtful essays of various lengths, and this time want to address more of the points they have made.  My last post on Phoenixville (June 3rd) focused on the spirit of community that seems to link all of the contributions I have received.  This time I will take up other points, closely related to “community,” but worthy of separate consideration.

Interestingly enough, few of my correspondents are native to Phoenixville; most had moved there, and relatively recently (within the last twenty years).  This means that they were attracted to the new Phoenixville, the town as it is.  “Why” is the subject of these posts, and it is important to understand what they are writing about.  But this opens a deeper question, the type loved by historians.  I’ll address that later, but for now, more praise for the new Phoenixville, from those who chose to move to this small town in Southeastern Pennsylvania, instead of others nearby.

Who are those new residents of Phoenixville?  This observation from one correspondent does a good job of summing it up: 
 “…a whole generation of people who can only find jobs in the desert corporate suburbs, but want some sort of town-like community. We crave what our parents rejected…

The work description was by no means a consensus (two of my contributors were carpenters), but seeking a “town-like community” certainly was.

Proximity to jobs is a major factor, regardless of profession.  The days when the vast majority of a river town’s residents also worked there are long gone.  Tech and Pharma companies in Chester County and along Route #422 in Montgomery County offer jobs, mostly skilled.  The development around the intersections of Rt. 422 has spawned a wide variety of new companies, and thus jobs. 

The decision to move into an old town instead of a new housing community is clearly an individual one.  Many of the employees at these new business locations moved into the equally new housing developments nearby.  But some of them don’t want to live in such places.  They seek to live in a “town-like community.”  So far, so good, but there are other similar towns nearby along the river.  What has attracted so many to Phoenixville, but so few to Spring City (to name only one alternative)?

Travel time is one factor, to be sure.  One writer says she and her husband settled on Phoenixville after deciding that Spring City and Royersford were too far away.  The acceptable level of travel is, of course, also an individual decision.  It is also entirely by automobile, as no alternative transportation exists west of Norristown (in Pennsylvania’s climate, bicycles don’t count as a year-round alternative).  Websites periodically publish “length of travel time to/from work” statistics; I am looking forward to seeing how Phoenixville and Conshohocken compare.  As Phoenixville is adjacent to no Interstate highways, would the travel times of its residents be shorter than those of Conshy, whose residents can access two?

One correspondent offered an acute observation about these new job centers and their paradoxical effect:

 “Phoenixville benefited greatly by the development of the Great Valley Corporate Center and the office development south of Collegeville. While initially not too many people who worked those jobs lived in Phoenixville proper, there was a spillover effect that helped the Borough, and importing those middle-class (and upper-middle class) jobs to the area exposed the Borough to more people and potential future residents. I find it somewhat ironic that those sprawly office parks-- generally responsible for killing small downtowns-- in this case actually might have helped.”

While we are at it, let’s acknowledge another turnaround in the effects of change on our society.  Just as the shift of jobs from within our old towns to outside helped to hollow them out, so to did the emergence of new shopping centers along the area’s larger roads (and particularly at their intersections).  This had an enormous effect, before the malls even appeared.  They were the bane of our old downtowns in the immediate post-war era, attracting the then-new residents in the first automobile suburbs and slowly starving the traditional downtowns of customers despite the huge population increase then underway in the adjacent areas.

Yet several writers referred to “Plenty of shopping all reachable by major roads” as one of Phoenixville’s charms.  This reflects a major historical change in our society; our old towns were built when most people had to walk to both work and shopping (not to mention worship).  Today, people are used to commuting to work and shopping at some distance from their homes, all thanks to the automobile.  No one expects to shop downtown for the basic things, from food to furniture.  These are available at “big box” stores or, increasingly, online.  Phoenixville is an excellent example of an old downtown repurposed for “boutique shopping” and entertainment.  Stores whose specialty offerings could not pay the rent in a mall can thrive in a closely-knit community, and such entertainment options such as micro-breweries (but mostly bars) find them a welcoming environment.

How strange (and thus, how typical of history) is it that these two characteristics of the post-WWII move to the periphery that helped to destroy our old downtowns are, in this much later time, helping to regenerate this one?  That’s why I keep repeating my mantra: That was then; but this is now, and things have changed!

Travel time to work and shopping are important, but the condition and status of the town itself are clearly more so.  Phoenixville has a decided edge over other towns both up and down river in that it has retained—and repurposed—a larger percentage of its beautiful old buildings along a classic American “Main Street,” in this case named Bridge Street.  Central to this ability to cast a spell to both old and new is the Colonial Theatre, the last local survivor of the golden age of movie theaters.  The importance of this treasure as an anchor in the “town experience” cannot be overstated.

Still, as with virtually every old town seeking revival, the secret is Phoenixville’s walkability.  This encompasses a great deal more than just reasonably level geography, but geography certainly helps.  One correspondent had previously lived in Conshohocken, and found Fayette Street’s grade simply too steep, and moved to Phoenixville (while my combination of age and physical decrepitude makes me sympathetic to this point, I must remember that I am not among the demographic that reviving towns seek).  Both towns feature access to the Schuylkill Valley Trail, but that is common to every river town from Philadelphia to Pottstown now; it’s a matter of how this fits into a larger plan to make your particular town attractive.

Walkability actually means pedestrian-friendly (read “wide”) sidewalks, an allowance for business (read “food and drink," but not in that order) on those sidewalks, and a host of small touches that all derive from a deliberate focus of both government and voters on people, not automobiles.  The result is a true sense of community, one that evidences itself regardless of conditions.  One new resident remarked on this: "I loved it when there was a blizzard and we walked downtown (for us, just across the bridge) for coffee and saw everyone out, some on skis, just associating with each other."

Mind you, that Phoenixville’s main street is named Bridge Street should remind us that vehicle access to the river was the reason the Borough came into existence in the first place.  As that is one aspect of history that has not changed, Phoenixville will increasingly be torn by the by-now classic struggle between pedestrians and automobiles, particularly downtown.

In my June 3rd post, I spoke of the predominance of new residents in the responses to me thus far.  That trend has continued.  It largely reflects people who were attracted to what Phoenixville is TODAY.  A more fundamental question lies in the background.  How did Phoenixville get to be the way it is today?

So, I repeat my appeal from that post:

I would like to ask the Borough’s older residents (that’s in length of residence, not necessarily age, although obviously the two go together) to be heard, and speak/write of “the bad old days,” those decades after the final demise of the Phoenix Steel Company.  What was the nature of Phoenixville’s “Community” back then, or even earlier, during the long post-war decline?  Did the spirit die and was reborn, or did it survive, nurtured by the few faithful during the hard times?  This kind of knowledge would go a great way toward answering the question “Why Phoenixville?”

 I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions.  Please email me.

No comments:

Post a Comment