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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, April 7, 2017

Maintaining A Sense of Community: A Very Big Job For This Very Small Town

Last month, I wrote about the very small town (current population, some 1300 people) of West Conshohocken, Pa., which is literally besieged by vehicle traffic, due to hosting an intersection of interstate highways within its already tiny boundaries.  The feeder roads and ramps to the interchange have not only taken land that used to be houses and playgrounds, they have divided what remains into small, isolated pockets.  I saw in this scenario a chance to inquire whether a sense of community—once a prominent characteristic of West Conshohocken, as of its sister towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River—can survive under such an assault.  I concluded the post with an appeal to the residents of West Conshohocken to send me comments on the current state of their community.  I promised to write a post about the opinions I would receive, and this is it.

But first, a reality check.  If we are going to discuss a town’s sense of community today, we must first understand and appreciate just how difficult a task our towns face, through no fault of their own, even those not subjected to anything close to what has happened to West Conshohocken.  The simple fact of life today is that the deck is stacked against towns trying to retain their long-time sense of community, and the smaller the town, the higher the stack.

It didn’t use to be that way; in fact, it used to be exactly the opposite.  Every town on the lower Schuylkill River, including West Conshohocken, came into being when the technology of the times almost mandated not just the creation of a town, but of closely integrated and tightly-packed towns.  Each town, regardless of size or specific geography contained within it—because it had to—almost everything people needed: workplaces, shopping, houses of worship and sources of entertainment, all usually within walking distance.  You got to know your neighbors, because you worked with them.  Wives shopped together at just a few stores, so the proprietors got to know people as individuals.  You didn’t see everybody at worship, but you saw those who were most like you, due to the town’s ethnic churches.  As regards the (scarce) leisure time available for entertainment, the world of these towns may have been limited, but local theatres brought the outside world to a town’s residents, first by hosting many of the day’s touring entertainment options, and later through films.

When people lived, worked, shopped, worshiped and relaxed, all within the same town, they felt a strong sense of responsibility toward the community they had created.  Thus each town, knowing that for anything short of a major disaster it was largely on its own, created its own community protection, with a professional police force and one or more volunteer fire companies.  The fire companies, in turn, did a great deal more than just fight fires; they became, together with the ethnic churches, the core social organizations of each town.  These community protectors were also staffed by community residents, further cementing the bond to one’s town.

This idyllic picture is a huge generalization, of course, and one important point it disguises is important here:  the smaller the town, the fewer people there were to staff the fewer industries, patronize the fewer local shops, worship at the fewer ethnic churches and so on.  This was, and still is, relevant for West Conshohocken.

But whether in large towns or small, that was then; this is now, and things have changed, by pretty much 180 degrees.  Today, in virtually every aspect of daily life—work, shopping, worship and entertainment—the cultural incentive is to look outward, away from where you actually live.  What percentage of a town’s residents actually work in the same town?  You do not see your neighbors at work like you used to, and that has weakened communities everywhere.  And shopping?  If you live in one of my subject Schuylkill River towns, I’ll bet you don’t do much shopping there (except, of course, if you are seeking trendy things on Bridge Street in Phoenixville).  I’ll spare you a rendition of what has happened to the ethnic churches along the lower Schuylkill River, but nothing is sadder, more damaging to the sense of community, than the closing of such a church, and even West Conshohocken has been affected. Last, but by no means least, tectonic change in communications have rendered entertainment into something you almost can’t find in town anymore, particularly a small one.  It’s so readily available in every home, why go outside?  There are still big events, of course, and they aren’t held in the river communities any more (except maybe Phoenixville, again).

These changes have made it much more difficult for a smaller town than for a larger one to create and sustain a sense of community feeling, and West Conshohocken has suffered from them all.  Then, of course, there has been the interchange.  This is a physical divider, separating an already small town into even smaller, and largely isolated, segments.

So that’s how this outsider views West Conshohocken, beset by far more than the usual impediments to community.  That’s why I asked for responses from West Conshohocken residents.  A summary of them follows, but first, let me make it clear that the number of responses does not allow me to make a claim that any one of them is representative of the community as a whole.  Second, people with a grievance are more likely to air it than those who lack such a stimulation.  This hold true under almost every scenario, and the current status of West Conshohocken is no exception.

With those caveats in mind, here are some generalizations I derive from listening to those who actually live within the community.

First, the vast majority of the replies by residents spoke not of the West Conshohocken community today, but that of their childhoods.  I suspect, from their phraseology, that this is a silent statement about the way things are today, but it is also evidence that the town’s smallness helped to sustain a close sense of community, despite the many other drawbacks.  Community is all about personal relationships, and West Conshohocken residents were profuse in their memories of them.  As one resident put it, “West Conshy was the best place to grow up; everyone knew each other or if they didn’t they knew some in your family.”  This apparently applied to an earlier Police Chief, of whom it was said, “…he didn’t need to chase anyone, he knew all of our parents.”

Whether the memories are silent statements or not, those that addressed the question of community today were close to unanimous in their opinion, and it wasn’t favorable.  Most who claimed to have lived there all their lives echoed the words of one who said, “it has changed, not for the better.”  Today, “it would be nice to have a few things again other than buildings and houses,” said another.  A life-long resident who lives “across the street from the blue route off ramp” has it particularly bad, suffering from noise and vibration as “the trucks go by all hours [of the] day and night.”  One statement in particular seemed to sum things up, striking an obvious chord in me: “This isn’t West Conshohocken anymore, it’s just a place people need to travel [through] to get where they’re going.”

     But one response served to add some needed balance to the picture.  It came from a member of Borough Council who—significantly—is not a life-long resident.  The intersection drew him to West Conshohocken, as it does for others, because it provides “immediate and direct access” to the major destinations in the region.  The fact that someone of relatively short residence can be elected to such a neighborhood position also reflects the ongoing change within the Borough.  He is living testimony to his claim that, “There is an on-going balance being struck between residents whose families have lived here for generations and newer residents.”  But the most promising part of his response—for me, at least—was his use of the phrase “on-going.”  Adjustments to change often take longer than the change itself, and square in the face of such enormous obstacles, West Conshohocken continues the fight.  The end result is still uncertain, but I believe the Councilman is correct when he claims, “there is still a lot of fight in us.” 

They are going to need it.

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