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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Chester Valley Trail Will Be Good For Bridgeport

I’m suspending my blog series on Immigration yet again, to discuss an exciting proposal that has been presented to one of my eight subject towns, Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.The proposal offers a great deal of potential, but it comes with a catch, a big one.  The task is to find a way around this catch, because the opportunity should not be wasted. 
I support the routing of the Chester Valley Trail through Bridgeport to connect with the Schuylkill Valley Trail, and encourage residents to view this not as a problem, but as an opportunity.  I am not saying accept the proposal as is, but find a way to get it done with as little damage as possible.  It will be worth it.
No, I don’t drive the bridge or DeKalb Street anymore (although I used to, on a regular basis); this is an outsider’s perspective, one that I believe can contribute to the discussion.  My point is not about the present, but the future, based on a study of the past.
What’s needed is a refocusing, from the personal and the present to the community and the future.  The former sees largely loss, while the latter offers opportunity.  And the key to shifting focus from the present to the future can be found in the past.  History can help you gain this perspective, if you understand history as CHANGE, and look for patterns rather than just memories. 

Here the historical pattern to understand is importance of access to and location along the dominant transportation networks of the day.  Bridgeport, and the other towns along the Lower Schuylkill River, once possessed both.  Each river town was founded around the intersection of the early roads and the Schuylkill River.  The 19th Century railroad network nurtured the river towns, Bridgeport most definitely included, for a century and a half, and underlay their development into true communities. 

But that changed.  The coming of the new post-WW II road network bypassed these same towns, Bridgeport again included.  Today, only the Conshohockens have a direct connection to this network, and the consequences of that have literally transformed both towns.  Pottstown has access (more or less), but its location along the road network tends to isolate it.  Norristown is getting a connection, and hopes are high.
And Bridgeport?  Well, Bridgeport has always sort of benefitted from the prosperity of Norristown, and I am already on record that Norristown’s chances for future prosperity largely derive on that new connection to the road network, so maybe.

But if you're looking for a vehicle to haul Bridgeport out of the sloth of stagnation onto a faster track, don't bet on the automobile.  The automobile played a crucial role in the destruction of old Bridgeport, and shows no sign of altering that role in the future.
The proposal before Bridgeport has nothing to do with the automobile, or road networks at all.  In that peculiar way of history, it represents both the past and the future, based on CHANGE.  One of the routes of that old, long-abandoned railroad network that nourished both Norristown and Bridgeport is now hosting a new network, one still in development, whose potential cannot yet be guessed.  They aren’t going to recreate the old Bridgeport, but they will play a part in shaping the new.

The future, especially for old river towns, doesn’t lie in the automobile, but in what is broadly called “alternative transportation.”  That’s what this old/new network is all about (that and the current obsession with fitness, of course).  And that is just a component of the larger question, i.e., how to get outsiders to learn about Bridgeport/Norristown—and others—and see the opportunities they offer?

A network of trails offers at least a partial answer.  People have been traveling through both Bridgeport and Norristown by automobile for some time now, and not many have seen either as the town of opportunity.  Why don’t we add a different mix of people, particularly when that mix is weighted toward exactly the type of people a reviving town hopes to attract?

One of those commenting on a Facebook post about the proposal questioned how many people in Bridgeport will actually use it.  He may well be right, particularly in the immediate future, and he brings up the central point, the reason why you want this trail to pass through Bridgeport.  It isn’t about local residents using it, but about “outsiders.”  They’re the ones you want to attract to your town, and a heavily-utilized bike connection can only help.

The outsiders who will use these trails have been given many names, from intensely supportive to rather derogatory, but as people, the vast majority have one thing in common:  they possess "disposable income," as evidenced by their bikes and gear, which are pretty costly.  These are exactly the people you want to come to Bridgeport, or at least be aware it exists.  Awareness of the Borough if you are driving through on Monday through Friday is minimal, but passing through on a bicycle (not to mention walking) over the weekend will impart a whole new understanding of the trail's surroundings, the Borough of Bridgeport.

But you don’t just want people passing through on their way to someplace else, you want them to see something locally and be attracted to it.  What is there for them to see, be attracted to, and begin to think more about the area?  There are some small, specific answers to that question, but the broad answer is obvious, if often overlooked: the riverfronts of both towns.  Both Norristown and Bridgeport possess unexploited riverfronts; proper development can make them area attractions.  I thus repeat my earlier thesis that Norristown’s—and Bridgeport’s—return to prosperity will derive from their relationship to the Schuylkill River.

That means you must get outsiders to the river, to experience its new beauty.  Cars are only one method; important, to be sure, which is why I promote the Lafayette Street Project’s potential.  Cars must be accommodated but accommodating them must not dominate the process.  Alternative Transportation—the whole gamut—is a wave of the future, and one that both Norristown and Bridgeport should ride.    

Bridgeport Borough Council favors the Chester Valley Trail project, subject to some changes.  I commend Tim Briggs, State Representative, 149th District, for recognizing the Trail's potential and supporting it.  The necessary changes can be made.  Don't let a loss-focused myopia block the kind of creative thinking this proposal represents.  A better future depends on it.

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