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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Bike Trail Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Port Indian

Last month, I wrote in support of the Chester Valley Trail’s being routed through Bridgeport, Pa., and across the Schuylkill River to join the Schuylkill Valley Trail in Norristown.  I termed the proposal “exciting,” and said it “offers a great deal of potential.”  I haven’t ridden a bicycle for a great many years, but I know that bike/walking trails can deliver benefits to a community, and I know this from personal experience.  Every community’s experience differs, but I will take this opportunity to relate how one community benefitted enormously.  I know because I was there as it happened.
Just upriver from Bridgeport, on the opposite bank of the Schuylkill River, lies the community of Port Indian.  I lived there for thirty-six years, and I can state, without fear of contradiction, that the adjacent bike trail is the best thing that ever happened to Port Indian.  I don’t expect that to be replicated elsewhere, and certainly not in Bridgeport, but if you’re looking for an actual success story, the one I am about to tell is hard to beat.
Port Indian encompasses a stretch of land in West Norriton Township, bounded by the Schuylkill River on one side and the old, elevated, Pennsylvania Railroad embankment on the other.  The name is an entirely unofficial designation for those homes accessed by East and West Indian Lane.  Both roads predate township regulations, and thus were never formally accepted by the Township.  That makes Port Indian a “private community,” which basically means that the Township is not responsible for anything, from streetlights to street paving.  A Civic Association arranges these things, and must raise the money to pay for them.
Every property in Port Indian has a riverfront; all Port Indian residents live along—and, on occasion, in—the river itself.  Let me also testify to the beauty and serenity life in Port Indian offers, before I move on to that “on occasion, in” bit. 
The Schuylkill River often floods Port Indian; the only question is “how high?  The east end of East Indian Lane is high enough to be safe, but all of West Indian and a portion of East Indian Lane lie at a low level.  This stretch, a solid majority of the properties, floods frequently.  This fact has always made “how to get out quickly” important to each resident.
The key to the problem is this: the only ingress/egress road to the low-lying areas passes under a double-arched stone bridge, part of the railroad embankment.  One arch goes over Indian Creek and the other over the access road.  This presents two problems.  First, there is no clearance under the arch for vehicles of any height.  This kept such vehicles as trash trucks from passing under the bridge.  They had to exit the road, ford Indian Creek, and then climb up the opposite bank.  And then repeat the process in reverse on the way back, of course.
Much more important however, is the fact that the access road below the arch is the lowest point in the entire community.  In other words, the only escape route for the vast majority of residents floods first, before the rest of the road. 
The combination of difficult access/escape and periodic floods combined to make Port Indian largely a “summer community.”  That is being polite.  Township locals referred to it as “Dogpatch.”  For a long time, water-warped shacks served by wells and outhouses were prevalent.  But in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, a new generation of residents began to live there year-round, and thus had to address the community’s physical issues.  Several improvements were made, but the issue of ingress/egress remained unsolved. 
Then came what was known back then as the “Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway,” coming up the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia.  It utilized the old Pennsylvania track bed, ripping up rails, then grading and asphalting a smooth path.  Its initial goal was Valley Forge, which meant it would use the embankment that bordered our community. 
The project was initially met with hostility by every township through which it passed and every community that lay anywhere near it.  As the bikepath neared Norristown, Port Indian residents began to pay attention, as the path passes very close to many houses.  Some were opposed, citing dangers of increased trespassing and theft, just as those downriver had.  But some of us, mindful that we actually had no leverage at all, argued for a different approach.  Let’s welcome the bikeway, we said, and see what we can get them to do for us.  I made the initial approach, to John Wood of the County Planning Commission, and was well-received.  They were pleased—and initially astonished—that a nearby community would actually welcome the bike trail.
These talks produced just what we needed: an elevated access/escape route for our residents.  If you use the trail in this area, you will notice that beginning at the large lot on one side of Indian Creek and extending about one-third down West Indian Lane, the path is much wider than normal.  That was done to benefit Port Indian, to accommodate our vehicles.  We received permission to utilize the bike trail, including the narrower stretch further upriver, for flood evacuation.  We, in turn, built a new approach ramp to the wider section, from what is relatively high ground.  Now, for the first time in its history, residents of Port Indian don’t lose their escape route first.  And that widened stretch of road is now used by trash vehicles, which are now too large to even consider fording the creek.
The buildings in Port Indian used to be water-sodden shacks; today, new residents hire architects to design their homes.  Those who have seen the process through have largely elevated their homes.  Property values have risen a great deal (no one is making waterfront properties these days), and Port Indian has become a desired community to live in.
To be fair, I must admit that trespassing and theft has increased in the community.  What is now the Schuylkill Valley Trail offers miscreants quick access and escape, no doubt about it.  Measured against the gains, however, there is no question that the bikepath is the best thing that ever happened to Port Indian.

The same is not going to be said of Bridgeport, because it can’t.  The two situations are not analogous.  Port Indian also knew what it stood to gain, and kept focused on that.  Bridgeport doesn’t know, and I don’t either.  But that’s the thing about opportunity; it tends to be vague and uncertain.  Given Bridgeport’s post-WWII history and current condition, an opportunity to connect to an emerging and popular transportation network should be seized.  Find a way to do it.  

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