Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

What Killed Downtown? by Eric McAfee

What Killed Downtown?: Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls
by Michael E. Tolle

For those of us who have grown dyspeptic on the over-indulged topic of the collapse of the American city center, Michael Tolle’s What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls earns much of its anodyne appeal by straying from a commonly accepted convention in urban studies—that an analysis of the socioeconomic decline of a community should draw heavily upon socioeconomic variables. Isn’t there another way to get the point across? And more importantly, aren’t there other contributing factors?

This compassionate narrative of the 20th century rise and fall of an older Philadelphia suburb avoids graphs and charts for the most part, becoming much more engaging for its alternative approach. And likeability is exactly what it will need to win over skeptics, or the merely apathetic, because most people in the US probably have never heard of Norristown. In fact, it’s likely that quite a few people on the other side of the Keystone State aren’t familiar with it either. After all, the borough at its 1960 peak only had 39,000 inhabitants (the 2010 Census records a population of 34,000). But Norristown merits further observation, not so much because its downtown has declined in the mid-20th century—that happened everywhere, in municipalities of all sizes—but because Norristown sits squarely in the middle of Montgomery County, an expansive bedroom community of Philadelphia with 800,000 people and a median household income of over $78,000, placing it within the top 100 wealthiest counties in the nation. Meanwhile, Norristown’s median household income, according to the latest Census, is approximately $43,000 and its poverty level of 16.4% is almost triple that of the county’s 5.7%, and still a fair amount higher than the state’s rate of 12.6%. While Montgomery County boomed over the last half century, Norristown has not shared in that prosperity. It is by no means a devastated town—many old neighborhoods remain charming and fully intact—but the commercial heart of Norristown has never healed.

The above paragraph contains a higher concentration of raw data than one should ever expect to encounter in Tolle’s new book. Rather than delving into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Census Bureau, or rankings from Urban Land Institute or the Brookings Institution, Tolle manages to chronicle the rapid ascent of this suburban outpost, its 75-year dominion over commercial activity within the county, and its precipitous decline shortly after the Second World War—and he achieves it through a diligent perusal of old city directories, interviews with almost two dozen of Norristown’s older citizenry, and a vigorous exploration of the internal machinations of the Borough Council. He applies an anthropologist’s lens to a subject that sociologists have long overcrowded.

While Norristown’s early history—first as a manor under one of William Penn’s initial surveys, followed by a subdivision into smaller farms by Isaac Norris in 1712—is clearly never the focal point for Tolle’s methodical dissection of downtown, he avoids glossing over it. Not surprisingly, Norristown emerged as the most desirable plot of land in the sprawling manor because of its accessibility: it abutted the “canoeable part of the Schuylkill” and the interconnected American Indian trails that allowed for easy fording of the river. By 1784, the Pennsylvania Assembly carved Montgomery County out of the existing Philadelphia County, and a subsequent deed conveyed lots reserved for county buildings at the intersection of two of the only extant roads at the time. Due to its advantageous location, it became a nearly self-sufficient Town of Norris within a few years, abiding by Penn’s “Town Model” for Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities, employing tightly organized, gridded streets that maximized uses of available space. The construction of some of the earliest turnpikes helped to stimulate the town’s steady growth and prepare it for its incorporation as a borough of 520 acres in 1812, followed shortly thereafter by the rail networks that galvanized further expansion.

Swede Street just north of Main Street, known by some as Lawyers’ Row. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

The early chapters of the book may only provide a backdrop for Norristown’s 20th century rise and fall, but Tolle chronologically accounts for the factors that helped Norristown emerge as the primary urban center in Montgomery County. And unlike neighboring 19th century boomtowns that dot both the Delaware and Schuylkill Valleys, Norristown “lacked the characteristics that define similar towns of sufficient size and influence that could easily explain the downtown’s decline. . . [It] was never a one-company town. It was never dependent on [a] single employer whose corporate fate might have led it to a catastrophic domino effect; rather Norristown’s workforce has always been distributed among many workplaces.” It owed much of its steady growth to its fortuitous location 17 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the convergence of several modes of transportation, and its role as the administrative center of a large and increasingly prominent county.

By the book’s twentieth page, Tolle reveals the real heart of his study: the bustling commercial core of Norristown’s six-block Main Street. At the borough’s Centennial Celebration, population approached 30,000, swelling largely from immigrants who arrived to work in various industries: first the northern European Protestants, then the Irish, then, in by far the highest concentration, the Italians, overwhelmingly from Sicily. Mennonites, Amish, and Jews (predominantly of German heritage) along with African Americans arrived in smaller numbers. While the population self-segregated along largely ethnic and economic lines (working and lower-middle class Protestants on the West End; the wealthy, Northern European original settlers in the North End and DeKalb Street; Italians and African Americans in the blue-collar East End), all the strata converged along Main Street’s densely commercialized blocks. Tolle explores the full week’s worth of celebratory activities, from the details of the floats in the Industrial Day parade to overhead weave of flags, bunting, and electrical wires. The pace of the narrative slows at this point, but Tolle employs a humanism that he retains across the ensuing pages. When he intermittently bogs down in relentless detail, he’s easily forgivable—even a little admirable for not shying away from his obsessions.

A view of DeKalb Street, Norristown’s most affluent residential address, from its southern junction with Main Street. This was once the center of commercial activity in the borough. Tolle details the controversy of the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan to make DeKalb Street one-way northbound in 1951, a restriction which remains today. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

The Directory of the Boroughs of Norristown and Bridgeport, Montgomery County, Pa, for the years 1860-1861 serves as the bedrock for his chronological exploration of the commercial health of downtown Norristown. For some of the most resilient businesses—Chatlin’s Department Store, Egolf’s Furniture, Zummo’s Hardware—Tolle offers vignettes on their immigrant backgrounds and the financial maneuvering necessary to start their trades. Interspersed with these brief accounts are updates from subsequent City Directories, chronicling the change in business composition over time. But Tolle generally eschews tables and charts—with few exceptions, he narrates the changing commercial landscape of Norristown by integrating the livelihoods of the proprietors with the demands of the consumers. Because the authorial voice depends so heavily on firsthand accounts of the business climate—articles from the Norristown Times Herald, advertisements (including misspellings and solecisms), and, in the later years, eyewitness accounts—the routine references to City Directory data never grow stuffy or monotonous.

What Killed Downtown? is a concatenation of anecdotes. While such an indulgence in human-interest nostalgia could take a maudlin turn, Tolle again counterbalances these episodes with moments of acerbic subjectivity, as any conscientious anthropologist cannot help but do. My two favorite anecdotes feature a building and a person. The Valley Forge Hotel emerged in the roaring 1920s, purely driven by the local business community, who felt that the proud city demanded a first-class hotel. A stock subscription campaign raised enough to complete the massive six-story brick structure by November of 1925. Though it rarely made a profit, its size and relative opulence made it an icon for the city, and as an emblem of civic pride, it succeeded. The other great anecdote involves the detailed account of the life of the city’s most colorful politician, the recalcitrant Paul Santangelo. Lacking greater aspirations than borough administration, Santangelo earns more ink on these pages than any other civic leader, including the mayors. He fiercely defended the interests of the poorer Sicilian immigrants who comprised much of his district, voting ferociously in their favor but often—in Tolle’s opinion—at the expense of city progress as a whole.

Norristown Main Street, west of Swede Street and looking westward. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

Tolle’s account of Norristown’s Main Street after its 1950 apex avoids mind-numbing predictability even has he identifies the usual culprits contributing to its decline: growing dependence on the automobile, competition from suburban shopping plazas like the now-mammoth King of Prussia, shift of the population center toward the far-southern part of Montgomery County, construction of limited access highways outside of the borough’s limits. And of course, all these factors converge with the suburban amenity that wounds Norristown the most: “free, ample parking”—a mantra which Tolle repeats enough that it tacitly answers the question to his book’s title. Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge of American urbanism will know where this is headed. But by the1950s, Tolle reaches a point in time where procures firsthand accounts of Main Street’s changes. The worm’s-eye view continues, imbuing the narrative of Norristown’s saddest days—by the 1970s it is not safe to walk Main Street at night—with empathy and hope.

Courthouse Plaza along Main Street, one of many mid-century projects that removed commercial buildings and replaced them with staid, largely unused civic space. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

For a person as enamored by details as me, Tolle’s worm’s-eye view never really grows old, even when he’s a fussbudget over counts of shuttered storefronts from year to year. At the same time, this intricate approach to an already small subject could easily undermine the ability for What Killed Downtown? to find a broad audience. What happens to a little-known suburban city can hardly resonate as much as if he had explored the devolution of downtown Philadelphia—or even Allentown or Erie. The fixation on downtown storefronts—at the expense of geographic context—firmly ensconces the book in the “local interest” category. His 250-page narrative rarely explores impacts on Norristown Main Street outside of Montgomery County. From an early point in the book, he describes street intersections with specificity that would only mean anything to a local; then he only provides two referential maps.

None of these cavils really amount to an inherent weakness of the book—after all, it might prove just the right medicine for Tolle’s fellow Norristowners. But the narrowness of scope does foretell an oversight as to the broader implications for this city’s decline, which could have made for a much bolder peroration than the one the book currently provides. The only atypical bogeyman contributing to downtown Norristown’s precipitous decline is the persistent political gridlock and resultant incompetence of the Borough Council, which he relates with the same humanist eye he applies to his wonderful vignettes of immigrant entrepreneurialism. But Tolle had the chance to make this story matter on a scale that could mean something to someone from Ashtabula or Waukegan, and he spurned the opportunity.

My knowledge of Philadelphia, having lived there for a time, gives me an unfair advantage, but I can’t help but ask a few questions. Norristown, the seat of wealthy Montgomery County, declined and its main street is moribund to this day. But Media, the much smaller seat of neighboring Delaware County, boasts a flourishing main street of local shops and restaurants—all despite the fact that Delaware County, while equally urbanized, is much less affluent than Montgomery County. Meanwhile, cities like Chester (also in Delaware County) and Camden, New Jersey can claim a similar lifespan to Norristown, strong transportation access, and an industrial boom. But today these two cities are not only among the most devastated municipalities in their respective states, Chester and Camden are among the poorest cities in the country. Perhaps most interestingly, after several decades of population decline, Norristown began to trend upward again in the 2000 census, and by the 2010 Census the city grew virtually 10%–an unprecedented occurrence for a city that still has the reputation of being the poorest place in its respective county.

What Killed Downtown? remains a welcome contrast to countless other chronicles of downtown decline whose narratives depend on sociological detachment. Recognizing that true objectivity is impossible, Tolle instead depicts the Norristown transformation from the perspective of people who experienced it. Because its vision is geographically precise and obscure to people outside southeast Pennsylvania, I suspect our author felt driven to write it even if it enjoyed a readership of zero. Such an endeavor could reek of self-indulgence, but Michael Tolle’s opus has way too much empathy for that. Hopefully Norristown’s coterie of model train owners and newspaper collectors will put this book on their to-do lists—and then recommend it to others.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Philadelphia

64 Responses to “What Killed Downtown? by Eric McAfee”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, to return to the theme of the post…that dreary downtown/shopping streets condition was so universal that a detailed anecdote of that era might be just as good as data.

    I’d offer that the anthropological/social view is probably more important to understand than the economic one…what are the costs to society and the pathologies that develop when new, shiny, cheap big boxes take over the world of shopping?

  2. John Morris says:

    @ Eric McAfee

    Honestly, after researching a little it seems clear we are ignoring the elephant in the room which clearly in this case is the historic zoning limits. (Throw in some flood problems in other parts of town)

    These limits seem to cover most of the core of the city and pretty much eliminate any chance of taking advantage what should be the city’s great asset- it’s transit link to Philly.

    Lowell, is an extreme case in terms of the amazing amount of really historic architecture. Even so- the city’s location in relation to Boston and the huge tech related growth nearby pretty much made some type of growth in the city inevitable.

    What I see in Norristown is a nice city with some urban character, but hardly a historic museum piece.

    Can we really act like laws that limit growth and building heights to that extent are not a huge factor in the way the city has developed?

    The images show a city frozen in time which is pretty much what the law requires. I jumped on the flood theory because I needed a way to explain what seems to be almost no new urban construction- in a region with lots of it. only, restrictive zoning seems to explain the situation fully.

  3. John Morris says:

    For the record, I agree with Chris Barnett’s view that in the 70’s and 80’s almost nobody was doing urban investment outside of a tiny number of places. There is no need to explain that period.

    What needs to be explained is the almost complete lack of investment from the late 1990’s on. It doesn’t look like people built a few new downtown office buildings or condos and found no market- it looks like nobody tried anything. IMHO, zoning is the only thing that explains that.

  4. John Morris, you may very well be right about the onerous restrictions imposed by historic zoning. Tolle doesn’t really explore zoning much in his book. Which, to me, begs the question: why was there never a push to override, rescind, or at least allow for variances on such zoning, if everything else in Montgomery County is hot hot hot? I don’t know enough about Conshohocken, but it would be interesting to compare it with Norristown, because it, too, was an old industry community that seems to have adapted to modernity much more readily. Maybe there’s just not yet enough will in the development community to push for the complete overhaul of two old municipalities in the County, when one transformed borough more than meets the demand for pre-WWII housing in a suburban setting.

  5. John Morris says:

    Yes, I think Conshohocken is the best comparison.

    I lived in Reading many years ago- and honestly didn’t even know the development in Conshohocken existed. The online images seem to show the type of high growth but more transit oriented building I would have expected in Norristown.

    It takes some pretty serious effort and capital to fight long standing restrictions. We have barely scratched the surface even on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront where there are countless billions to be made.

  6. Matthew Edmond says:

    I think I’ll chime in and hopefully contribute something of value to this discussion.

    I have the good fortune to be a resident of Norristown who is also a professional city planner and the appointed chairman of the municipal planning commission.

    First, about Tolle’s book, I think his anthropological approach is a good antedote to planning’s sociology. Planners don’t do enough storytelling. However, be aware that anthropology has an inherent weakness, and it is never so perilous as it is when discussing Norristown. I’m referring to the credibility of the interviewees. The decline of the town has traumatized the old timers, the very people Mr. Tolle talked to. They have no hope, no faith that any change can be good. None. I know this for a fact because I talk to them all the time. Don’t misunderstand me– I think Mr. Tolle is wise and his conclusions are largely correct. But the reader must take the words of some of the people he interviewed with a grain of salt because they can be full of misery and rage, even clutching tight to personal vendettas generations later. That’s not hyperbole, either.

    One person wrote about why other nearby county seats like Doylestown or Media can revitalize while Norristown cannot. The difference is housing stock. Media, West Chester, and Doylestown were never as industrial as Norristown was. These were county seats, but they had no major rivers or arterial train lines — and thus limited industry. They were country towns. There was no need to cram thirty thousand laborer immigrants into 800 SF rowhomes, and consequently those other county seats had more single-family detached (SFD) housing…and where they had rowhomes or twins, they were bigger. Norristown today has only 10% SFD, with the rest evenly split between twins and rows. These twins and row homes remain undesired by middle-class homebuyers– the very thing that attracts grass-roots revitalization in a small suburban downtown.

    The zoning is not free from culpability, but it’s not the culprit, either. It was harmful for a long time, but Norristown has had some very urban zoning in its downtown for the last 10 years. The problem is the developers and finance. Developers are like sheep; they follow a leader. There are no leaders in the Philadelphia region. All our local guys are either waiting for someone else to take the first step, or they don’t have vision. Or they’re waiting for a huge tax break or government subsidy to lessen the risk. What we need is a visionary developer, and he/she will probably come from NYC or DC.

    Norristown just adopted a new urban-thinking SALDO and we’re on the verge of adopting new zoning which has a strong form-based component to it. But if the developers are too afraid to take a risk, it won’t matter what we zone. Eric is right, if a developer wants to build a condo tower on Main St. and the zoning won’t allow it, he’ll request a variance. And that hasn’t happened.

    As for Conshohocken, here’s the difference: Conshy is right next door to a major highway interchange (I-76 and I-476). THAT’S what fueled the Conshohocken renaissance of office towers and condos. Well, that and tens of millions of federal urban renewal dollars in the 1980s that allowed the County RDA to buy, assemble, and demolish the entire waterfront. Norristown has the transit but Conshohocken has the highway.

    Which illustrates another point: Norristown IS getting very dense, high-end developments. Just not downtown. They are locating on the far East End, where there is still some vacant land, favorable zoning, and it’s close to Plymouth Meeting (Plymouth Township). And guess what’s in Plymouth? You guessed it…a highway interchange (I-276). I know the highway access is a big deal because I’ve had several developers tell me it was. There IS a demand for urban development in Norristown. But it’s in the wrong place. Developers with 100% private equity are choosing other strategic locations in the town. They see transit and walkability as nice amenities, but not enough in demand to generate an acceptable ROI.

    Norristown has a lot going for it: great transit access, walkable streets, regional trails, an employment base, some amazing old homes, and yes, urban zoning. But its failure to revitalize itself is due to a perfect storm of undesired housing types; poor highway access; an indifferent development community; distrusting residents; demographics that businesses and lenders don’t like to see; and competition from nearby areas with the exact opposite of all the problems I just listed.

  7. “The decline of the town has traumatized the old timers…They have no hope, no faith that any change can be good. None…they can be full of misery and rage, even clutching tight to personal vendettas generations later.”

    You could be describing Cincinnati or many midwest or rust belt cities with that one. Those folks are the only ones who remember what it was like back in the “good old days” anymore, but many of them have moved out to the suburbs and perpetuate many of the problems they decry. They continue to be pesky curmudgeons who feel the need to meddle, criticize, and hold back progress in any way they can. It’s sad how toxic the rhetoric can get.

  8. John Morris says:

    Matthew Edmond said

    “Eric is right, if a developer wants to build a condo tower on Main St. and the zoning won’t allow it, he’ll request a variance. And that hasn’t happened.”

    Should one have too?

    I agree, the overall Philly region seems to show little innovative urbanist investment but planting a big NO! sign on the city’s core real estate isn’t gonna help that much.

    Norristown seems to have the worst of both worlds- an anti growth, anti change old guard in town (quite likely scarred by the last round of destructive urban renewal type projects we see) Surrounded by suburbs eager for sprawl development.

  9. John Morris says:

    Trauma is the third big explanation for the frozen nature of the town one seems to see.

    Almost anyone who remembers the “old days”, and lived through what passed for “progress”, since can be forgiven for saying they want no part of it.

    After a few massive brutalist buildings, and some public housing- many communities scream stop! If that’s the face of the future, it’s not surprising they reacted with fear and revulsion. (Can we assume the “civic spaces” we see in the photo were cleared through eminent domain?)Actions like that create anger and trauma.

    I know, in Pittsburgh, the highly visible housing projects that dominated core locations like East Liberty were what most people thought of when one said apartment building.

  10. John Morris says:

    One other important thing- The Norristown State Hospital- a very large mental facility, probably played a big role in how the town was perceived.


  11. Chris Barnett says:

    At the risk of betraying my own profession, I’d underscore comments made above by Matthew Edmond. One of the problems with “neighborhood engagement” strategies for bottom-up urban redevelopment is that it does tend to engage the embittered “golden agers”. In the case of a town or city that’s stuck, blindly playing to what “the residents” want may not be the best long-term strategy. The right question is sometimes “what will bring people here?” not “what do the people already here want?”

    The reality is that if we want redevelopment, we have to engage the developers and try to overcome the substantial negatives that Edmond listed at the end of his post. (This actually ties to today’s guest post on The Urbanophile.)

    When “greenfield” development is easier and fits a developer’s comfort zone and pro-forma template, it takes a lot to get him/her to consider something different. Probably it will take some patient capital.

    And it also takes some tamping down of embittered NIMBY’s who just want the old corner store and neighborhood tavern back.

    The Boss sang in 1985 about a Jersey town not far away:

    “Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/
    Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more/
    They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/
    Foreman says these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown”

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  13. Thanks again for all the great discussion. I know the book’s author appreciates it. As Matthew Edmond reaffirmed, the anthropological approach is a refreshing antidote to the data-driven sociological one, though I’d assert that even its most likely Achilles heel–that of unreliable witnesses used in building a argument–can still be wielded to achieve a constructive understanding of the problems at hand. Of course, other people’s narratives will be hopelessly subjective, but provides much of the defense of anthropology as a discipline. Another friend of mine, Rebecca Rule, originally trained in anthropology, helped shed light on this for me. Even the stubborn, vindictive, “no hope” crowd can help illuminate why Norristown is the way it is today–perhaps a lot more effectively than the town’s most rah-rah Babbitts, whose vested interest in the town’s recovery deludes them from recognizing some of the almost insurmountable barriers.

  14. As the author of What Killed Downtown? I have paid close attention to the many comments that followed Eric’s review. It’s time for me to chime in, first to acknowledge my gratitude both to Eric, of course, and to those who have offered pertinent and stimulating comments. The relevant ones were a bit slow to show up, but once they began I enjoyed them immensely. Matthew Edmond, as both a resident and a planner, offered particularly valuable ones, but many contributed. I thank you all.

    While I am a long way from being ungrateful for Eric’s work, I must make the following statement:

    My initial impression upon reading Eric’s review was that he actually missed the point of my book. I did not write a book about the decline of the municipality of Norristown, I wrote a book about the collapse of downtown Norristown. The latter is a component of the former, but as my research revealed, was distinct in regard to both timing, and most important, causality. My data focused strictly on the six core blocks of downtown, and my examination of the “suspects” was limited to examining their role in downtown’s collapse, NOT the municipality’s broad and deep decline. My assessment of causality therefore applies only to downtown’s collapse. And, I must emphasize, such a focus renders the book’s conclusion of broad and current interest to all those involved in municipal planning to accommodate the automobile, not just to “Norristown’s coterie of model train owners and newspaper collectors.”

    As with any author, I would prefer to be judged for the book I wrote rather than the book I did not write. I am truly grateful that I can call upon a substantial number of interested and knowledgeable individuals for additional opinions. At this point, my dilemma is this: either Eric missed the point of my book, or I failed to make my point clear. These are the polar ends of the possibilities, and I expect the final verdict to fall somewhere in between. I have plans to publish in the future, and would welcome additional criticisms and comments, particularly on this central point. All I ask is that you actually read the book. If you have (and Kindle counts!), let’s hear from each of you, either on this post, or personally at mike@michaeltolle.com.

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