What Killed Downtown?


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.

Eric McAfee is a licensed urban planner currently working in emergency management. Though he hails from Indianapolis, his professional field grants him a certain degree of itinerancy, which he uses to his advantage to write about and photograph landscapes across the country in his blog, American Dirt. He lived and worked as a military planner in northern Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, letting him fudge on the “American” aspect of his blog a little bit. In the past, Eric’s writing has won him Outstanding Paper in Real Estate at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an outstanding research on housing award from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.  Aside from American Dirt, he has featured his writing on Urban Indy.com, Streetsblog.net, and Urbanophile.com. 

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Further reference

This review was also released on Urbanophile.com and generated a particularly thoughtful discussion a few weeks prior. The link provided will get you there: http://www.urbanophile.com/2013/03/05/what-killed-downtown-by-eric-mcafe...