Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Upcoming Events

Norristown's National Night Out, 2012
August is going to be a month for interesting events in Norristown.

Saturday the 3rd -- Shae Ashe of The Norristown Project will host two Town Hall meetings at the OIC Center, 1101 Arch St. 10 am-noon, and 6-8 pm. These gatherings are for all residents and business owners in Norristown, to discuss how we can bolster Norristown's economy, and find solutions to other issues. Everyone is invited.

Also on Saturday -- no NUDGE meeting this week They'll all be at the event above instead. Meetings will resume Saturday, Aug.10th, 11-12:30, at Coffee Talk, 507 W. Marshall. Anyone can attend.

Sunday the 4th -- Band shell concerts, every Sunday, 7 pm. This week features Mercury Rising.

Tuesday the 6th -- NATIONAL NIGHT OUT. The night you're supposed to get outside and let the world know we own our streets and we intend to make them safe. If you want a big block party, the 1300 block of Willow will have food, games, music and give-a-ways between 6 and 9 pm (hosted by Mt Zion A.M.E. and Silome Baptist churches, and sponsored by the Norristown Police and Town Watch). Or host your own neighborhood cookout. Or sit out on your stoops and porches, chat with your neighbors. At least put an outside light on that night.

Thursday the 8th -- The August 1st Zoning Workshop has been cancelled, but the one on the 8th is still on. 6-8 pm at the Hancock Fire House, 820 W. Airy St. Other zoning workshops are scheduled for Aug. 29, 6 pm, Municipal Hall; and Sep. 26, 6 pm, Human Resources Center.

Thursdays, 11 am-4 pm -- Norristown Farmers' Market on Main St. between Swede and Dekalb. Fresh food direct from local farms

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do You, Norristown, Take the Arts. . .?

Norristown High School Marching Band
I'll admit I have no formal training in town planning--just what I've read on the subject, and what I've observed in other towns where I've visited (which may actually be more experience than some of our elected officials have).

Where the arts are concerned, though, I feel at home. Besides being a writer, I have a couple music degrees, and I put in enough hours at my college theater to earn an invitation into the theater fraternity. I've taught music in the Norristown schools, and I've done various music and theater performing all my adult life.

Yesterday, I said Norristown has to overcome one major obstacle before we can flaunt ourselves as an arts destination. Before anyone else can take us seriously as an arts community, we--and I mean everyone in town--MUST make a commitment to the arts. Currently, I don't even see interest in a casual relationship, on any level.

Take the schools--not long ago we had a thriving dramatics program in the high school and middle schools (which gave us John Doyle, artistic director of the Iron Age Theater at Centre Theater). Now when you Google images for "Norristown high school drama" or "theater," you get photos of basketball.

When you Google images for "Norristown high chorus," you get a photo of last year's PMEA choir, hosted at our high school (did that even get a mention in the Herald or Patch?). You also get photos of basketball. No kidding. No photos at all of our chorus. Do we even have one?

As for the band, well, we used to have 60-plus kids in the band. Less than a year ago, the school board voted to yank the funding for the band program, due, they said, to lack of interest. Two teachers (working a lot of extra hours at no pay) and the students themselves managed to swell the numbers of the band enough that the board did finally give them funds, but just enough for the program to barely survive. Last I heard (as of April), the board was only planning on giving the band a third of necessary funds for the coming year.

Why the lack of interest? The kids in our elementary schools LOVE the arts. They enter kindergarten wanting to sing and dance, paint and sculpt. They want to CREATE. They're thrilled at assemblies featuring actors or musicians. The music ensemble I'm in performed at one of the middle schools two years ago, where we sang for 90-100 students in each of 2 workshops. The kids sang along with us, and asked great questions. By the time they graduate high school, though, Norristown students develop an ambivalence, if not an active dislike for the arts. That has to stop, if Arts Hill is going to have a future.

In the rest of our community--many of our churches used to host concerts. Free concerts, or pass-the-plate affairs, accessible to everyone. A few churches still do, maybe more than I know of, but if so, our local media has stopped reporting on them. You don't need to bring in high-priced musicians. I've been in at least a dozen of our churches, and I know we have homegrown talent. I also know of many professional musicians willing to donate their time, or who'll take free-will donations. Choral groups like Norristown Chorale, or one of our gospel choirs, or my own living history music ensemble, would probably be glad to perform. Just ask them.

I can think of lots of other ways for Norristown to embrace the arts. What about displaying the paintings and sculptures of our high school art students in Municipal Hall, or in the theater lobbies? Lunchtime concerts at the Public Square in nice weather? More murals? Shakespeare-in-the-Park each summer (a partnership between our theaters, sponsored by local businesses)?

If you look at the Norristown website, under Arts & Culture, there's 2 pathetic paragraphs that won't inspire anyone to seek out the arts here. Why aren't we trying harder to promote the arts? When people ride through Norristown, our commitment to the arts ought to be evident. Arts events, in the community and in our schools, need to be publicized by the borough, and in the Times Herald and Patch, and on every Norristown Facebook page.

Our council and school board need to lead by their actions AND their own examples. Let's see more elected officials at performances around town and at our schools. If our officials don't embrace the arts in Norristown, VOTE THEM OUT. (I'll say more on this closer to this year's election.)

I should add that the theaters are already doing their part in bringing the arts to the Norristown community, with childrens' programs, summer camp, and pay-what-you-can performances. Take advantage of them.

Do you know of arts events in town that everyone should know about? Or, do you have an idea how we can bring more arts to our community and, especially, to our kids?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Arts Hill? . . . Where?

One of these days I'm going to title this blog, "You're Gonna Love the Arts in Norristown," but not yet. Frankly, N-town, I'm not feeling the love from you on that subject.

We've got two professional live theaters on Dekalb St., which is at least one more than most communities our size have. We call the area Arts Hill. What's in between the theaters? I'd agree that Anna Catanese's flower arrangements can be considered works of art. The Jewelry Factory and El Paraiso both make lovely and pleasing creations. But what kind of message are we sending about Arts Hill with our vacant lots, bail bondsmen (complete with neon signs), a check-cashing place, and a methadone clinic? Granted, the latter isn't obvious  (although the people who use it sometimes are). Still, if we want to develop Arts Hill, I think these places need to be given incentives to either move to another street, or tone down the look of their storefronts, so they don't scream "Norristown is for Losers."

How else can we support our theaters?

SAFETY: Patrons want to feel safe walking to and from their cars, so those blocks need to be well-lighted and patrolled.

PARKING & SIGNS: No one on council seems to think parking is problem. They say, we have a parking garage at Lafayette. I'm willing to bet no one on council has parked in that garage to go see a show at Centre Theater. The intersection is hard to get across, the hill is steep, safety is a factor and, simply put, people object to paying for parking in Norristown. They don't think we're worth it. Honestly, we're not . . . yet. Until we change that, NO ONE is going to park in the SEPTA garage to see a show. And no one who's even slightly disabled will EVER park there to get to the theater.

The vacant lot across from the Centre could be developed with small shops wrapped around the corner,  and a lot in back that could be used for theater parking, with a safe pedestrian crosswalk across Dekalb St. On performance nights, signs could be put up to say the parking is reserved for theater patrons. The Centre could issue a parking pass with reserved tickets so it would be easy to tell who's parked illegally. While we're waiting for council to incentivize some developer into making this vision come true, can't council at least make some deal with the land owner to use the lot for theater parking? If they were willing to throw hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars at a bad apartment plan up the hill, they could do this.

As for Theater Horizon, there are more parking possibilities nearby, but signs need to show which lots theater patrons can use. Plus, at least 2 street places in front or on Penn St. should be reserved for handicapped parking. (I've got tons more to say about parking, all over town--another blog, later this week.)

MORE ARTS: If we're going to call it Arts Hill, let's make an effort to find people who'll bring more "arts" to it. A dance school/theater. A cinema for art films and other out-of-the-mainstream movies. Venues for different kinds of music, like a jazz club, or a cafe featuring ethnic or folk music. Craftspeople. An art gallery. Local art displayed in the theater lobbies. As a writer, I'd love to see a bookstore (though I'm wondering if they're already extinct), or some venue for poetry and prose readings.

Let's start by having more festivals in that area. A food festival on Main to celebrate our restaurant renaissance. Another arts festival in the fall, perhaps. A garden festival/flower show in the spring. A swap meet/flea market in that empty lot on the corner of Main and Dekalb. A history day with living history demos. Start bringing people to Arts Hill more than once a year, to give entrepreneurs a reason to open shop there.

Still, even if we do all this, there's still one major stumbling block to Norristown becoming an arts community. That's tomorrow's blog.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Centre Theater Building

I plan to discuss Arts Hill a lot on this blog, since I think it's one of the best concepts for Norristown's downtown that's come along. But today's Friday, the weekend's near, and I think we need a break from grand visions until next week. So, though I'm going to talk about Centre Theater today, I'll start with the building itself.

208 Dekalb Street is one of the best-looking pieces of architecture in town. The building dates to 1851, erected as an Odd Fellows Lodge and public auditorium. Between then and 1873, if you wanted to see a Vaudeville show in Norristown, this was where you came. The place hosted many famous speakers, including General George Meade, who had commanded the Union Forces in the Civil War. Native Norristonian General Winfield Scott Hancock ran his campaign for President of the United States from the lodge.

The Odd Fellows sold the lodge in 1877, but the building continued to host entertainment and lectures, as well as Town Council meetings. In 1910, it changed owners again, and was turned into office space. It remained so through most of last century, becoming more and more run down. I remember it, when I was growing up, as having grimy stonework, boarded-up windows, and a roof in major disrepair.

In the 1990s, the building's exterior was beautifully restored, and the inside renovated to be a professional theater and educational space. It was renamed the Montgomery County Cultural Center, with The Centre Theater on the top floor, under the mansard roof.

Truly a landmark we can all be proud of.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Let's Connect the Dots

If there's one thing we need to do better here in Norristown, it's connect the dots.

Last night, a couple friends and I had dinner at Zachary's BBQ (on Markley St., at Astor Shopping Center). Quick plug for a local eatery--authentic Southern comfort food, right here in Norristown. Food's amazing, service is fast, the staff goes out of their way to help you, and the chef even comes out to chat. And for people like me, a lot of their offerings are gluten-free.

As we sat and ate, we had a view of Logan Square across the street. Frankly, it's not a very inviting view.
The sidewalks are cracked and filled with weeds. The parking lot's too big and random, and patched in too many places. The roof of Impact Thrift Store looks like a Quonset hut out of the 1950s, which essentially, it is. The empty stores beside Impact almost seem to stand out more than, say, Sessano's Cafe, on the corner. Beyond Impact is Rite-Aid Drugstore, with a little landscaped walkthrough area in between that used to be lined with small shops. The shops are empty now. And beyond the drugstore are more empty stores. It's now called Norristown Centre, an uninspired and confusing name, since it's nowhere near the center of town. The Norristown Centre signs are too small. (Seriously, everyone still calls it Logan Square--let's bring back the old name or at least something like North End Shopping District.)

Still, as my friends and I sat there, we starting connecting the dots--what is in that neighborhood that's positive? Who are the potential customers that might patronize Logan Square and Astor Shopping Centers?

1. The Sears building has been refurbished, and now looks like a modern office building. The architecture's interesting, and the building has green certification (meaning it's environmentally efficient). US Maintenance moved their corporate headquarters into it, bringing 800 jobs to town. All potential lunch customers.

2. Rittenhouse Apartments, on the other side of USM, is filled with seniors who'd benefit from more stores within walking distance, and safer access to them. I have a cousin who lives there, and everytime she wants to get something at Family Dollar, she takes her life into her hands trying to cross Logan Square's lot, then Markley St.

3. One place in Norristown brings more visitors to town than anywhere else:  Elmwood Park Zoo. How can we entice those visitors to stay a bit longer in town and spend money?

So here was our vision:

Phase 1 -- Work something out with the apartments across from the Zoo, to convert their blocked drive into a pretty lane and walkway from the Zoo to Astor Shopping Center. We already have Zachary's, Rita's Water Ice, and El Primo Produce, that offers Mexican street food there. We have a gas station that would benefit from tourist trade. Via Veneto's Pizza will be returning to the area. Jomar's big empty store could become something like Reading Terminal Market in Philly--a variety of vendors--especially anything that might appeal to tourists (souvenirs, artisans, a bakery, other foods). Create a partnership with the zoo--coupon books for the businesses to be handed out with zoo admission, zoo promotions handed out at the Astor businesses, maybe Logan Square, too.

Phase 2 -- Create a one road exit from Astor Center directly across from the entrance to Logan Square. Put a stoplight there and a pedestrian walkway.  We're hoping that, as part of the Markley project, the sidewalks will be fixed on both sides of the street, but in addition, make the fronts of both parking lots appealing. A wall perhaps, with grass or a low hedge in front. Not a boring look, though--give it style enough to make a motorist slow down to see what's there. And make both sides of the street match, to tie the shopping areas together.

Phase 3--A new facade for the part of Logan Square along Markley, high enough to hide Impact's roof and the things on the roof above Sessano. Fix up the walkway between Rite-Aid and Impact and get some tenants into those shops. Continue the parking lot facade along Johnson Hwy. Redo the facades of the empty buildings between Plymouth Produce and the street.

So that was our Southern BBQ-induced vision for those blocks. It might not be the right vision, but I think we came at it from the right angle: starting with potential customers and connecting the dots from there--tying together the landscape in a common goal. All the local businesses I mentioned above are worth promoting, but right now they're like buoys bobbing in a vast ocean. We need to create one big, connected, shopping and food destination for the North End.

Let me know what you think, but more importantly, share your visions for other parts of town.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Where to Move the Post Office?

Many of you know by now that the Norristown Post Office on Airy St. is being sold. With decreased postal use, the USPS no longer needs a 29,000 sq. foot building. Instead, they're looking to rent about 1800-2000 sq. feet as close to the old post office as possible. They're taking public comments for a limited time. I'll give you the contact at the bottom of this blog. It's important that you send in your comments. Make them give us what we need in a post office.

But first, a little history. Our post office was built in 1934 as one of FDR's New Deal projects. At the time, Americans needed to believe the country had a future, so New Deal post offices were built to look solid and strong, like they could stand forever. The building of the Airy Street post office put many unemployed Norristonians to work at a time when they desperately needed it.

Go inside the building and you'll find artwork by Paul Kirtland Mays. Mays was born near Pittsburgh and was known for his murals in Hollywood's grandest movie palaces when the Depression hit, ruining his career. He was glad for the invitation from the government to create murals in public buildings. Today his paintings hang in the Smithsonian. We're lucky to have 2 of his murals here in Norristown (shown below). They were completed in 1936 and are actually oil paint on canvas.

Title: "U.S. Mail"

Title: "Local Industry"

And, just as an FYI, the photo to the right  was what the Norristown post office looked like before the present one was built.

Where should our new post office be? If you ask me, I'd say right where it is. The building's new owners are going to rent space out anyway, so why shouldn't the USPS rent 2000 sq. ft. of it? They already have the service windows and post offices boxes there. No need to move them or build new ones. The other new tenants don't have to enter through the lobby--there's a door off the parking lot in the rear that would probably be more useful to them anyway.

The main problem I see is parking for the public. If you work at or near the courthouse, or even downtown (assuming you're fit enough for the climb), you can walk. If you're a PO box customer and only need a minute to run in and retrieve mail, you can use one of the spaces out front (assuming you can find one). But if you're like me, coming from farther away, and need to stand in line, are you going to choose to pay for parking, or drive the extra few minutes out to Bluebell or over to King of Prussia instead? What would be nice is if the USPS and County could come to an agreement to reserve maybe ten spaces in the lot across the street, as free parking for postal customers use only.

So that's what my public comment is going to be. Sure we could move the post office, but it has a presence and a history where it is now. And it really should be in our main business district.

If you want to make a public comment, email . I think the comment period only lasts through about mid-August, so do it now.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Forget "Town," Think "Us"

I should have known better than to title a blog "Town Economics." Hardly anyone read it, and those that did, from their comments on Facebook,  assumed that the title referred to taxes and government revenue. Which is like assuming that "Yellowstone ecosystem" = the National Park Service budget. The NPS helps to protect the ecosystem with their funds, but theoretically, Yellowstone should be able to exist without them.

Forget council and taxes for a minute. Our economy is the money going into and coming out of the pockets of residents and business owners--you and me. Is the money going in greater than the amount we each need to survive? If so, is it greater than the amount we need to not only survive, but improve our quality of life?

First of all, are we earning money? Norristown's unemployment rate is 7.3% as of May, 2013--higher than, say, King of Prussia, yes, but down significantly from 10% last January. Unfortunately, though, at least a fifth of our residents don't earn enough for basic necessities.

How are our businesses doing? The only statistic I have is from 2007, when our retail sales averaged about $5400 per capita. The average for all Pennsylvania was more than 2 and a half times that at the time. We need to do better.

The point of the first blog was that we can improve our economy by NOT spending our bucks at corporate businesses that take their profit out of our town. Instead, patronize the businesses owned by our fellow residents, who then use the money to improve their businesses and create more/better jobs, or to (hopefully) spend at other resident businesses. Maybe a town-wide Chamber of Commerce could get our businesses working together?

We need to stop thinking of Norristown as merely a government entity where we happen to live. We need to get rid of our "every man for himself" (or every business/family/cultural group for itself) attitude, and start thinking of ourselves as a community.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Be A Nudge

Pronounced with a short U vowel, NUDGE means to gently prod into action. Say it like the "oo" in "wood," it's a person who pesters until something gets done. Either way, it's the perfect name for Norristown's new grassroots organization, Norristown Nudge.

The Nudge began on Facebook in February and has grown to over 200 members consisting of mostly residents, but also people who work in or own businesses in Norristown, and a few folks no longer living here, but who grew up in the borough and still care about it. The organization's tag line is "... a forum for Norristonians to identify problems and find solutions ...."

They also meet in person on Saturday mornings, 11 am-12:45 pm, at Coffee Talk, 507 West Marshall St.  This small core group of Saturday Nudgers has doubled in size just in the last month. Anyone who cares about Norristown is welcome to attend.

Their main goals are to promote initiatives to make Norristown a cleaner and safer place, and to be a liaison between town officials and the public (making sure everyone stays informed, and that residents' concerns, visions and ideas are heard).

To get more of the community involved, the Nudge is looking for block captains:  anyone (or a group of neighbors) willing to report problems--or what's working--on their blocks. Is there trash in your alley that hasn't been collected? Is there a property on your street that is making everyone else's look bad? Have you had a rash of break-ins? Have your neighbors banded together to clean your block, or to plant flowers? Whatever your story, Nudge wants to hear from you.

Also, block captains would be a great way to get information out to all the citizens, especially those who don't have internet access. A lot is happening in Norristown lately, and we've got elections for council and school board coming up.

You can "Like" Norristown Nudge on their Facebook page ( Leave a message if you're interested in representing your block or neighborhood. Or come to a Saturday morning meeting. Or email the Nudge at .

If you're already a Nudge, spread the word.  The more residents who get involved, the faster we can turn Norristown around.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mr. Ambassador

Norristown is the ONLY town in the US to have an official ambassador. His name's Hank Cisco.

I met Hank when he was Officer Cisco, the policeman who'd come to my elementary school every year to present a program on traffic safety. Every year he'd lead us in the song "Never cross when the light is red," to the tune of London Bridge Is Falling Down. (Second verse, "Always cross when the light is green.")

There wasn't a kid in the Norristown schools in those years that didn't fall in love with this man.

He was a police officer for 24 years, and a county detective for 13 years. At other times in his life, he was also an amateur and professional boxer, trainer and referee. He brought this experience to Norristown PAL and started the PAL Boxing Program.

Although he was born in Brooklyn, he was raised in Norristown and stayed here. His four children and his grandchildren are all Norristown natives.

After retiring from the force and the boxing world, Hank became Ambassador of Norristown. The photo shows him kicking off our Bicentennial festivities last year on March 31 (anniversary of the day the town was incorporated).

Sure, "Ambassador" is only a ceremonial position, but it's the most important job in town right now. Hank is our biggest cheerleader. He's never stopped believing in this town, and understands better than anyone what we have going for us. But lately, he seems to be cheering on his own, while all the naysayers online (most of whom don't live in town) are making our reputation worse.

Time to get behind Hank and help spread his message.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Town Economics

Come on, now. Don't roll your eyes back in your head just because I used the "E" word. The way economics works, and can help Norristown thrive, isn't all that hard to understand.

Money ought to move around a community the same way blood moves around your body. It should have a nice healthy circulation, minimum blockages, and regular nourishment from outside. And while a small amount of blood leaving the body won't do much harm, bigger leakages will kill you. So it is with town economics.

When a dollar is spent in Norristown, different percentages of that buck are set aside for employee salaries, supplies and equipment, rental or mortgage of the business property, and other expenses. Whatever profit is left goes into the owners' pockets. Ideally, if Norristown businesses are owned by residents and employs residents, if their supplies and equipment are purchased from other Norristown businesses, and if the properties are owned by residents, most of our dollars will remain in Norristown. If local businesses all buy from each other, and employees do their shopping in Norristown, those dollars could circulate here a good long while. On top of that, the borough will profit from real estate and income taxes, and from licenses, inspections, and other fees.

However, if you spend a dollar at McDonald's, 4 cents of it goes straight to their headquarters in Oakbrook, Illinois. You think, 4 cents, that's not so bad. But, in addition, each franchise owner has to pay McDonald's an initial licensing fee, plus a rental fee for the property, based on gross sales, plus other fees. For the kind of Mickey D's we have, with a gas station and convenience store, probably at least a million bucks has left Norristown and gone to Oakbrook. On top of that, most supplies and equipment for this business aren't purchased locally.

What stays in Norristown? The borough still takes their cut, of course, though earned income revenue likely doesn't amount to much, considering what McDonald's pays in wages. Hopefully, the franchise owners and employees spend some of their own earnings at resident-owned businesses in town. Though, to balance the vampire effect, we need many, many more resident-owned businesses.

I'm not saying you can't eat at McDonald's. Just that, the more you do, the more properous Oakbrook, IL becomes at our expense. The same can be said for any other corporate businesses in Norristown. Profits and fees go to their home offices. Unless those corporations can be persuaded to move their home offices here (like USM did at Logan Square), their presence in Norristown isn't good for our economy.

A little blood lost is no big deal. A lot lost will kill us. So eat at McDonald's twice a week instead of every day, and check out our local food places instead.

Throughout my lifetime, various members of borough council have always pushed the idea that one big anchor store (remember Ports of the World?), or Walmart, or CVS, or a film studio--one big outsider could come in and save our economy. Time to let go of that thinking. Our West End business district is beginning to prove how beautifully a resident-owned business model could work for the whole town. Let's work on it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Norristown Project

Norristown's greatest assets are our volunteers. We have people who want to improve this town, and they don't sit around and wait for Council to make the first move. The newest effort is called The Norristown Project, founded by borough resident Shae Ashe. I can't explain the project any better than the video below, so watch it before reading further.

The Norristown Project's next cleanup day will be this Saturday (July 20) from 9 am to noon, covering the area around Hancock Fire House. Volunteers will meet in the parking lot across the street at Airy and Stanbridge Sts. Newcomers are always welcome. The Fire House will be having a flea market that day where you'll be able to donate money to TNP for supplies for future cleanups. You can also donate at

On Sunday, July 28, 2-5 pm, The Norristown Project will do a graffiti cleanup in the vicinity of Oak and Astor.

The best way to follow their activities is through their Facebook page. (On the page today, Shae hinted at a BIG project planned for next spring. Stay tuned.)

For more information, email Shae at .

Even if you can't volunteer for TNP, you can help their efforts by picking up trash and pulling weeds in your own neighborhood. While you're at it, help an elderly neighbor clean their property, too. The better this town looks, the better we'll feel about it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Norristown's Look

One of our old movie houses, W. Marshall St.
One of the things I love about Norristown is our architecture. We don't LOOK like any other town on the planet. So once in a while on this blog, I'm going to indulge myself and show off our buildings.

On any one street in town, you might find architecture styles spanning two centuries.  Even where we have blocks of brick rowhouses or twins, their designs and details differ depending whether they were constructed in the 1830s, 1880s, turn of the 20th century, or in 1950. I just discovered that, although there are 5 houses like mine on my street, the design can't be found anywhere else in town.

Many of our public and commercial buildings, too, are unique. Some of them, like the former county prison, were designed by famous architects, or like Eisenhower Middle School, are prime examples of uncommon styles or important periods of history.

I want to start out, though, by mentioning some of the treasures we've lost over the years, through sheer shortsightedness.

Back in the first half of the 20th century, Norristown had 6 movie theaters. They were built in the style of the Grand Opera houses of Europe. Here are some of them:

An old postcard of the Garrick Theater

The interior of the Grand Theater.

The Norris Theater, opened in 1930, was designed by architect William H. Lee. When I was a kid, the Norris was the only theater still open. Even if the movie was bad, the inside of the theater was worth the visit. It had stained-glass windows, a fountain with goldfish, a pipe organ, and a blue ceiling with tiny lights like stars. I can still recall the feel of the reclining, red velvet seats. I saw probably a dozen Disney flicks there, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1982, despite the interest of an investor who wanted to make the Norris the centerpiece for downtown development, and a borough planning director and grassroots group of citizens who wanted to preserve and restore the place, the old theater was sold and in 1983, demolished, to make way for the construction of...a McDonalds. The sad part is that not long after, Mickey D's decided they didn't like the location and moved to the corner of Markley and Main.

What most Norristonians didn't know at the time is that the facade of the Norris was bought by a salvage yard in Connecticut, who sold it to the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, Florida, where today, it's one of their most prominent displays.

Yes, people now pay to see it. And we gave it away.

Let's make sure we're never that shortsighted, ever again.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Think We're Stupid?

In the last week, in various conversations about Norristown, I heard several people express the opinion that the majority of Norristown residents aren't intelligent enough to understand things like government, municipal codes, zoning, their own economic situation, and even basic cleanliness.

So apparently we have another stigma on our hands--that we're viewed as a community of stupid people.

Let's look at the facts. The 2010 census says that 78.8% of Norristonians 25 years and older are high school graduates, only 6 points under the national average of 85%. 16.8% of us have a bachelor's degree or higher. There's no data on how many are in between--those who've apprenticed at a trade, or earned an associate's degree or (I know this is more than a few) retrained after losing a job.

Even the 21% of adults who don't have high school diplomas shouldn't be written off as unintelligent. My grandmother only went to school through 6th grade, yet she had enough mental power to be caregiver to a son with acute chronic PTSD, including dealing with doctors, nurses and the VA, with all their red tape, on a monthy basis, for almost 40 years. She balanced her own checkbook and kept to a budget. She read the Times Herald cover to cover and watched all levels of the news, enough to make up her own mind on the issues and vote in almost every election. And as for her cooking--she fashioned culinary works of art, like homemade ravioli and incredibly light egg bread and the most perfect pizzelles I've ever eaten.

So why do people think Norristown is filled with stupid people? For one thing, our median household income is under $44,000. People with low incomes are often perceived to be unintelligent, with the crooked logic that, if they were smarter, they'd earn more. And we all know that's ridiculous in our society, where teachers and anyone in the arts are paid so little. Your average college research scientist only earns about $55,000. Just 16.4% of Norristown residents actually live below the poverty level, but the perception seems to be much higher.

For about a quarter of our residents, English is a second language. It seems to be human nature to assume that if someone doesn't speak the same language as you, they're stupid and you're not. Norristown has always been an immigrant community, from the arrival of the first German settlers in the 1700's. We've had Italian, Polish, Dutch, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, Indian, and many others come here over the years. We've dealt with language barriers before. Get over it.

Frankly, I've observed a lot of inept communication in this town, between people speaking the same language. And when a misunderstanding occurs, the fault is always placed on the listener, instead of on the person with poor communication skills. I've also observed a complete lack of communication where it should occur, for instance, between government and citizens. Norristonians can't be blamed for being uninformed. It isn't a failure to understand or follow issues on our part, it's that there isn't enough information emanating from Municipal Hall.

So what do we do about this stigma of stupidity? First, we stick up for ourselves. As a former teacher, I know that students who believed they couldn't learn, didn't. It translates to the whole community. We have to stop buying into the notion that we're sub-average, simply because we're from Norristown. We have to correct misconceptions about what our community is capable of.

Next, we need to demand the best education for our kids, with an emphasis, perhaps, put on improving those communication skills.  When our kids do amazing things, like our robotics team at Eisenhower, we need to spread the word and back their efforts.

Supporting Arts Hill and arts education in our schools is a must.

Might be nice, too, to develop some adult educational opportunities in the borough (yes, I still call it a borough--but that's another blog).

Anyone else have suggestions? Leave a comment.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What's Special About Us?

At least once a week, I want to highlight something that's unique about our town. I can last quite a few weeks just drawing on my own experience, but I'd like open it up to anyone who lives, works, or otherwise comes into Norristown for whatever reason. Leave a comment here (or on my Facebook posting for this blog), and tell me your favorite unique thing about Norristown. I'll either publish the comment as is, or save the topic for a future blog post.

Today's unique thing is


Norristown has had a tradition of immigrant music groups since at least the Civil War, up to and including our newest Mariachi musicians. The Verdi Band is Norristown's oldest active brass band, and is still going strong.

You'll find a couple county concert bands in southeastern PA, and one church band that I know of, but bands associated with a town are rare, especially with music education dying out in the schools. The Verdi Band is special in that they've been playing at Norristown events for nearly a hundred years.

They were founded in 1920 as an immigrant band, to provide music at Italian festivals and march along with church processions. After World War II, they began giving more and more public concerts, and marching in public parades. You may have seen them marching in the Independence Day Parade last week. They play all over the region, including an occasional Phillies games, but they're still OUR band, and we ought to boast about them.

This Sunday, you can hear them in a free concert at Elmwood Park's band shell at 7 pm. Bring a blanket or lawn chair and come on down. More info at .

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Zoning Workshop Report

Here's my report on last night's Zoning Workshop.

First, despite hearing over and over how no one knew the public was going to show up, yet how everyone was glad we had, I got the distinct impression we weren't welcome. We were told that this meeting was for the planning people to explain to council members about the proposals so "they could help present it to the public."  In my mind, that translates to the later workshops being only presentations of a finished plan, with no intention of listening to public comment and making appropriate changes before the vote.

By the way, hardly any council members showed up, so I'm not sure what the meeting would have accomplished without the public there. The best questions of the evening were voiced by my fellow citizens.

Still, I'm going to be fair and reserve final judgement until after I see the proposed zoning district definitions in print, which we were assured would happen before the next workshop (which may or may not be August 1st--stay tuned).


We were told that zoning would be done on a block-by-block basis. Nothing could be built on your block that wasn't already on your block. If you have a block of single houses, no one could come in, knock down two houses and build rowhouses or twins or an apartment building, regardless of your zoning district. You can go the other way--demolish a twin and build a single house--but you supposedly can't increase the number of units or families on any one block. Houses can't be converted to multiple family dwellings. Existing multiple family houses will be grandfathered in, but if those dwellings are abandoned or condemned, or the owner repeatedly fails to pay taxes or other fees, Norristown Planning can resell it with the stipulation that the number of units in the house be reduced to what's appropriate for the neighborhood.

If a prior zoning variance created a dwelling that was not in keeping with the character of the block, that sort of dwelling could not be built again. For instance, if an apartment house was built in a block filled with twins and singles, another apartment house could not be built there.

Developers can, of course, apply for zoning variances, but we were assured that in order for a variance to be approved, the developer had to show a legitimate hardship and that cases would be dealt with strictly, to protect each neighborhood.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE (or possibly didn't understand)

As I pointed out the other day, many R1-A districts will become R-2 or R-3. We were told that R-2 basically replaces the old R1-A (that isn't supposed to allow rowhouses), and the old R-2 becomes the new R-3 (which does allow rowhouses and duplexes). I asked, "If zoning is done on a block-to-block basis, why do we need separate residential districts at all?" I got no answer.

When asked why the R1-A areas on the West End and over near Arch and Johnson Hwy would become R2, while most of the 3rd District's R1-A zone would become R-3, we were told the houses in the R2 zones were all singles and twins. I pointed out many blocks in the North End were also singles and twins. I pointed at the map to show that the R2 zones contained row homes, and that many North End blocks had lots bigger than those in the proposed R2 zones, I was told I was wrong, or ignored altogether.

Here are some photos. You judge.

Rowhouses in a proposed R2 zone in the West End.

Area near Rittenhouse. Primarily single homes with a smattering of twins, some on large lots. If you go up and down Pine and Locust, you find more of the same. Powell St. has all twins. Yet this is all slated to be R3 zoning.

The block above Freedley and Astor is R2, despite having rowhomes. The big single houses below Freedley, all the way down Harding (along with some twins) are all labeled R3. I think, no matter where you live in Norristown, we can agree that future development across from Elmwood Park should NEVER be zoned for rowhomes, or even smaller, narrower houses. It would not only ruin the character of the park, but a higher population density there would make parking for events impossible.

The whole presentation was given by John Cover of the Montgomery County Planning Commission. By his comments, he was more than a mere advisor in this project. Possibly he even led it. I'm not certain, but I don't think he lives in town.  He seemed like a nice, knowledgable man, but as he talked, he got the names of  several streets wrong. So why is the County, and someone who isn't a resident and doesn't seem to know Norristown, deciding our land use for us?

Which brings me to what I especially didn't like. This whole process, we were told, was done by making a database of every property in Norristown, using Courthouse records. They did some spot-checking using aerial photography, but apparently, no one actually went out and studied the neighborhoods in person. Our neighborhoods, like our residents, have unique character and function. You ought to get to know them personally before deciding their fate.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

2 Invitations

This will be fast (because I really do need to get some work done this week).

First, our new giraffe toddler, Jukuu, at Elmwood Park Zoo is one year-old. Something nice to celebrate as a town. The Zoo will have "crafts, cake (while supplies last) and more!" at noon today. Everyone invited. Come wish Jukuu a happy birthday.

Second, don't forget the Zoning Workshop tonight, 6 pm, at Municipal Hall, 235 E. Airy St. Proposed zoning changes will be explained.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Norristown's Crime Stereotype

I was awakened by gunshots this morning. I imagine for many, if not the majority of Norristonians, hearing gunshots isn't a new experience.

When asked this week what could be done about Norristown's high crime rate, Council President Gary Simpson wrote on Facebook "What we are experiencing is happening throughout the entire country and is not just limited to Norristown. We have a town which has become increasingly more like a larger city because of its more urban (characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to areas surrounding it) area makeup."

I'm not sure what he meant by "vast human features." When I think of human features, I think of faces, and I don't think our faces are any larger than the general population of the world. But let's look at the rest of his statement.

If you Google "Norristown, PA crime rate," lots of sites come up. (They are all based on 2011 information. Apparently 2012 data hasn't been officially released yet.) Here are some of the links if you want to go look:

These sites also have statistics for all of Pennsylvania and sometimes the whole country. The US government census site also has national data, so it's pretty easy to do a comparison. The results?

Our murder rate is more than double the national average, as is our assault rate. Robberies are more than 4 times that of the total US. If we look at just cities, in the City Data Crime Index, Norristown tops the national average by more than 140 points (though, at least we're not in the worst 100). We're far above cities in PA with comparable populations, like Wilkes Barre and Penns Hills.. Even Scranton, with double our population, has a much lower crime rate than we have. You have a 1 in 94 chance of becoming a crime victim in Norristown. The PA average is 1 in 282.

The thing is, our crime rate HAS come down. In 2006 it was something like 400 points over the national average. We had a lower population density then. 40 years ago, when the population was higher by nearly 25%, we had a much lower crime rate. So, sorry, Mr. Simpson, they aren't related.

In the same Facebook conversation, Mr. Simpson said "I do not believe that we can police our way out of the problem." According to the Municipal website, we only have 55 police offers, or about 1.6 for every 1,000 persons in town. The PA average is 2.71 officers per 1,000 residents. Scranton  has about 2.1 per 1,000. The statistics prove that the more officers you have per 1,000 people, the lower your crime rate will be. I'm not saying police are the only solution, but a few extra officers would surely help.

I get very tired of people blaming the town for the problem, as if crime is part of our geographic identity. It's like racial profiling--they assume Norristown will have high crime simply because we're Norristown. Mostly you hear this from non-residents, or residents who haven't been here long. They imply that nothing can be done. That's just how Norristown IS.

Never before have I heard this stereotype voiced by a councilman. Safety and security ought to be council's highest priority. We shouldn't be hearing that Norristown's just like every other big city with crime problems. In fact, we shouldn't be hearing Norristown being stereotyped by council at all. We're a unique community with a lot of assets. We need a council who knows it, who'll stick up for us, and who'll strive to make things better.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Norristown Zoning 101

Come to the Zoning Workshops
Wed., July 10, 2013, 6 pm
Municipal Hall, 235 E. Airy St.

Subsequent dates:
· Thursday Aug 1st 2013 at 6 p.m - County Human Services Building, 1430 Dekalb St
· Thursday Aug 8th 2013 at 6 p.m – Hancock Fire Company, 820 W. Airy St.
· Thursday Aug 29st 2013 at 6 p.m – Municipal Hall, 235 E. Airy St.

Here's why you should go:

Above is the current zoning map for Norristown. The workshops are to explain proposed zoning changes. Now, I'd agree that the current zoning is a bit out-of-date. For instance, our "healthcare" district (in purple) is now our "abandoned building" district. Our "town center" district (light blue--what logical people call "downtown," because it's not in the center, but downhill from most of the rest of town) could now more properly be labeled our "empty lots" district.

Most of the proposed changes relate to the shades of yellow and orange, our primary residential districts. You can access the whole list of zoning codes here, but here's the gist:

Lightest yellow, R-A = "single-family detached dwellings on large lots. This district is intended to preserve the unique character of these areas, to protect and enhance neighborhood qualities and to ensure that future development will blend well with existing structures."

Bright yellow, R-1 = "single-family detached dwellings... intended to protect, stabilize, conserve and enhance neighborhood qualities and that will ensure that future development, in both new and rehabilitated structures, will blend well with the existing neighborhood character." (You'll note as the lots get smaller, "unique character" is no longer a concern).

Light yellow, R-1A = basically the same as R-1, but allows for semi-detached single-family dwellings. Since I live in an R-1A district, I can attest that whoever made up this map never visited the neighborhoods. We have many row homes as well as semi-detached, and the occasional detached. But, at least the vast majority are still single family.

Orange, R-2 = "single- and two-family dwellings", with the same clause about protecting neighborhood character. The single dwellings can be attached but not more than a row of 8 houses, and must have "vehicular access to the rear of homes."  The two-family homes are supposed to be detached, and originally designed for two families.

Apartment buildings go in the brown areas. Multi-family houses go in the olive green areas.

At this point, if you live in Norristown, you're thinking that these definitions have no foundation in reality.  For one thing, the multi-family dwellings somehow escaped their confines and spread out through the other districts. In some cases, out-of-town landlords came in and split up houses illegally, but many of these landlords were given zoning variances and the blessing of whomever was in Council at the time. In many cases, like the ugly block apartment building 2 blocks from me, "existing neighborhood character" be damned.

Here's the map of proposed zoning changes:

R-A is now called R-1, but their "unique character" seems to remain undisturbed. The major changes are that most other residential areas are now orange, labeled R-3. They want to combine most of the old "districts" into one homogenous glob. And from the definitions above, it's safe to assume that the higher the number of your zoning, the more population they want to cram into those spaces, with all the parking, trash, noise and slum-landlord problems that come with it. Not to mention a decrease in property value.

Council president Gary Simpson told a group of Norristonians that "most of the housing is a mixed bag." I got the impression that he only sees housing on paper and doesn't understand the unique character of each neighborhood. Maybe he hasn't spent enough time in each one.

So think about what you want your neighborhood to become, then come to one of the Zoning Workshops. After that, make sure you tell all 7 members of Council your opinions.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


I was in Norristown's July 4th parade (as part of a local singing ensemble). Since I couldn't sit and take photos of the parade, I took photos of the onlookers instead. Here are some of the many children who lined this year's parade route.
We saw expressions of delight, wonder, happiness, patriotism, and pure friendliness, from kids and adults alike. When I smiled and waved, people smiled and waved back, frequently calling out "Happy 4th!" Hundreds of flags were in evidence. For one day of the year, race, religion, economic and cultural background don't matter. We're all neighbors.

Norristown can be surprisingly wonderful at times.

That same day we had two shooting incidents in town. One was a murder. I personally know of one house that had a break-in. No doubt there were others, given the current rate of burglaries. Crime has gotten completely out of hand during the last year and no one in charge seems to want to talk about solutions. We keep hearing that better days are coming for Norristown, that it's the next "hot neighborhood." If by "hot" they mean stolen or dangerous, then yeah, maybe that's true. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see a renaissance for our town, but we need to solve immediate needs before expecting newcomers to flock here.

Not one of the kids above wants to be scared. They don't want members of their families or their friends killed. They don't want bullets or intruders coming through their house windows.

So I think it's time for our townspeople declare their independence from the rhetoric and poor choices of our council, and start demanding, first of all, safe neighborhoods for ourselves and our children.

Norristown can be a wonderful place. More than once a year would be even better.

Coming up this week:  Wed., July 10. 6 pm
Zoning Meeting at Municipal Hall, 235 E. Airy St.
Topic: Proposed changes to zoning in Norristown neighborhoods. These changes will effect a lot of residents. More tomorrow.