Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stop Calling Us a City

1st block of West Main
You'll notice I tend to call Norristown a town, a community, or by our old name, "borough." I never call Norristown a city. I even have a hard time calling it a municipality, because in today's world, the word implies "city." The word "municipality" means only that a town is incorporated and self-governed. But so does "borough."

Yet, at every town meeting I've been to lately, one of our town or county officials says something akin to "Norristown is really more of a city." In fact, I've heard that exact quote more than once, like it was part of a script that they rehearse before each meeting. What is this new passion for calling Norristown a city? And why are they trying to brainwash us with it?

One resident suggested that certain councilmen call us a city as an excuse for our crime rate, but I've been to many, many genuine cities with much safer streets. None of our other problems could be considered distinctly urban, either.

I estimate that I've been in 80 to 100 American cities, and maybe 60 of those are on the small side, like Harrisburg, Lancaster, Bethlehem, and Scranton. I define them as cities for a few reasons:  they have populations of 50,000 or more, plus more than one exit off of, at least, one interstate (and traffic nightmares to go with them). They have hotels, museums, historic sites, lots of restaurants and nightlife. They have their own suburbs. They all have MAYORS. They FEEL like cities.

Most importantly though, they cover larger geographic areas than Norristown. Harrisburg covers more than twice the area of Norristown. Scranton covers 6 times the area. What difference does this make?

Norristown is only 3.52 square miles. No matter where you are in town, no matter how much zigzagging you might have to do on one-way streets, you're less than a mile and a half from the town limits. No more than a 5 minute drive.

If you work in the middle of a city, you'll go out to lunch close by, because you don't have time to fight traffic and look for a parking spot. If you visit a city as a tourist, it's because the place offers amenities and special experiences that offset the fact that you have to pay for parking or public transportation. Whether worker or tourist, you'll pay local sales tax because you're a captive audience. You can't easily go outside the city for every meal or snack.

In Norristown, too many people leave town to eat or shop, or even to go to the Post Office. That's one of our main economic problems. It won't be solved by trying to fool ourselves into thinking we're a city.

Our West End business district doesn't look like a city street, but a quaint downtown. Our downtown on Main, when it had stores, not vacant lots and parking garages, was the same way, and our planners should be trying to take it back to that look and feel. That's what will attract visitors.

Last week, one planner said we ought to be putting 4-story buildings on Main St. I objected, not because I have anything against 4-story buildings downtown. Actually, we already have them, but they're here and there, with 2 and 3-story buildings in between, in an interesting mix of architectural styles and varying rooflines that make those buildings appear much more engaging than other parts of downtown. Look at the photo above. The tan building at the right needs something on the 3rd floor--windows or a sign or architectural ornament--but otherwise the look is good for our town.

Here are newer buildings and building fronts between Markley and Cherry, where you have too many buildings the same height and style and building materials in a row. If you allowed 4-story or higher buildings like that, you'd end up with a Main Street that looks like a brick canyon. And the only reasoning offered is, "Norristown's really more of a city."

Zoning variances granted lately (or talked about as if they will be granted) seem to make it clear that our government is trying to increase our population in a hurry (yet we can't take care of the residents we have). They seem determined to force us into being urban.

From what I've heard from residents, we don't WANT to be a city. The taxpayers need to define what we are, not our planners or county or council. We don't fit neatly into a category. That COULD be our greatest strength--a reason for people to come here to spend their money, instead of going to the malls or down to Philadelphia.

So stop calling us city. Let us be our own kind of town.


  1. Excellent points! Council is trying to push through their own agenda, their own vision of the "future" Norristown. We have nowhere to shop for food or clothes and no where to dine. We offer NOTHING to visitors, let alone support a tourism base. Norristown is a shell of a community - bordering on becoming a ghost town due to the high crime rate. People want to bypass Norristown as often as they can. It has become the "white elephant."

  2. We are not a city and don't want to be. But council is pushing these developments with as many units as possible to lure people to this town.
    Norristown is only so big. So in order for them to achieve their goal they are encouraging condo's, stacked housing, apartment's and so forth to pack the sardine can as tight as possible. And they are disregarding their own zoning and comprehensive plan regs to do it. If I see one more variance granted, I will scream...oh wait I have been screaming, it's just that no one hears......