Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Things That Change, and Unfortunately, Don't

Vacant lot at 345-351 East Main St.
People have asked what made me start this blog. I've always been interested in Norristown. After our Sesquicentennial, I wondered why they never taught local history in our schools. As I grew older, I wondered why our historical sites weren't open to the public like other historical sites were. I wondered how the powers that be in town could allow our most unique architecture to be demolished for chain stores. But it never occurred to me to do anything about what was going on.

My first series of novels were semi-historical, set in different time periods. I decided to set the 4th one, FEAR ITSELF, during the Great Depression, and my dad agreed to be my main research source. Since his memories of the 1930s were all based on East Main in Norristown, that became my setting. He told me what they ate, what they wore, how they kept warm, and what kinds of jobs people had (including kids). He described the cars and wagons on Main St., and the trolley that ran the length of it.

349 and 351 E. Main before demolition
Dad drew me a detailed plan of the inside of 349 East Main, where he grew up, so I used the house in the book, even in the present day chapters, despite the fact that the home had long since been torn down. I used the house next door, too, because it had been my mom's grandmother's home. Mom described it for me, with all its original Victorian elegance--big square central stairway spiraling up to the third floor, fancy woodwork, tiles, a huge kitchen with a pressed tin ceiling, a fanlight over the front door.

Norristown allowed 4 houses in this row to be leveled about 30 years ago. Why? Because a warehouse on East Penn St wanted to park their trucks there. The company never even used all the space--only, at most, half of it.  They never paved the lot, just dumped gravel and let the weeds grow. They never did a thing to improve the look of the property along the busy Main St. side.

I think that's when I started my move from observer--when I fully understood how gorgeous those houses had been, inside and out, and how the properties had been turned into something as ugly as a huge, unkempt parking lot. The company moved out, leaving us with vacant lots.

Here's my zoning note for today. For nearly 100 years, that block was "Neighborhood Commericial"--meaning it had residences and mom-and-pop shops, and a couple small manufacturing places, not unlike West Marshall today. On the new map, it's called "Town Center II." I hope that means a return to small shops and restaurants (Giacomo's is still there, and Lou's on the next block). Even a gas station on that empty lot wouldn't be bad, since there's only one entering Norristown at that end. But please, no fast food joints. All Italian moms who used to live there would rise up out of their graves and give us the evil eye for pushing bad food.

Back to my story:  Right after FEAR ITSELF was published, I was driving down Green St. and saw that the line for the Patrician Society Food Bank was incredibly long. Thinking back to my parents' stories of hunger during the Depression, I decided to help out my hometown a little by donating a portion of all royalties from FEAR ITSELF to the Patrician Society. But it doesn't amount to much and I kept feeling I should do something else.

I volunteered for the Bicentennial Committee last year, in an effort to learn more about Norristown. I found that most residents had no clue what was going on in town (most don't even know we HAD a Bicentennial). Half of our Council didn't show up for most of the events, or help promote them in anyway. The disconnect between borough and residents was epic (and is still the biggest obstacle we need to over come).

Then came the increase in shootings in Norristown last October. And I found stolen goods in my yard soon after.

This year, when the whole Pennrose Airy St development debacle came up, I noticed other Norristonians gathering to take action, so I joined them. And after being in the July 4th parade, seeing the faces of kids from every neighboorhood the parade passed through, I knew the time was right to start writing about Norristown. Those kids deserve a decent place to live, and the conversation has to start somewhere.


  1. Being a native Norristonian myself, I have always enjoyed its historic character.

    What sites, monuments are closed to the public?

    1. Selma and Montgomery Cemetery (which, technically isn't Norristown, but was important to the town's history) were both closed when I was growing up. Now they're at least open a day here and there, for tours or special history days. Selma's being restored slowly. And of course, now, the old prison on Airy.

  2. Just finished your book! Thank you so much. My parents lived on Markley St during the depression. It was so interesting to read about that part of my father's childhood that he never talks about. I don't get to Norristown much anymore. I loved that it took place there.
    I also loved the book itself. Well done!