Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making Things Happen

Just before waking this morning I had this dream--I was on Arts Hill and something was out of place (a large flower pot, I think). When I moved the pot, behind it was another object out of place. I moved that, too, and it revealed still another object, etc. When I awoke, I could have thought, "Wow, what a nightmare." Instead, I found myself thinking, "If that's all it takes to fix Arts Hill, let's get to it."

In the last 10 days, I heard one councilman say that council had done all they could do for Arts Hill, that Arts Hill and the Arts Council now had to help themselves. I heard another councilman, when talking about the economic situation of our downtown, say "We've tried everything. Nothing works in Norristown." A third councilman seemed to think council was working hard and getting things done, though outside of hiring a police chief, he was vague about accomplishments.

I think it's only natural that we look to our elected leaders for, well, leadership. As our borough manager, Crandall Jones, said at the Nudge meeting last Saturday, "People are telling me, 'We're all ready for things to get moving,' and they want to know why things aren't."

I think it's time to quit waiting for council to take the lead, and just go make things happen on our own.

Norristonians are good at making things happen. In the last year, groups of citizens began to clean our streets, paint over graffiti, create a mural, reclaim a park, organize amazing festivals, hold late night vigil walks to discourage crime, build community gardens, organize youth programs, restore one of our historic buildings, and start up neighborhoods in Nextdoor.com to help improve communication. We banded together to fight counterproductive development (and won one of those fights, at least). I'm sure I'm forgetting something--we did SO MUCH this past year!

It's not only our volunteers. Terrific entrepreneurs have set up shop in town. Christopher Duy Nguyen, the owner of Banh Mi Bistro at 31 West Main, posted a blog Tuesday about his enthusiasm for Norristown and how he wants to bring life back to downtown. Last night, I had dinner at Zachary's BBQ (1709 Markley) and had a great chat with Chef Keith Taylor. He assured me that he's going to start making things happen in the North End. Jus' Java at 1601 Dekalb, besides their usual breakfast, lunch, coffee and tea, is always trying something new (check out their facebook events  --book signings, Poetry Open Mic, jazz, Bible study). They're going to host their first Sunday brunch November 10th. I have it on good authority that Caffe Galileo on Swede will be opening soon. Then, of course, there's Almaz Cafe, and the folks who brought live theater to Dekalb Street, Fran and John Doyle, Erin Reilly and Matt Decker. Norristown is lucky to have all of these people contributing to our community.

All this momentum has been good for Norristown. Outsiders are starting to notice and show up for our events (does council even know that?). No effort made in the last year has been so small that it hasn't had a positive effect. But now, while we've got the momentum, let's start a conversation about what groups of regular citizens can do to help revitalize Arts Hill and our shopping districts. What can we do to make these parts of town appear inviting to investors? How can we make Arts Hill more "artsy?" Collectively, we probably know enough realtors, entrepreneurs, whoever, to help us make things happen.

The West End International Business District is a lively place on Saturdays. Let's ask the West End Business Association for their expertise. What's working on West Marshall that we can apply to Main Street and Logan Square?

I'm ready to hear ideas. Comment below or start brainstorming on Facebook or, if someone knows of a venue, let's have a series of citizens' town halls with representatives from our volunteer groups, and our business and arts communities. If council shows up, I guess we'll let them stay, unless they try to tell us we can't do something, then out they go.

Norristown can't afford that attitude anymore.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Candidate Forum: Council

Below is a summary of responses from the council-at-large candidates at last Thursday's forum, with my comments in parentheses. One announcement first: our new police chief will be officially hired at the November 6th council meeting.

MARLON MILLNER said he's running for his 2nd and final term so he can finish the work he started. He repeated "final term" more than once during the forum. Not sure why. He was the only candidate to RSVP at the last minute, and the only one to arrive late, after the forum had begun. Also said more than once that Norristown was "urban" and "majority/minority." No explanation as to what the latter meant. He called for comprehensive parking reform--in fact, he said he's been calling for it the last 3 years, though did not elaborate what reforms he tried to make. He said the residents want "zoned parking." Again, no definition. He seemed to think all our problems are cause by our "high density." (Norristown actually had a more dense population in the late 1960s, without the problems, and has had 30,000+ people since the 1910 census.)

When asked if he could remain optimistic about Norristown through his term, he said he wasn't pessimistic, then went on to say, "Government is hard. You can get discouraged." He proceeded to blame the community for miscommunication. (Ironically, Millner tweeted yesterday, "Special #Norristown council meeting Tuesday, Oct 29 at 7 pm." It wasn't on the town calendar, but a bunch of us showed up. We found the door locked. He tweeted his apology around 11:30 pm, blaming the Times Herald. Though, council did have one of their secret "executive session" meetings last night.) Back to the forum: Millner said that the perception that Norristown is only collecting a portion of taxes owed is false. He wants comprehensive immigration reform so we can tax illegal workers. When asked about diversity in hiring, he said it was illegal to use demographic percentages for hiring, but that he thought we should recruit and hire minorities and women.

DERRICK PERRY said he would like to strengthen public safety. He said council should encourage home ownership, youth involvement and smart development. He grew up in Norristown and loves the community diversity. He said he has a passion for Norristown and wants to give back to the community, adding that everyone seems to want to do something great for the borough; we just have to come together. He said lack of communication leaves a bad perception of council and recommended using social media and even a digital billboard for town meeting announcements.

OLIVIA BRADY said she's been a resident for 30 years and wants to make a difference. She has a vision for Norristown--a vibrant Main St. and good schools. She wants people to WANT to come to Norristown. She'd like to see a comprehensive study of parking, not by a big company, but by the residents themselves--something where everyone can have input as to how many spaces we have and where the parking issues are. As for optimism, she said it's sometimes a challenge not to get frustrated by the apathy and negativity, but that we need to develop a sense of town pride. Communication: also recommended social media like Facebook, but added that the Times Herald should list council meetings. (They're supposed to, by law, and they very well might, but for those of us who read the Herald mostly online, these notices are impossible to find, and the Times Herald website loads slower than Healthcare.gov.) Ultimately, though, Brady said communication is council's responsibility. She wants the Norristown.org website updated. She stated that the contract process is open to women and minorities, but wanted to see language in the ordinance regarding discrimination.

MARY ELLEN EARLY-DIGREGORIO said she's a 3rd generation Norristown native. She became interested in council when she tried to find out where her taxes are going. She wants more than one-party representation in Norristown. She asked why the borough can't meet its basic needs: cleanliness, safety and good schools. She said that in a parking study done  on Marshall in 2006 or 07, the finding was that it would cost more to put the meters back. (I could only find one study, from 2009 . It didn't have this finding though it did highlight other problems with meters.) She said more studies are too expensive and won't address problems like loss of business due to insufficient parking. She said we need to fight apathy and get more community involvement, and that sometimes we need conflict for people to get along (didn't explain further), that it was difficult to have a positive attitude. She said we needed better communication and wanted an open question period at the end of council sessions so the audience could ask questions or comment on what was said in the meeting. (As it is, you have to sign your name at beginning in order to have a chance to talk and then public comment is taken BEFORE issues are discussed.) She said we're not collecting all the taxes we should. She wants to see the borough website updated so it's easier to navigate.

SUE SORIANO was out of town and couldn't appear at the forum. I would have liked to hear her answers to the questions. It's not too late, Sue, if you want to leave a statement in the comments below, I'll publish it.

So there you have it, your candidates for council. Remember, next Tuesday, November 5th, is election day. If you want a better Norristown, get out and VOTE.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Your Candidates for School Board

The forum last Thursday night gave me a good chance to get to know the school board candidates. Going in, I honestly didn't know much about them at all, except for E. Pearl Smith, who's running for her 4th term. I'm guessing most of the voters in Norristown are in the same boat, and because of their ignorance will either not vote next Tuesday or will vote for the names they've seen most on mailers or signs. Neither of those options works in a democracy. Neither do bad schools, so do your homework and vote.

Four of the candidates were running as a "team"--Smith, Rivera, Hutson, and Assenmacher. I understand the necessity for pooling funding and resources in local politics. I get that one publicity photo with 4 people in it on a mailer is cheaper than 4 individual photos and mailers. Still, these 4 took the concept too far. They were all wearing black and yellow, and kept urging us to vote for them as a team. This gave the unfavorable impression that they were joined at the hip and wouldn't be able to think for themselves. So, all our local politicians, in the future rethink the team concept, okay?

E. Pearl Smith was raised in Norristown and went to Norristown public schools. She said student achievement was her priority. She has a good attendance record at board meetings--almost always there in person, and when she can't, attends by conference call. She drops in at schools during the school day. She meets with the principals. In response to questions about funding, she explained that the current governor cut billions from the state education budget, but that the district has worked with a grant writer and also been awarded grants from local businesses like TD Bank. When asked about the arts in our schools (since Norristown is supposed to be an arts community), she said that she enjoys music and the arts herself and would like to engage groups to bring the arts into the schools. She said there needs to be more arts activities for the students. Sports need to be added back into the lower grades. In my opinion, of all the candidates, Smith came across as someone who knows more of the many facets of the job and of education in Norristown.

Pamela Assenmacher is also an incumbent. She said she's for "education reform" and "innovative programs in technology." She regularly attends board meetings and goes to evening programs at the schools. She works full-time so therefore is unable to drop in on the schools durng the day.  She said she had toured the "tech school"--I wasn't sure if she meant Roosevelt, Eisenhower School of Science and Technology, or the Central Montco Tech School (which isn't in her jurisdiction). She DID seem to know a lot about the districts programs for Latino students, such as ESL classes, and had some good ideas for parent involvement in those programs. As for funding, she said the state needs to change the formula--they can't continue to cut programs. She'd like to see the district actively recruit high quality teachers.

Tiffani Henley grew up in town, went to Norristown schools and graduated near the top of her class. She feels that she wants to give back to the district. She has a child in the schools and is involved as a parent. She'd like to increase in parent involvement and in the quality of the schools. She has visited Eisenhower during the day and for other programs. She wants to see programs that encourage kids to get into the arts, even something as simple as a talent show. The schools could work with outside groups, for instance, the NAACP has programs that encourage kids to get involved in the arts. For sports, intramurals need to be added back into the 7th and 8th grade curriculums.

Matt Rivera at first gave what sounded like a typical political speech that didn't say much about himself, in fact, he forgot to give his name. He did mention that he was a musician and active with school music boosters. He said creativity was needed to solve the district's problems, especially with funding. The district needs to work with organizations and parents. When asked how many schools he's visited, his response was "as many as I could," but he only mentioned East Norriton, Paul Fly and the high school, and mostly for evening programs. He said he still volunteers for Paul Fly (now that his kids are no longer there) but did not mention in what capacity. For funding, he said the district should lobby Harrisburg, but act locally. He didn't give specifics. For the arts, he wants to see more kids involved, especially in music. Parents need to also be involved, especially in the lower schools. He said we're losing kids interested in the arts and sports in the middle schools because there aren't enough programs. We need to complete the stadium. When asked about diversity among teachers, he said we need ethnic and racial diversity, but also diversity of talent. He said we need to encourage kids to become teachers.

Turea Hutson said she has a love of education since overcoming a learning disability. She said, instead of using public funds, we should have public/private parternerships with local businesses. She said she "has not kept a tally" of how many schools she visited (there are 11 in the district), but only mentioned going to Gotwals for their Read Across America Program. As for recruiting teachers, she said we should go to teachers colleges and let them know Norristown is an option.

Ken Christovich said this was his 9th forum. Assuming he's done forums for both primaries and general elections, that means he's run for school board 4 or 5 times and has yet to win. He attends school board meetings often. In his introduction he talked about codes, accountability, transparency, government. He barely mentioned education in any of his answers. He endorsed line-by-line cuts of the school budget as a way of saving money. He said that the district doesn't earn enough from taxes. He mentioned his support for the governor, but later said we need money from the state. He says he's had 10 or 12 meetings in the schools. Unclear if he meant with the principals.

So there are your school board candidates. You'll be voting for 4 of them. Choose wisely.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Norristown Pride

I did some research on the Ellis Island website years ago, and since then, I've gotten an email from them maybe 4 times a year. I have to admit, I like their style--the emails usually lets me know new features on the website, with a modest DONATE icon at the bottom, so it isn't your typical spam. But the one I got this week was special, because it had a letter written by Tommy Lasorda after receiving the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award. In the letter he said, "...not a day goes by that I don't think about my brothers and my mom and dad, and growing up in Norristown, PA."

I read that and thought, here's a man who had gained national recognition, but is so proud of his hometown that he's announcing it to a national audience. He doesn't have a negative opinion of Norristown, so why should we?

If you go to Wikipedia's entry for Norristown , you'll find a list of our Notable People. Wikipedia being what it is, the list is incomplete and a few of the entries are wrong (the person was born or grew up near Norristown, not in it), but for the most part, it's a list of our residents who went on to make history or become noted in their professions in some way or another. A more telling list may be IMDB's "Most Popular People Born In Norristown." These are people who have appeared in or worked behind the scenes on movies and TV, and weren't ashamed to put "Norristown" in their bios.

It occurred to me that the people I've heard nay-saying Norristown will likely never get onto a list of Notable or Most Popular People. So why are we listening to them?

Think of the people who have had, at the very least, town-wide recognition and popularity the longest--people like Hank Cisco. He's been saying great things about Norristown for decades. Now think about anyone you've heard put Norristown down. Is that person going to be remembered for any contribution to society, ever?

If you pick up a published book, chances are you'll find one or more blurbs on the back cover--quotes from book reviews and authors saying how great the book is. If we're going to turn around Norristown's negative image, it wouldn't hurt to get a few blurbs from those of us who went on to gain notoriety, like Tommy Lasorda.

But every one of us in the borough, whether we go on to achieve fame or not, can help to change our image. Tell people you're from Norristown, and be proud of the fact. It's time to stop letting the put-downs go unchallenged.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Great Happenings, All Weekend Long

Don't let me hear you say there's nothing to do this weekend in Norristown. The party starts at sundown.

Tonight from 7 pm to midnight, come out to SELMA, 1301 West Airy, for their GHOST TOURS. The mansion will be all lit up and decorated for Halloween. Hear the history of the house and meet the ghosts who made that history (I know for a fact that Widow Knox will be on hand to welcome visitors to her home). Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids ages 5 to 12. Refreshments will be sold. All proceeds go to the Norristown Preservation Society to continue the restoration of Selma. Work already began this month on the outdoor windows and the cellar stairs, but so much more needs to be done. Help bring Selma back from the dead this Halloween.

Also tonight, from 8-11 pm at the CARVER COMMUNITY CENTER, a TEEN DANCE for ages 13-17. Admission: $3.00. You must have a student I.D. Concession stand will be open.

NIGHTMARE AT ELMWOOD is tonight and tomorrow night from 6 pm to 9 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo. Trick or treat stations will be located throughout the zoo, plus a spider-infested corn maze (couldn't that also be called a maize maze?) and a Monster Mash target challenge. Admission $14 for adults, $10 for children, children under 2 get in free.

Tomorrow, start the day at the St. Augustine Academy Thrift Shop at St. Augustine Church, 1208 Green St, from 10am to 2 pm.  Enter to win a flat screen TV! Donations of clothing, books, furniture, etc are highly appreciated.

From 11 am to 2 pm, Saturday, come out and support GENERATION NEXT TRACK CLUB by purchasing food and beverages at Express Check Cashing, 408 W. Main St. Donations will be used to support track expenses such as practice facility, equipment, and travel arrangements. I met some of these young people at Riverfest--definitely a worthy cause.

You can also benefit the PAL FIELD HOCKEY Empowerment Program tomorrow by getting 4 friends together to go play bocce ball tomorrow at Holy Savior Club's (436 E. Main St) Bocce Ball Tournament from 11 am to 5 pm.  Cost per person is $40.00 ($10.00 for children) and includes all food and cost of the lanes. RSVP to lab2663@gmail.com .

Norristown Recreation's HALLOWEEN SPOOK-TACULAR is also Saturday. All participants will meet in costume at the bandshell in Elmwood Park at 1 pm. Judging will begin at 1:10 p.m. Prizes will be given out following judging of age groups 2-5, 6-8, 9-12, and 13-up. Then all participants will receive a hot dog, drink, and Halloween Bag with a candy bar and goodies.

After all that, go to LITTLE BOO AT THE ZOO, at Elmwood Park Zoo, noon to 3 pm (also on Sunday, same times). Trick or treat stations, costume contests both days at 2:30. The regular zoo admission gets you in. For more info go to http://www.elmwoodparkzoo.org/event/67

I'm willing to bet that Norristown's got more going on this weekend than surrounding communities. How could you not be proud of this town?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Path of Least Resistance

Other cities and towns are turning their economic depression around--Oil City, PA; even Detroit, MI... and look at what Conshohocken has accomplished in the last 20 years. The difference between them and us is that they have leaders who believe in their communities.

I've heard it said, often, that our town council has no vision. I've said that they have no positive energy--that going to a council meeting is the most depressing and discouraging experience one can have in Norristown. After speaking with half of our council folks in the last few weeks, and observing the others, I've come to the conclusion that they've stopped believing that Norristown can change. One or two of them, perhaps, never believed it.

That's what differentiates them from all our volunteer organizations who put so much effort into making positive things happen.

That's not to say that council is doing nothing. Yet, they only seem willing to put Band-aids on problems, to take the path of least resistance needed to maintain the status quo. For instance, the issue about whether to let Gaudenzia open a drug counseling center at 166 W Main St.

Widepread public opinion in town is that our taxpayers don't want drug treatment centers here at all. Residents especially don't want the centers in our downtown. We want our downtown to become a retail, office and arts center. We don't want drug users loitering on our streets, discouraging new business.

Council, though, seems to believe that the presence of Gaudenzia's corporate headquarters at 106 W. Main (Masonic Hall) is the only thing keeping at least 2 blocks of Main St afloat. Gaudenzia owns their building and is renting space at Marshall and Dekalb for a treatment facility. What they want to do is own 166 W. Main as well, consolidating administrative and counseling into that building.

What would Norristown gain from this? Gaudenzia is non-profit, so we get no taxes from them. We'd get drug users loitering in our downtown, especially after group sessions, the frequency of which may have been deliberately misrepresented to our council people when Gaudenzia made a presentation to them a week ago Wednesday. The ONLY gain I was able to glean from council members was that they thought downtown Gaudenzia employees were the majority of patrons at Almaz Cafe and Banh Mi Bistro.

Now, I worked in offices for more than 20 years. I can tell you that in this day and age, the lowliest of office workers are more likely to bring lunch because they don't get long breaks and always have too much work to get done. The workers who do go out rarely go to the same restaurants every day. Unless I see a survey of patrons that covers, say, two weeks time, I don't really believe that Gaudenzia is solely responsible for keeping those restaurants open. But even if they were, lunchtime trade isn't enough. Banh Mi is reducing their hours next week and closing at 4:30 pm on weeknights, and that's a bad sign. We need to bring people into our downtown after work for dinner and shopping, and for that you need retail stores, more restaurants, nightclubs, and an active, vibrant arts scene.

Council, however, is trying to go the easy route, taking the path of least resistance. They're afraid that Gaudenzia will up and move out of town. They forget that the company owns property here--selling that property might not be easy, moving would be expensive. If Gaudenzia does sell their property, if it's not to another non-profit, we get tax revenue. If they rent out Masonic Hall, we get earned income tax and new businesses. If they leave the building sit empty, they're stuck with maintenance costs.

Council needs to quit courting big corporate interests. Corporations aren't good for Norristown. They don't care about the town--they come and go without a second thought, leaving gaping holes. We need to put our trust in smaller businesses that will become part of our community as Gaudenzia never can. They're just using us and not giving anything back.

Council thinks, keep Gaudenzia on Main and downtown will be just fine. We all know that's not true. Sure, it's an awful risk to lose another business, but if it's a business that isn't helping the community in any way, maybe it's time council stopped being so damned careful and started taking a few risks. At least then we could say they tried their best.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Candidate Facts

The Candidates Forum is tomorrow night. (Thursday, 7-9 pm at The Centre Theater). The election is November 5th. To help you prepare, here are some facts about our council candidates.

One open seat on council is for a 2-year council-at large office. The seat was vacated by Dwayne Roster last summer. Cy Burke was appointed by council to fill the remaining months of 2013. The two candidates for this seat are Olivia Brady and Mary Ellen Early-Digregorio.
Olivia Brady is running as a Democrat. She grew up in Merion, but has lived in Norristown much of her adult life. She works as Assistant Director for the Montgomery County Democratic Committee in Norristown and lives in the West End. Olivia served on Council from 2000-2003, was Council President in 2003, then resigned to run for State Representative, which she lost by only 4 % of the vote. She attends many meetings at Municipal Hall and many events in town, plus serves on the board of the Norristown Preservation Society, and is active with the Women's Leadership Initiative and Community Gardens.
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Mary Ellen Early-DiGregorio is running as a Libertarian. She grew up in Norristown and lives in the East End.  She describes herself as a housewife, caretaker, and volunteer mobile notary public at Montgomery County Hospice. In the past she's been an administrative assistant, fundraiser and engineer assistant. Mary Ellen attends nearly every council meeting and many of the zoning meetings, and occasional events in town.

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Two seats are open on Council for 4-year council-at-large offices. Running for them are Marlon Millner, Derrick Perry, and Sue Soriano.

Marlon Millner is the Democratic incumbent, elected in 2009. His first term ends Dec. 31, 2013. He's been a resident of Norristown since 2007, with a house in the North End. His Linked-In page lists him as "Freelance Communications Provider Communications, Digital Media and Consulting Services." He says he writes a local column in a local newspaper, though I only found 4 opinion pieces in the last year for The Times Herald. He does not list his Council office on his Linked-In page, nor does the word "Norristown" appear anywhere on it.  He also, since August 2012, serves as pastor of McKinley Memorial Baptist Church in Willow Grove. He has separate Facebook pages for his pastorship and his office on council . Neither mentions the other or his freelance work.

Although council members are supposed to rotate through the office of Council President, serving one year each, Mr. Millner declined to serve as president in 2013 when it was his turn, so Mr. Simpson served a 2nd year. Mr. Millner is often seen texting on his phone during meetings. He's tweeted comments during meetings and has even left the room to take phone calls, missing votes. He is rarely seen at zoning or planning meetings and never at town events.

Mr. Millner is the only council candidate not to RSVP for the forum tomorrow. When the coordinator of the forum tried to ask him about it in person last night, he looked right at her, then walked out of the room without saying a word. He did this in front of 4 witnesses, of which I was one.

In 2011, Council censured Mr. Millner for alleged ethics violations.
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Derrick Perry is running on the Democratic ticket. He grew up in Norristown, attended Norristown public schools, and now lives near Elmwood Park. His Facebook page lists his as an Educated Steel Worker at ArcelorMittal in Conshohocken. He's very active with One Love Club, youth sports, and Special Olympics. He attends occasional meetings at Municipal Hall. You can see him at nearly every town event.
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Sue Soriano  received the most GOP write-in votes last primary, and so became the Republican candidate. She immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic in 1985 and now lives in the West End. Sue is a Senior Database Adminstrator for Diversified Software and the Board of Directors' Secretary for Hopeworx, Inc. on Stanbridge St. She's active in NC3BT (Norristown Community and Cops Coalition Building Team) and is an officer of the Greater Norristown Hispanic Business Association. She was appointed to the Montgomery County Commission on Women and Families Committee. She RSVP'd her regrets for the forum because she'll be out of town that day.
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So there are our council-at-large candidates. Come to the  forum and ask the candidates attending about issues that concern you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Save Our Mural

I wasn't able to get to the council meeting last week, and everyone I talked to who was there gave me a different story. Like eyewitnesses at a murder scene, everyone remembered it differently. So I'm going to tell you what I learned. You can draw your own conclusions.

The topic was development at 201 Dekalb Street, which is the building at Dekalb and Lafayette with the mural. First, let me give you a history of the mural. (I apologize that this makes the blog long--if you want to skip the history, start below at the red star.)

In the fall of 2011, the Norristown Mural Project was formed. The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program received a grant from Senator Daylin Leach's office to create a mural in our town. 201 Dekalb was chosen because it was the gateway to Arts Hill as you enter Norristown from Bridgeport. The owners of the building were willing to sign a contract allowing the mural to be put on their building. A call for artists' proposals went out in December.

On February 1st, there was a public forum about the project at Municipal Hall. According to Norristown Patch, "Norristown has looked to the arts in recent years to help with revitalization efforts in the municipality, so it's no surprise that many members of Norristown Municipal Council were on hand to support the project." Bill Caldwell was quoted as saying ""This is truly a community taking hold of its self [sic] and saying 'We're not going to wait for anybody to do these things... we're going to make this happen on our own.' When you do that you get people like Senator Leach who start take notice."

More public meetings were held, and the artist, Matthew Bush, was announced in March. On June 16, Norristown residents began painting sections of the mural in the Montgomery County Cultural Arts Center (Centre Theater building). The Times Herald quoted Philip Schettone, owner of 201 Dekalb, as saying "I knew what the town was like years ago. I saw how it deteriorated. The Norristown Arts Hill project and the Lafayette Corridor project, that may be a good start for everybody. That is why Marylou and I decided to go along with it.” His granddaughters helped to paint the mural sections.

In late June, the mural sections were installed on the wall at 201 Dekalb, and the final painting began. On July 25th, the completed mural was dedicated. The council president at the time, Richard Rogers, Jr., and Councilman Caldwell gave speeches. You can watch videos of the ceremony on YouTube.

*So the mural was paid for with taxpayer money, and actually painted by Norristown residents. It's OUR MURAL. It's also only 15 months old. At the council meeting last Tuesday, about half the attendees believed that council might give the new owner, Henry Ortiz of Malvern, permission to remove the mural. The other half of the attendees and the 2 councilpeople who gave me a statement said it was barely discussed. They all agreed that most of the discussion revolved around the number of apartments the new owner wanted to put in the building, and whether or not the billboard could be removed (which all of Norristown would applaud).

When asked this week, Councilman Simpson stated "Based on what I know, the new owners have not made any requests or statement about removing the mural. Also, they would be well within their rights to do so unless some form of signed contract exists between the previous owner, the Arts Council and Sen. Daylin Leach's office."  Councilwoman Christian stated, "The new owners may or may not want the Mural (it was not really discussed)". What was missing from their statements was any personal opinion or support of the mural itself, or of the Norristonians who painted it, or of the taxpayers who paid for it. A simple "I understand how important the mural is to Norristown and will do what I can to preserve it," would have been nice to hear.

The fact that there wasn't much discussion at the meeting is more telling. The first thing I would have asked, given the building owner's plans, was "Will this damage the mural?" Apparently no councilperson asked that. The recommendation from planning was to "improve the exterior aspect." I agree that the front of the building needs serious improving, but will that recommendation be used to allow the owner to remove the mural? From the statements I received, or failed to receive, from council, no one seems to care, even though council seemed all gung-ho about the mural only 2 years ago.

In similar cases, the organization granting funds for such mural projects will often ask for their money back if the mural is painted over while it's still new. If that happens, will the taxpayers of Norristown have to foot that bill as well? I think we need to demand, if it comes down to it, that the new owner pay for it, or that the money come out of Council's own pockets.

But honestly, that mural is too valuable to lose. Studies show that murals cut down on graffiti. It's the artistic boundary that marks the entry into Arts Hill. We need to build that district, for the economic good of the town. One building owner putting in apartments and retail will help the revitalization a tiny bit (assuming he takes care of his building and isn't an absentee landlord). The Arts Hill District could help revitalization A LOT, assuming that we can elect council people who'll actually spend some time supporting and building the district, instead of catering to every person wanting to make money off of N-town housing . We don't need more housing as much as we need economic development in our downtown.

Moreover, removing the mural pretty much means we'd never see another mural in town again. No one is going to fund such a project if Council lets it be destroyed practically before the paint is dry.

Council tabled the discussion while they explore the feasibility of removing the billboard. They'll vote at the next meeting, on Wednesday, November 6th at 7:30 pm. Not Tuesday, because that's election day--which might be our chance to send a message. In the meantime, come to Centre Theater this Thursday at 7 pm, and ask your candidates if they support the arts in Norristown.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What SHOULDN'T be on Main Street

166 West Main 
Residents of Norristown could save a lot of time, money and angst if they simply hired a full-time babysitter to keep Council out of trouble. Last week at their meeting, they again showed a cavalier attitude toward the Arts Hill district on Dekalb (I'll blog on that tomorrow). The next night, they had another of their secret meetings, this time at Gaudenzia, Inc. on West Main St.

They'll claim it wasn't an official meeting--probably not all council members attended--but those that did go were there on municipal business, once again being courted by a company trying to influence decisions before even going before the Zoning Board. How did citizens find out about the meeting? Not from Council.

One of our volunteer organizations posted this to Facebook last Wednesday: "Members of Norristown council will tour the Guadenzia facility at 106 W. Main St. at 6 p.m., Wednesday, and hold an informational workshop meeting after the tour." Since it was the same night as the Sip and Dine, some of us were on West Main, going to Almaz Cafe and Banh Mi Bistro. Council members were seen, so it wasn't a rumor.

Gaudenzia is a nonprofit corporation that provides drug and alcohol addiction treatment and recovery services. 106 W. Main is their corporate headquarters. I think it's terrific when any company chooses to put their HQ in Norristown. They provide jobs. Gaudenzia occupies one of our beautiful historic buildings and they keep it looking great. They also run a treatment center at Marshall and Dekalb. We need the services in this town, so I'm not complaining about them.

Skip to the agenda for tomorrow night's (Tuesday) Zoning meeting, where a lawyer named Vern Anastasio from Philadelphia is seeking a variance from prohibited uses at 166 W. Main "to allow for the corporate headquarters of a social service agency, for administrative and counseling uses only in the TC-Town Center Zoning District." The headquarters, as far as I was able to determine, is Gaudenzia. If there's nothing fishy about this, why keep the agency's name off the variance?

All that aside, do we want a drug counseling center right at Main and Barbados--the western beginning of our downtown--in a building that looks perfect for a retail store? The problem is that where you find drug treatment centers, whether only for counseling or otherwise, you find drug users hanging out on the street in front of them, sometimes doing drug deals and using drugs right there. Not something we want discouraging potential shoppers/restaurant goers on West Main.

The Gaudenzia facility at Marshall and Dekalb is well away from our downtown. Why not place this new treatment facility also well away. We've got a big empty building at Montgomery Hospital. Across from that is a medical building with lots of empty space, now that most doctors followed Einstein out of town. There's loads of parking. The Human Resources Building at Fornance and Dekalb also has empty space. This is all in an area zoned for medical offices and facilities. There are buses, so you can't say there isn't public transportation. Put the drug counseling center there. I don't say this lightly. I live in the north end of town. But I'd much rather have the center near my neighborhood than in a vital part of our downtown. And I'd much rather have all those empty medical buildings occupied.

We need to be working at cleaning up the rest of Main Street, so people will come to enjoy the great restaurants we have there now, and so hopefully, more restaurants, retail, and offices will move in. Instead of allowing a corporation to woo them into supporting a bad decision, Council ought to be out courting retailers and offices to move into our downtown. Council ought to be the ones giving informational workshops about Norristown, not attending lobbying sessions to which the public isn't invited.

Please attend the Zoning meeting, Tuesday at 7 pm at Municipal Hall, and let Zoning know we don't want more drug users on West Main Street.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Meet Your Candidates!

A lot is happening this weekend and the coming week. The most important is the MEET YOUR CANDIDATES FORUM, Thursday, October 24, from 7-9 pm at Centre Theater, 208 Dekalb St. This is NOT being sponsored by a political party, but by your fellow Norristown residents. The event is being facilitated by the Norristown Men of Excellence and Norristown Nudge.

Five candidates are on the ballot for 3 Council-At-Large seats: Olivia Brady, Mary Ellen Early-DiGregorio, Marlon Millner, Derrick Perry and Sue Soriano. I, for one, want to ask where they stand on the trend toward over-crowded and misplaced development, and on what they think council should do to support and promote Arts Hill. Do they have any kind of vision for the future? Let's hear it.

6 candidates are running for 4 school board seats: Pamela Assenmacher, Ken Christovich, Tiffani Hendley, Turea Hutson, Matthew Rivera, and E. Pearl Smith. I want to ask them what they intend to do to boost our truly dismal reading scores, and how they'll make sure the next generation is prepared to take the reins of Norristown's Arts economy. In other words, will we be putting arts back into our schools?

So come to the forum and hear what your candidates have to say before voting on November 5th. And if you haven't seen Centre Theater, now's your chance for a free peek inside.

Also on the civic front, there's a zoning board meeting on Tuesday, 7-9, at Municipal Hall. One of the issues is whether or not to allow a drug rehab clinic on W. Main Street (you know, that place we keep saying we want a real downtown without drug users on every corner?). I'll talk more about it on Monday's Diary, but for now, you can view the agenda here.

But do something fun first. On Saturday at 3 pm, the Dragon Boat Club is sponsoring  Monster Mash 5K Run/Walk at Norristown Farm Park, Whitehall Rd. Prizes will be given to top finishers. There's a fee of $25 for online registration  and $35 onsite. Kids 16 and under can participate for free, but won't be timed.  Arrive 1 pm. But there will also be children's activities, too--pie eating, pumpkin painting, etc.

The Car Show, rescheduled from last week, will be downtown Saturday on Main St. from 10:30 am to 3 pm.

And next Friday night (October 25th), come out to Selma Mansion, 7 to midnight for their Ghost Tours. Take a historic tour of the mansion, but don't be surprised if some of Selma's infamous ghosts put in an appearance. $5 for adults, $3 for kids 5 to 12. All proceeds go to the Norristown Preservation Society for the restoration of the mansion. Exterior work began on Selma last week--so exciting!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Names Matter

The publisher who took my first mystery novel said my original title wasn't mysterious enough. Since my book had paranormal elements, I made a list of every word I could think of related to mysteries, and another list for ghosts, then tried combinations from each, until I finally hit on a title my publisher liked: BY BLOOD POSSESSED. That publisher taught me that I have to put as much thought into naming my books as I do the first chapter.

Norristown's shopping areas are the same way. What they're called matters enormously. Even individual buildings--if we're going to attract good businesses, each location should have an identity all its own. If someone says "Madison Avenue, New York," you get positive business vibes. If you say "Main Street, Norristown," you don't. Not yet, anyway.

I read that Norristown Centre is going up for sheriff's sale at the end of the month. If you don't know where Norristown Centre is, it's because it was poorly named, probably one of the reasons they couldn't rent out the buildings. Everyone I know still calls the area Logan Square, a perfectly good name, since it straddles West Logan Street. What makes "Norristown Centre" so bad? For one thing, until we get our act together, "Norristown" in a name won't sell anything. "Centre" looks pretentious, especially on a sign next to a nearly empty row of buildings. If it were up to me, only Centre Theater on Dekalb would be allowed to use that spelling. That's part of THEIR identity. No other business in town should confuse the issue. On the sign at Logan Square, "Centre" simply looks like a misspelling.

I hope the new owner either calls it "Logan Square" or comes up with a great new name. "North End Shopping Center" would tell people where to find the place. Something like "Markley Plaza" might do. Do a focus group or take an online survey to see what name people like best. Put some effort into it.

In the past month, there's been talk about what type of business should go on the first floor of 1 West Main. First question everyone asks: Where's 1 West Main? You say "The old PNC Bank building," and light dawns in everyone's eyes. People aren't GPS machines. They like landmarks. 1 West Main is such as generic name that it's not a good marketing tool. Oh, the "1" gives it a little distinction, but I'm not sure that's enough.

Like I said the other day, visitors might one day come to Main Street just to look at our architecture. Let's give our best buildings distinctive names, based on their histories--for instance, The Corson House. Put signs on each of these structures, hand out self-guiding brochures with the historic info. Or save money on the brochures--put at least the building's name, date and architectural style on the sign, and a QR code that links to a website with the historic info. The signs don't have to cost a fortune, in fact, they should be easily updated, as technology changes. For very little money we could create a walking tour. But, of course, let's put more retail on Main Street so people can shop and eat while they're here.

Names are marketing tools. They give buildings and shopping areas distinctive identities. Before Norristown's economy can gain traction, someone needs to tell realtors and developers that names matter.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Should Norristown Be?

I taught at Stewart Middle School for a few years. Kids between about 10 and 13 are always asked what they want to be when they grow up, but at that age, they don't even know how to think about the question. Oh, they're past wanting to be a princess or superhero, yet they still don't stop to ask themselves what they like to do, what they're interests are, what they might be good at. They say "rock star" though they have no interest or talent for music. They say "pro athlete" though they hate gym class and aren't willing to practice at sports. They say they want to do what their friends want to do, because peer pressure is everything.

They don't know themselves well enough to decide at that age. Or perhaps they're so discouraged by poverty that they don't feel that planning for the future is worth it.

As a community, Norristown is the same way. Our low average income and depressed areas discourage us from trying to envision improvement, and the people in charge of borough and county planning think  much like pre-adolescents. Some imagine this town as a big bustling city, even though we don't take up enough land area, we're not organized enough, and we're unwilling to spend money to combat big city crime or trash or traffic, or to hire people to clean our shopping districts the way big cities do.

Some imagine Norristown as a cozy, walkable village, with upscale neighborhoods called by trendy names like "Town Center." We're not that either. Oh, you can walk our streets--we've got sidewalks--but we're definitely not cozy or upscale. The sensible people in town know that following trends is like peer pressure. Trends go out of date as fast as adolescent fantasies.

Our planners would do well to study and learn to appreciate what Norristown is before trying to pigeonhole us. We're not a big city, but we're not a small town either. We're more complex, and we like it that way. We're not upscale or pretentious--in fact, I'd call most of us down-to-earth and plain spoken. Our families and neighborhoods are important to us, enough that we don't want bad trendy development in our backyards, no matter how much Council says it's good for our town. (That's another thing--we think things out enough to know when Council is wrong). We're fine with having a Downtown instead of a "Town Center." We have a collective sense of humor, but we're not folksy. There's elegance and dignity in this town, in our architecture, our volunteerism, and in the way the best of our people live their lives despite the problems we have. If you're on Norristown's side, we're on yours.

The County is having workshops to ask county residents for input into their 2040 Comprehensive Plan. That alone shows they're into fantasy. Technology will change so much that anything planned today will likely be obsolete in a decade. Climate change will give us new priorities. Who knows? Montgomery County might have oceanfront property by 2040. They'd do better to shoot for 2020, then come up with another plan. So why are they doing it? If you Google images for "2040 Plan" you find that seemingly half the cities in America have comprehensive plans for the year 2040. Not 2030, not 2050. Peer pressure, pure and simple.

Regardless, the County doesn't think Norristonians ought to have input because none of the workshops are here. The closest is at the Upper Merion Township Building on November 25th, between 4 and 6pm. Not likely many working people will get to it. Here's the webpage with the rest of the listings: http://www.montcopa.org/index.aspx?NID=1604

Montgomery County and our Council tend to treat taxpayers as if we're small children--as if they know what's best for us. I feel it's the other way around. We've given power to a bunch of people who have no idea how to realistically look into the future. They don't know Norristown well enough to decide what our future should be. They need to stop thinking like pre-teens.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Main Street-Our Look Will Sell

Italianate next to Greek Revival
In the last few months I've spoken to more than one individual who doesn't like Norristown's architectural look. Thing is, every one of these people only came to Norristown within the last few years. And all of them are in some sort of taxpayer-funded position where they can make decisions that could change our look.

Last week I heard one of these folks say that it's better to demolish the old buildings in our downtown and put up new construction. It's too hard to heat and cool old buildings, he said. It's too hard to put old buildings to new uses.

Corson House-one of our oldest buildings
None of these people seem to have a clue that Norristown's downtown architecture, where we've allowed it to stand, is one of our best economic assets. For instance, the first 2 blocks of West Main, from Swede to Barbadoes, is a mix of Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian, early 20th Century, Art Deco, Modern, etc. It's absolutely unique, having taken 2 centuries to come together. Do some of the buildings need sprucing up? Of course, they do, but a little cosmetic work is a heck of a lot cheaper than building from scratch. And you don't end up with blocks of cheap-looking new construction that will look dated in a decade, if it lasts that long.

I live in a house that's nearly 90 years old. Adding energy efficient windows saved me 21% in fuel usage, adding attic insulation saved me another 15% in heating and 25% of my electricity for cooling. If I caulk everything, insulate all my pipes and put in a more efficient heating/cooling system, I'd do even better. None of the costs of these things added together would equal a fraction of the costs of demolishing my house and starting over. And I doubt new construction would stand up to 4 hurricanes, one superstorm, 2 earthquakes and a straight line wind event the way my house has. The technology and materials are available to make any old building energy-efficient. As for new uses, if you can't be creative, maybe you don't belong in a town that's suppose to be an arts community. Creativity ought to be our selling point.

Modern next to Victorian mansard roof
Who would come to Norristown to see and shop in new construction when they could go lots of other places with more stores, better parking, and the exact same new look? Because all new downtown shopping areas nowadays look alike. For instance, Providence Town Center, just southwest of Collegeville, and that new monstrosity they're building in Malvern.

So why not capitalize on our vintage look and great architecture? Why can't that be a draw? What's keeping people out of Norristown isn't old buildings--it's our overabundance of pawn shops, check cashing places and such. Get in more business like Almaz Cafe and Banh Mi Bistro, who support the town and look good. Create incentives to make the other buildings in our downtown look classy again--like the renovators did with the old PNC Bank at 1 West Main. Start advertising us as "Historic Downtown Norristown." Visitors will come just to stroll our streets, like they do in Phoenixville and Doylestown.

Chicago school style next to early and mid-19th century
These newcomers who want to mow down our architecture--I keep asking myself, what brought these people here in the first place? Certainly they could have found employment elsewhere, probably better-paying. It's like Norristown, to them, is a giant ball of Silly Putty that they feel they can reshape however they want, without asking the rest of us, especially longtime residents like myself. It's like they feel they have to mark their territory. Sorry, you have to earn the right to call it your territory by respecting what's here.

If you don't like the look, leave, or at least, don't work for our borough or county governments. If you're going to stay, get to know Norristown instead of ruining it. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Our Columbus Monument

I've never understood why Columbus has his own federal holiday. And I've never understood why Italian-Americans (at least, the ones in Norristown) are so enamored with the man. We could celebrate so many other great Italians--scientists like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo, artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello (Italians before being ninja turtles), composers like Rossini and Puccini. You want an explorer? Marco Polo gave the western world pasta. You want an American connection? Caesar Rodney was the Italian-American who, in 1776, dragged himself out of his sickbed and rode to Philadelphia so he could cast Delaware's deciding vote for Independence, then sign the Declaration.

Columbus is said to have discovered America. Of course, there were indigenous people here thousands of years before 1492. The Vikings had settlements on Greenland and almost definitely as far west as New England between AD 800 and 1200. And now a Chinese map has been found, dated 1418, that clearly shows all of North and South America. We could call Columbus the guy who "brought Christianity to the New World," but he didn't do it in a very Christian way, so we probably shouldn't brag about it.

If Columbus had been an immigrant to Norristown in the early 1900s, a Genoan like him would have been shunned by all the Sicilians and Southern Italians here. As far as local Italians would have been concerned, Columbus was practically French.

But we've had a monument to him in Elmwood Park, of a sort, since 1926. The first was erected by the local Italian-American organizations. It looked kind of like a large granite tombstone, facing Harding Boulevard at the top of the path that comes up the hill. The plague read simply "On this site will be erected a statue of CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS." Then the stock market crashed, the Depression hit Norristown, and the plans for a statue were abandoned.

From the road, all you could read was the name. Norristonians took the monument for granted and forgot all about the statue.

In 1984, vandals broke the stone and carried off the part with the plaque. Hank Ciaccio (aka Hank Cisco--now Norristown's Ambassador) took it upon himself to find the rest. When he did, and saw what was written on the plaque, he started a new campaign for a Columbus monument.

It took 6 years to raise three-fifths of the money needed. In 1990, sculptors began work on the 15th century ship atop a framework of the world that we see today. The entire monument was designed by architect Alfred Panepinto. The rest of the money was eventually raised, and the monument completed, fountain and all, and dedicated on October 12, 1992. And this time, they put it behind a tall fence to protect it from vandals. Then again, it also keeps the public from enjoying it. Sort of the same concept as putting plastic slipcovers on the furniture--also a very Italian thing to do.

Does the story stop there? Of course not. The fountain was off more than on and, due to plumbing problems, shut off completely in little more than 10 years. In 2009, it was restored, with help from the Montco DA's Community Service Program.

So for now, we've got a nice monument in Elmwood Park. Hopefully it'll be maintained. As much as I don't like Columbus, or the historic tendency of Norristonians to build something, then walk away and forget they're responsible for the upkeep, I have to say, I like the Columbus Monument a lot. It's a lovely piece of artwork and it's nice to have a fountain in the park (I hope they're recycling water--does anyone know?).

As I've said before, I'd love to see more sculpture in Norristown. We have a 9/11 sculpture next to the courthouse, which many residents don't know about. We have a few monuments in the public square but they're rather limited in artistic appeal. Still, sculptures cost money and we need it for so many other things, that public artwork isn't feasible. But the Columbus Monument was built by the Italian-Americans of Norristown, so there's no reason why other segments of our population couldn't ban together to pay artistic tribute to some person or event or idea. Think about it.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Updates on the Weekend

The Car Show has been rescheduled until next Saturday, the 19th, 10-3:30. I've heard nothing about the Restaurant Festival, so I assume that's still on.


Here are a few more happenings:

Open Gym, at the George Washington Carver Community Center, 249 E. Jacoby St, Norristown, Friday Oct 11th, from 7-11 pm, $5.00 at the door. Concession Stand will be open.
 
St. Francis' Fall Fest Carnival, Oct. 10th-12th,  6-10 pm on Friday and 2-10 pm on Saturday. There will be a $20 ride special on Family afternoon Saturday from 2-5:30 pm. Marshall  and Buttonwood Sts. For more info call 610-272-0420. 

Jump Rope Jamboree, at Riverfront Park, Oct 13th, 1-3 pm, Hosted by Dragon Boat Club of Norristown, for kids 6-14. No charge, no registration, just show up. info@dragonboatclub.org

NVPI Community Survey Results meeting for all and anyone interested in attending. Tuesday, Oct 15th, from 6:30-8 pm, GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd, Norristown, Computer Rm Upstairs. More info vschorle@fsmontco.org or 610-630-2111 ext 257

Latino Collaborative of Montgomery County, Oct 16th, 9-10:30 am, Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, 1605 Main St, Norristown, PA . Victims Services Center will be speaking. Email to Advolifeline@aol.com or call 484-854-1355

NVPI Lights on Afterschool Rally, Thursday Oct 17th, 4-6 pm, Norristown Public Library. Attendees will be invited to sign a community banner committing to work at creating a "Culture of Peace" in the Norristown Community. Youth will be invited to share their thoughts, concerns and ideals on how to build a better community.
 
End of Summer Harvest Time, Saturday Oct 19th, 12 noon-6 p.m., at Ebenezer Methodist Church, 234 E. Spruce St, Norristown. Ribs, Chicken, Fish, Hot Dogs and Hamburgers. This harvest is a fundraiser for the accessible entrance project.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Last night, I talked to members of Norristown's arts community, our PAL director, and a genuine private investigator (always a treat for a mystery writer), all while eating Ethiopian food. Then I went up Dekalb to our Irish church and sang in Spanish. Only in Norristown, right?

If you had told me 4 years ago that I'd be spending time out and around Norristown each week, delighting in our people and our diversity, I would have said you were nuts. I have nothing against diversity; it's the people part I wouldn't have believed.

I'm an introvert (and proud of it). I'm in my element sitting here alone writing. In summer, I work in my garden. In winter, I do jigsaw puzzles and read. Give me a few good TV shows or a movie, and a word puzzle book, and I can spend a happy evening at home. I'm most comfortable around family and close friends. So for me to actually leave my house and go meet strangers in unfamiliar places is a serious departure from my comfort zone.

But a lot of great things are starting to happen in Norristown, and it's especially gratifying to spend time with the folks who are making those things happen. My blog yesterday was about the need for optimism. The people I talked to at the business mixer at Almaz Cafe last night were all optimistic about Norristown, and it invigorated them to be able to hang out with similarly-minded individuals. This sort of business networking is vital to the borough, if only to remind our businesspeople that they're not alone. They need to meet, compare concerns, share ideas (I only wish the music had been quieter last night to make it easier to talk).

The same goes for our residents. It's too easy to stay at home, or only hang out on your block or at your church. Many of us never venture to another end of town, though we're quick to hop in the car and drive to the mall or to a fast food place. But this sort of comfort zone doesn't help our town's economy. Shopping in town, trying out our restaurants, WILL help. Sure, we don't have as many retail stores as we used to, but hopefully that will change. In the meantime, we've got drug stores, barber and beauty shops, auto mechanics--those sorts of services. No need to go outside town for them.

Norristown has events every weekend this month. Tomorrow, downtown, will be a car show on Main St. and a restaurant festival in the public square at Main and Swede. Go taste-test our local restaurants. 10 am to 3:30 pm for both events.

Next week, the Dragon Boat Club is sponsoring a 5k Monster Mash run/walk at 3 pm on the 19th in Norristown Farm Park, with other activities, like pumpkin painting and a pie eating contest. On the 25th, you'll find Ghost Tours at Selma Mansion from 7 pm to midnight. I'll talk more about these 2 events as they get closer. But put them on your calendar NOW.

Plan to leave your comfort zone this month, and get out and around Norristown. If I can do it, anyone can.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Optimism Breeds Energy (and vise versa)

I've never liked motivational posters, books and speakers. I think it's because, as a writer, I see them as nothing but cheap words. Broad and obvious statements like "Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life" are easy to say, but are pretty useless compared to practical advice like "Do Not Stop On Railroad Tracks."

But Norristown, you need motivation, so I'll do my best. Maybe I can mix it with some practical advice.

Let's approach it scientifically. Say you need to move a boulder. The law of inertia states that an object at rest is going to stay put unless you apply energy to it. You can push that boulder, lift it, blow it into bits of gravel, or apply enough heat to melt it, but apply no energy and that rock's not budging. Still, honestly, the biggest hurdle is deciding whether or not you feel able and willing to move it. If you think the boulder can't be moved, you won't look for the energy source to do the job. If you're optimistic about the possibility of moving it, you'll find the energy, and/or recruit others to help. Even if those people don't at first believe that the boulder can budge, once you show them sufficient energy, they'll say, "Yeah, maybe this can work," and try harder.

In the last months, I've been attending meetings or events of volunteer groups around Norristown, as well as zoning workshops, plus Council and Planning Commission meetings, and I can say for sure that the borough's biggest problem is discouragement.

Council meetings are the worst--there's not one iota of positive energy in those chambers. Even when they're talking about things that will make our quality of life better (like the new truck ordinance that will get large trucks off our residential streets and out of our parking spaces), you get the impression most of them would rather be anyplace else. No one in the audiences at those meetings ever leaves with the feeling that our councilpeople are optimistic about the future of Norristown. You get no sense that they're seeing far into the future at all. The atmosphere is more one of a bunch of folks gathered to do distasteful chores, and the attitude is "I'm not going to do more than I have to." Linda Christian seems to have the most energy, but often seems to be swimming upstream against the inertia of the rest. The sooner we get the other incumbents out of office, the better.

The Planning Commission? Only 3 or 4 of them (out of 7) even show up for meetings. I haven't been to a School Board meeting yet, but I've read about their actions. They don't seem to believe in our schools or community any more than the people moving out of town to enroll their kids elsewhere.

Even at meetings of volunteer groups, I've heard people say "I don't know why I'm here," or "People won't come to Norristown," or, when talking about trash and litter, "That's so typical of Norristown," or, when talking about crime, "You have to expect that in a city." I hear a lot of people willing to point out the town's problems, or reminisce about "the way things used to be," but few people actually believing things can get better enough to apply energy towards solutions.

People won't come to Norristown? Maybe because we never publicize anything. This weekend we're having a car show. Google it. You won't find it listed anywhere on the 'net outside of the Norristown.org calendar and the Norristown Businesses/Events facebook page. The Times Herald hasn't mentioned it, though maybe they will tomorrow, because they seem to believe that their readers don't make weekend plans until the last minute. The Norristown Patch did have an article on it, though it was a month ago. Come on, it's not that hard to send out press releases and get on local media's community calendars. And I'll say it again, join Nextdoor.com--the Norristown neighborhoods there already have 56 members and it's growing every day. Post your events there.

Right now, I think our most energetic and optimistic group is our Dragon Boat Club. The positive energy they had at Riverfest was amazing, and they're not stopping there. They're sponsoring a Monster Mash 5K Run/Walk on Saturday the 19th. We can all learn from this group. Be positive. TAKE ACTION.

Discouragement and pessimism is sapping the energy out of this town. Lack of energy leads to inertia. Inertia means things won't get better. But focus on how we can make improvements, even if in small steps, and we'll become more optimistic for the future. That optimism will give us the energy to get things moving again.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

War At Home

I don't usually talk about my books on this blog, but a new one was released yesterday that I wanted to mention, because it's about a native Norristonian.

My Uncle Joe Chicco wasn't famous. He grew up in the big Gothic-style house at 356 East Main and went through the Great Depression from age 7 through his teens. He joined the Navy in World War II, and when he came home, bought the rowhouse at 29 Hartranft, a block from Montgomery Cemetery.

I had two reasons for wanting to tell his story. First, he kept a journal in 1945 which documented the battle of Okinawa, the city of Nagasaki after the bombing, and the life of a young sailor aboard the USS Mobile. I knew the details in that journal would be valuable to historians, and to writers like me who like to get our facts straight, so it was important to make the journal available to anyone who wanted to study it.

The second, and to my mind, most vital reason is that Uncle Joe came home with severe, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which plagued him for fifty-four years, until he died in 1999. He was never able to contribute to society, never able to raise a family and have a normal life. With so many vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan now, many with combat-related PTSD, I wanted to share my uncle's story, if only to show the need for more PTSD awareness and education.

Back in the 1990s, when they released a good number of full-time patients from the Norristown State Hospital to become homeless on the streets of the borough, many of them were Vietnam veterans with PTSD. I'm guessing that, if you took a survey of our homeless population today, more than a few would have PTSD from one cause or another. If not from being in a war, then from being abused, or even simply from being homeless.

We also have many PTSD vets being cared for by their families. I had a cousin in this category, who came back from Vietnam with the disorder, and lived on Powell Street with his family. The families in these cases are as much heroes as the vets themselves, though frequently both tend to be shunned by society, as is anyone with mental illness.

What no one seems to realize, though, is that a new population of PTSD victims is growing in Norristown. The disorder is caused by too much adrenaline in the system over a long period of time. The extra adrenaline can actually change the brain's chemistry, resulting in mental illness. In neighborhoods that experience frequent gunfire, especially if that gunfire results in casualties and death, you're going to find people with PTSD. Worse, you going to find children with PTSD. They'll have difficulty sleeping, they'll do badly in school, they might turn to drugs or alcohol. Without help, they might end up like my uncle or my cousin.

The gun wars in certain neighborhoods are not only dangerous when they occur, but will have mental health ramifications for our community for years to come. We need to find solutions now.

My book is titled Yesterday, Today and Forever, if you're interested. I included Joe Chicco's journal, the history of the USS Mobile, the story of my uncle's life before and after the Navy, and a chapter on PTSD.  If you'd like to read just the journal, and view some of the photos of life aboard the ship, you can find the entries online at 1945chicco.blogspot.com. Blogs being what they are, the latest entry is first, so use the index to start from the beginning. Otherwise, if you'd like to order the book, you can find it at https://www.createspace.com/4453777 . It should be available on Amazon in about a week.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Goin' Down To the Library

As an author, I've visited maybe 20 libraries in the last decade, as far west as Indiana and north to Hancock Point, Maine, where they have a one-room collection of about 70 books. I've been at the Philadelphia Free Library and New York City Public Library, with its lions out front, and to libraries at the Jersey shore and all over Eastern Pennsylvania.

How does the Norristown Public Library measure up?

Except for the 2 city libraries, I'm fairly sure we have the largest public collection of books and other materials of libraries I've visited. I know from my own experience that our library is great for research. I've used it as a resource for historical and other details in nearly all my books. I also used the library quite a bit back when I was trying to learn the business of being an author, wanting to know how to find an agent and a publisher, what magazines published short stories, and what to watch out for in a contract.

1859 Norristown Library
Our library was founded in 1794. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas McKean, signed the library's charter in 1796. The first building was on the 100 block of West Main. In 1853, the building was moved to Dekalb and Penn (I've heard of several buildings being moved in the 19th century all over the US and have to wonder how they did it). In 1859, the lovely building in the photo was built for the library at 516 Dekalb. In 1954, the collection was big enough that they started buying up other buildings on that block of Dekalb.

The library I went to as a kid was where Faith Tabernacle is now, next to Pizza King (which I'm convinced is our most historic business--Pizza King's been there FOREVER). My dad took my brother and me to the library every Saturday morning. I seem to remember the children's library was downstairs in the old building. They had a great Science in the Summer program which we'd attend every year. Since it was during the space race with the USSR, we learned all about Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, Saturn 2 rockets, satellites, and the names of every astronaut, as well as learning about all the planets, and especially, the moon.

The library's collection eventually became so extensive that they bought the building on the corner and a house behind Pizza King, and connected all three buildings in a U-shape. They put the main check-out and exit in the corner building, so you had to go through what seemed like a maze to get there, down a hallway crowded with stacks of books. It always gave me claustrophobia.

Finally common sense prevailed in the 1970s and the new library was built at Powell and Swede. the exterior looked very industrial at first, I thought. The outside walls were gray cement. Not inviting at all. But this being a County construction project, and therefore the lowest bid, a shoddy job was done, and within a couple years, the outer walls began to crack. They were reinforced and the red brickface we see today was applied, which gives the building a warmer look and lets it blend in better with the neighborhood. So the shoddy construction was fortunate, if expensive.

In this day and age of the internet and Kindle, you might think the library isn't needed anymore. Think again. It's still FREE. No matter what your income, you can use the resources, do research and borrow books. People say that Norristown students have less advantages than richer communities, but it isn't true in the case of our library. It's just sitting there waiting to be utilized.

Besides that, the library has programs going on almost daily, for children and adults. Check out their calendar page for October.

We really do have the best library in the county right here in Norristown, and in my opinion, the best compared to the surrounding counties. So use it, bring your kids to it often, and support it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nature Is A Cheap Classroom

Norristown birds, including a cardinal I call Ralphie
Eventually, I'm going to talk about Norristown's schools. They're a big reason people move out of town. But I'm finding that it's not an easy topic to research--there are too many facets to the problem. Too many people only look at test scores and funding. As an educator, I feel the need to find out as much as I can before passing judgement. One thing is certain, though, our kids need help in science.

Today I'm going to talk about something everyone involved with the youth of this town (especially parents and grandparents) can do to get our youngest kids interested in learning. And it's cheap.

Those who repeatedly insist on calling Norristown a city keep ignoring the fact that we've got one thing few cities do: an incredibly diverse natural environment. In most cities, you have to go to a large park to find what most of our residents here have in their backyards. Besides that, we have 5 parks, 2 creeks, and a river, all with unique ecosystems.

My dad got me interested in nature as soon as I could talk. He was a gardener, a birdwatcher, loved to walk, and loved star-gazing. These were all things we kids could do together with him. In fact, he and I gardened, took walks and watched birds together for 50 years, until a year or so before he died. As kid, these pastimes were my first positive educational experiences. They awoke my natural curiosity about how the world worked, and Dad was always willing to take us to the library each week to look up what we'd seen. Nowadays, when you can look things up on a cell phone, introducing your kids to nature is even easier.

How diverse is Norristown? In my backyard alone, I've seen around 30 different species of birds, and another dozen species, at least, flying overhead, or down by Stoney Creek and the river. In most cities, you'll see sparrows and starlings along with the usual pigeons, but not much else. As for animals, we of course have squirrels, but also groundhogs, rabbits, opossums, field mice, bats, raccoons, muskrats, and, seemly everywhere in summer, skunks. We have white-tailed deer and foxes in our parks.

Wild violets
We have hundreds, maybe thousands, of species of wildflowers. Sure, most people call them weeds, but my rule of thumb is that if the weeds don't pose a health hazard (like poison ivy and ragweed--at least teach your kids what poison ivy looks like), aren't so invasive that they try to take over my garden (like morning glories), don't look ugly where they are (growing through the sidewalk, for instance), and have pretty flowers, I let them grow. I have wild violets, day flowers, star-of-Bethlehems and dandelions, among others in my garden. If you walk along either creek between March and November, you'll see an amazing variety.

Norristown used to have better skies for stargazing than we do now. We have a lot of ambient light around town, from our sports fields and streetlights and the spotlights that everyone seems to have in their backyards these days. We need them for security at the moment, so until we figure out the crime problem, the light is here to stay. Even so, I can still see a bunch of constellations from my backyard, and we don't have so many tall buildings that the moon is blocked. The brightest lights in the sky are often planets, and with a pair of decent binoculars, you can see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. Meteor showers are a bit harder to see in our town, but not impossible if the skies are very clear. And once in a while, a comet comes around--the next one, if it doesn't fizzle out around the sun, will be visible the week of Thanksgiving. The clearest skies and brightest stars are in the wintertime, if you can stand the cold. You can find all kinds of stargazing info online. This is a great family activity. Might also be nice to have some community stargazing nights next summer, maybe in one of the parks or Eisenhower's field, if we can get the outside lights turned off.

So take advantage of Norristown's outdoor classrooms. It's free. What your kids learn with you will help them in their science classes. If your child learns to appreciate nature when they're, say, 7 to 10 years old, even as a teenager or adult, they aren't going to forget, and they'll teach their kids. Our diverse natural environment is an asset to this town, one of our greatest educational resources. We need to pass it on to future generations.