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 Trends go out of date as fast as adolescent fantasies.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:

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.

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