Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back Before Moving Forward

This week every network TV channel--and a few of the others--are running news segments titled something like "A Look Back At 2014."  Most are video mash-ups and nothing more, and most of the videos are of events that were so unimportant, we shouldn't be trying to remember them at all.

I hate looking backward, at least, not so soon. I'm a history buff, after all. A few decades from now it might be good to look back and see what things really made a difference. And of course, we ought to try to remember mistakes, so we don't make them again. But I think people tend to look back at a year, or in Norristown's case, a half century, simply because it's easier than looking forward.

Still, let's take one last look at 2014, without the aid of videos or notes jotted on calendars or anything else. Think about what stands out in your mind about what was good and bad in N-town this past year.

The first thing that jumps to mind for me was the Arts Hill Festival. Attendance was better than previous years--I even saw a few cyclists wheeling their bikes up from the Schuylkill River Trail to attend. The vendors all seemed to be selling well. Only one band seemed to think they owned the street and could drown out all the other performances. All the other performers were well coordinated, and the ones I heard/saw were really good. The festival had an established feel to it this year, which can only bode well for the future.

The next things that come to mind were the make-overs of Selma Mansion and Riverfront Park. At Selma this past year, all the exterior wood was painted, all the rotted wood replaced, the downspouts repaired, and the garden got some much needed TLC. It's only phase one in the restoration of the mansion, but what a difference in appearance.

Riverfront's entrance got a great, fresh paint job, courtesy of the Dragon Boat Club, plus they fixed up the island in the parking area, adding a walkway and benches, and containers of flowers all over the park.

Elmwood Park added more attractions this year, both in the form of new animals and new activities, not to mention Noah the Eagle being chosen to be the Philadelphia Eagles live mascot.

Ghost Tours at Selma also felt more established this year. Attendance was double what it was in past years.

The more we establish events and activities, the more visitors we can attract from out of town. Five Saints Distillery will be another attraction. Once visitors are here, though, we ought be sure to give them info about what they can come back for. Norristown is fast developing a visitor economy. Let's run with that.

Bad things? A few. The flood that ruined much of the Dragon Boat Club's equipment, which curtailed activities that would have taken place at Riverfront this year. The cancelling of the July 4th parade too soon. The loss of another of our historic register buildings--Montgomery Hospital. The approval of developments too dense for our infrastructure to handle. No matter which bad things you can think of, they all have one common feature--all of them, even the acts of God, can teach us something if we let them.

Oh, and maybe best of all, crime in Norristown is DOWN from 2013. Violent crime is down SIGNIFICANTLY.

So there's 2014 in a nutshell. Learn from the bad, build on the good, and 2015 will be a great year for us.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Educational Gardening at Zachary's BBQ

The "before" photo of Zachary's garden.
I made the front page of the Times Herald yesterday. One of my friends commented that usually only politicians make the front page by doing what I was doing. At the time, I was spreading manure. Spreading the real thing is a much more noble past time that politics. Not to mention that I got some much needed sunlight and feasted on barbecue afterwards. Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

If you read my blog on Friday, you saw the notice about the gardening workshop at Zachary's BBQ (1709 Markley Street) last Saturday morning. Being an avid gardener, I went to see what I could learn. I DID learn a lot that I could apply to my own garden, but I also learned a lot about more workshops and the educational gardens planned, courtesy of Feed The Burbs landscaping, and sponsored by Zachary's BBQ.

Now, most of our restaurants in Norristown use fresh foods in their cooking, and some even use fresh local foods. Zachary's will be the first, I think, to be able to pick fresh foods right outside their door. This year's plan is put an herb garden in the space in front of the restaurant. Phase 2 will be to eventually put in an edible perennial garden between the parking lot and sidewalk.

The soil was dug up, then layered with manure, mulch and straw.
As Feed The Burbs installs the herb garden, they'll do a series of hands-on workshops for gardeners. Saturday was the first--a workshop in soil preparation that could apply to any type of garden. They're planning 4 more throughout the year on Garden Design, Planting, Maintenance and Harvesting, and a final harvest and preparation of the garden for winter.

As well as serving some of Zachary's needs, Chef Taylor wants these gardens to be educational--a place you can bring your kids to learn about where food comes from, and how to reduce your carbon footprint by doing some planting in your own yard. (And I highly recommend you go into Zachary's and eat while you're there to taste the results.)

If you want to know about the next workshops, the easiest way, if you're on Facebook, is to LIKE the Feed The Burbs and Zachary's pages and watch for workshop posts and news on garden progress. Otherwise, email and they'll send you an email when the next workshop is coming up. Feed The Burbs is also planning to do some workshops at the Norristown Library in 2015, so if you're interested in those, too, let them know or watch the library's calendar on their website.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Last Events of the Year

Hope everyone had good holidays this week. Just a few short notices, then I'll let you get back to revelry.

Saturday morning, 10:30 am-noon, Feed The Burbs will present their rescheduled workshop on preparing your garden in the winter for spring planting, at Zachary's BBQ, 1709 Markley. Q&A will follow over lunch at Zachary's. This will be the first of a series of hands-on workshops, taking people step by step through the permaculture design process. RSVP to The first 10 people to RSVP have free admission including lunch at the famous Zachary's BBQ!

Monday from 2 pm to 3:30, the Norristown Public Library will be showing THE LEGO MOVIE at their Winter Movie event in the Children's Learning Center. All ages welcome. Contact: 610-278-5100 x205. Rated PG, 100 minutes.

You can see the complete list of library events at

PLEASE NOTE the TEMPORARY discontinuance of Norristown's Electronic Recycling Program due to the County recycling vendor’s non-renewal of the contract. The County is actively seeking a replacement recycler. Electronic recyclables will be accepted on both MONDAY & TUESDAY the 29th & 30th of January. NO more after that until further notice.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lighting Up The Darkness

I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, so this is a special day each year. It's the day I celebrate that today and each day for the next 6 months will have a bit more daylight than the day before. This is why I love holiday lights--they help keep these winter nights from seeming so long and dark.

This year in Norristown, though, I think we have more lights--the town definitely seems less dark and gloomy. As I mentioned at the beginning of the month, big lighted snowflakes line the business districts on West Marshall St. and part of Main downtown (although the ones on the 100 block of W Main were out last night--and how about next year we extend the snowflakes to the businesses on the 200 and 300 blocks of East Main?). And I mentioned on Friday the 2 blocks of Locust where nearly every house had a light display. Now let me mention a few more I saw in my travels this weekend.

The blocks of Powell from Johnson Highway down to about Fornance. Coolidge Blvd between Markley and Astor. The 400 block of W Fornance. West Main between about Astor and Buttonwood has some nice ones. Lafayette, Stanbridge, Chestnut, Pine, Harding Blvd. Lots of others I remember seeing, but can't remember what street I saw them on. Even last night, when I was returning from a solstice singing gig after 11 pm, there were still quite a few Christmas lights on here and there, guiding the way home.

Best of all, I've noticed displays in the windows of several of our small businesses. Zummo's Hardware has a nice tree in their window. Five Saints isn't even open, but two big lighted wreaths decorate the upstairs windows of the old Humane firehouse. Jus' Java has a nice bright display on Swede. Vance Community Partners lit up the 200 block of Cherry, one of the darkest blocks downtown. When I'm waiting for the stoplight before the Dannehower Bridge, I can enjoy the display in the window of Nataly's Bakery on Main. Two of the bail bondsmen on Dekalb have nice bright displays. Up in the North End, my favorite is Diva's Kitchen, lighting up the corner of Pine and Johnson Highway. Many, many others, too.

All these lights make Norristown feel more positive, and safer, too. It's not that they provide bright security light, but these kinds of lights send the message that someone inside cares about their house or business, and about the town where they live and work. If I had an outdoor electrical connection that didn't require a tall ladder, I'd put out some kind of display, too. I do have candles in my windows, at least.

Norristown's been, symbolically, too much in the dark for too long. I think all these decorations around town are a sign that our community is coming out of its long economic winter. Our winter could also be called one of attitude, and I'm seeing much improvement there as well.. I'm feeling good about Norristown as the year ends.

I'll be taking the next few days off from the Diary. I have baking and gift-wrapping to do and I'm guessing many of you will be busy as well. Have a wonderful Christmas and/or end of Hanukkah and/or beginning of Kwanzaa.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Events, but First, a Rant

Sorry that the Diary's been pretty quiet all week. Too much to do before the holidays. But I've been around town a lot at night this week, and I have to say, we've got some great looking light displays in our neighborhoods. I think my favorite is the 2 blocks of Locust Street between Brown and Logan, up near Rittenhouse. Nearly every house in that stretch is decorated. Go check them out.

Last night I also had the chance to revisit my old elementary school, Roosevelt, for its 100th anniversary. They had a nice program and good attendance--I even saw some of my old classmates and teachers. And the school looked great. My only regret was that no one from Council showed up. Oh, they sent a Resolution (why come in person when you can send words?), which was supposed to have been delivered via Crandall Jones, the Borough Manager. He didn't come either. A police sergeant ended up delivering it (I'm voting for him next council election). Frankly, it would have been better not to send the resolution at all, because the message received was that our government didn't care about education in our town. Council was in good company, though. The 2 state senators who were to have been there? They didn't show either. I still sort of expect the attitude from outsiders that Norristown isn't worth showing up for, but not from members of Council. Okay, rant over. Thanks to the School District for the celebration. It meant a lot to those of us alumni from both the elementary school and alternative high school.

Not too many events this week. Enjoy the ones this weekend, then have a great Christmas/ Hanukkah/Kwanzaa, all of which are happening this coming week.

Friday, between 4 and 6 pm, Montco OIC (Arch and Basin Sts.) will have a public Toys for Tots day for families who need help this holiday season. The toys are mostly for infants to 8 years. If you know a family in Montgomery County (must be residents) who may not have a Christmas this year, have them stop by THIS FRIDAY between 4-6 pm. More info at or email or call 610-279-9700.

Friday (and every 3rd Friday from now on) from 9 pm to midnight, "The Spitwell Show" at Jus' Java (317 Swede). Spoken Word Open Mic. $5 admission, which will benefit a local youth non-profit org.

Saturday beginning at 10:30 am at Zachary's BBQ (1709 Markley Street), Feed The Burbs will present "Introduction to Permaculture and Soil Building Workshop." Although winter is just starting, now is the perfect time to start thinking about spring planting. One guaranteed benefit for your garden is to focus on building rich soil. Help us lay the foundation for a great garden while learning the tips and tricks to building healthy soil, with no digging necessary. Sponsored by Zachary's BBQ,

Saturday, 7:30 pm, Building 33, Norristown State Hospital, the Montgomery County Emergency Services staff will present the play "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder. The cast includes MCES crisis workers, case managers, social workers, registered nurses, psychiatric technicians, allied therapists, administration. Admission, FREE. Donations to the MCES Patient Fund will be accepted. All proceeds from intermission concessions will be donated to the MCES Patient Fund. Enter from Sterigere Street via Gate 2, proceed on Circle Drive and park in the designated areas by Building 33. The play will also run Sunday at 2 pm. More info at this link.

Immediate job openings at Family Services of Montgomery County for CTC Parent Education Facilitator/Cheltenham Township, and Bilingual Parent Outreach Specialist/Pottstown. more info at

One last item: I'll be singing with Colonial Revelers at Valley Forge Park tonight between 6 and 8 in the visitor center. It's the anniversary of the Continental Army's arrival at Valley Forge and lots of family activities are planned. Come out and bring your kids.

Merry Everything!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Scary Stuff on Council's Agenda Tonight

I can't make the Council Workshop Meeting tonight, but if you plan to go, don't worry if you have to be a little late. The interesting stuff is on page 2 of the agenda (also the most scary item--see bullet point 3).

First, they'll be approving council meeting dates for 2015, and giving the okay to a few new handicapped parking spots. There's a motion to extend J.P. Mascaro's contract, but interestingly, only for 90 days. A motion for a supplemental Roadway Lighting Agreement with PennDOT, but no explanation of what that means.

So, page 2 -- There's a motion to "declare the telecommunications facilities provisions of the Norristown Zoning Ordinance Invalid." I looked up the Zoning Ordinance and found Section 320-243, which deals with the size and placement of antennas, satellite dishes, cell towers, etc. If they're throwing all that out, I hope they'll replace it with equal or better safeguards or Norristown could start looking like a cell tower forest.

Finally, under "Items for Discussion," the first bullet point is labeled simply "Carver Request." I think quite a lot of people in this town would want more description under that agenda item. I have no clue what it means.

Bullet point 2: "Going green on a larger scale (where possible)." To paraphrase Groucho Marx, whatever it is, I'm for it. I think the Municipality could save a load of money in the long run by investing a little now to wean our government off the use of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources. At least, I hope that's what that item means.

Bullet point 3, the last item on the agenda. Here's the scary stuff: "Potential closing of one or more fire house." The reason is implied in the next sentence: "Could it further strengthen the volunteer base at 3 locations instead of 4?" Apparently we're short on volunteer fire personnel.

The 4 stations they mean are Montgomery Hose at Freedley and Pine, Fairmount #2 on W Main, Hancock on W Airy, and Norristown Hose at Dekalb and Chestnut. Granted, Norristown is only 4 square miles, yet we can get gridlocked with traffic at times. I know from experience that it can take a good 10 or 15 minutes to drive from Elmwood Park to the Dannehower Bridge. Sure, I don't have a big truck with siren and lights, but if my house is on fire, I like the thought that the nearest fire station is only 5 and a half blocks away. Ask any fire fighter the kind of damage a fire can do in 10 minutes. Not to mention all the other things our volunteer firemen do--like when my elderly neighbor's roof collapsed in the middle of the night during a horrendous storm. It was our fire volunteers who came to her aid at 3 in the morning.

What's really frightening is that Council is considering closing fire stations while allowing, even encouraging developers like Sarah Peck and Mark Chalphin to build the densest housing Norristown has ever seen, not to mention new 4-story senior housing--and all built of wood. Yes, new construction should have sprinklers, but do you want to be a neighbor of something like that if it catches fire, especially if your firehouse is one of the ones that closes?

And what of the personnel themselves? At one point do we start worrying that we may not have enough firefighters to serve our community. The folks who argue that Norristown is a city haven't been very vocal lately. Maybe issues like this have made them realize that if we want to go in that direction, we need urban infrastructure, which means professional fire personnel. With that kind of incentive, the fire department could do a presentation at the high school each year showing that being a fire fighter can be as viable a career choice as law enforcement in Norristown. Right now, as Fairmont Engine Company puts it on their Facebook page, "We offer long hours, No pay, Nights away from family, And some of the best Firefighters around, backed by 160 years of pride and dedication."

When a house is on fire, though, the occupants aren't thinking about 160 years of history. We need fire stations and personnel who are there NOW.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A College Campus in Norristown!

Now that I have your attention, I'll start at the beginning. Yesterday I went to the Norristown Preservation Society's Christmas party (see? You join organizations in N-town and you get the fringe benefit of being invited to parties). They held it at the old Hancock School, which is now the Montgomery County Opportunities Industrialization Center at Arch and Basin Sts.

The building is owned by the OIC's Denise Ashe. Her son Shae (who most of you know as the genius behind The Norristown Project) was nice enough to give us a tour. It was built in 1896 and opened as Norristown's first public school in 1897. In the 1960s, the new Hancock was built, but the old school was almost immediately repurposed as the OIC--sort of a technical (or trade) school before the first tech school opened in the county. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the building was restored, even the  windows, in the 1890s style. It's beautiful inside, with the original beadboard and wood moldings and hardwood floors. The structure is on the National Register of Historic Places. It houses not only the OIC but a before and afterschool day care on the first floor.

But the exciting news is that the OIC is now starting to restore the classrooms in the basement for themselves because a section of their rooms on the 2nd floor will become Cabrini College's Norristown Campus.

The OIC's interior
I've noticed Cabrini getting more involved with our community--groups have come up to work on the Schuylkill River Trail and do other service projects. And I've met Cabrini interns working with N-town businesses. But this is the first I'd heard of an actual campus in town. Great news.

It also proves that our beautiful old buildings don't have to be demolished. They can be repurposed and continue to serve the community--usually for less money and you get a good solid brick building in the process. And we don't have to give up Norristown's classic architectural character.

We'll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of another school this week--Roosevelt School at Markley and Sterigere. It opened in 1914 and was named after Theodore Roosevelt, who'd been president from 1901-1909. I attended Roosevelt from kindergarten to 6th grade, so I'm a bit biased toward the school. I've heard ideas floated in the last year or two about knocking down Roosevelt. I think the OIC is a prime example of why knocking down our old buildings is a BAD idea. Even if we stop using Roosevelt as a public school, who's to say Cabrini won't be looking for extra classroom space in a few years, or that another college might not want to also open a campus here?

This Thursday from 5:45-7 pm, you can take a tour of Roosevelt and celebrate its anniversary, but you must RSVP by calling 610-275-9720 or emailing no later than TODAY.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Events for this Week and N-Town's New Website

Check out website's new facelift. Looks nice but I had a heck of a time figuring out how to use the calendar. You can't simply click on a date anymore to see what's going on. Links for PDF files are missing. "Norristown History" is under "For Residents" so it's apparently not for visitors, too. They have council agendas hidden under "Council Minutes" which is hidden under the heading "Resources." I'm hoping it's a work in progress and they'll get the bugs out soon and make it easier to find things.

I don't have a lot of events to list this week. Not sure if that's because the town calendar isn't totally functional yet or if all the groups that are usually busy are out doing things like food drives this week instead of having events. Use the extra time to finish your holiday shopping.

Sunday night at 6 pm -- Christ United Church of Christ (W. Marshall and Noble Sts) invites everyone who like to Christmas carol to join them as they carol around their neighborhood. Meet at the church at 6 pm, carol, then back to the church for hot cocoa afterwards. Bring your family.

Monday, 4:15-5:15 pm is the last day this year for STEAM activities at the Norristown Library for grades 3-6. Create, imagine, explore, experiment. Class size is limited. Ask for program ticket at the children's desk when you arrive.

Tuesday, 6:30 pm, Council workshop at Municipal Hall. I don't THINK there's an agenda yet. Maybe I just couldn't find it on the new website.

Thursday, 5:45-7 pm, Roosevelt School (1161 Markley) will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Take a tour of the school. District administrators, school board members, teachers and staff welcome the public to join in the celebration. Anyone interested in attending is asked to RSVP by Dec. 15 by calling 610-275-9720 or emailing

Thursday, a Zoning Board Hearing is listed on the town calendar. It's also listed for Dec 23, so your guess is as good as mine. The listing said to "See attached PDF for agenda" but there was no link to view the attachment.

The Norristown Nutcracker will be here next Friday and Saturday night at 7 pm at ACPPA (Behind Grace Lutheran on Haws Avenue). Tickets ($7) are going fast. Get yours at this link.

Jus' Java (317 Swede) is getting back into the swing of things. Next Friday, Dec 19, and every 3rd Friday thereafter, they'll host "The Spitwell Show" from 9 pm to midnight. Spoken Word Open Mic. $5 admission, which will benefit a local youth non-profit org.

ACPPA Winter Session Registration is open. To sign up, call the office (610) 277-2270, drop by, or visit!classes/csgz

Happy Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day today to the Norristown Latino community, and Happy Hanukkah to all who'll celebrate it this week. If you need someone to help eat latkes and chocolate gelt, I'm available.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Murals in Norristown Survey Results

I apologize for no entry the last few days. I've been a little under the weather and also on the phone and on websites about health insurance, which is probably and ironically what's making me ill. But anyway, I promised you all the survey results and here they are. I've reproduced comments exactly as entered. Blame auto-correct. One person commented that outsiders don't notice murals. I do and I'm putting photos of some of my favorites that I've seen elsewhere on this blog. I have one other favorite that I couldn't find a photo of--a metal railroad fence around a corner in Philly where each square is painted to look like a quilt.

Question #1 was "Would you like to see another large mural in Norristown?"
YES - 69.05%
NO - 16.67%
Indifferent - 4.76%
Other - 9.52%

For those who chose "Other," here are their reasons in no particular order. Not everyone left comments.:
1. Please fix the existing mural coming into Norristown at the Dannehower Bridge
2. It depends
3. Murals that reflect a sense of history and suggest a positive transition over time could have value. A mural intended to "image" Norristown should have a very quick impact message that develops interest in spending time here; not merely cutting through.
4. It depends upon what it looks like. I am not fond of the one at 201 Dekalb.

NOTE: Twice as many people read the blog than actually took the survey. I think that means indifference is actually the majority. Or a lot of you don't want to do online surveys for privacy reasons. I'm not sure what mural at the Dannehower Bridge the commenter meant--maybe the Welcome to Norristown sign?

Questions #2: "If for or against the mural, please say why in a few words (optional)." Here are the comments that were left in no particular order:

1. I'm for another mural, but it would be nice for us to upkeep the existing works we already have, instead of letting them fall into disrepair.
2. They take the blank, generally unattractive walks and make them something to point out to kids and visitors!
3. like seeing them when driving around
4. Murals done in the community by some one in the community helps to make the community proud and to feel part of the community. It feels like theirs, which the leads to the community becoming and taking part of other areas to keep the community cleaner and safer..
5. Let's get some art in town, beautify Norristown and work together as a community to do so.

6. It would depend where and what it would look like. Even the style of painting can say a lot. Maybe something more traditional looking?
7. Outsiders don't notice murals - they notice trash and deteriorating buildings. Some think murals are the last ditch effort of a dying urban area. JS
8. I find murals in other places, such as York, PA and San Francisco, CA to be beautiful and they attract people.

9. Art adds life while reflecting the culture of the community

11. I am for the mural. I believe this is a GREAT thing for Norristown. Arts/Mural are a positive image for our community. Please continue to push this movement for Norristown.
12. I would love to see a new mural at the entrance of Norristown. A mural would help beautify an otherwise depressed looking area of town. Having the murals lighted at night would be fantastic if possible. Murals have been proven to raise property value.
13. The current mural is attractive and colorful. I would love to see a lot more like it in town.
14. About the mural at DeKalb and Main; it contains no message. It is garish. The colors are more alarming than inviting. I also understand that it was approved weeks before the "deadline" for other proposals.
15. The process for the mural at 201 was flawed. Meetings were held for public input. However, Those who showed and expressed their input were told that it was a done deal. No public input was actually accepted. We have a result that I think is a very undesirable image for Norristown.

16. Great way to support Arts Hill
17. The one we have is UGLY!!!
18. I prefer the look of "naked" buildings.
19. We need to brighten up our images as an Art friendly town.
20. Why not? Better an attempt at beautification than no attempt at all. And Norristown needs all the beauty treatment it can get.

21. I think murals are viewed very positively as a form of 'urban art'. It also helps create an attachment to Philadelphia
22. Let Norristown artists get the commission! Volunteers are great, but what about our professionals? If those Philly artists haven't pleased everyone, why not give Norristown artists a shot?
23. We ought to have more art in town. It would brighten up the old dingy buildings.

So there you have it. The majority who answered the survey are overwhelmingly for another mural.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Coming Together As A Community

First, a reminder to take the mural survey at if you haven't done so. I want to publish the results towards the end of this week, so make sure your opinion is heard. And please share the link with your neighbors and friends.

Tree-lighting at Martin's Tavern, PA
Most of you know that I sing with a living history music ensemble. This time of year is usually pretty busy for us--historic sites like Valley Forge, Elfreth's Alley and Pottsgrove all have things like candlelight tours in December. But another type of program we've frequently done is the community tree-lighting or other local holiday celebration.

Friday night we sang at Limerick Township. Every year, Santa shows up by fire truck at their community park.  They set up under a big picnic pavilion, with hot cocoa and cookies and crafts for the kids (this year they decorated luminaria bags). We dress up in Victorian costumes, singing carols and teaching motions to "The 12 Days of Christmas" while Santa does photo ops. There's a big lighted tree outside the pavilion not far away.

The closest house to Limerick's park is at least a half mile away, across dark muddy fields. There's no easy way to walk to the pavilion at night--everyone has to drive. We've gone the last 3 years and it's rained every time. Yet despite the damp and cold, families show up every year for this event. One woman brought her aging mother who was in a wheelchair and not terribly responsive. The woman asked if we could sing "The Little Drummer Boy." When we did, her mother got tears in her eyes. The woman said they never miss coming to the event, rain or not.

I've been to lots of these little community holiday gatherings--in Martin's Tavern on the other side of West Chester, in Ardmore on Lancaster Avenue, right across the river in Bridgeport. We even had one in Norristown last year, at Riverfront Park, where Santa arrived by dragon boat. But the Dragon Boat Club lost most of their equipment in the flood last spring. Donations allowed them to replace some necessities, but outdoor lights for night events at Riverfront have to wait until they get more donations.

At Riverfront Park last year. 
Elmwood Park Zoo had a tree lighting this year, but I think the tree is back near the ice skating rink. You can't see it from the road. I only saw one notice for the lighting, the day before it happened, so I'm not sure how well it was publicized.

What Norristown needs is a community holiday event that's right in the heart of town, in the public square, say, or at Main and Dekalb. A tree, or some other kind of light display would be great--sure, the lighted snowflakes on the streetlamps are helping to brighten up downtown and W. Marshall this year, but we need a central focal point. (That actually, could be said of Norristown in general.)

And while I think lights are important to brighten up the mood of this town, the chance to come together as a community at the end of the year is more important. We've had too much of an "every man for himself" attitude of late. Or maybe it's more like we're all waiting for someone else to take the reins and do something. No one business or non-profit or government agency is going to bring Norristown back by itself. We need a town-wide sense of community. The only time that I feel that comes close to happening is on July 4th (and the parade was cancelled this year).

So let's all mark our calendars to get together at the beginning of the fall next year and figure out the where and how and when of putting together a community event for next December--an event strictly for the enjoyment of Norristown residents, and especially for our children. I guarantee it will help us look into the new year with more optimism than we've felt for a long while. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Holiday Events All Over Town

Yes, it's cold out, the nights are long, and there's rain and snow in the forecast AGAIN. If you're like me, you just want to hibernate until spring. Save it for January. There are lots of events in town this month that will warm your heart, at least. Don't be a Grinch. Come out and celebrate with your Norristown neighbors.

Tonight at 7:15 pm, the doors of the Centre Theater will open for STARSTRUCK, a Musical Revue, starring some of the most talented students at NAHS. Additional shows on Saturday at 2:30 and 7:15 pm. Dessert will be served before each show in the 1st floor cafe. Tickets are only $10 and all proceeds support NAHS Drama Club. You can order tickets from any cast member or contact John Doyle at Please come out and support our high school drama club.

Remember, if you want Santa to deliver an early gift by fire truck to a child in Norristown, bring that gift (shoebox size or smaller) to Municipal Hall tomorrow between 8 and 11 am.  Go to this link, download the form and follow the instructions.

Saturday from 10 am to noon, ACPPA Community Art Center invites girls 3-12 years old, and their moms, aunts, grandmothers, etc., to Girl's Morning Out With The Nutcracker. Among other things, all participants will be read the story of the Nutcracker; watch excerpts from the ballet enactment; learn that character’s dance, take part in a special art and craft; and transform into a character. Pricing is $15 per child (no fee for adults). This annual event sells out quickly. To purchase, visit or call the office at (610) 277-2270.

Saturday at noon, is the 2nd Annual Awards Banquet of Norristown Men of Excellence, Westover Country Club, 401 S. Schuylkill Ave, Jeffersonville. For tickets or more info contact: Dom Lewis or Doug White at 484-284-0852 .

Sunday from 2 to 5 pm -- Last chance for FREE admission to the Elmwood Park Zoo for Norristown residents. The Zoo has been celebrating its 90th anniversary all year by offering free admission on first Sunday of the month. This is it, the last month. Residents of Norristown Borough that present valid photo ID may enter the Zoo free of charge after 2 pm.

Tuesday from noon to 4 pm at GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd. Open Job Fair. Potential qualified candidates should call 610-278-8040 ext 223.

Tuesday at 7 pm is supposed to be the monthly Planning Commission Meeting, but so far, there's nothing on the agenda.

Thursday from 11 am to 7 pm, VANCE Community Partners at 216 Cherry Street will hold their Annual Holiday Bazaar. Call 267-279-9397 or go to their website for more information.

Also Thursday, also at 216 Cherry, from 5-7 pm, the Norristown Business Association will host a Business Mixer, 5 pm-7 pm. Food, wine tasting, raffle. If you have a business in Norristown or are a leader of one of Norristown's non-profits, you're invited--you don't have to be a member to attend. Bring business cards. For info, call 610-275-3727 or email is a free private social network for neighborhoods. 5 neighborhoods in Norristown are now active--much of the town is covered. I'm in one of them and we've been sharing activities and announcements with each other and with the other neighborhoods. Nextdoor is adding a holiday map this week so you can see at a glance who's selling trees, where the events are, who's got great light displays, and where you can donate your time and money to worthy causes in town. The network is absolutely private--only your neighbors allowed. If you're interested in joining, go to and sign up. If you don't live in an established neighborhood, you can form one of your own.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Take My 2-Question Survey

Remember a year ago when a couple members of Council supposedly jokingly remarked that the mural at Lafayette and Dekalb ought to be painted over? They were taken seriously, so a crowd of residents showed up at the next meeting to protest. If you don't remember and want to read about it, here are the 2 N-town Diary postings about that mural and the others we have in town.

Recently, Philadelphia Mural Arts Project has identified another building in Norristown that they'd like to put a mural on. I won't say where yet, but will say that it's at a main entrance to town and would be large. Like the Lafayette mural, it would also be a community project--that is, Norristown residents and Council would approve the design and Norristown volunteers would help paint it. The owner of the building has given his approval already. The group looking into the feasibility of the project would get grants through the state and elsewhere to fund the project.

As most of you know, my opinion is that if Norristown's going to bill itself as an arts community, we ought to have art in town, especially community art like this. And we shouldn't be looking down our nose at any one kind of art, because frankly, few of us know enough about art to qualify as critics. If someone's willing to organize and find funding for a big project, why would we refuse?

But, I want to get everyone's opinion. I've set up a survey online. Only 2 questions, and you only have to answer the first. You can take it anonymously. Even if you're indifferent to the issue, you can tell me that. Go to and register your opinion. Share this blog with your neighbors. Let's get the opinions of as many residents, businesses, and regular visitors to N-town as possible.

Thanks. I'll let everyone know the results in a week or so.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Santa Is Arriving By Fire Truck

If you hear fire sirens on the 13th, don't worry. It's just Santa delivering present in your neighborhood. The Norristown Fire Department is assisting Santa with early deliveries this year. If you want your child or a kid you know in Norristown to be on the delivery list, you need to act THIS SATURDAY.

Go to this link and download the form (scroll down until you see the form and the word "DOWNLOAD" below it).

Fill out the form and return it with your one gift per child to Municipal Hall this Saturday (Dec 6th) between 8 and 11 am. Details about size of gift, how to label, etc. are on the form.

Presents will be delivered NEXT Saturday, Dec 13, between 10:30 am and 1:30 pm. You need to go outside with your child when you hear the sirens, though. Santa has a lot of stops, so he can't wait.

Questions? Call 610-292-8281.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Saturday On Main Street

Over the weekend, I was trying to remember the last time I strolled along Main Street downtown. I mean, more than a 1 or 2-shop stop at a store or restaurant. It was probably over 40 years ago when I used to go downtown with my mom on Saturday mornings.

She'd get her hair done in a little salon on Penn, then we'd walk down to Main and go right, toward Pagel's Shoes, the New York Store and the Charming Shoppe (where she bought all my Sunday dresses). Or we'd go left to Chatlins Department Store. Sometimes we did the whole stretch. We'd end up back in the middle--lunch at Grants 5-and-10 (best hotdogs in the world, on buttered rolls, with Hires draft root beer), plus they had a public phone so we could call my dad to come get us.

When I told people I was going downtown for Small Business Saturday, most of them said, "What for? There aren't any businesses down there anymore." Still, last Saturday morning, Robin Parker (some of you know her as the head of the Dragon Boat Club) and I started at Jus' Java on Swede and walked down to Main. Our intention was to let businesses know about the Norristown Business Association and maybe get their thoughts on bringing life back to the downtown.

Let me add that I can now personally recommend Jus' Java's caramel hot cocoa and berry blend black tea. Today (Tuesday) is their grand re-opening. Discounts between 10 and noon. They're open until 5 pm. Go check out their new space.

Anyway, at Main Street, we went left to Cherry, crossed Main and came back down the street on the other side, walking almost down to Arch Street, where we crossed again and came back up to Swede. And on the way we stopped in most of the businesses who were open and didn't look too, too busy.

Yes, that's right. We DO have businesses downtown, and some--like the barber shops--had so many patrons that we didn't feel right interrupting them.

There are more businesses than I expected. Most are small eateries, and many of them Mexican cuisine, though they all seem to offer different variations. They're all brightly painted, neat and clean inside, and inviting. Their cooking aromas are all enticing. They all had a decent number of patrons (to be honest, it was the lunchtime). Ditto for the other eateries we stopped at, like Main Street Cafe. In a 4-block area, we've already got Vietnamese, Ethiopean, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Southern and American cuisine. We could market Main Street as our International Dining District. Then add Italian, Greek, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, etc. And an ice cream place.

We also stopped at old established businesses like Baer's Furniture and Zummo's Hardware. They weren't so busy. It's a shame, because they're really nice people, offer great products, and they've been faithful to Norristown for decades.

Everyone who volunteered their opinions mentioned that parking was the worst problem. For stores selling heavy things like furniture, rock salt, etc., loading trucks or cars in front of their places is difficult. I've found that business district parking isn't a problem that Municipal Hall has been willing to talk about, but it seems to be key to bringing commerce back to the community. We can't simply expect visitors to be willing to pay for parking--not when there's free parking to be had at area malls and in surrounding towns. We can't expect our businesses to thrive only on weekends, when parking is free on the streets. We're in competition with other shopping areas. We're in competition with online stores. We need to make our districts more inviting, more unique, more fun, and VERY easy to visit, EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK.

The other problem is looks. Some of the buildings, like the little cafes and Cullen & Conwell law offices have gotten facelifts and look great. Many need a little work or just some powerwashing of the dingy pavements and bricks. The borough's trash cans need to be emptied more often. Codes needs to nudge owners into fixing things like dilapidated fencing. But it was heartening to see construction permits on a couple empty buildings, with workers busy inside.

These aren't insurmountable problems. I think we just need to brainstorm a bit and find some creative solutions.

Afterwards we stopped for lunch at Casa Bonita International Cuisine on Dekalb and Oak Sts.--another gem of a restaurant that no one seems to know about. They're known for their fish tacos. I recommend the Korean kochoo chop chae (pictured). Yummy.

Certainly, Main Street wasn't thriving this year for Small Business Saturday, but it gave me hope for the future.

Friday, November 28, 2014

How Banking Effects Norristown (and everywhere else)

I chose today's topic for a couple reasons. First, today is called Black Friday because it's the day that most determines whether retail businesses will finish the year "in the black"--that is, out of debt and making a profit--so the topic of money changing hands is appropriate. Second, somewhere in America today, it's a good bet someone will be watching "It's a Wonderful Life"--a great Christmas story, but also a story about banks.

So let's start by looking at Norristown's banking history.

For much of the borough's history there were 2 kinds of retail banks in town: National Banks, chartered under the Federal government, members of the Federal Reserve System; and Community Banks, which takes the funds of people who have savings accounts and invests in the community by giving loans to local businesses and developers. Savings and Loans (or Building and Loans as they were sometimes called) were similar to community banks, but their loans were mostly mortgages.

Norristown's boom times occurred pretty much between the mid-19th century and the 1970s (excluding the Great Depression and a few minor recessions) and it's no coincidence that for most of those years, the banks in town were mostly community banks or savings and loans. That is, the money local people saved was put right back into the community, and the profits made with that money mostly STAYED in the community, either as profits made by businesses, interest paid on the loans (which the banks shared with their depositors) or things like increased property values. Even the national banks in the area tended to invest locally. There wasn't much of a financial drain.

Up through the first years of the 1980s, I remember N-town having as many as 8 banks within its borders. 4 of them were downtown on Main Street. Savings accounts regularly earned around 5% interest.

Then deregulation happened in the 1980s. Big national banks began buying out community banks and each other to create huge financial mega-corporations. Yes, just like the evil Mr. Potter trying to take over Bailey Building and Loan in "It's a Wonderful Life." There are still a few community banks around now, like Penn Liberty, based in Wayne, but they're endangered species.

Now we have, I think, 3 banks left in town and they're all mega-corporations. Citizens Financial Group, Inc. is a British-owned American bank, headquartered in Providence, RI. Wells Fargo is an American multinational holding company, headquartered in San Francisco. PNC Corporation is the 5th largest  bank in America, headquartered in Pittsburgh. The best interest rate that any of my accounts earn is about 0.2% (National Penn in East Norriton). Most profits are kept by the banks to pay shareholders and top executive salaries. If our businesses take out loans at these banks, the interest they pay on those loans mostly leaves town, as do the profits collected for everything from minimum balance fines to bounced checks to ATM and safe deposit box fees.

Many developers who build in Norristown have found other sources of funding--direct taxpayer dollars--which they get from the state, county and borough. They raise some money through investors, but if you've ever been to Council meetings where one of them is seeking approval for a project, you more than likely heard words similar to "Sure, I can make the changes to the design you want, but I need another $150,000." I just heard one of these developers bragging about how Council will jump through hoops for her. Yes, we get a few more homeowners from some of these projects who then pay property taxes, but it takes at least a decade to get any real return on our investment and the projects haven't raised property values. When she comes back with another project, does she invest the profits from the last one? No, she asks for more public funding.

On the bright side, some of this public money is now available as small business loans. Some new ideas for financing our local businesses are being explored, like crowdfunding. But you can see how the evolution of the banking industry in the last 30 years has been a major factor in the economic downhill slide of Norristown and lots of other working class communities across the U.S. We need to come up with a lot more creative ways to keep money from being sucked out of our community.

Mr. Potter might have won for now, but as "It's A Wonderful Life" reminds us, good things can happen when a town comes together. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Events to Start the Holidays

Since most of you will begin your weekend tomorrow, I'm listing events for the coming 10 days today. No Diary tomorrow, but I'll be back with something suitable on Friday, so check in while you're standing in cashier lines at the mall. Or you could just do your shopping in Norristown--skip the lines and help our economy.

But let's start with the biggest news:

Back in the first half of the 1900s, weather permitting, Elmwood Park had an ice skating rink, which I think was down where the ballfields/basketball courts are now. This Friday at 1 pm, that tradition returns to the park, this time in the Zoo's lower parking lot. The rink is synthetic ice, so even if we have a mild winter, you'll still be able to go skating. It's for all ages and skill levels. The way it works is, you pay for a 2-hour session, extra if you need to rent skates. Costs and session times can be found at The rink will be open November 28-January 31. Extra days in the week between Christmas and New Year. You can book ice skating parties. For more information, contact Guest Services at 610-277-3825 x222 or email

SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY. The Norristown Business Association will be at 31 W Main St, in front of Banh Mi Bar & Bistro from 11 am to 2 pm on Saturday, handing out info about our small businesses and about membership in the NBA. Raffle drawing at 1 pm. You can't win if you don't stop by. Come out and shop local, N-town (do it every day, not just once a year). It's important and something you can brag about. I'll be on Main Street on Saturday, practicing what I preach. If you see me, say hi.

NOTE: The Montco Historical Society program listed on the Town and Community Calendars for this week will actually take place on Sunday, Dec 14. It's a one-time event.

Monday is the first practice for the PAL Wrestling Team, to take place in the Eisenhower School Wrestling Room. 6:15-7:05 pm for rookies, 7-8:30 pm if you've wrestled before. Register NOW in person at GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd, 610-278-8040 or at practice. Proper attire: shorts/sweatpants, t-shirt/sweatshirt, & sneakers. Practices will be Monday through Thursday next week, Tuesdays and Thursdays after. Cost is $25.00 and includes membership at GNPAL. For more info: Coach Chuck Springer

Tuesday at 10:30 am, Jus' Java will officially re-open its doors at its new location, 317 Swede. Stop by for the Grand Re-Opening Ceremony at 10:30 or anytime that day to welcome them back.

Tuesday, Council Meeting, 7:30 pm, Municipal Hall. No agenda yet.

Wednesday, 6:30-8:30 pm, the Greater Norristown NAACP will host the panel discussion "Know Your Rights" at the George Washington Carver Community Center.

Wednesday, 7 pm, The Montco Historical Society presents author Michael Harris, who'll speak about The Battle of Brandywine. Brandywine was a prelude to the capture of Philadelphia and the battle was one of the most important military event of the War for Independence. FREE to the public. Questions: Karen Wolfe, 610-272-0297.

Saturday, Dec 6, the Men of Excellence is holding their Annual Awards Banquet at noon at the Westover Country Club, 401 S Schuylkill Ave, West Norriton. $30 per ticket. Contact Dom Lewis or Doug White at 484-284-0852.

Travel safe this weekend and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Update on Zoning Hearing

I forgot that I have an early meeting tomorrow morning so I'm posting Tuesday's Diary entry now. It's just a bit more info to add to the last blog on zoning issues.

Michael Allen from the Planning Department was nice enough to clarify my questions about the Cingular antenna tower. The permanent structure IS meant for the roof of the parking garage, or specifically, the roof of the elevator shaft connected to the parking garage. It would extend about 9 feet above the roof of the shaft. That makes SO much more sense. I wish they'd explained that on the agenda in the first place.

I did a drive-by of 1137 Markley today. It looks worse than photos of it that I found online. It's in really bad shape. I have to wonder if there are structural problems. It's got a red notice on the porch. Anyone know what that means? If you want to see the inside, check out this 57 second YouTube real estate video that was posted in August just before the current buyer bought it.


Tomorrow's Zoning Hearing

Before I get into today's topic, a reminder that there's a Council Budget Workshop at Municipal Hall tonight at 6 pm

Tomorrow night (Tuesday), the Zoning Board will conduct its monthly hearing at Municipal Hall at 7 pm. I noticed a few interesting items on the agenda (which you can read at that everyone should know about.

I'll start with the item that concerns me the most--yet another request for a variance by Cingular Wireless regarding the Montgomery Hospital parking garage. This time they want "a permanent facility that would consist of 12 panel style antennas which would be surrounded by a screening structure that would match the existing building. The height of the proposed antennas would be 90 feet and the top height of the screening structure would be 91 feet..."

In past proposals, the language always mentioned the roof of the parking garage, height above the roof, and total height. This time the roof isn't mentioned at all, making me wonder if this would be a free-standing structure. But if you look at a map of that block, you'll see that the only free area on the property is the wide, fairly nicely landscaped sidewalk that wraps around the garage on Powell and Fornance. Cingular doesn't say exactly where this permanent facility would be or how wide it would be.

Now, I've been meeting with a committee comprised of residents of that neighborhood, and representatives from the Norristown and County Planning Departments and Elon, the developer for the hospital site. We've been working very hard to come up with new zoning and a master plan for those blocks which will make the developer happy, the neighborhood better, and Norristown proud. What we've come up with ought to help stimulate retail development in the empty stores along Powell and Fornance. I'd hate to see all that hard work ruined by a 7 or 8 story ugly tower. Even if it's on the roof of the garage, it will still increase the height at least anther 3 stories.

I've sent off questions to the committee to see if any involved knows more about Cingular's proposal. I'll let you know what I find out.

There are 2 requests on the agenda to "allow for the operation of an existing duplex" at 719 Belair Circle and 1137 Markley.  The first is located off of Selma Street between Oak and Elm, in a little isolated group of houses built around 1959, with that one thing so rare in N-town--lots of parking. The houses all have driveways, some wide enough to accommodate several cars. 719 and its twin and a few other houses in that development look as if they were probably designed to be duplexes. Given all that, I'd be fine if it stayed a duplex.

1137 Markely, however, is a twin built in 1920 for single family use. It's between James and Harding Blvd, a VERY dense block to begin with. No off-street parking and on-street parking is a nightmare only made worse by the new construction and changes to the curb line. Previous owners (the new owner just purchased the property) let the house deteriorate, which you can see in this photo showing a porch wall leaning at precarious angle and front steps that seem to have sunk down a bit on the left side. This whole block is an example of the kinds of houses and areas of town that we ought to be reclaiming as single homes instead of encouraging higher density.

The only other item on the agenda is a request "to allow for a 1500 sq. ft. addition with the height of 20’ to the existing building to be used for storage...for an eight (8) foot high decorative metal fence along Mill Street and Lafayette Street to match the proposed PennDOT fencing" at 201 East Lafayette, which is owned by Duff Plumbing and Heating Supplies. (Am I the only one who, when I see their sign, can't help thinking of The Simpsons and expects the sign to say "Duff Beer" instead?). Anyway, the architect is Douglas Seiler, who's on N-town's Historic Architecture Review Board, so I trust him not to build anything ugly and inappropriate. I think decorative fencing will dress up that corner.

So that's the rundown. I know it's a busy holiday week, but get to the meeting if you can, especially if you live in the 3rd District and will be most effected by the antenna proposal and by the bad parking situation (and potentially really bad traffic situation caused by it) at 1137 Markley.

Questions about the hearing should be directed to Jayne Musonye, Director of Planning and Municipal Development, 610-270-0451.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Events For the Next Week

I'm doing my listing of events a day early because I'll be out teaching writing to 4th graders tomorrow. If I hear of other events in the meantime, I'll do another blog tomorrow afternoon or Saturday.

Tonight, don't forget about the Police Department's public COMPSTAT meeting, 6:30 pm at Municipal Hall Council Chambers. It's a good way to see firsthand how our police have changed their methods and why crime is down 23%.

Also tonight, also at 6:30 pm, come to a discussion of how an ArtPlace grant for art along the Schuylkill River trail could boost Norristown's downtown economy, hosted by Norristown Arts Hill. The discussion will be led by members of the Montco Planning Commission. At the Montco OIC (Basin and Arch--park in the lot off Basin), 2nd floor. Questions: Contact .

Saturday from 11 am to 1 pm, YouthNET holds FREE Creative Workshops every Saturday morning for students ages 12-16 years old at 19 W Marshall St. Lunch is included.

Saturday from 7:30 to 9 pm, ACPPA is hosting a Latin Dance Class and Party for adults. Beginning Salsa class and Latin Dance Party. Couples and singles are welcome. $18 per person ($15 for ACPPA members). Register at this link.

Monday night starting at 6 pm, Norristown Council will conduct a Budget Workshop in the Municipal Hall 1st Floor Conference Room.

Tuesday morning from 8:30-9:30 am, the Norristown Business Association will hold their monthly breakfast meeting at Stoney Creek Office Center, Bldg 2, 2nd floor. You don't have to be a member to attend. If you're a business owner, nonprofit leader or just interested in developing a thriving business community in Norristown, come meet the NBA. The guest speaker will be John Lubinski representing one of N-town's newest businesses, Metal Supermarket. They'll also discuss the upsoming Small Business Saturday and their Light Up The Dark Contest. Please RSVP to

Tuseday evening at 7 pm is the Zoning Hearing Board Meeting. The agenda is available at . I'll cover the items in another blog before the meeting. Questions should be directed to Jayne Musonye, Director of Planning and Municipal Development, 610-270-0451.

Wednesday at 3 pm is the monthly meeting of the Norristown Schuylkill River Action Team at Barton Partners, 700 E Main St, #301. The team, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, is working on developing recreational opportunities along the Norristown section of the river and Schuylkill River Trail, and on ways that improving the riverfront and trail can boost the town's economy. All Norristown residents are welcome to join the team. RSVP to Lizzie Hessmiller at

Thursday is Thanksgiving and Friday? Forget the insane crowds at the mall and shop in Norristown instead. Don't know where to shop in town? The Norristown Business Association has begun a directory of Norristown small businesses on their Facebook page. They'll be adding a new business each day, so check back often.

Saturday Nov 29th is Small Business Saturday. Shop the many small businesses we have in Norristown (do it every day, not just once a year). Next Saturday, the Norristown Business Association will be at 31 W Main St, in front of Banh Mi Bar & Bistro from 11 am to 2 pm, handing out info about our small businesses and about membership in the NBA. They'll hold a raffle drawing at 1 pm. You can't win if you don't stop by.

Theater classes for kids and teens will start at Theatre Horizon in January. Go to this link  for more info and to register.

Check the calendar links in the right column for more events at the library and elsewhere.