Monday, March 31, 2014

What's In A Name?

1771 map of "Norrington"  
Okay, Norristown's officially 202 years old today and I have one last history lesson for you. When we think of a historic community, we usually picture old houses and public buildings, you know, like Williamsburg. The only thing no one considers to be historic are streets, yet some of Norristown's by-ways are far older than our oldest house.

The map above dates to 1771, when this area was called Norrington. The "cleared fields" in the lower half of the map is basically where our downtown is today. It's a bit hard to read, but the road running left to right says "Road to Philadelphia, called Egypt Road." That's where Main Street is today. It was called Egypt Street into the 19th century--I have no idea why, maybe there was a tavern by that name along its route. Egypt Road still exists in West Norriton.

The road running top to bottom through the cleared fields is labeled "Road to the Mill" but in other references is called Swede Road, which, of course, became Swede Street. it was called that because after you followed it to the river and crossed to the other side, you were in Swedesburg. What is Main and Swede today is the oldest crossroads in town. A major crossroads near a river will almost always result in a village which is exactly what happened.

On the right side of the map, you can also see that Egypt Rd. crosses another north-south road that leads to the river. The markings on the river show that this was a fording place. We still call that road Ford Street.

William Moore Smith plan, 1784 
In a little more than a decade, when Montgomery County was formed in 1784 and the Town of Norris laid out, two more streets were named in our downtown: Airy and Dekalb. Airy got its name because it runs along the hill above the river, exposed to the wind.

Dekalb was named after General Baron Johann DeKalb. DeKalb arrived from Germany in 1777 to serve as an officer in the Continental Army. He was in command of the southern troops when he died from his wounds at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in 1780. Now, he's an almost forgotten part of American history, but a large part of this area's population were of German ancestry then, so DeKalb got the honor of having one of our first streets named after him, before Washington or Lafayette. The alleys in the 1784 plan eventually became Penn, Green, Cherry and Lafayette Streets.

You notice, though, in this 1853 map, that Lafayette and Washington Streets still aren't named, though most of the other streets in central Norristown have the names we now use.

The streets in the West End were named mainly for the families who owned land near them. For instance, the Chain and Corson families had farms there for more than a century. One exception is Buttonwood Street, named for the trees that were planted all over town in a landscaping trend at the turn of the 20th century. Buttonwood is a synonym for sycamore.

In the last 50 years, we've let developers name streets in Norristown, and frankly, I think they've done a lousy job. The streets of one development have first names for streets: Gary, Caroline, Natalie, Norma, etc. Another is named after the apartment building on it. The building could go under new management and change names, and then what relevance would the street name have?

So I'd like to propose, if any developers make new roads in Norristown, that council suggest street names that have meaning to our community. We have significant historical figures that never had streets named after them: Andrew Porter, Winfield Scott Hancock (although he DID get a school, at least), Thaddeus Lowe, Mary Stinson. We have more modern former residents who ought to be recognized somehow: Charles Blockson, for instance. And, of course, we ought to name something after Hank "Cisco" Ciaccio.

So here's my question to you: if you could name a street in Norristown, what name would you choose and why?


Friday, March 28, 2014

Norristown's Birthday Weekend!


Hey, no jokes about Norristown's age this weekend. 202 is still pretty young for a town (Paris is 2000 years old and no one says she's decrepit). Here's the list of the week's activities.

Today is the last day to register for the 6th Annual GNPAL and NMOE, 3 on 3 Basketball Tournament, which will take place Saturday April 12. Registration $100/Team. All team members must be at least 18 yrs old. Contact Doug White at nmoe19401@gmail.com or call 484-284-0851 or 610-564-2763 .

Tonight from 6-9 pm & Saturday from 1-4 pm, First Baptist Church of Norristown (445 Burnside Ave) is hosting a Free Prom Dress Giveaway.

"Buried Child" continues at Centre Theater this weekend, tonight and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. $15-22. The show has been getting rave reviews. For tickets: http://thecentretheater.ticketleap.com/buried-child/ or call 610-279-1013.

Saturday from 8-10 am, you're invited to an Applebee's Flapjack Fundraiser Breakfast to support Roosevelt Campus of the Norristown Area High School at  Applebee's, 2700 Dekalb Pike, East Norriton. $7 per person, $4.50 kids.

Still hungry? On Saturday, from 11 am to about 1:30 pm, the Norristown Business Association will conduct a Walking Taste Tour of 4 Norristown restaurants: Cafe Galileo (Columbian coffee and pastries), Casa Bonita (fish tacos, cheesesteaks, enchiladas, and Korean pepper chopped beef), Almaz Cafe (chicken stew, beef stew and sliders), and Banh Mi (appetizer, entree and dessert). $20. One would assume, if it rains, you can use your car instead of walk. Contact info@norristownba.org today for info.

Saturday from 1 to 4:30 pm, come out to Selma Mansion,  1301 W. Airy St, to celebrate  Norristown's Birthday. Costumed historical interpreters Maryann Buser, Mary Reynolds, and Elena Santangelo (yeah, me) will be on hand to tell you about Norristown's early days and famous residents, and Architect Doug Seiler will spill all he knows about Norristown's historic buildings. Listen carefully, because at around 3:30 pm, visitors can play a game of Norristown Jeopardy to test their knowledge (bragging rights for the next year). Norristown Area School students who show their ID get in FREE. Norristown residents with ID, Preservation Society members and veterans, $5. All other adults, $6. All other kids, $3. All kids under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. Proceeds will go toward the restoration of Selma Mansion. Come see me in my petticoat.

Saturday night at 7pm, Comedian Matt Durkin will be featured at Caffe Galileo, Swede Street. For information, call 610-888-1980.

Council says we can all have Monday off to celebrate Norristown's actual birthday (202 years old)! Just kidding, but nothing is on either calendar that day. Relax and eat cake and ice cream.

On Tuesday, 10 am  to 3 pm, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide will be available FREE to taxpayers with low and moderate income, with special attention to those 60 and older. Norristown Public Library, Powell and Swede. Not an April Fools joke--we're only 2 weeks from Tax Day on April 15th. For additional information, visit the library website www.mc-npl.org or call 610-278-5100, Ext. 0 .

Tuesday night at 6 pm, GNPAL at 340 Harding Blvd will host "Taking It To The Next Level" -- a seminar on how to obtain a 501(c)3 non-profit classification for your organization. Organizations are encouraged to bring their event information to share, as well as any brochures, special projects and business cards. Light refreshments will be served. Sponsored by Norristown Violence Prevention Initiative. For more info, please contact Viviann Schorle, vschorle@fsmontco.org, 610-630-2111 ext 257 .

From there, you can head over to Municipal Hall for the Council Meeting at 7:30 pm Tuesday night. No agenda yet. I'll share it next week.

As always, click on The Norristown Project Calendar link in the right hand column or check the Municipal Town Calendar for more events.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rivertown? Us?

First, another meeting notice: There was originally supposed to be a Town Hall meeting with all of Council tonight. That was cancelled and will be rescheduled, probably in April. Instead, Linda Christian's holding a follow-up meeting to last week's Town Hall to let us know what Einstein and Elon decided about the concerns we expressed last week. Meeting is at the Library (Powell and Swede) at 6 pm in the Community Room. If you were a last week's meeting, you might want to come to this one.

On to today's topic--the 3rd in my series of "Stuff We Can Learn From Norristown's Past"--our river.

As a kid, I didn't think about the Schuylkill much. It isn't part of daily life here. You can't see or access it easily it from most of town. Growing up on the North End, I didn't even know Riverfront Park existed until a few years ago (I actually didn't know we had other parks besides Elmwood for a long time). I've traveled all around the country and I've been to lots of communities that could be called rivertowns, but never thought of Norristown that way, even though the riverbank comprises more than 25% of the entire border around the borough.

Historically, it wasn't always that way. William Penn was careful to make sure his son's land parcel touched the river. You couldn't have a plantation here in the 1690's without a way to ship your goods. The roads barely existed yet. The Schuylkill couldn't handle large ships, but it was just right for canoes, flatboats and small barges.

The river was named by the Dutch explorer who discovered the mouth of it as he sailed up the Delaware River. "Schuil" is the Dutch word for "hidden," so Schuylkill means "hidden river." I've heard it was called it that because the forests had been so dense on either bank, you couldn't tell there was a river there until you were practically on top of it.

The Schuylkill was the reason a small village sprung up here, the reason industry, in the form of a brickyard and mills, opened right on our riverbanks. In 1820, a canal was built along the Schuylkill, with Norristown as a main stop, making it even easier for businesses, along with travelers, to use the river for transportation.

But by the 1840s, the Reading Railroad had taken over that function. The railroad tracks effectively created a wall between the town and the river. Sure, we still had industry along the river for more than another century, and people still took pleasure boats out. People still swam in the river on summer days, but it was no longer the life blood of our town.

When I was in junior high, one of my classmates lived on along the river in Port Indian. When I visited her, I was amazed to find a little microcosm of "river people"--residents for whom the Schuylkill was an intrinsic part of their lives. It was a hot day, so 4 of us put on lifevests and floated down the river awhile, then swam back against the current, which took us 3 times as long and was harder than I thought it would be. The river wasn't in great shape in those days--the water was greenish-brown and murky (the Clean Water Act helped that, thank goodness). Even so, I kept thinking that the river was this great secret that only the people in Port Indian knew about.

I've been going to meetings of the Schuylkill River Action Team these last few months. The team is comprised of people representing the Schuylkill River Trail, the Dragon Boat Club, the Municipality, and anyone else interested. One of the goals is to make improvements that would encourage bikers who use the trail to come into town to visit our restaurants and other attractions, to use the trail to access our festivals and other events, perhaps have a side trail that goes through the West End to the Farm Park. Not only are they planning signs and kiosks with information, but physical improvements along the trail, to clear brush and scrubby trees so the riders would be able to have views of the river and Riverfront Park. Riverfront Park would have improvements as well--Septa has promised to clean graffiti and the walls that mark the entrance from Haws Avenue and the Dragon Boat Club is applying for a grant to build a floating dock for community use in 2015.

As part of the Great American Clean Up of 2014, a clean-up day is planned at Riverfront Park on April 12 from noon to 4 pm. Volunteers needed--just show up. Wear long sleeves and bring work gloves (unless you want poison ivy). Teams will start at Haws Avenue and follow the bike trial in each direction. Refreshments will be provided.

As for the rest of the year, the Dragon Boat Club has all sorts of events planned, with an emphasis on activities for kids, from science workshops to Riverfest to a Haunted Woods for Halloween, and Santa again arriving by dragon boat. The club wants residents to start enjoying our river again, and they intend to encourage a variety of river sports as well as their usual community doings. For information, check out their newly revamped website (which looks great!) at http://www.dragonboatclub.org, or LIKE their Facebook page.

Looking to the future, the Lafayette Street Corridor is supposed to be done in 2016. After that our downtown riverfront can be developed. We've been promised public access to the riverfront there--walking trails, benches, etc. It would be lovely to have a 2-mile walking/jogging trail all along the Schuylkill eventually. And a park-like, active riverfront will bring in outside visitors.

So maybe our Hidden River won't stay hidden much longer. Come down to Riverfront Park this year and be part of our river renaissance.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lessons From Norristown's Founding

Courthouse in mid-1800s.  
First, a quick reminder that tonight is "Meet The Chief" at 6:30 pm, American Legion Post #39, 500 E. Marshall. Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot will introduce himself and talk about the department's policing strategies. Additional parking is available at the old Washington School parking lot in the 600 block of Violet Street. Be there.

Now for today's topic. On Saturday, the Preservation Society is hosting a Birthday Party for Norristown at Selma Mansion starting at 1 pm. Since I'm one of the historical interpreters at that event (come see me in my colonial costume), I've been refreshing my knowledge regarding how our town came to be. With the anniversary of Norristown's incorporation less than a week away, I want to share a few interesting tidbits about the borough's past.

William Penn received the land grant that he called "Sylvania" from King Charles II of England in 1681. It was the king who named it Pennsylvania, after Penn's father, who'd been an admiral and who'd also lent Charles a lot of money. Pennsylvania was the king's way of paying back the debt to the family.

Penn set aside parcels for his family and friends. His son, William Jr., received 7,000 acres, roughly from what we today know as Saw Mill Run, up the river past Barbados Island (West Norriton Township), inland to include what today is East Norriton. Junior never lived on this land, just set up a plantation and reaped the profits.

In fact, for the next hundred years, none of the men who owned the lion's share of the land lived on it. That's right, Norristown was begun by absentee landlords. The last owner in this line, from about 1776 to 1784, was the University of Pennsylvania, who owned the 500+ acres that makes up our downtown today.

When the Pennsylvania legislature decided to split Philadelphia County and call the northwestern part Montgomery, it was decided that the UPenn parcel was perfectly situated for a county seat, so the university's provost sent his son, William Moore Smith, to design the community. He laid out the first streets, plotted out where the courthouse and public square would go, and called the place "The Town of Norris" (after a previous absentee owner). William Moore Smith is the closest thing to a real founder that we have, but no one remembers him.

Apparently everyone thought the name was pretentious or too long. They started calling us Norristown. We applied to the state to become a borough and the governor signed the incorporation charter on March 31, 1812. Why that date? Possibly that was just when the charter ended up on his desk.

The first council was elected May 1st--8 members named Swaine, Coates, Hahn, Schrack, Hamill, Thomas, Holstein and Winnard, an interesting mix of English and German names. One would assume some or all were involved with sending the charter to the governor, so they could be called founders, too, but we don't remember them either.

Norristown was at one time called Williamstadt, Norriton Manor, Norrington, and the Town of Norris--nearly 130 years of identity crisis. Those formative years were filled with absentee landlords and other outsiders who made most of the decisions that would effect the residents and shape our town. In some ways, we don't seem to have evolved much beyond that in the 202 years since.

I think it's time for the residents and local business people of Norristown to take hold of the steering wheel for good--to tell the county and other outsiders, thanks, but we have a better idea what Norristown is and ought to be than people who don't live here, and who only get their community planning notions out of trendy magazines and websites.

We could all be founders of the borough's future.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Zoning Variances for Giants

The monthly Zoning Board Hearing is scheduled for tonight at 7 pm in Municipal Hall (assuming it's not postponed due to snow). What makes this hearing interesting is that both agenda items are concerned with the cell phone and communications antennas and satellite dishes currently atop Montgomery Hospital.

1. Cingular Wireless is seeking 2 sets of variances: one to install "a temporary telecommunications tower on wheels that is 84' high with three (3) antennas and a microwave dish, temporary fencing, in the hospital parking lot located at the corner of Powell and East Fornance...."  The second is to "have a ballast mount on the rooftop of the medical office building at 1330 Powell" that will be "less than 15' above the existing rooftop" to mount 2 microwave dishes, each 2-foot in diameter.

This is a continuance from January, when Cingular announced that Einstein was kicking their equipment off the hospital roof so the building could be demolished. They added the 2nd variance since then. It was supposed to be an "either/or" addition, but you can see it isn't--the variances are for different equipment.

To give you an idea how high 84 feet is, in the photo above, it would be higher than the trees. Completely inappropriate in a residential neighborhood.

The request begs the question, how temporary do they mean? If the hospital does come down, don't the antennas have to go elsewhere anyway? Why not find a new home for them now? How about atop the Human Resources Center at Dekalb and Fornance? That's higher and zoned differently.

2. T-Mobile Northeast is also seeking a variance to mount 6 antennas on the medical building at 1330 Powell. Their mount would have a top height of 106 feet, 6 inches! More than 20 feet higher than Cingular's proposed tower. The red line on the photo of 1st Presbyterian's steeple (the highest point on our skyline) shows about where the 100 foot mark is. Look at how much higher that is than even the church roof. Our usual 3 story houses are less than half that height.

Again, why not put them on the Human Resources Center building, or some place more appropriate?

Or Einstein could halt their insane plan of demolishing the hospital and the antennas could stay put, which would make more sense.

So come to the Zoning Board Hearing tonight and hear all about it. If you live in that neighborhood, especially, you should come and voice your opinion. You were concerned about property values at last Thursday's meeting. I can't imagine that these cell towers in your collective front yard will help the value of your homes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Our Latest, Greatest Slumlord

As promised, here's the report on last week's Town Hall with Einstein and Elon. First, I want to say how proud I was of the Norristown residents who came to the meeting. The thirty or so in attendance had varying opinions as to the fate of the hospital buildings, but their questions and comments were well thought out and intelligent. The meeting was exactly what Town Hall SHOULD be -- democracy in action. I wish more meetings in town could be like this, but usually the citizens don't have the information ahead of time to do their homework. In this case, those who attended the first meeting had a month to think about what was said, and it's clear the neighbors from the surrounding block had some discussions as well.

I have to thank Linda Christian, too, for allowing the many opinions to be heard. She began by recognizing a resident from Locust St, across from the back of the hospital. He was in favor of demolition, yet read a long list of hazards that leveling the place could bring, from noise to the effects of masonry dust on lungs, cars and roof paint, to the runoff of dust and debris during storms into the sewers and into Stony Creek. What he wanted as compensation was an exemption from taxes for nearby residents during the months of demolition.

Next Doug Seiler presented a summary of the Norristown Preservation Society's paper that I published on the Diary last Thursday. He showed a plan of the hospital, and photos from other hospital-to-apartment conversions to how the feasibility of renovation, especially if the non-historic building (the Horsey Pavilion) was demolished. He pointed out that renovation could actually be cheaper, given the federal tax credits for historic preservation, and that it could be done in such a way to extend the development plan by only about 6 months. He explained how demolishing a documented historic site causes a denial of federal and possibly state funding for development on that site. He also gave his opinion as an architect that, after examining the buildings from the outside, he saw no cracks or structural defects that supported Einstein's claim at the last meeting that the building was in bad shape and "couldn't be saved." And he pointed out that we should get a say in the demolition and development because our public taxpayer money will be used.

Matt Edmonds in the head of Norristown's Planning Commission. He couldn't be there, but his wife read a letter from him (they live on Locust, a couple blocks from Montgomery). He explained that the process for new development, from Zoning through Planning to Council's approval, would take a year to 18 months, and that Einstein/Elon hadn't yet begun that process. Yet Einstein wanted to begin demolition soon, meaning the building could be leveled long before Elon's plan, or their funding, was approved. Matt advised that demolition NOT begin until Elon had funding, at least, or we could end up with a vacant lot. Though he also said he thought the building should come down because it looked old and dingy.

I got my turn next. I told of my personal history with the hospital, having lived a few blocks away from it for more than 50 years. I told about reading the documentation from the National Park Service and PA Historic & Museum Commission about the site's historic certification and eligibility for the National Register. I also pointed out that if we routinely demolished every building in Norristown that was old and dingy-looking, the Cigar Factory and Scheidt Brewery buildings would never have been renovated. That's what power-washers are for. I said I couldn't understand why Einstein would spend 5 million to demolish the site, after selling the property to Elon for only one dollar, when they could both save money by using the existing structures.

A few other opinions were expressed, in favor of renovation. I got the impression that the majority of those present were in favor, for various reasons: the history of the building, the dangers of demolition, the fact that Norristown's Comprehensive Plan called for renovation of our older architecture, the fact that masonry structures seem safer than 4-story wooden apartment buildings.

Einstein took the floor. They were represented by John Finger, Chief Administrative Officer and Rich Montalbano, VP/Project Executive (who was also at the last meeting). Mr. Finger began by agreeing with my statement that renovation would be cheaper, saying he wishes he COULD renovate, but that the inside of the building was in bad shape. Mr. Montalbano said that they'd placed clear window guards over the 1st and 2nd floor windows, but that someone had broken windows higher than that, causing the cold air to freeze pipes so that they burst and the water shorted out electrical wires. Because of this, they said Einstein had to turn off the water, so that they currently had no sprinkler system, but that they were working with the Fire Chief and HE was telling them what they had to do to remedy the problem.

If Mr. Finger thought this would gain them sympathy, he forgot that he was standing before a roomful of homeowners. They were appalled to hear that Einstein hadn't been taking care of the property, to the point where it created a hazard to the surrounding neighborhood. They remembered Mr. Montalbano saying before that Einstein "wasn't going to spend a penny on a building that's coming down." Several residents mentioned that if any of us did that, the codes department would throw the book at us. They said that Einstein had no business buying a property that it had no intention of maintaining. They insisted that the problems be fixed and the sprinkler system be turned back on.

At some point, while trying to reassure the audience, Mr. Finger said that Einstein had "full-time security" at the site. That raised more questions in my mind. Didn't the guards do rounds of the buildings, looking for security breaches like broken windows? If they did, you think they'd have reported the problem long before the pipes froze. And if there IS full-time security, why aren't they shooing away the skateboarders, who Einstein blames for the cosmetic wall that toppled? The graffiti on the McShea building took more than a few minutes to create--where were the security guards then? What exactly does Einstein mean by "full-time security?" Because they apparently aren't keeping the site very secure.

To top it off, Francis Vargas of Elon held up his drawing of the first building his company intends to put up. It was the same tired drawing he showed us last time, with all the same flaws that would cause nightmares for senior citizens. In the month since the last meeting, no one at Elon took to heart what we'd said and made changes to improve the plan. Audience members who hadn't been at the February meeting immediately saw the flaws and asked, "Why not have a door closer to the street so no one has to walk in the rain? Why isn't there a pickup and dropoff area?" etc. Elon, like Einstein, was obviously not about to spend an extra penny to give Norristown something decent.

Mr. Finger promised to "take a second look at" the idea of renovating the historic building (though he kept ending sentences like that with "but....") One resident wisely asked what "taking a second look" meant exactly. Mr. Finger said he'd meet with Mr. Montalbano and Elon (they were to meet last Friday morning), but he ended that sentence with "but..." as well. In other words, the 2nd look wouldn't be serious.

When Judge Nicholas raised a question, Mr. Finger (exasperated that he couldn't manipulate the audience by this time) said he'd sell anyone the property for a dollar if they thought they could do better than Einstein. Are any developers out there willing to re-use the hospital buildings, assuming Einstein would give you the same deal as Elon (including the removal of asbestos and other materials, and the demolition of the Horsey Pavilion)? I think I can say that the people of Norristown will work with any developer willing to work for us, for the betterment of our community.

What we don't like is having another absentee landlord in town, who doesn't maintain their property, and a developer using taxpayer money to give something we don't want.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

It's Spring! Get Out And Do Something!

The first full weekend of spring! Hopefully it won't feel like winter. I'm posting this Thursday since I'll be out early tomorrow morning. Everyone have a good weekend.

Friday at 8 pm, Buried Child opens at the Centre Theater. Other performances Saturday night at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. For tickets: http://thecentretheater.ticketleap.com/buried-child/ or call 610-279-1013.

Saturday from 8 am to noon, volunteers are wanted for the Stony Creek Cleanup. Volunteers are asked to dress accordingly and meet at the bocce ball courts next to the Elmwood Park Zoo. Drinks will be provided by Starbucks and lunch provided by The Anglers Club.


ACPPA will run another of their Keeping it Klassy events for 4th and 5th grade girls on Saturday from 1:30 to 3 pm. Location Haws Avenue in the rear of Grace Lutheran Church. Each girl attending is asked to bring a snack to share and their favorite pillow or blanket to hang out on. Please RSVP by Friday, March 21st  at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/keeping-it-klassy-tickets-10069781989

Monday, March 24 at 6:30 pm, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will hold a public input hearing at the Montgomery County Community College Advanced Technology Center 322, Room 101, 340 DeKalb Pike in Blue Bell, to hear customers questions and concerns regarding the outages due to the February 5th icestorm.. If you're going to make a statement, it's suggested, but not required, that you write it out beforehand.

Monday, March 24, at 7 pm, Genesis Housing Corporation, DeKalb Street, will hold a FREE class on Home Buying Basics. Registration required. Visit www.genesishousing.org or call 610-275-4357.

IMPORTANT: Tuesday night is the Zoning Board Hearing, 7 pm at Municipal Hall. The agenda is posted at http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/events/1121.pdf . This hearing is all about the proposed cellphone tower, satellite dishes and antennas that Cingular and T-Mobile each wants to put in totally inappropriate locations on or near the Montgomery Hospital property. More about this next week.

Starting Wednesday, March 26th, GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd., will host The Incite Institute, which will engage NASD students in grades 6-8 through exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math, and physical fitness through creative projects and trips. Mon, Wed, and Thurs from 4:30-7:30 p.m., Friday 4:30-6:00 p.m. and some Saturdays. The Program is not only FREE, but participants will receive a one year membership to PAL. To register, call Hakim Jones 484-213-7275 or Xaras Collins 484-684-7010.

IMPORTANT: Wednesday night is the Meet the Chief Town Hall meeting at 6:30 pm, American Legion Post #39, 500 E. Marshall. Come out and meet Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot as he introduces himself and outlines the department's policing strategies. Additional parking is available at the old Washington School parking lot in the 600 block of Violet Street.

You can see more events by clicking on The Norristown Project link in the right column or going to the Town Calendar at http://norristown.org/town-calendar .

One Side of the Issue

I went to last night's Town Hall about Montgomery Hospital and took copious notes, which I'm going to organize over the weekend and report on Monday. This morning and tomorrow I have to be in Haverford early, doing mystery author things, so to make my life easier today, I got hold of the document that Doug Seiler read from last night at the meeting, which was prepared by the Norristown Preservation Society. It's long, but it's comprehensive and should answer almost everyone's questions. For my part, I think NPS's vision for the Montgomery Hospital site makes much more sense than Einstein/Elon's (if you could even call theirs a "vision") and is better for Norristown and the hospital's immediate neighborhood in the long AND short run.

For tomorrow's Diary, I'll try to post that entry later today, or tomorrow afternoon.

Commentary Regarding the Proposed Demolition of the Former Montgomery Hospital

A.  WHY NPS IS AGAINST THE PROJECT CURRENTLY PROPOSED BY EINSTEIN AND ELON:
  1.  Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code support reuse of the facility – not demolition.
  2.  Demolition of a six story concrete building is inherently hazardous and will be disruptive to the community
  3.  Proposed new project out of character
       a.  Building coverage too sparse
       b.  Style of proposed building and its set-backs, are not appropriate for the neighborhood.
       c.  Cell towers proposed across Powell street are too tall
  4.  Proposed new project is not an asset to the community:
      a.  No commercial uses at first floor contributes nothing to the neighborhood
      b.  Too much undifferentiated open space around buildings. How will it be used?
      c.  Minimal parking on site. Long walk for seniors from the garage.
      d.  Phased development and bare-bones approach, is in developer’s interest – not Norristown’s.
  5.  Overall plan may NOT get financing:
      a.  State money is competitive. 
      b. The property is eligible for the National Historic Register and has similar protections under federal and state laws as though it were on the Register. 
      c. The project is an example of “anticipatory demolition”.  This will likely trigger a section 106 review and may also deny the Federal Tax Credit financing.
  6. What’s the Rush?  Once it’s gone, that’s it.
      a.  Norris Theater is a good example.  Old Borough Hall and YWCA are others.
      b.  If financing is not approved, what is plan B?
  7.  Miscommunication about the development appears disingenuous:
      a. Talk of sitting vacant for years is not a valid point.
      b. Talk of building components falling on neighbors is not a valid point.
      c. Talk of biohazards in building making it unusable is not a valid point.
      d.  Statement that it is not historic is false.
      e.  Asbestos is being abated either way, so it’s not a valid issue.
      f.  The claim that it is private property and therefore, "they can do what they want" isn’t a valid point, because:
           i.  The proposal needs zoning relief
          ii.  Public $$ is being used to develop the proposed project.
         iii. The proposal is counter to Norristown’s “Brand” and “Comprehensive Plan”.
         iv.  Einstein has said for years that they will do the right thing.  Council should hold them to their pledge, as it was part of earlier awards of public money  and approvals for constructing the hospital in East Norriton.
      g.  Years of “re-use dialogue” gives impression that this building has sat vacant for years.
      h. The Mission First proposal and pro-forma, was flawed. The floor area was too large for the market, as they were keeping the Horsey Pavilion. The Horsey pavilion doesn’t work for housing and requires a mixed-use approach, such as office or institutional occupants. That fact, combined with Council’s push for the Pennrose project, at DeKalb and Airy, is most-likely why the financing was denied in 2012 – not because of inherent flaws with the notion of reusing the building.

B.    WHY NPS BELIEVES RENOVATING THE EXISTING BUILDING IS IN NORRISTOWN’S BEST INTEREST AND IT IS ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE FOR THE OWNER TO CONSIDER REUSE OVER DEMOLITION:
   1.  The total floor area of all the buildings on the Hospital complex between Fornance, Wood, Powell and Locust Streets is approximately 248,000 sq. feet.  The four-story, Horsey Pavilion, built in 1975, is not a historically “contributing” structure and consists of 65,000 sq. feet.
   2.  If the Horsey Pavilion is demolished and the remaining buildings are renovated to Senior housing, with an adjacent “Life Center” (20,000 sq. feet in old emergency center) and some first floor commercial space (10,000 sq. feet)  the total project area would be 183,000 sq. feet.
   3.  The existing complex has been determined eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, with the Horsey Pavilion as non-contributing.  If the remaining 183,000 were renovated by Federal preservation standards at $200/sf, for a total project cost of $37m, then the project would receive $7.3m in Federal Historic tax credits.
   4.  By abating the asbestos throughout and only demolishing the Horsey Pavilion,  a significant portion of the $4-$5m of a total demolition cost can be saved.
   5.  Renovating the structures will generate many more local, unskilled and skilled jobs, than will new construction.  This is because preservation projects are more labor intensive than new construction.
   6.  The renovation of the historic structures can be implemented in two, or three, phases.  We estimate the total project mix to be 100 to 115 apartments in the six-story tower and 24 to 27 units in McShae Hall.
   7.  The dimensions of the historic six story tower (50’ wide) and McShae Hall (45’ wide) are very suitable to senior housing apartments.  Examples of other buildings, which were renovated to apartments and having similar building widths, include:  Kennedy Kenrick (65’) and Rittenhouse  School (47’), locally and St. Luke’s Hospital (50’) and Beacon Hospital (47’), nationally. 
   8.  Keeping the historic structure(s) has a style and image that fits the community:
      a. The existing building has a front door on Powell Street, that is easy to find and offers convenient automobile drop-off.
      b. Has some retail/commercial uses on Powell Street to enliven and serve the community.
      c. Is closer to parking spaces in garage, especially since the reuse would most likely keep the bridge to reduce vehicle/pedestrian problems.
      d. Builds on Norristown’s “Brand”, which, as stated in the Comprehensive Plan, is “a community that is diverse, has a unique historic town character, and has great access to the metro area via public transit and the regional highway system.”
      e. The importance and impact of working with historic structures when approaching development in Norristown can’t be understated.  It sends a message that the elected officials understand Norristown’s character and inherent assets and are not just “selling out” to whoever shows up with a proposal.  It also improves the quality of life for the existing residents and sends a message to other people, who may not be familiar with Norristown, that the inherent environmental and psychological values of rehabilitating structurally sound, historic, buildings has value.
   9. The existing building is built of the soundest, most fire-resistant type of construction available.  The proposed buildings are to be four story structures of wood studs and trusses, which is the least fire-resistant type.  There have been several spectacular examples of fires resulting from these types of structures being constructed in close proximity to other structures - as would be the case with Locust and Wood Streets.
  10. If renovated, the historic buildings will provide interesting apartments with a view.  Plus amenities in the building, such as the “Life Center” and retail, with nearby parking.
  11. If renovated, the existing cellular towers can remain on the roof of the existing building, instead of being moved and reconstructed, inappropriately, across Powell street on the much shorter parking garage and medical arts building.

C.  WHAT NPS IS ASKING OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS AND EINSTEIN HEALTHCARE TO DO:
   1.  First of all, to not start the demolition of the hospital complex until after the private and public financing has been approved by PHFA and finalized with the developer’s private-equity sources.
   2.  For Norristown Council and Einstein to honor Norristown Ordinance 125-1 & 2 requiring a 120 day waiting period for the demolition of “key, or landmark” buildings within the borough.
   3.  For local, County, State elected officials and Einstein Healthcare, to recognize that a financially feasible reuse of the existing structure is in the best interest of Norristown.  For those same parties to try and find a way forward that does just that.  In other words, for all concerned to simply “try harder” to save and reuse the historic portions of the complex.
   4.  For local, County and State elected officials to meet with Einstein and develop a financial incentive package, of public/private resources, that can be the basis for a re-bid of the project.  The proposed re-bid would contemplate the demolition of the Horsey Pavilion.
   5.  While the project is being re-bid, for Einstein to abate the asbestos and demolish the Horsey Pavilion, so that when the new project’s funding becomes available, the project is “shovel-ready”.
   6.  As the demolition phase is shorter with a reuse project and as the abatement and the partial demolition may be able to take place while the re-bid and PHFA review is underway, the delay to the overall development may be, at worst, several months.  It certainly won’t be years.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Einstein, Round 2

Here's a reminder about the Town Hall Meeting tonight regarding Montgomery Hospital, at 6 pm in the Community Room of the Human Services Center on Dekalb and Fornance. Yes, it'll probably be raining and you won't feel like going out. It's been more than a month since the last Town Hall, so it's hard even to remember what the controversy was about. And isn't the demolition of Montgomery Hospital a done deal anyway? At least, that's what everyone's saying.

That's what Einstein hopes you'll be thinking.

Let me refresh your memories. At last month's meeting, Einstein (the owner of the property) and Elon (the developer) came in like steamrollers. They said that the hospital buildings weren't historic, and implied that they were structurally unsafe and that the neighborhood was in imminent danger. Besides fear tactics, they sought to disempower opposing opinions by speaking as if the hospital were already leveled and there was no turning back. They kept saying if we don't go along with their plan, we'll be left with a vacant building forever. They also glossed over the real danger to the community--the demolition process--and failed to mention that the new buildings would be made of wood, not masonry.

You all DO understand that these strategies weren't spur of the moment, right? They're pros at this sort of crowd control.

In the month since, the Preservation Society has found documented proof that the buildings are not only on the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places, but have been declared by the National Park Service as eligible for the National Register. Einstein very likely knew about these documents 2 years ago. Demolishing a historic property like this means the developer can't access federal funding at all, and possibly couldn't get state funding either.

Architects and contractors have looked at the outside walls of the buildings and have found no cracks or other structural defects. A wall did fall down early this year, but it was a cosmetic wall used as a fence behind the Horsey Pavilion. It fell because it had been mostly free standing and not tied into a building the way regular walls are. Also, the Horsey Pavilion was built in 1975, and the construction was not up to the same quality as the older buildings. It's not considered a historical part of the property, therefore it can, and probably should be demolished, leaving more room for on-site parking.

Einstein kept saying the buildings were too many square feet and too wide to be developed. Only the Horsey Pavilion is too wide, and without it, the square footage is comparable to Elon's plans.

But beyond all that, Einstein's and Elon's plans violate Norristown's Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code. There's nothing in what they have planned that could be considered in Norristown's best interest, which isn't surprising since nothing Einstein has done since buying Montgomery Hospital has been good for our town. They've taken easy access to healthcare out of the heart of our community, along with one of our largest sources of jobs. Now they want to destroy one of our most historic buildings. Does that sound like someone who cares about us?

So put on your raincoat tonight and come out to hear both sides of the issue, and to voice your opinion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When Will Council Support US?

The agenda for tonight's council meeting (7:30 pm, Municipal Hall) is on the town website. The gist of it is:

- Final approval for the new apartment building at the Curren Terrace Apartment Complex,
- Public hearing and approval for 1 apartment on the 2nd and 3rd floor of 219 E. Main,
- The appointment of a municipal auditor,
- Ratification of a letter of support to Penrose Properties (they spelled it wrong (should be Pennrose),
- Donation of a piece of equipment to Plymouth EMS,
- Approval for the hiring of a new police officer, consolidating handicapped parking, and reducing the speed limit on Dekalb,
- Approval to advertise code ordinance changes regarding nuisance vegetation, and snow and ice removal.

To me, most of that list seems pretty straightforward. The 1st 2 items have been before Planning. Things like hiring an auditor and new police personnel have been mentioned before. And as ironic as code changes about snow and ice removal sound, considering how poorly the municipality handled their end of the bargain in January and February of this year, this is only approval for advertisement--we can still yell about the changes if they seem unreasonable. Nothing is necessarily permanent about code ordinance, unlike the item below.

One item caught my eye because it's so vague: "Motion to ratify a letter of support to Penrose Properties." What IS that? Pennrose owns Rittenhouse School Apartments. Is it something to do with that property? Pennrose also nearly was allowed to put up a horrendous apartment building at Dekalb and Airy last year. You remember, first they said all market-rate apartments with retail on the first floor, then a small percentage of low-income subsidized apartments that kept growing until it became the majority--60%, then we heard some of the retail would be sacrificed to 1st floor apartments. The planned building was ugly, went against all HARB guidelines for the district, and would have been placed right on the corner, blocking views of the Prison and St. John's Church. The parking lot would be entirely for the apartment residents, eliminating the future parking needs of Arts Hill, the courthouse, the churches, and future uses of the Prison. It was a plan that seemed to purposefully go against anything Norristown residents could possibly want for their downtown. 1800 people signed a petition against that development and still, Council ignored the taxpayers they were elected to represent and sided with Pennrose.

The only thing that stopped it was when Pennrose's funding was denied by the state.

So now, tonight, Council will vote on a letter of support for Pennrose. What are they supporting exactly? Is that nightmarish development being proposed again?

The thing is, this scenario repeats over and over with Council, if not with Pennrose, then Sarah Peck, or Einstein/Elon, or any carpetbagger who shows up at our door with a development plan. I don't want to imply that all developers are bad for Norristown, they aren't. Hallman Retirement, who's developing the Kennedy-Kenrick property into a senior housing complex, seems to want to work within the needs of the community, with as few zoning variances as possible. They aren't trying to build too dense or destroy landmark buildings. They aren't considering their profit more important than our visions for Norristown. They aren't taking advantage of public funding at our expense.

But Council doesn't seem to differentiate good development from bad. A red flag should go up anytime a developer asks that zoning and other ordinances (like our laws regarding the demolition of historic buildings) be ignored just for them. Another red flag, when the developer asks for money to revise their plans to accommodate zoning and protests--that's nothing but an extortion scheme. Yet often they get their way AND they get taxpayer money. But Council, over and over, sides with bad developers, no matter how many taxpayers protest.

So, what's in this letter of support? Why not put some description about it on the agenda? Whatever it is, instead of supporting Pennrose, I think we need to tell them to fulfill one of their old abandoned promises about Rittenhouse: to renovate the auditorium for public use. And from what I've heard from apartment dwellers at Rittenhouse since January, the roof is in serious need of repair. I say that Pennrose needs to prove they're worthy of our support before Council ratifies a letter none of the taxpayers have read. But of course, none of us can protest because the Public Comment section of tonight's meeting is long before the agenda item regarding the letter.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Cost of Creating

In discussions about developing Norristown as an arts community, I've heard people talk about the need to attract artists to come and settle in our community. I've heard this from lovers of the arts, speaking in a vague way, as if all we have to do is put out fishing lines with the right bait. When you ask what kind of bait they mean, you get equally vague ideas of creating work spaces for artists, or even simply that artists would just want to hang out together 24/7, and that once a few settle here, that would be enough to bring more in.

I've heard it also, from developers, who bandy around the term "artists' lofts," implying that building the right sort of nests for artists will bring them in droves. In truth, these developers could care less who forks over money for their condos and apartments. They use the term because that's what they think our politicians and planning people want to hear. Sure, maybe housing in N-town is relatively inexpensive, but that's not enough to attract artists.

I think most people, when saying the word "artist," picture visual artists, but really, it needs to cover all the creative arts: music, dance, theater, design, architecture, prose and poetry, as well as painting and sculpture. The thing is, we already have artists in all these disciplines here, you just don't see them doing art openly in town. You might have a fashion designer or a novelist living in your neighborhood--how would you know?

Our artists have begun to come out of the woodwork, thanks to venues like Jus' Java and Coffee Talk, that hosts poetry and music open mic nights, and book signings. These venues and the library are offering gallery space for visual artists to show their work. But artists can't make a living doing open mics, or selling a few bits of their creativity now and then.

The truth is, very few people have any clue about how artists make ends meet. Half the people I've ever met assume I make tons of money writing books. I remember one man once trying to convince me that I should let him be my publicity agent. I told him the reason I wouldn't hire him is that he knew so little about the business, otherwise he'd know that his percentage of my earnings per month wouldn't buy him a cheap meal.

Most artists earn nowhere near minimum wage for the hours they create. From what I've observed in the writing world in the last 2 decades, earnings have been decreasing. I just read an article about an author with 19 novels under his belt, one of which was a bestseller, yet he's facing retirement unable to make ends meet on his royalty payments alone. And he's in England where he doesn't have to pay a mint for health insurance.

A friend of mine posted the cartoon above to Facebook last week. It's true, artists in our society are often asked to give away their work for free, for "exposure." Often artists are even asked to pay a fee to display their work or perform or to have something published. That's just plain wrong.

So, if you want to attract artists, Norristown, you need to offer two things. First, part-time day jobs, where enough can be earned to at least pay the big bills, like insurance and rent. Second, paid gigs or fair commissions. If there's hope of making a living here, and of being treated like their creativity has worth, artists will come.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Council vs. The Dragon (and other diversions)

Warm weather must be coming--Norristown's calendar is filling up again. You need to be 3 people to cover all Saturday's activities. But let's start with tonight:

Two hours of happy tonight, 4:30-6:30 pm at Jus' Java. Live music, discounted food and drink specials. Followed by Acoustic Open Mic at 7 pm.

Tonight at 7-9pm, The Norristown Business Association and the Dragon Boat Club will be hosting Family Feud Game Night at Casa Bonita, 801 Dekalb St. Call 610-278-9100. Please come out to watch the Dragon Boat Club take on Norristown Council (my money's on the Dragon). They'll host game night once a month, with the defending champion taking on subsequent challengers. For more info, email info@norristownba.org or call 610-278-9100.

Also tonight at 7 pm overnight until 7:30 am Saturday is the Mid-Night Basketball League and Mentoring Program at GNPAL 340 Harding Blvd. No workshop means no jumpshot. Cost: each player must be a member of the GNPAL @ $10.00 per year. Sponsored by Buck Jones 484-751-2509, Trina Berry 484-680-6164 and OneLove Club.

This is the last weekend for Circle Mirror Transformation at Theatre Horizon. Performances Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $22-$31. Call the Box Office at 610-283-2230 or visit www.theatrehorizon.org for more information. 

Saturday morning at 9 am, Certified Enrollment Navigators from the Norristown Regional Heath Center will provide free assistance with health insurance enrollment at the Norristown Library, 1001 Powell St.  From 10am-3pm, there will also be a Health Fair at the Regional Heath Center (1401 Dekalb) to encourage enrollment. Free health screenings, refreshments.

Attention gardeners: Saturday, 11 am to noon at the Library, Pauline Myers from Penn State will discuss which bulbs add interest to a garden in all 4 seasons, whether in a garden or flower pot.

Saturday at 11 am to 1 pm, Terri Camilari will perform at Coffee Talk Artists' Co-op. For more info call 610-272-4811.

Saturday, 1 pm at Jus' Java, author Ronald James will be on hand to sign his latest book, CHOICES.

Saturday, 4-5:30 pm at Theatre Horizon, Adult Acting Class.  No experience necessary. Class is taught by acclaimed Philadelphia actress Nancy Boykin, who plays the role of "Marty" in Circle Mirror Transformation. Nancy teaches acting at Temple University, helping students open up to new and imaginative possibilities. $15. For more information or to register, visit www.theatrehorizon.org.

Also Saturday, there will be a Benefit Concert and silent auction at Fairview Village Church of the Nazarene, 3044 Germantown Pike, Eagleville to benefit the Norristown Hospitality Center. Free Admission. Bidding starts at 6pm, music starts at 7 pm, Supported by Community Churches.

Norristown Ladies Flag Football will hold sign ups for women 27 yrs or older on Saturday. No times listed with this notice, so call Ericka Wharton at 610-306-9420 to find out. $40 per player or $70 for each team sponsor.

Take a rest Sunday after a really busy Saturday (or go see Circle Mirror Transformation at 2 pm).

Monday, go to the Norristown restaurant of your choice to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

Tuesday at 7:30 pm is the Norristown Council meeting at Municipal Hall. No agenda listed yet.

Wednesday the 19th at 6 pm, Councilwoman Linda Christian will host another Town Hall meeting in the Community Room of the Human Services Center on the subject of Montgomery Hospital. Hopefully both sides will have a chance to present facts this time. Please come and be informed.

On Thursday from 1 to 4 pm, the Norristown Small Business Assistance Center will hold its bimonthly start-up business seminar, “How To Start Your Business in Norristown,” at the Norristown Municipal Building, 235 E. Airy St. This event will discuss creating your business plan, how to test your idea, what you need to consider when starting your business, licenses and certifications and “Show Me The Money,” where and how to get financing for your business. To RSVP contact Ronald Story at 610-277-4455 or email rstory@norristown.org. FREE for Norristown residents and $25 for all others.

As always, click on The Norristown Project's calendar in the right column or check the Municipal Calendar for more listings.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Acting Out...Of Harm's Way

Warm weather is coming, and for those of us who live near a middle school, that usually means at least one spring sighting of a big mob of teens watching at least 2 kids beat up on each other. The participants' friends won't try to stop it--just the opposite--they'll be egging their side on, and so will some of the non-friends. And nowadays, a good many of the students will be filming all the action with their phones, which only serves to encourage more of the same.

Search on YouTube under "youth violence" and you get 218,000 videos on prevention. Search under "kids fighting" and you get 757,000 hits of just that. One on the 1st page of the list was marked "Extremely funny." It wasn't. It was pathetic.

I got into one of these kinds of fights in junior high. I didn't start it, but I didn't know how to get out of it. I nearly got suspended. We were never taught, in school or at home, how to handle an extreme bullyng situation. And without guidance, it's not easy for kids that age to control the onslaught of hormones that makes them lash out in tense situations, whether they are the bullies or the victims. Both sides just feel out of control.

Tonight Theatre Horizon will host its 2nd annual "Out of Harm's Way" public forum at 7 pm. The forum will use dramatic scenes to help students learn how to better handle social problems before they become violent, and to help parents and civic leaders engage one another to find solutions.

Drama-based programs such as this have been used in other communities to curb violent behavior in youth. One study done in Boston involved pre-teens in a 9-week improv program where, once a week, they acted out scenes on particular topics where they had to make pivotal decisions on the outcomes of the scenes. At the end of 27 weeks, the students were evaluated, along with a control group of kids who hadn't done the improv classes. The students who had gone through the program had better social skills, like cooperation, assertiveness, and self-control. The control group's skills decreased, and overall, they showed an increase in aggression and violent behavior as they got older.

So if you have a child who is a school student, no matter how young, bring them to Theatre Horizon tonight. Admission is FREE, however, you must RSVP by calling 610-283-2230.  The theater is located 401 DeKalb Street. Street parking is available near the theater. In addition, there is a small parking lot as well as free parking in the county parking lot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Our Crown Jewels

In the past weeks, with all the talk of Montgomery Hospital and building preservation, I've noticed that quite a few people don't have a handle on what the National Register of Historical Places is, or even that Norristown has buildings and districts listed on it. With a listing comes a certain amount of protection for these resources.

From the NRHP website: "The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources." Pennsylvania also has a register, administered by the PA Historic and Museum Commission. To be considered for the NRHP, a building must make the state register first. The process involves 2 applications, one to the state, then once a building is accepted, another to the National Park Service, which involves extensive research.

Some of you know we have historic districts in Norristown. This isn't just someone in town saying that these districts ought to be considered historical. They were designated historical by the National Park Service and placed on the National Register. What that basically means is that, as I said in a previous blog, we've got museum-quality collections of fine historical architectural, and they've been recognized on a national level. If you want to change the facade of a building in either historic district, or build new construction, the plans have to pass our Historical Architectural Review Board, who make sure the integrity of our historic areas are maintained and the buildings in those areas are protected. You can get a better view of a map of both the Central and West Historic Areas at http://norristown.org/uploads/building-code-enforcement/harbdistrictmap.pdf.

But many residents are surprised to hear that we've also got individual buildings listed on the National Register:

1. David Rittenhouse Junior High School (Pine and Roberts Sts) was built in 1928, the first junior high school in Norristown, named for local surveyor David Rittenhouse (1732–1796). It's Colonial Revival, red brick with limestone trim and detailing, featuring an ornate, two-story, semi-circular entrance portico, palladian window, and limestone clad tower. The school closed in June 1981, and the building was, years later, renovated into senior apartments and placed on the National Register in 1996.

2. The General Thomas J. Stewart Memorial Armory (pictured at top), on Harding Blvd., is now the home of Greater Norristown PAL. It was built in 1927-1928 to serve as an armory for our local National Guard unit, constructed of yellow brick on a concrete foundation, with decorative stonework and a parapet, in the Classical Revival style. It was named for a Norristown resident who went on to become the state adjutant general of the PA National Guard (Stewart Middle School was named for him, too). The building was added to the NRHP in 1991.

3. Globe Knitting Mills, also known as the Rambo & Regar Globe Knitting Mills, are two historic textile mill buildings located on East Main. They were built in 1898, constructed of red brick with heavy timber framing and Italianate style design elements. The main building is three-stories tall and rectangular in plan. When I first saw that this building was added to the National Register, I thought, "Really? It's just an old factory building." Then I got a closer look at it. It's been beautifully renovated into an office building, but it doesn't look like a typical office building on the inside. Much of the original timberframing, brickwork, hardwood floors, and even the old machinery is still intact. It's a history lesson in turn-of-the-20th-century milling. The building was added to the NRHP in 2003.
 
We've got other buildings listed on the PA Historic Register, for instance, the original Winfield S. Hancock Elementary School, built in 1897, and now serving as the Montgomery County OIC. As I said, the application to the NRHP requires extensive research, which can be expensive or, at least, time-consuming. If you're renovating a building, a listing on the NRHP can get you federal funding, so it's often worth it for developers to spend the money on the research (all of the above buildings received their NRHP designation while being renovated).  We've got other buildings in Norristown that ought to be listed--like the Old Prison and Selma Mansion--but it's difficult for volunteer groups to go through the process, and often governments don't want to.

Montgomery Hospital is listed on the PA Historic Register, and has been deemed eligible for the NRHP, meaning it needs only the final paperwork. It would be a shame to let it get this close to becoming one of our crown jewels, like Rittenhouse, GNPAL, and Globe Knitting Mills, only to be demolished and lost forever.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Your Chance To Get Caught Up

Last week when I was sick, I rescheduled a dental appointment to this morning, which I forgot about until late yesterday, so no blog today, unless I'm inspired by having a numb mouth later. Plenty of time to catch up on yesterday's blog if you missed it:  http://norristowndiary.blogspot.com/2014/03/maybe-its-time-for-mid-life-crisis.html

Check back tomorrow.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Maybe It's Time For a Mid-Life Crisis

1912 Centennial 
Three weeks from today, Norristown becomes a year older. Our town birthday is March 31st. Had our founders been considerate of future generations, they'd have incorporated in the summer, so we could have a big outdoor party every year. As it is, Norristown rarely celebrates its birthday except, so far, at 50 year intervals.

I was talking to a friend who had a birthday this past week. She turned 33, and was lamenting her lost youth. She felt as if she hadn't accomplished anything in life. I remembered that age, and having felt the same way. That was my first mid-life crisis. I pointed out to my friend that at 33, I hadn't had anything published yet, and was still 6 years from even beginning my first novel that would make it into print. But, easy to look back in hindsight.

I feel that Norristown's a bit like my friend. Everyone keeps saying our best years are behind us. Sure, when I think back to the 1960s, I remember factories and a bustling downtown. Logan Square was full of open stores. We had 5 full elementary schools within the town borders.

N-town at 150 years
Yet I also remember factories closing, and more homeless people, most of them either outpatients of the State Hospital or alcoholics. Many of the latter were veterans who'd never adjusted to life after World War II and Korea. I remember a whole lot more hate openly expressed between races, even between cultures and religions in town. I remember poor sections of Norristown seeming much more desperately poor than they are now. I remember Elmwood Park Zoo consisting only of a duck pond, 2 ill-kept bears, and a "monkey house" that always smelled horrible.

I also remember older people in the 1960s, saying Norristown had been better in their day. I'm guessing that in their youth, their parents and grandparents had said the same thing. Dwelling on "The Good Old Days" is one of the favorite pastimes of many of our long-time residents--a tradition passed down through generations. But we've all nostalgically sorted and rearranged those memories to be something shinier than they really were (You don't believe me? Go read old copies of the Times Herald). History ought to be something we learn from, but it only works if we're honest about the bad times.

So this birthday, let's just look back as far as the last year. Yes, crime is still a problem, though we've hired a new police chief to help remedy that. The Norristown Project has made our streets look better. Good things are happening on Arts Hill and at Riverfront Park. Several volunteer groups are working with our youth. Our business people are banding together. Restaurants and businesses have opened. And one thing I've noticed above all--there are a lot less nasty comments about Norristown on social media. We have much to celebrate this birthday. We shouldn't wait another 48 years for our Sestercentennial (250th).

Our Bicentennial
Norristown Preservation Society is inviting everyone out to Selma Mansion on March 29th from 1 to 4:30 pm for a Norristown Birthday Party. They're going to have speakers talking about Norristown's history, a Norristown Jeopardy Game and cake.  All NASD school students accompanied by an adult get in free with ID. Norristown resident adults with ID get in for only $5 (proceeds go toward restoring Selma). I'll have more info as the date approaches, but put it on your calendar now.

Are our best years behind us? I think older cities and towns would laugh at us. We're only 202 years old Paris is over 2200. At our age, she was still filled with hunters and farmers cooking over open fires. Time to stop looking behind us, Norristown, and start looking ahead.



Friday, March 7, 2014

Norristown and Team USA !

Sorry that the Diary's been intermittent this week. I've had that stomach bug that's been going around. But before I get on with the activities for the next week, I have a HUGE ANNOUNCMENT. The head coach of the Norristown Dragon Boat Club, Robin Parker, has been selected to coach Team USA's Senior C Women's Dragon Boat Team. Robin will handpick the team from women all around the US, then lead them on to victory at the World Competition in Welland, Canada in August of 2015. And even better, Norristown won't be losing her--she'll continue to be the head coach of our Dragon Boat Club. (In fact, she'll be leading her team into a different kind of competition next week. See the last item below).

A couple more announcements:

Local visual artists can have their work showcased for FREE at the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library. If you're interested, contact Asha Verma at 610-278-5100, ext 112.

GNPAL Track Team (for ages 5-18) is kicking off its new season. I got the notice for the open house meeting too late, but if you're still interested, contact Jamaica Mitchell: jamaicamitchell@yahoo.com or at 610-278-8040. Registration ends April 10th, $125 per child, $100 for each additional child. They're looking for volunteer coaches.  Practice starts March 31st at 6 pm at GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd.

Now, on to the calendar (for more activities, check the Norristown Project calendar in the right column or the Municipal calendar  which now seems to be up and working):

Tonight, "Circle Mirror Transformation" continues at Theatre Horizon at 8 pm. Tickets from $22 to $31. Generous discounts for groups of 8 or more. Call the Box Office at 610-283-2230 or visit www.theatrehorizon.org for more information. Additional performances Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 2 pm and Monday at 7:30 pm.
Saturday morning from 8:30 to 10:30 am, you can again Breakfast with the Animals at Elmwood Park Zoo. This week they're "Snacking with the Snakes" (just before St. Patrick comes to drive them away). Guests will enjoy a light continental breakfast buffet among the company of animals from our education collection, then watch as breakfast is prepared for the animals, plus crafts and other activities. Adult $18, children $9; discounts for members. Reservations must be made in advance. Contact the Education department at 610-277-3825, ext 235 or 236.

From 9 to noon Saturday, Certified Enrollment Navigators from the Norristown Regional Heath Center will again provide free assistance with health insurance enrollment at the Norristown Library, 1001 Powell St.

Same day, 10 am, you can get CPR/AED/First Aid Training at GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd. If interested, call 610-278-8040. $25 per person. Any questions, please contact Ericka Wharton at 610-306-9420.

Orientation for OIC's free Pre-Apprenticeship Program begins Monday, March 10, at 4:30 pm at 1101 Arch Street, and continues Wed, Mar 12 at 10 am. New classes begin March 17th. The program is in partnership with Local Laborers Union and job placement is included!. Call 610-279-9700 for entry requirements. Space is limited. SE HABLA ESPANOL. Funded through a grant from Montgomery County Department of Commerce

On Monday evening at 7 pm, you can attend a free class on Understanding Credit at 208 DeKalb Street. This class is sponsored by Genesis Housing Corporation. Obtain a free credit report from major credit bureaus with scores. Also, learn how to improve your credit score. Registration required, at www.genesishousing.org or call 610-275-4357.

Tuesday at 7 pm is the Municipal Planning Commission Meeting and, hey!, the agenda is already posted!

Seniors looking for something to do Wednesday afternoon can attend the monthly Senior Film Festival at 1 pm at the library, Powell and Swede. This month's film is "Norma Rae,"  based on a novel by Ron Leibman. For info, contact: Mary Motta, 610-278-5100 ext 0, or at mmotta@mclinc.org

Here's an important one for the town: Thursday from 7 to 9 pm, Theatre Horizon, Dekalb and Penn, will host the OUT OF HARM'S WAY FORUM. The forum will address risk factors affecting youth in Norristown--drug use, truancy, violence and safety issues. The event will feature a dramatic presentation and forum for parents, youth and civic leaders to engage one another directly about ways our community can combat these problems together! All are welcome. This is a FREE event but you MUST reserve seats. Visit www.theatrehorizon.org or call the box office at 610-283-2230.

Friday night at 6 pm, you can catch the Spring Gospel Concert at Eisenhower Middle School (Marshall and Selma). Concert will feature the Siloam Baptist Church Praise and Worship Team, Mt. Zion AME Male Chorus, Holy Matrimony and Company, The Voices of the Main Line and vocals by Danavia Williams, Carrie Porter, Lastasha Jackson, Evangelist Wanda Richet, and Minister James Saunders. Admission, $10. For tickets, call 610-270-0467. NO TICKETS will be sold at the door.

Also Friday night, 7 to 9 pm, come to Family Feud Game Night at Casa Bonita International Cuisine (801 DeKalb St). The Norristown Business Association will host this as a monthly event. This month pits the Norristown Council against the Norristown Dragon Boat Club, for bragging rights. The champion will return next month to face the next challenging team. Does Council have enough competitive spirit to beat the Dragon Boaters? Is it even fair, now that we know Robin's Team USA material? Come out and root for your favorite team.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

You're Asking The Wrong Questions

If you ask people in Norristown about youth and safety in town, you hear that there should be more youth programs, things for kids to do. If you ask about the arts in Norristown, everyone's for it--they want to see Arts Hill developed and promoted, they want more arts in other parts of town, too. If you ask about downtown, you hear how everyone wants a thriving Main Street, with lots of retail and restaurants and nightlife, and no drug addicts to frighten folks away. If you ask about historic preservation, everyone says, "Yes, we love our architecture."

But when a specific case comes up, you're all asking completely different questions. At the county Town Hall last week, the director of the Carver Center stood and asked for the county's help in keeping the Carver Center open. Apparently he'd been told that, now that PAL is so active, the Carver Center wasn't necessary anymore. I was appalled that he even had to make a case. I've heard certain politicians in this town blame Norristown's crime statistics on the size of our population. They say you have to expect it because we're a city. Yet, when it comes to providing youth with programs to keep them off the streets, helping them become good citizens and contributors to the community, well, they say, one youth center is plenty. According to the last census, 26.2% of our 34,427 residents were under 18 years of age. That's over 9,000 kids. Even 2 youth centers can't cover that many. No one should be asking if the Carver needs to stay open. We should be asking how our leaders can let it close. Do me a favor if you're on Facebook, go to the Carver Center's page and LIKE it as a show of support for them, to let them know we understand the service they provide and the town's need for it.

I've heard some of the same politicians above say Arts Hill is on its own, that Municipal Hall isn't going to support them. From what I've heard, efforts in the arts in other places around town haven't been supported much by Council or the greater community either (though I was pleased to see three Council members at the mixer at ACPPA last month). Yes, I know for a lot of residents, the price of admission to an event isn't in the budget, maybe not even on "Norristown nights" when tickets prices are slashed, but it costs nothing to share events and talk up arts activities in your churches and among friends. Go to the Arts Hill Festival in May and encourage others to do the same. Share news about the arts in N-town on Facebook. Quit asking "Why do I have to be the one to promote the arts?" and start asking "What else can I do to help bring in audiences, and to get artists excited about Norristown as an arts community?"

Downtown? Everyone's great at imagining what Main Street ought to be like, but when issues come up in front of zoning and planning and Council that are detrimental to our vision of downtown, no one shows up or even bothers to email one council member. When Gaudenzia decided to take over a large building of our downtown, partially as a therapy facility for drug addicts, only a handful of people came to the hearings.

In the last 2 weeks, each time I've talked to people about saving Montgomery Hospital, I feel as if I've been put on trial. I'm confronted with everything Einstein has said about the place, as if it's gospel truth. They say the buildings aren't historic and that they're on the brink of falling down, and not one of you has questioned these statements. Not one of you has asked Einstein for proof. Yet when the Preservation Society shows letters from the National Park Service and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, as well as the expert opinion of architects and contractors, you're skeptical. You say you want historical preservation, but when a specific case comes up, you say, fine, just demolish the place. You SHOULD be asking, what can we do to save the building and give it a new purpose?

When asked, most of us seem to have the same vision for Norristown, but when it comes down to specific cases, we don't ask "What solution best fits our vision and will help us get there?"  Instead, we refuse to get involved, or we take the easy path, and as Norristown gets farther away from our vision instead of nearer, we complain that it's someone else's fault.