Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Do You Expect? This Is Norristown

Here it is, the last day of July. I've come to think of the past month as the doldrums in Norristown, though I could call it worse. We started with no Independence Day Parade. That same weekend we had break-ins in the West End. A boat used for kids' programs was stolen and hasn't been recovered yet. A bunch of houses on Kohn St. were tagged with graffiti. The month ended with a 22-year-old being shot and killed, allegedly after breaking into a house.

After each of these, the comments posted on social media were all of the same ilk: "What do you expect? This is Norristown."

The month also ended with a man (someone visiting a friend) who decided to push his 2nd amendment rights to the limit by open-carrying a loaded, pistol-grip, sawed-off shotgun around the Forrest Avenue area. Pennsylvania has pretty lax gun laws, but even so, a pistol-grip, sawed-off shotgun is barely legal. Guns like those have to be over a certain length and/or require a special permit. It's not the kind of decision an ordinary citizen can or should make. The ordinary citizens who saw him did the right thing and called 911 (besides the gun, his bulletproof vest probably worried them a bit, too). West Norriton police were the first ones to stop him. They questioned him, handed back his gun and ammo and let him go on his way.

Norristown police stopped him next. Our cops showed infinitely more wisdom--they cited him for causing public panic. Inciting panic trumps constitutional rights--you can't yell "Fire!" in a theater even though you have the right to freedom of speech. Our police also determined that the man was not "in a right mental frame of mind to be walking around the streets with a loaded shotgun." They confiscated his weapon and told him he could pick it up later at the station. That gave the police the chance to run a background check on the man (and he did have a prior arrest for making terroristic threats).

The Times Herald article said that the man told the police he wouldn't open-carry anymore, but said nothing more about the outcome. I assume he got his weapon back and carried it around concealed instead (yeah, that makes me feel MUCH better). I hope that he finished his visit and is now gone. But I applaud the Norristown police for how they handled him.

Now, for that last incident you can't say "What do you expect? This is Norristown." Not the kind of thing that happens here every day. And when our police do a great job, no one EVER says "What do you expect? This is Norristown."

In fact, when good things happen within our borders, no one ever says "What do you expect? This is Norristown."

This coming month, we'll have at least 4 festivals (counting Family Unity Day), and no one will say "What do you expect? This is Norristown."

We have 2 professional live theaters on one street and a growing arts scene. Not something you'll find anywhere else in this area outside of Philly. We have live music somewhere in Norristown every weekend, often at more than one venue, and often with free admission. No one says "What do you expect? This is Norristown."

A few other river communities have boating, but our boats come with drums and dragons. We have dragon-boating members of Team USA training on our stretch of the river, yet no one says "What do you expect? This is Norristown."

We have some of the best restaurants in the entire surrounding area, some of the best public parks, an awesome zoo, great architecture, more kinds of sports teams, more cultural diversity (which in my mind boils down again to more great food). We have active non-profit organizations doing their best to make this town better. And we have some of the kindest, most generous people on the planet living and working here.

Bad things happen in other communities. You don't hear everyone in Philly saying "What do you expect? This is Philadelphia" every time a crime happens there. If a human being put him/herself down every time something went wrong the way this town does, that person would be called clinically depressed.

It's time we changed our attitude and started saying "What do you expect? This is Norristown" for all the things we're proud of.

Monday, July 28, 2014

You Can Do Something About Zoning

More than 950 people read my diary entry last week titled "Our Zoning Board Will Approve Anything." I saw quite a few opinions on Facebook afterward and no one who spoke up was pleased about Zoning's decision to allow 16 housing units on the 1/4 acre lot at 522 Cherry.

This weekend, I received a copy of the board's letter sent to Swede Street Associate's lawyer confirming their decision. The letter ended by saying that the "formal Opinion and final Order" would follow shortly, then "As you know any interested party may appeal the decision of the Board within thirty (30) days of the date the Board issues its final Order."

So I checked the Municipal site to find out how one goes about appealing a decision. The only thing I could find said "Appeals under § 320-163 and proceedings to challenge an ordinance under § 320-164 may be filed with the Board, in writing, by any officer or agency of the borough or any person aggrieved." It didn't say who to send the letter to, or if this means a court case. I'm sure a lawyer could figure out it out, but how many of us, even collectively, can afford to lawyer up?

I also wonder what they mean by "person aggrieved," which I define differently from "interested party." Someone who lives within a certain distance of the proposed development? Or can any resident appeal because we feel this kind of variance sets a dangerous precedent for the town as a whole? Would any resident not living close to the development be listened to? I certainly wasn't listened to at last week's hearing.

But, since this is supposed to be a democracy, if you think 16 housing units on a 1/4 acre shouldn't be allowed in Norristown, send a letter saying so to

Norristown Zoning Board
Municipality of Norristown
235 E. Airy St.
Norristown, PA 19401

Mention "Application 13-14" and "522 Cherry St." Say why you're against the development. Some key points are parking, trash, and excess strain to water, sewer and electrical infrastructure, but feel free to express your own objections. (If you live in 524 Cherry, you might want to think about the fact that no sunlight will shine on your house and yard ever again.)

It doesn't have to be fancy. Don't have a printer? Write a paragraph out longhand and sign it.

If the Zoning Board gets enough letters, even if it does no good this time, they might think twice before approving the next high-density development to come along.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Events for the Coming Week

This is the last weekend for the rock musical The Who's "Tommy" at Theatre Horizon (Dekalb and Penn Sts) by New Cavern Productions. For show times and tickets, go to http://www.eventbrite.com/o/new-cavern-productions-5220323245

Saturday at 5 pm, GNPAL (340 Harding Blvd) hosts the "Throwdown in N-Town," a night of amateur boxing featuring fighters from GNPAL and the mid-Atlantic region. MAIN EVENT - Julio Berry vs. Kieran Hooks, also featuring Waddell Parker and Andre Mack. $20 for adults (18 - up), $15 for teens (13-17), $10 for youth (8-12), Kids under 7 are free!

Sunday night at 7, The Summer Concert Series presents Mango Men in Concert at the Elmwood Park band shell. Sponsored by The Arcadia Foundation. Food/drinks available at the snack stand. For cancellations, call 610-270-0467 on the day of the concert.

Tuesday from 5:30-7:30 pm, Greater Norristown PAL (340 Harding Blvd) will celebrate its 10th Anniversary with a reception--a gathering of local dignitaries, individuals who helped purchase and refurbish the former Stewart Armory, former board members and the local community. During the event, the winners of the 2014 GNPAL Mirabile Scholarship will also be honored. All are invited. RSVP TODAY to 610-278-8040 or brett.wells@greaternorristownpal.org

Thursday from 5 to 7 pm at Montgomery County OIC, 1101 Arch St, youth room. Chosen Ones meeting. This is a youth organization of Montgomery County OIC and managed by The Norristown Project. They are a group of teens ages 12-18 who look to make a positive change in Norristown through volunteering and community outreach. Meetings are open to anyone interested in joining. Email info@montcooic.org for info.

Next Saturday, Aug 2, from 9 am to noon, the Norristown Project and Chosen Ones will host a community cleanup at McCann Park (listed as Ford and Sandy Sts, but best access is to go up Sandy another block and take Toarmina or Angelo Sts). Chosen Ones are asking the community to help with the following tasks: General park cleaning, removing weeds, park beautification through planting. Open to all ages, anyone from Norristown or its surrounding community, high school students who wish to earn community service hours (bring necessary documents for an organizer to sign). If you have any questions about the cleanup or want more information on how your organization can participate, email info@montcooic.org. In the event of inclement weather, the cleanup will take place on August 3rd at 3 pm.

Also next Saturday starting at 10 am, you can help a MONTCO Sheriff K9 get a new safety vest at "Bocce for Baldo." Sign up now for the CPL James Baldovsky Memorial Bocce Tournament, Holy Saviour Bocce Club, 436 E. Main St. $25 per person, $100 per team. Food, beer, soda and water included. For more info, contact Deputy Michael Petriga, 610-278-3342, mpetriga@montcopa.org, or Sgt. Patricia Haas, 610-278-3830, phaas@montcopa.org

As always, check the calendar links to the right for the usual weekly events at the Library and elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Our Zoning Board Will Approve Anything

I'm tempted to just say that the people of the 500 block of Cherry Street deserve what they get.

I went to the Zoning Board Hearing last night and was pleasantly surprised to find, for once, a good sized crowd in attendance. What I later found out was that most of those people were there because of a Siloam Baptist Church building project. Apparently only one resident from Cherry Street came. Or, at least, only one got up to speak.

To review: the proposal for 522 Cherry is for 16 "stacked townhomes" to be built on what is now a parking lot. They clarified the lot size last night--98 x 116 feet or about 11,400 square feet, just slightly more than a 1/4 acre. In perspective, that's roughly equal to the size lot of a usual set of twin houses in Norristown, or 5 rowhouses.

The proposal is being make by Swede Street Associates who owns the lot. They're a business that does things like property titles and deed transfers, owned by the Chalphin family. On hand last night was Mark Chalphin, a 1971 graduate of Eisenhower High School. He grew up in Jeffersonville and the family business has been in Norristown for years. I actually met him in high school. He graduated with my brother. Anyway, I think I'll refer to Swede St. Associates as SSA for convenience.

Back to the proposal, which calls for 2 buildings on the site, one along Cherry. We were told that, from the street, this building's facade would even with and made to look like the existing row houses, with 5 entrances and similar steps leading up to the doors. There will be one tunnel-like access to the rear of the property in the center. This building, however, will be 4 stories tall. SSA said vaguely that some of the building might be able to go below grade to make up for the scaling differences (not likely since the property slopes from the rear, or else a full story would be underground with no windows) . This building will contain 10 units--5 doors on Cherry, 5 facing the Maple Alley.

The 2nd building will be behind the first, perpendicular to it and on the south side of the lot. It will be 3 stories and contain 6 units. The units in these buildings can be as small as 800 square feet. Both buildings will be wooden construction.

Also in the rear, on the north side, will be a parking lot with 16 spaces, accessible from the alley. This is the only parking provided in the plan--the only parking thought necessary by SSA and, according to them, the only parking required. (I could have sworn 2 spaces per unit were required, but perhaps that's only for rental units in the borough, or perhaps the Town Center District has other rules.) SSA seems to believe that the residents of their new buildings will only park in the lot, even those in the 5 units facing Cherry St. They couldn't imagine that any of the units' occupants will ever have more than one vehicle, or will ever have visitors.

The board asked about trash removal. The 5 units facing Cherry will put their trash out on the street for usual collection. SSA said that "some arrangement would be made" for the 11 units in the rear to bring their trash to a "central location" on the property (one would assume, dumpster). A homeowners association would be formed and be responsible for having the rear occupants trash picked up (begging the question--why would the Cherry St unit occupants agree to chip in for such a service if they're using regular pickup out front?)

The homeowners association would also be responsible for maintaining the landscaping (some trees and plants will be put in around the rear building), and for maintaining the parking lot and having it plowed in winter. I pointed out that Norristown's alleys are rarely plowed (and Mr. Chalphin himself confirmed that Maple Alley's never plowed). The homeowners association will also have to make sure the alley's plowed in from Airy St. to the lot. If they don't, of course, 16 cars will be looking for parking on Cherry and Airy until the spring thaw.

I also pointed out that our old infrastructure for water and sewer would be stressed by 16 new households on a 1/4 acre. No one seemed terribly concerned about whether the other residents of Cherry St. have water pressure or if their sewers back up. And no one was concerned about the stress to the electrical grid--all those units will have A/C, refrigerators, washers and dryers, TVs, etc. Brownouts anyone?

Only one Cherry St. resident got up to speak. I think he lived next door (as usual, it was hard to hear, the microphone wasn't turned up very high, and few speakers spoke directly into it). He was for the project, but worried about how the excavation process would effect his property (I didn't think SSA's answers were very comforting.)

I was the only person who spoke against it, and as I said last night, I'm not against building residential housing on the property or bringing more homeowers to Norristown, and I'm certainly not against fixing the stormwater problem on the site. I'm simply against the proposed number of units for the lot size. It's TWICE as dense as the 1202 Dekalb project. People living on top of each other like that will make neighborhoods go downhill faster.

Why do I think it's important to protest this kind of development? Because tomorrow it could be in my own neighborhood. Or yours. I'm sure all those suits who showed up to speak on behalf of SSA have nice single homes in the 'burbs. If their next door neighbor put 16 houses on an adjoining 1/4 acre, they'd sue. But everyone seems to think this sort of development is simply what Norristown deserves. People packed in like sardines. The lawyer for SSA said they have high density development in New York City and it's not a problem there. I've visited Manhattan for up to a week at a time. It's cockroach infested. The streets are dirty. There's no parking to be found. Often their trash is out of control. There are rats around their dumpsters. It's the least healthy city I've ever been in. Do we want Norristown to be like that?

Mr. Chalphin, despite being painted last night as a hometown man who loves and cares about Norristown, is in my opinion, more caring about the money he'll make off the sales of those units. The Zoning Board? They approved the variances unanimously, with hardly any discussion.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Temple U's Final Recommendations

Here's my final segment on the Temple U. Food Assessment Report. Thanks for bearing with me.

One thing that bothered me was that much of the report dealt with providing food for our low income families yet when it came to urban agriculture and edible landscaping, most of the Temple recommendations would cost money our low income families don't have. A community garden plot takes an investment not only in plants or seeds, but in soil amendments like peat moss, top soil and fertilizer, landscaping cloth to fight weeds, fencing (or other ways to discourage pests), and unless you start a garden within walking distance, a car and gas to get to your plot.

Edible landscaping? I love the idea of planting berry bushes, herbs, and edible perennials like asparagus not only in a back yard veggie garden, but as functional edible gardens surrounding our homes. But most of our households can't afford to hire a landscaper or buy things like gooseberry bushes, let alone have the knowledge to maintain such plants.

What we need is some kind of grant program to train homeowners in edible landscaping or urban farming and help families buy the materials to get started. Yet one thing I thought evident in the Temple report is that the people who put it together didn't seem to think any special knowledge, training, or much funding was necessary to set up gardens of any kind.

They also didn't seem to have a grasp of geographical or infrastructure issues. For instance, they recommend transforming some of our open space into community gardens, and provided the map shown, which seems to say "Look at all the open space your town has." Okay, let's start by eliminating any open space covered by trees, because those trees are not only vital to decent air qulaity but a valuable part of our water runoff retention system. Our floods are bad enough here without chopping down trees to make way for agriculture.

Next, are we going to give up public athletic fields, playgrounds, and other active recreational space? Not likely. They mark Eisenhower and Stewart's school athletic fields as temporary open space that could be used for gardens. Property close to open schools should NEVER be used as community gardens for security reasons. School gardens, fine, but we shouldn't be encouraging non-school personnel to hang around school grounds.

Then there's the definite errors, such as them marking St. Francis's front lawn. Still even if you eliminate all those spots marked in error or that can't be converted, a lot of what you're left with is too steep for annual planting (they obviously did most of this with a flat map and never went out to look at the sites), or too prone to flooding, like the whole Saw Mill Run area--the reason Hancock School had to abandon their garden. Or paved over, which would be too cost prohibitive to make into a garden.

I'm not saying there are no spaces that could be converted--Roosevelt Field could, for instance. Just that a better assessment of open space that would work for community gardens needs to be done, on the ground and by people who know the lay of the land and who've actually done some gardening.

They recommend a town-wide program to compost "food waste," which sounds ideal, but they don't explain that a lot of food waste can't be composted and how you'd keep people from throwing meats, fats, dairy, oils and sugar into the composing bins.

They recommend "zoning changes" that would allow for chicken coops, community gardens on vacant lots, and fruit trees along the streets. They point out that a small chicken coop of under 150 sq. feet (which is pretty big in my opinion) and under 12 foot high is considered a "shelter for pets" and doesn't need zoning approval. I don't think we want to encourage anyone to have a bigger coop than 10 x 15 feet, nor should roosters be allowed in town, because they can't help but violate the noise ordinance. (And again, how would low income families be able to afford to get a coop started?)

I don't know why community gardens on vacant lots would violate zoning as long as the owner gives permission.

As for fruit trees along our streets, for one thing, most fruit trees aren't very tall. Park an SUV alongside one and your passenger will exit right into the branches. I'm pretty sure no one would want to park their car under a fruit tree either, unless you want cherry stains or dents from falling apples. People can plant fruit trees on their property already, so I'm not sure why they should be along the streets, too. But fruit trees don't produce well near taller trees or buildings--they need sun--so that's likely why you don't see many around town.

While I think that some of the Temple recommendations have potential, I don't think most were well thought out or researched. I have to admit I was disappointed in the assessment. It seemed like the people who put together this report possibly never raised vegetables, had no farming experience, never composted anything, never slept overnight in a place that had a chicken coop, and probably saw a fruit tree or the ground under it at harvest time. All of their recommendations seem to come straight from trendy articles on urban planning and not from experience, or from much time spent in our town.

Their last recommendation was that a Food Council ought to be formed to "manage progress" and advise our government what changes could be made. I think it's a good idea as long as the council isn't filled with planners, but with people who know and understand gardening, emergency food, agriculture and other aspects of the topic. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Stacked Townhomes AGAIN

The Zoning Board will meet at 7 tomorrow night at Municipal Hall, and 522 Cherry is on the agenda. The wording is "Swede Street Associates is seeking... a Special Exception to allow for sixteen (16) multi-family units, with a mix of handicapped-accessible flats and 2-story stacked town home units in the Town Residential District."

522 Cherry Street is actually 6 addresses, from 512 through 522. There's a parking lot on the site right now, accessible from Maple Alley. From Cherry Street, all you see is a white wall. The front of the property is so much lower than the back, the retaining wall had to be built to level the lot. The description says the property is 20,000 square feet, but under lot size, it says 11,396. For comparison sake, a half acre equals 21,780 square feet.

Aerial view of the lot
There used to be houses on the spot. In the early 1900s, a veterinarian named Bornemann lived at 522. His widow lived there until 1934. I'm not sure if there was ever a house for each address. 6 row houses could have fit the space, though really tightly, since the frontage on both the alley and street is only 98 feet.

The address is within the Central Norristown Historical Area, in a HARB-A district, meaning the HARB review board is supposed to look at anything being remodeled or built there to make sure it falls into the guidelines of the historic district.

The current zoning for Residential Districts in Norristown says that you can't build anything denser than what's already there. If the block has single homes, you can only build single homes; if twins, only singles and twins; if rowhomes, only singles, twins and rowhomes. Nothing denser. No apartment buildings, no commercial buildings, certainly no "stacked townhomes" which are simply condos with a fancy name.

And yet Swede St. Associates is asking to put 16 condos on less than a half acre, with only a 98 foot width.

The law says you have to provide a minimum of 2 parking spaces per unit in new construction. That would be 32 spaces. The standard space size in the US is about 19 x 8.5 feet. Parallel parking spaces are usually 20 feet to allow for maneuvering space. So figure 5 cars in front of 522 Cherry. If there were perpendicular spaces off the alley, you might fit another 11 cars. That's 16 cars total, which means the lot shouldn't hold more than 8 units, tops. But, if you're filling up the lot with 16 units, how much footage will be left over for parking spaces at all?

What about trash? With 98 feet on the alley, each condo owner would have about 6 feet of space for their trash, or less, if cars are parked on the alley side. Unless you're going to have some rule that says only 1 occupant per condo, whole families, generating several bags each might live there. In my neighborhood we have a lot of single homeowners. Many put out more than one trash can, including myself on occasion. Trash, in that dense a development, would be a nightmare.

Those are just a few reasons I intend to go to Zoning Board Hearing tomorrow and protest this proposal. I said last year that the ridiculously dense development at 1202 Dekalb would open the flood gates for this kind of thing all over Norristown, and here we are with another one. We need to say "no more" NOW.  I hope you'll join me.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Upcoming Concerts, Car Wash, Zoning Meeting

A fairly calm upcoming week in Norristown, except maybe for the zoning meeting, if enough of you get angry enough to go protest still another high-density development on a small lot.

"The Who's Tommy" continues this weekend at Theatre Horizon (Dekalb and Penn Sts), presented by New Cavern Productions. For show times and tickets, go to http://www.eventbrite.com/o/new-cavern-productions-5220323245

Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm, Car Wash Hosted by Back Talk youth group in the parking lot at PAL  Fundraiser for their Dorney Park trip in Aug. Come out and support. For info or if you'd like to support in any other way, email vschorle@fsmontco.org or call 610-630-2111, ext 226.

Saturday at 4 pm in Elmwood Park band shell, Summer Concert Series presents a FREE Gospel Concert. I haven't seen announcements for this at all (except for erroneous listings claiming it's Sunday), so I honestly don't know if this is still on or not.

Sunday at 7 pm at the Elmwood Park band shell, Summer Concert Series presents Quiet Storm, an a capella rhythm and blues group. Free concert. Food/drinks available at the snack stand. Any questions call 610-270-0467.

Monday, July 21st, 10:30 am, Job Corps Information Session, Human Services Center, 1430 DeKalb St. Contact 1-800-733-JOBS (5627), www.recruiting.jobcorps.gov, or www.facebook.com/doljobcorps.

Tuesday at 7 pm at Municipal Hall, Zoning Board Meeting. On the agenda are these addresses: 672 Kohn, 1855 Markley, 1424 Juniper, 1329 Willow (Siloam Baptist Church), and 522 Cherry. The latter is another project of stacked townhomes (why can't we just call them condos?)--this time 16 units on less than a half acre. A TOTAL violation of the new zoning code. So in all likelihood, I'll be reporting on this one next week.

Wednesday from 2 to 4 pm, Montco OIC (Arch and Basin) will start a FREE class -- Coding and Web Design 101. Participants will learn how to build a basic webpage and add codes to customize it to their preference. Class is limited to 8 students per session and will meet on the 4th Wednesday of each month, all other times by appointment. Call (610) 279-9700 to register.

As always, check the calendar links to the right of this blog, but also, you might want to call before going to an event. For instance, I know Jus' Java is on vacation, so this week's usual events are off.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Feeding Norristown From Within

The 4th major section in the Temple U. Food Assessment of Norristown dealt with "Urban Agriculture," defined as "the practice of cultivating, processing, distributing, and disposing of food in a high-density area." It further broke down the subject into these areas: Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), community gardens, edible landscaping, urban farms, chicken coops, and farmers' markets. After re-reading it yesterday, I decided I can't cover it all in one blog, or possibly not even 2. I'll continue the topic next week. But I'll start with everyone who raises food in Norristown.

A Community Garden is where plots of land are provided at no cost to residents in an open location. The Norristown Community Gardens are in the State Hospital grounds. The advantage for gardeners is that you get more space (or, at least, more sunny space) than you might have at home, plus a chance to glean advice from the more experienced gardeners with plots near you. The downside is, you can't just go out to your backyard to water your garden or weed or pick tomatoes whenever its convenient. You have to make time to go work the garden every day, and lug your tools with you. Still, it's a great way to grow some produce for your family or, possibly, for local food pantries. The West End Association administers the site. New gardeners are welcome, on a first-come, first-served basis. If you might be interested for next year, check out their website. They have an open group on Facebook, too, and I recommend it for anyone with a veggie garden. Great place to get questions answered. You have to be signed onto Facebook to access it.

The Greater Norristown Police Athletic League has an impressive food garden that wraps around their building on Harding Boulevard. It's managed and prepared by NAHS and Penn Christian Academy students and the GNPAL director, Kenneth Fennal. In their own words: "In this garden, fruits, herbs and vegetables are regularly grown and harvested. When this is done, they are donated to the Family House Women's Shelter and the Salvation Army of Norristown. This way, the produce is managed, harvested and donated by a Norristown source, by NAHS to two Norristown beneficiaries..." In addition, GNPAL along with the Food Trust, offers a 5-6 week cooking class for adults and families, which teaches how to cook and prepare healthy, nutritious meals. They've won the PHS Community Greening Award and this year took 2nd prize for a Public Garden in the Norristown Garden Club contest.

In my opinion, the GNPAL garden is one of the most exciting urban agriculture projects in town. It involves students, so it's an educational project, it feeds those in need, and if you haven't seen it--it's a first class garden. I hadn't known about the cooking classes before this week. That's the icing on the cake. Other community or organizational garden projects in Norristown should take lessons from these folks.

Now, I know that most seasons I grow more vegetables in my garden than I can consume. You people who grow zucchini know what I'm talking about. And tomatoes all seem to get ripe at once. I give some to neighbors, and I puree and freeze some, but I'd love to be able to share them with people in need. I saw where The Patrician Society at Green and Chestnut had gotten donations from a produce stand last week and I got to wondering if our food banks would take donations of surplus produce from individuals, too.

Bringing home cucumbers from The Patrician Society
So, I asked The Patrician Society what they thought. The answer was yes, they'd love donations, with the understanding that they have no refrigeration, so they need the produce delivered on Tuesdays or Thursdays between 9 am and 1 pm (when they open for business). Also, anything perishable that's not given away by the time they close at 3 pm will be discarded. Still, if your tomatoes or zucchini are going to rot on the vine anyway, you might as well donate them to help feed the 30 to 80 families who come to The Patrician Society each week. If their hours aren't good for you, call around to the other food cupboards in Norristown. Here's the list from CADCOM: http://www.cadcom.org/Montgomery-County-Cupboard-List/58/

If you do decide to donate produce to The Patrician Society, they have a receiving dock on their building (703 Green Street). Go into the parking lot and pull up to the fire escape where the dock is located. Ring the back doorbell to let them know you’re there and they'll come off-load your donation.

Seems to me that getting gardeners together with food pantries, or getting them together directly with families living below the poverty line, maybe through our churches, could only do good for Norristown as a whole.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

River Towns Meeting and Norristown Gardens

Two things today: a meeting coming up tomorrow that I hope some of you can make, and the winners of the Norristown Garden Contest.

First of all, there's going to a Regional River Action Team Meeting in Norristown tomorrow from 6-8 pm at 700 East Main, 3rd Floor. "Regional" means there will be representatives attending from Phoenixville, Conshohocken and Manayunk as well as Norristown. These are the communities along our regional section of the Schuylkill River Trail that have teams working on developing the recreational use of the river for their residents, and to enhance the economic development of their communities by bringing users of the trail and river into their towns.

Norristown has a pretty good team, but most of its members aren't N-town residents. They're mostly people who work in Norristown and/or use the Norristown segment of the Schuylkill River Trail, and members of the Dragon Boat Club (who are trying, almost singlehandedly, to develop Riverfront Park for the use of our residents). The Norristown team meetings have so far been during the day, and therefore difficult for some residents to attend, but this meeting is more accessible, so I'm hoping more of you will come out, if only driven by curiosity about the River Towns program and what it might do for our community's economy, and the promise of light refreshments.

700 East Main is the Rolling Mills Office Building. Park in the lot beside it or across Main St. The River Towns team does ask that you RSVP, which you can do by calling 215-545-4570 or by leaving a post on the Schuylkill River Towns Facebook page.

And now, announcing the winners of the Norristown Garden Club Contest. You might remember a few months ago when I urged residents to enter their gardens in the contest. I'm please to report that the Garden Club got over 40 entries from a total of 29 homeowners (some entered in multiple categories). The amazing thing is that so many gardens made such great use of small yards and side yards. And most of these gardens were the labor of love of one or two people. You don't need a lot of property or a landscaping company for a great garden. Norristown truly is a garden spot.

Below are the winners listed on the Municipality's Facebook page yesterday. Not sure if this is everyone or not. If more are announced, I'll pass their names along.


Front Garden: 1st place, Joseph Pavidus; 2nd, Marlene Tarloski; Honorable Mention, Michelle Shuler.

Rear Garden: 1st place, Shirley Goulbourne; 2nd, the Andrew Ely family; Honorable Mention, Marlene Tarloski.

Vegetable Garden: 1st place, Lucille Chisholm; 2nd, Olga Chin; 3rd, Charlotte Greer; Honorable Mention, Elena Santangelo (yeah, me).

Window Boxes: 1st place, Mary Jane Autry; 2nd, Victoria Szam.

Container Garden: 1st place, Joseph Pavidus; 2nd, Jennifer Autry.

Public Garden: 1st place, The Norristown Bocce League flower garden at Elmwood Park; 2nd Greater Norristown PAL's vegetable garden behind their building.

You can view photos of all the winners at this link.  You don't have to be signed into Facebook to view them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Food in Norristown 3: Emergency Food

Actually, the Temple U. report covered Urban Agricultural next, but I'm going a bit out of order because I think Norristown's agriculture is what could help tie everything together.

Emergency Food means our network of food pantries, soup kitchens and programs like Meals On Wheels, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and the Summer Feeding Program that I mentioned under food in our schools.

The good news is that Norristown has an extensive network of emergency food services and lots of volunteers in community groups giving their time to make sure hungry people are fed.

The vulnerabilities of these programs include a constant struggle for funding, space, and reliable food sources. Few of the food pantries have refrigeration, so they mostly offer canned and dry goods, with no fresh produce, dairy or meats. Many of the soup kitchens have limited hours, so on certain days and evenings, there's no place in town offering food at all.

Here are the recommendations that Temple made:

1. Establish Benefit Centers. This usually means having counselors on hand at food pantries and soup kitchens to assist families in filing paperwork for benefit programs like SNAP, WIC, unemployment, etc. One counselor could actually work at many different places, showing up once a week when the pantry or kitchen is open. The counselors could also help with job placement to get the family off of food assistance. However, it sounds to me like the counselors would have to be employed rather than volunteers, and nothing in the report explains who they'd work for and where the money would come from for salaries. It would mean more reliance on hard-to-come-by grants. Temple also seemed unaware that we have organizations like the OIC doing job training and placement.

2. Create and Maintain Gardens at food pantries and soup kitchens, so these organizations can add fresh, local produce to their offerings. Participants using the pantries or kitchens could help plant weed and harvest, and benefit center counselors can instruct how SNAP benefits can be used to set up a home garden. On the service, this seems to me to be a lovely Utopian idea, however, the volunteers at our pantries and kitchens that I know already have a huge workload--vegetable gardens need daily watering and tending. Temple suggests rainbarrels for providing water, but gardens need to be out in the open and rain barrels near a downspout. The rain can't magically move from one to the other. And that's assuming that there's a decent patch of empty land in a sunny location near a pantry or kitchen and permissions can be gotten to use it. We might do better to have other volunteer groups who'll set up and maintain gardens, then deliver the produce to pantries on distribution days. I'll talk more about this when I cover urban agriculture.

3. Maintain Standard Times and Locations. Because most of our emergency food services rely on volunteers, there are a lot of gaps in when food is available. Few pantries are open after 5 pm, yet for low income families where both parents work, evening's the only time available. Not listed in the recommendation, but mentioned elsewhere in the report is the idea that pantries that are near each other could coordinate times, so food is available more days and hours. That seems the best recommendation, given the limitations of a volunteer labor force.

4. Apply for Grants. Temple states "There are many different sources of funding that could support the emergency food efforts in Norristown, such as grants and other government and private funding." However, they don't list resources. Most non-profits have no clue how to apply for grants or what's available, and they're too busy doing the work at hand to look into it--looking up grants online is often time-consuming and confusing. Really, this recommendation is useless without more information.

So, that's where Norristown stands on feeding our hungry. We actually do more than most communities in the county. Then again, we have more poor people, too. One thing that I think could help is publicizing better where our food panties are, so people can make donations. There's a decent list at http://www.cadcom.org/Montgomery-County-Cupboard-List/58/ though I know there are others, like the Patrician Society Food Cupboard at Green and Chestnut, which is where I bring extra canned and dry goods when I have them. And of course, they all need and appreciate monetary donations and new volunteers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Classical Music To Deter Crime?

If you Google "classical music loitering," dozens of articles from all over the world appear, all claiming that if classical music's played in train stations, parking lots, and outside of shops, loiterers don't hang around. And if certain loiterers keep moving, certain crimes never happen.

A friend shared a 2011 article with me last week about how Pottstown had experimented with playing classical music in its downtown area. Apparently the town had a P.A. system on its streets already, with 39 speakers, so it cost nothing to try. The only 2 problems they had were that the audio system was antiquated and not reliable, and that the people who lived in the area who worked nights complained that the noise kept them awake. Otherwise, most people felt that the music added a touch of class to the downtown, and most retailers seemed to believe the music really did discourage loitering. I don't know if Pottstown still plays the music. If they don't, it might simply be because the speakers died.

So I looked online for studies about classical music's effects on loitering. I found no studies (though some articles mentioned that a study had been done--no sources, though). What I did find were items from London, Atlanta, Minneapolis, L.A., New Jersey Transit, Australia and elsewhere, saying it had been tried there and it worked.

About a year ago, one article said that YMCA in Columbus, OH started playing Vivaldi in their parking lot. They claim it disperses petty drug dealers.

Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the criminal-justice department at Seattle University, noted that classical music is often accompanied by environmental upgrades like better lighting, improved traffic flow, or trimmed shrubbery in public areas.

Actually, you might have encountered the strategy yourself and didn't realize it. My best friend pointed out that, at King of Prussia Plaza, back where the more exclusive stores are (F section on the map), classical music is played. In the other sections, you hear regular Musak outside the stores. You see a lot more people--especially teens--simply hanging around (not even window shopping) in the D and E areas. There's a different, quieter mood in the F area. But there are still shoppers in those stores. And I swear there's less litter on the floor.

As one article said, not all classical music works. Pieces from the Baroque and Classical eras (17th and 18th centuries) seem to work best, maybe because back then they had a form of music called a divertimento--written to be played as background music for parties and other social functions. Sort of the Musak of the time. Whatever, as one article put it, there's something about Baroque music that wannbe gangsters hate.

Now, I don't think the Borough should put up an expensive speaker system downtown to try this out, but our businesses might consider piping a little classical music out in front of their stores. It doesn't have to be loud--in fact, loud music could discourage potential customers and make enemies of your neighbors. Just loud enough to be heard a few feet on either side of your place. Or if you have another business next to yours, consider splitting the cost of the system to cover both properties, so you'll play the same music.

If it keeps the drug dealers away, discourages litterers, and makes our retail areas feel a bit more classy, I say go for it.

Here are a few of the articles if you want to read them:

Pottstown: http://www.wfmz.com/news/-Crime-fighting-music-comes-to-local-city/4006008

New Jersey: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/281248-does-classical-music-train-stations-really-deter-crime/

Friday, July 11, 2014

Events for the Coming Week

N-town isn't as jam-packed with big activities as the last few weeks. Nice relaxing pace this week--hardly any tough decisions about which overlapping events you have to miss. But remember, there are still bunches of activities at our library and coffee houses, etc. that aren't listed here. Check out the calendar links to the right.

Tonight at 7 pm at Caffe Galileo, 317 Swede St., The Norristown Business Assn. hosts yet another "Family Feud" bout between the defending champion Arts Council and the yet un-undefeated Feed The Burbs. Always a fun time and lots of laughs.

Tonight through July 27th at Theatre Horizon (Dekalb and Penn Sts), New Cavern Productions will present the hit rock musical The Who's "Tommy." For show times and tickets, go to http://www.eventbrite.com/o/new-cavern-productions-5220323245

Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm is a Health Fair and Flea Market at Mt Zion AME Church (1312 Willow). For more information, contact Rev. Helen M.C. Jones at 610-275-7943.

Shiloh Baptist on the 600 block of George Street is having a Community Block Party event this Sunday, July 13th from 11AM to 5PM. A flyer graphic is up on their "Announcements" page at http://www.smbcworks.org/current_announcements/current_announcements.html 

Sunday at 11 am at Banh Mi Bar & Bistro (31 W Main) is the Grand Crawfish Finale Festival (a crawfish is sort of a small lobster). Enjoy different variations of crawfish dishes, from crawfish casseroles, crawfish pies, crawfish corn bread (CRAWFISH CORN BREAD?!?!), crawfish corn dips, crawfish paella, and much much more. They'll have other seafood as well.  More info on their Facebook event page.

Sunday, 7 pm, Summer Concert Series presents Mercury Rising at the Elmwood Park band shell. Free. Food/drinks available at the snack stand. Any questions or to check for weather cancellations, call 610-270-0467.

Tuesday at 6:30 pm is the monthly Muncipal Council Workshop in Council Chambers. There are still no meeting agendas for ANY July meetings on the town website.

Wednesday, at 8 pm, The Centre Theater (208 Dekalb) presents "Open Words Norristown," hosted by Mydera Speakmefree and Christopher K.P. Brown, featuring Huggy Bear The Poet and the Philly Pigeon Slam Team. Tickets $10. Call 610-279-1013 for info.

One other note, about the new Premier Barber Institute at 573 E Main. They welcome students to their barbering program:  hands-on, interactive, teaches "the lost art of shaving," through demonstrations, live models, audio visual aids and basic classroom instruction; combining practical application with barbering theory. If you're interested, call 1-844-GO-PREMIER | 1-844-467-7364.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Public Meetings: Police Department and Carver Center

Only 2 items in today's Diary, but they're both important for Norristown.

First, Police.

Tomorrow morning from 8:30 to 10:30 at Municipal Hall, the Police Department is opening their bi-weekly COMPSTAT meeting to the public. The department's next words in their description is "COMPSTAT is a data driven accountability mechanism that is used by many police departments across the country."

It's a known fact that when words like "data driven accountability mechanism" hit the human brain, it has the same effect as a good dose of Ambian. Everyone stops listening after those words. Like all those technical discussions about net neutrality. Something you should care about deeply becomes something you avoid because it bores you silly.

Simply put, on a bi-weekly basis, the higher-ups in the department (Chief, Captain, Lieutenant, etc) get together and go over the crime reports for the last 2 weeks. They look at the location, day and times of each incidence, and decide where and when in town to have a police presence in the coming weeks. Then 2 weeks later, they go through the same analysis to see if things have improved or have gotten worse. In this way, they can spot trends and try to nip them in the bud.

The NYPD started this system in the mid-1990s and other departments have been following suit since. It does seem to work for large cities, where cops have a lot of ground to cover. One would assume, with Norristown's limited police resources (compared to some other PA communities our size or slightly larger), COMPSTAT could work here, too. I hope, for the public meeting, that residents are allowed to hear where crime is taking place and what kinds, and not only be presented with generalities about how COMPSTAT works, as I observed at a Town Hall with Chief Talbot. Especially if those generalities are couched in boring technical terms like "data driven accountability mechanism."

I would have liked to go tomorrow but, as usual, the public only got a few days notice about this meeting. I have a prior commitment. The good news is, they're supposed to do this again on August 29th (I already have that on my calendar). The notice said "Seating is limited and will be provided on a first come first served basis." I hope that doesn't mean they'll be turning anyone away. If citizens go to the trouble of rearranging their schedules--makes plans to go into work later or get a babysitter or whatever--they ought to be admitted to that meeting. Turning concerned residents away isn't acceptable.

Second, the Carver Center.

A petition just began circulating, asking the board of the Carver Center to hold a public meeting.

I don't know all the problems with the center, other than that they seem to have trouble keeping up on maintenance, but I do know that we have approximately 9,000 youth in Norristown. GNPAL can't handle that many kids alone. Really, we should have one youth center for every thousand kids or so.

It's important to identify the problems at the Carver and start solving them. It's also important that the community be involved with the solution, and stay involved in the coming years.

The petition doesn't make unreasonable demands. It just asks for a public meeting. Please sign it at this link.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Food in Our Schools

The 2nd part of the Temple U. Food Assessment of Norristown dealt with food in our schools. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how many programs are in place not only to improve the nutrition of the food served to our kids, but to educate them on where their food comes from and what's healthy.

But let me go in order. The assessment began by saying that 76% of Norristown students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. They didn't say how the program works or if all the kids who qualify receive the benefit. The free/cheap meal program also includes breakfast, but the report didn't say if Norristown offered breakfast to students. They only mentioned lunch.

3 schools in the district (out of 10) have gardens. Paul Fly Elementary's garden seems to be maintained by teachers and cafeteria staff and the harvest supplies the cafeteria. Leftover food is sent to a center in Glenside which collects surplus produce from home and community gardens for Philabundance. Nothing in the report about whether students get to work in the garden. And while I think supplying Philabundance is admirable, I'd rather see the surplus food go to the food banks or other distribution centers right here in Norristown.

Stewart Middle School's garden grows rosemary, tomatoes, lettuce and oranges. All that was said otherwise was that the garden won a grant for "their effort to grow crops while creating a peaceful atmosphere for students and staff." Nothing about whether students work the garden, what they're learning, or where the food goes.

Norristown Area High has a hot house garden in which students grow veggies during the school year. In the summer, the custodian and volunteers keep the garden going. It grows tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce and peppers. The report doesn't say where the food goes.

Hancock Elementary had a garden in the summer of 2013, begun by cafeteria staff. The site was flooded and vandalized so the idea was abandoned.

Personally, I'd like to see a garden of some sort at every school. I've learned more biology, ecology, earth science, meteorology and problem-solving from my garden than anywhere else. And of course, gardens are the best way to teach about food sources, seasonal food cycles, and nutrition. Once they're established, they don't cost much to maintain and the school gets fresh food as a by-product. Right now, the elementary schools that would benefit most--Gotwals, for instance, where 98% of the students qualify for free or reduced price meals--have no garden.

Norristown High holds an annual food festival at the end of each year, with healthy food vendors and exhibits. Gift cards and prizes are raffled off to participating students.

There is a Fresh Fruit and Veggie Program that delivers fresh produce to all the elementary schools on Thursdays. The food is accompanied by a discussion of the vitamins and minerals in each veggie category. The Temple report says that it allows students "the opportunity to taste exotic vegetables like purple cauliflower, eggplant and yams." (Since when are eggplant and yams considered exotic?)

A grant program called Smart Partner sent a chef to conduct a 2-hour training session in preparing healthier meal options for all food service staff in the district. The description of this session was sketchy, so I'm not sure what was taught. 2 hours doesn't seem like enough time to me.

Last March, Eisenhower Middle School launched an "Eatiquette" Program. Every Thursday, students eat family style. Each table has a captain--a student who assists in serving the food and who describes the foods served that day, which are made from scratch, from local, in-season fruits and vegetables. The school cooking staff uses a web program to plan meals using in-season foods. (This one might be my favorite program of them all, after the gardens.)

Eisenhower also has Smoothies, a program that makes smoothies for students at no-cost, using local and in-season fruits. If they can get the grant again next year, they hope to expand the program to other district schools.

The Temple report mentions a "Healthy Times" in-school newsletter which is written by and for students, including recipes, food events, ideas for schools, nutrition info and fitness tips.  The report doesn't say if there's a separate newsletter staff in each school, or if all the students in the district receive it.

The report mentioned The Food Trust Program, present in all the schools, but didn't say what it is, so I looked it up. Apparently they're a partner organization that sends educators, coordinators and other specialists into the schools to teach nutrition, food sources, cooking, etc., and to support teachers and cafeteria staff in the teaching of these subjects.

Norristown High was supposed to start, last spring, having local salad greens and topping available each day. The Temple report didn't mention if this actually happened.

Under Temple's recommendations in this area is a Backpack Program for low income students in which they'd receive a backpack of non-perishable items to take home with them. The report didn't specify how often, but the logic is, if you're giving kids a free or reduced price lunch, it doesn't guarantee they'll get good or adequate food at night or on weekends. I can speak to this--when I taught at Stewart and had cafeteria duty, every now and then a kid would come up to me asking for enough change to get ice cream. I was pretty sure most of those kids didn't have the money to buy lunch at all. I could also tell in my afternoon classes which kids weren't eating well--only sugary foods or nothing at all. That was before the free lunch program. It's definitely needed, and a backpack program would help whole families.

They also stated that 5 out of 6 eligible kids don't take advantage of the summer meal programs we have in Norristown. Temple recommended that the school district send home a list of the programs in place before summer begins.

So that's Temple U's report on Food in Our Schools. A lot of great programs in place, but so much more that could be done.

Next week I'll cover their other topics: Urban Agriculture and Emergency Food. As I said yesterday, you can read the whole report at http://www.temple.edu/ambler/crp/research/documents/Norristown-Food-System-Assessment.pdf


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is Norristown a Food Desert?



I planned to do a Diary entry on the Temple University Food Assessment of Norristown that was presented at the Council Meeting last week. But I quickly realized after reading through their 46-page report, that one Diary entry isn't going to do the project justice. And frankly, I don't want to see this particular subject skimmed over, then forgotten. It's something we all ought to start having a dialogue about.


Today, I'll start with their first topic: transportation. Where are the supermarkets, grocers, etc., and can Norristown residents get to them?

Temple found that 20% of our households (about 2300 of them) report having no vehicle. 45% report having one vehicle. The rest have 2 or more. They don't cite where the 20% without cars live. The report seems to assume they live in higher density neighborhoods, or that they're spread evenly throughout the population (meaning there'd be more in higher density neighborhoods). Yet one of the more reliably vehicle-less clusters of people I know are at Rittenhouse Apartments, in the lower density North End.

If you're shopping for a family, even if they all come along to help carry, getting the groceries home without a car is a bigger problem that wasn't really addressed. Temple mentioned public transportation. Ever try to lug 3 or 4 grocery bags onto a bus? Forget about buying a sack of potatoes or a watermelon or anything else heavy. Yet, at the same time, Temple concluded that we had access to fresh produce because of our many neighborhood grocers.

We have 2 supermarkets: Thriftway at Dekalb and Oak, and Save-a-Lot in Astor Plaza on Markley St. across from Logan Square. I was surprised to find that the Temple presenters, even those that hang around town regularly, didn't know that the Save-a-Lot was open and hadn't bothered to check it out. They did, however, know it was coming. In the report, they say it is located in a "lower density region." Another quote: "Typically, larger supermarkets are sited where cars are required to access them, making expansive parking lots essential." This implies that Save-a-Lot is a newly-built supermarket, which it isn't. It made good reuse of a vacant building, and the parking lot was already there (and has been for more than 50 years). It's a new business within Norristown's borders (always welcome), and gives residents a place to get fresh meats (they cut them in store), and things like peanut butter and dairy at competitive prices.

Before they opened, the elderly residents of Rittenhouse were walking down to Family Dollar and paying $4 or more for a container of ice cream. They had to rely on relatives or whoever to take them out of town for meats, cereals, mayo, etc.

The report cites Plymouth Produce as a major store, and I'd agree with them. Besides produce, they sell extra amenities like lunchmeat. Still, a family can't purchase all their dietary needs there.

The Thiftway on Dekalb is used by people who walk there, I agree. However, if it had to rely on those customers alone, it would go out of business. The parking lot is nearly always full. They and the other businesses in that little center would benefit by maybe 30% more parking spaces. This isn't only about making sure people who walk can get their groceries, it's about keeping Norristown businesses open and thriving, too, which means inviting customers from other parts of town if they can get there (and 80% have cars).

Temple also placed the Norristown Farmers' Market on their map as a major food source, at least equal to Plymouth Produce, also making me wonder if they checked the market out. It's only open one day a week, during hours when most Norristown residents are working. They have a VERY limited selection of food, and prices are often above what you'd pay in the stores. They aren't located in a residential area—in fact, Downtown is probably the worse location for resident access. I love the idea of a Farmers' Market, but let's relook at it. Put it in a central location—what about the sidewalk outside the Library, in the geographic center of town?  Have it open on Saturdays. Get more farmers to come out so there's competition and therefore better pricing. Or find an indoor venue that would work and allow us to have the market in bad weather, and in spring and fall, when leafy and root veggies are at their very best.

Temple mentioned that organic food was hard to find in Norristown. They didn't seem to notice one thing that's very obvious to me—if you have a food allergy or health restriction, you MUST go outside of Norristown to do certain food shopping. Low-sodium options barely exist here. Residents who are lactose, gluten, casein or whatever-intolerant are probably not going to find the alternatives they need in Norristown. Even diabetics might have trouble finding low sugar options in our supermarkets.

So that's the first installment, what Temple had to say, and what I had to say about food shopping in Norristown. What does everyone else have to say?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why Don't We Ever Have Contingency Plans?

Everyone in Norristown who I talked to over the weekend was disappointed in not getting to see a parade. All understood the need to not have it in the rain on Friday, but everyone wanted to know why it wasn't rescheduled for Saturday or Sunday, as parades and other festivities in other communities had been.

I'm wondering that myself. The weather forecast couldn't have been more clear, so to speak, for the last week. Saturday and Sunday were both going to be beautiful--sunny and not especially hot. Perfect for a parade. Plenty of advance notice. Possibly a few of the groups slated to be in the parade would have had to cancel, but I'm guessing a lot of them wouldn't have.

Let's go a step further and say, why not have a simple contingency plan for EVERY July Fourth parade? Why not simply say, in case of rain, the parade will be held the following Saturday? That way every group signing up to be in the parade, as well as the police and fire departments, know the game plan months ahead of time.

The thing is, planning isn't our strong suit here in N-town. Either we plan events too late or, even if we set a date months ahead, we don't finalize the times or schedule of events until it's too late to get the word out properly (for instance, we rarely see an agenda ahead of time for Council meetings anymore). Or we have everything set, but do no publicity--as in last week's Town Hall with the Police Chief. Last Monday, people were asking if the meeting was for real, because they'd heard nothing about it until that morning.

And yet, one group had their act together this weekend. The annual Independence Eve Concert at Christ UCC Church wasn't outside this year, but they still had a good turnout inside. Every year they have it the same night--July 3--and say "in case of rain, the concert will be indoors," and every year they get a decent audience.

Of course, you can't hold a parade indoors, but as I said, you can set a raindate. If you're planning a festival, you can say "rain or shine" as long as you have enough tents or shelters handy, or better yet, an alternative venue. The Collingswood Book Festival, if it rains, takes place in their high school gym. Maybe THAT would be a good reuse for one of the old factory buildings we have in town--a Civic Center for festivals and trade shows.

We've had several events cancelled in the last year because of rain or snow. Could those events have been planned so that they could have been moved inside or been held the next day or the next weekend? I can think of at least two of them that could have gone on, if only the planners had thought to add a contingency plan. Make it part of the planning process--put it right on the event flyer so people know what to do when bad weather hits.

In my very first Diary entry last year, I said how I loved the way the town came together to either be in and watch our annual parade on July 4th. The event is always good for our town attitude. You only have to be in the parade, looking out at the spectators, to know that both kids and adults love it. The photos above, from last year prove that. We didn't get to see those faces this year.

The parade is too important to simply cancel.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Events for Independence Weekend and Beyond

I'm taking July 4th off here on the Diary (hopefully, if the weather gods are kind, I'll be out watching the parade), so here are the events for the next week a day early. Remember, you can find more events at the calendar links in the column to the right.

Tonight at 7 pm, Christ UCC Church at Noble and W. Marshall presents their annual FREE Independence Eve Concert in the church parking lot. The Concert will feature The Song Sheets (folk, Broadway, kids songs), N. Cameron Chandler (standards), and special guest Josh Myers. Bring a lawn chair. Refreshments will be available. IN CASE OF RAIN, come anyway--the concert will be held in the church basement.

ACTIVITIES for JULY 4th -- The weather is supposed to clear up and be sunny later in the day Friday. Hopefully the rain will clear out in time for our parade.

7:30 am, Register for the 5K Run at Norristown Area High School. The Run starts at 8:30. Proceeds from the race will be donated to the Literacy Council of Norristown.

10:30 am -- Our annual Parade begins at Airy and Dekalb, proceeds down Airy to Astor, right on Astor to W. Marshall, left on W. Marshall to Stanbridge, right on Standbridge to Sterigere, right on Sterigere, ending at Elmwood Park. You can watch from anywhere along the route. The streets involved will close at 9:30. I suggest avoiding Airy at Dekalb all morning unless you're in the parade, since they'll be lining up and organizing big vehicles.

When the parade's over--around noon, The Old School Band will begin a FREE concert of music from the 50s through the 80s in the Elmwood Park band shell. The refreshment stand will be open, same as Sunday nights, so you can get your lunch right there.

1-3 pm, kids' games and activities, near the band shell in Elmwood Park

6 pm, another FREE concert at the band shell, this time by the Sofa Kings (Motown, R&B, classic rock).

FIREWORKS at dusk.

Saturday and Sunday is Walla Fest at the Centre Theater on Dekalb, starting at 4 pm both days. Walla Fest is billed as "a multi-night music and art show located right outside of Philadelphia, in the not-so-on-the-map neighborhood of Norristown." $8 for one day, $12 for both days. Email wallafest@yahoo.com for more information or check their Facebook event page.

Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm at the Pal Center, the N-town ballers are holding their first female open gym, inviting all ladies young and old who enjoy basketball to come out and have a good time. Bring your daughters, nieces, goddaughters, and cousins who love basketball and want to learn more. Ages for female youth is 7 to 13. Anyone older will be hooping with the Old Heads!! More information about the youth games will be provided on July 6.

It's the first Sunday of the month, meaning Elmwood Park Zoo will be FREE to Norristown residents from 2 to 5 pm. Bring a valid ID. Children must be accompanied by adults.

Sunday night at 7 pm at the Elmwood Park band shell, still another free concert, this time with Mark Reno as Elvis. Refreshments available.

Tuesday night at 6 pm is a North End Town Watch meeting at Montgomery Hose Co, Freedley and Pine. All residents are welcome to attend.

Also Tuesday night at 7 pm at Municipal Hall, Planning Commission Meeting.

Wednesday from 2 to 4 pm, at the Montco OIC, Arch and Basin, you can learn how to use Microsoft Office with this FREE class. Participants will learn functions of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Publisher, Access and Outlook. Registration is limited to 8 spaces per session. To register, call (610) 279-9700.

Next Friday night the Norristown Business Association presents another Family Feud night, 7 pm at Caffe Galileo. The Arts Council champions defend their title against the still un-undefeated Feed The Burbs. This is always a fun night.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Last Night's Council Meeting

It's been a while since I attended a Council Meeting. I went last night to hear the presentation by Temple University about their food assessment of Norristown. Mood-wise, the meeting was for the most part positive and not depressing, as Council meetings had tended to be last year.

The Temple presentation had a lot of information and recommendations which I'll cover next week in a separate blog. Today I'll just cover the other items on the agenda.

"Agenda" was the first issue. During the public comment period, a resident asked why the agenda for last night's meeting hadn't been published on the website. Furthermore, she said, the Town Hall meeting with Chief Talbot on Monday night hadn't been publicized in any way. Another resident attested that no one in her neighborhood had heard about the Town Hall. Chief Talbot claimed that he'd had 5 town hall meetings so far. Even Representative Christian said she'd only heard about 2 of them--the one at the American Legion Lodge (which was publicized well in advance and had a good attendance of about 75 people) and Monday's meeting. These are the only 2 that I knew about as well. If there were 3 other meetings, they were completely off the radar.

I received an email from the borough secretary late Monday telling me about the Town Hall and asking me to spread the word. I didn't see the email until Tuesday morning. But the email said the reason word hadn't gotten out was that "Our information employee is on vacation."

There's our problem in a nutshell: Norristown employs ONE person in charge of disseminating information. The job is too big for one person in the first place. If she gets sick or takes a vacation or needs a personal day for a family emergency, a town of 34,000 residents experiences a total information blackout. Come on, Council, if you're serious about improving communication, you can start by giving us an Information DEPARTMENT. At least give Gabriela an assistant or intern or a couple of part-timers. Let's get those agendas posted on time, make sure the calendar is correct, and put more timely information out on Facebook and Twitter. Plus, maybe they could come up with other ways to get the word out to our residents.

Another interesting item was that Council passed a resolution removing competitive testing for the positions of Police Captain and Lieutenant, leaving the promotions to these positions at the sole discretion of the Police Chief. I'm of 2 minds about this. As Chief Talbot stated, the usual procedure in most police forces is to promote positions above lieutenant without testing (I know this because of my research for my mystery novels). It makes sense, because if a cop is capable enough to be a lieutenant, he ought to be able to handle captain with no trouble, and there's usually only one lieutenant in the department to promote to captain. Still, I wonder about giving that much power to the Chief without some kind of objective assessment for the position of lieutenant. I'd be interested to know how wide the field of potential candidates is for that.

Councilman Millner asked about the latest crime statistics which apparently showed crime had decreased in Norristown. His question had to do with the way data was collected. We, the public, were not given the statistics, nor told where we could go to find them. They might have been presented at the town meeting Monday, but only 10 residents attended that (because the rest of us didn't have adequate notice). I'd suggest a presentation of crime statistics at least once a quarter at a Council Meeting that's filmed, so the public has regular ongoing access to the information.

An easement was requested for 1202 Dekalb St. (the 24 townhouses on 2/3 acre project). Something to do with sidewalks on Green St. and a relaxation of requirements for the disabled. Again, not well-defined for us eavesdroppers in the audience. A resident asked during public comment that this be explained and another public comment period be allowed after the explanation and before voting. She was totally ignored.

As I said, this wasn't as depressing a meeting as last years' were, and business moved along fairly quickly. For a few items, though, it felt a little too quick--I wish Mr. Caldwell or someone would have provided a bit more detail, acknowledging that those of us who took time to attend the meeting might not be aware of all the inside info known to council members for each issue.