Monday, September 15, 2014

What Is Norristown's Identity?

I was sitting in my car the other day at Markley and Johnson Hwy, waiting for the traffic light and PennDOT crews to let me by, when I found myself playing a mind game. Gazing at the blank wall on Logan Square closest to Johnson Hwy, I thought, if I were in charge of putting a mural there, what would it look like?

For one thing, since it's on the border with East Norriton, it would have a big "Welcome to Norristown" message, but what else?

I thought of the mural on Lafayette--it's mostly a depiction of the buildings on Arts Hill, the most recognizable ones at the top: Courthouse, St. Johns, the Jail, and First Presbyterian. At the bottom of the mural is a music staff and all around these images are people playing instruments, dancing, etc. It says, in effect, "Norristown = The Arts."

A mural, then, ought to represent part of a town's identity. The problem with Norristown as I see it, is that we keep refusing to identify ourselves. Or at least, refuse to identify our town with positive things.

When the Times Herald printed a story this weekend about the Codes Manager being asked to resign for showing favoritism to a district judge, one comment I saw on Facebook was "This could only happen in Norristown." Really? You think we have a monopoly on political favoritism? You don't read the news much, do you? I see this comment way too much, for every little thing that goes wrong in town. Come on, people. We could have a mayor like Toronto's Rob Ford, who, when photos of himself smoking crack appeared on the Internet, said he wasn't at fault because he was too drunk to know what he was doing. Norristown's in way better shape than that.

But back to what our positive identity should be, because we need an identity to have the vision to change things. And it's clear talking to people around town that a real identity--at least something we could all agree on--is something we're lacking.

We have Arts Hill--yes, it's still struggling, but all those Barrymore nominations this year have to be worth something, not to mention our youth arts scene, exemplified by ACPPA in the West End and the 30 or so kids at Centre Theater who put on 3 productions a year.

Norristown represents an entire textbook of American architectural styles. We have Elmwood Park Zoo. We have an emerging identity as a River Town, which we ought to start really embracing now, instead of waiting for Lafayette Street, and subsequently the riverfront, to be developed. The Dragon Boat Club is almost single-handedly fixing up Riverfront Park, but so much more could be done on that front.

We have amazing public parks--everyone takes them for granted, but outside of Philly, many communities only have school playgrounds and ball fields. If they want a green, tree-shaded place to picnic, they have to go to Valley Forge or Green Lane. They don't have the option of hearing a public concert at the band shell or fishing one of our creeks or the Schuylkill.

We have beautiful gardens. 29 of our gardeners were brave enough to enter the Norristown Garden Club contest this year. Just driving around town in summer, you can see we have dozens, maybe hundreds more gardeners. We have community and school gardens, and there's talk of greening up some of our public spaces.

We have festivals from May through October. We celebrate everything--the arts, the river, our diverse cultures, our foods, our families. You're not going to find that in suburbia.

So, as far as Norristown's identity goes, my thought is, why should we have just one? We could present ourselves to the world as all these things--instead of letting the world tell us we're worthless, and worse yet, us believing it. If you aren't happy unless you're saying how awful this town is, do us all a favor and move to Toronto.

As for my imaginary mural at Logan Square, I think I'd have it represent the strengths of North End--the Zoo, Elmwood Park, the Bocce Club, Greater Norristown PAL.

Go play a mind game of your own. If you were given the money and wherewithal to put a mural anyplace in town, where would it be and what would be on it?

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