Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Look Where You're Going

My cell phone doesn't take photos or connect to the internet, and most of the time, I don't even turn it on. I don't download every new app and run out to buy the latest in technology. I hang my wash outside to dry on nice summer days. But even I know what century this is. I know that what made Norristown prosperous 30 or more years ago isn't going to work now, and will never ever work again.

And yet the voices calling for a return to "the good old days" seem to be getting louder. They imply that if we put everything back the way it was, Norristown's future is assured. They say, if only we hadn't knocked down the Norris Theater or the New York Store or let that fire get out of control on Dekalb and Main, the downtown wouldn't be the way it is now. Or most often, they're simply spinning their wheels, trying to figure out who to blame. It's always someone or something local--often, generically, "Council."

I'm not saying we've had stellar leadership the last 40 years. We haven't. But here are the facts.

1. When suburban malls started going up across America in the 1960s, retail moved off of Main Streets across the country. Norristown wasn't immune or alone in losing its downtown. Though it didn't help that King of Prussia became one of the largest malls in the US, and that created even more of a draw away from our stores. We couldn't compete.

2. Fast food chains took off nationwide in the 1960s and 70s, creating a whole generation of people whose first choice for a meal out is inevitably McDonald's, Wendy's and the like.

3. Federal deregulations in the 1980s helped to expand places like Walmart into corporate chain megastores. Ditto for restaurants, drug stores, supermarkets, bookstores, etc. The small mom-and-pop places across America were bought out or forced to close.

That's what spelled the demise of our downtown. Nothing our elected officials did over those decades could have stopped the closing of those stores. They did make a mistake trying to substitute chains. They ones we now have in town have knocked down more of our architecture and haven't contributed to our economy in the least.

Now it's 2015. People are buying things online, creating a HUGE change in the outlook of retail stores in the US. In my own profession, I saw big bookstores chains--Waldenbooks, Borders--go out of business after Amazon came online. Now, a lot of the malls in the US have begun closing. Because of the internet, people can work from anywhere, so repurposing stores into offices isn't a solution.

I'm not saying our downtown can't be revitalized, but nostalgia and bitterness won't get us there. Our business and government leaders need to take a long hard look at what and how people are buying these days, where they're spending their leisure time, what brings them to a destination and what discourages them from coming.

What we need is a downtown (and for that matter, a Logan Square) that can serve the needs of 21st century residents and visitors, and that can adapt to whatever technology and the economy throws at us next. Or at least, makes an effort to adapt, which is something we're not good at in N-town.

Tomorrow I'll talk about some ideas that may help us create a NEW downtown, one that will make us proud again. In the meantime, turn your heads around and start looking forward. Sure, it's scary, but it's the only action that will get us anywhere.

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