Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Downtowns I Have Known

Collingswood, NJ 
I've been thinking about how downtowns work, or don't, ever since the Better Block Workshop two weeks ago. Back when my knees were in decent shape, I went to a lot of book and music conventions in different cities. Granted, you can't compare Norristown to cities that are much larger, but downtown dynamics tend to be similar everywhere and we can learn from others' mistakes.

Phoenix - deserted streets downtown
My first convention was in Phoenix, in July. The high each day was around 115 F. Still, much of the architecture was designed with desert living in mind. On many office buildings and hotels, the 2nd floor projected out over the first, shading the sidewalk. Trees lined some of the streets. Storefronts had awnings shading the windows to keep the hot sun out. One cafe even had mist blowing out from beneath its awning. The evaporation lowered the temperature of the outdoor seating area 10-15 degrees. But there were few people on the streets. Too many walls and windows, too few doors. Not an inviting atmosphere. Most businesses closed up at 3 pm on weekdays and weren't opened on weekends at all, because no one lived downtown. And I got the impression that I was more acclimated to a hot climate than the natives--they were all too A/C dependent.

Minneapolis--more people on street than up in the skyways
I went to conventions in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both cities, with such short nice weather seasons, had built skyways--that is, the 2nd floor of downtown buildings were converted into indoor malls and connected with pedestrian bridges over the streets. The few blocks that I walked through the skyway in Minneapolis, it was like a ghost town (I think it was late afternoon on a Thursday). Few if any stores were open. Yet, there were plenty of people out on the streets in Minneapolis all that weekend. In St. Paul, my hotel was 3 blocks from the convention hotel so I used the skyway to go back and forth. This part of the skyway went through office buildings, closed at night when I was coming back from events. They had a security station at about the halfway point, but the skyway itself wasn't patrolled. One night I had to walk back by myself, and it was lonely and creepy and not always well-lighted. I would have felt safer out on the street. I've always felt safer than that in Norristown.

Collingswood, NJ has a book festival every year right in their downtown on Haddon Avenue, which is probably as many blocks, or longer, than our Main Street. Also like us, they've got public transportation close by. One of the big differences is that Collingswood's downtown doesn't have vacant lots, just block after block of cute small shops, most of which seem to be occupied, plus their public library is there, too. It looks a bit like our West Marshall district only longer. One thing I have noticed is that their downtown seems to be very family-friendly. Their eateries and stores aren't all aimed at adults. Collingswood is about half the size of N-town in population, but they have people living above the stores downtown, and residential areas within two or three blocks of Haddon Avenue. Much of the street is tree-lined, and some of the cafes have outdoor seating. There always seems to be people strolling down Haddon Avenue. Collingswood is a downtown that works.

Providence Town Center - a poor imitation
Providence Town Center outside of Collegeville, near 422, is sort of an artificial downtown, built out in the middle of nowhere. It's essentially an outdoor mall built to look like a downtown. Town Centers are all the rage right now. King of Prussia is getting one soon, out on the other side of Gulph Road near Wegmans. I've done book signings at Providence Town Center and my observations are that many of the small and inner stores are still vacant. Most of the parking is around the outside and that's where you find occupied stores. Those are mostly chains--very few nice small mom and pop shops (like  Town Center Books, where I did my signings). The problem with Town Centers is that they take away the biggest advantage of malls--the fact that you can get in out of the weather to shop at different stores. The Town Center concepts was born of the fact that people love "Main Street"--downtowns like Collingswood and Phoenixville--but one thing that makes real downtowns work (unlike Town Centers) is that they have people living in and close to them.

Our downtown has a lot of potential. Sure, we've got vacant stores, but at least they're buildings and not more empty lots. We've got great looking architecture on the first couple blocks of West Main and on the 100 and 200 blocks of East Main. Most importantly, we have residents living downtown, and probably 1/4 of our population can walk to Main Street fairly easily. Every other block is within biking distance, if we'd only allow ourselves to become bicycle-friendly. For people like me, unable to walk or bike, well, I still manage to get downtown when something's going on there that I want to go to. That's the key--we need to give people a reason to come downtown.

More on that in a future Diary entry about Better Block.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Full Moon Over The Schuylkill (and not much more)

Nothing much is going on in Norristown this weekend (for the first time since I started the Diary years ago). It's just as well. I know of several hundred residents who are going into Philly to see the Pope (though odds are poor that they'll actually see him). Avoid downtown Norristown. Lafayette will be closed between Cherry and Dekalb and Swede between Main and Lafayette except for buses. This is to prevent gridlock near our transportation hub, but if the thousands predicted show up in N-town to catch the train to Philly, the gridlock will only be pushed back onto Main Street.

This is a good weekend to take the kids to the library or the zoo or a park, or stay home and watch TV.

Tonight (Friday)f at the library (Powell and Swede), Teen Game Night from 4-6 pm.

Sunday at Elmwood Park Zoo from 12:30-2:30 pm, they're featuring a Steel Drum Band. Free with zoo admission.

Tuesday, 6:15 pm at Riverfront Park (1 Haws Ave), the Dragon Boat Club is hosting their annual Full Moon Wine And Cheese Paddle. 40 seats available. To reserve yours, or for more information, contact Robin Parker, rparker@dragonboatclub.org

Wednesday, 6:30-8:30 pm, Rocket Into Scouting. Join Cub Scout Pack 268 at St. Francis of Assisi (Marshall & Buttonwood Sts.). All boys who join the pack will receive a free model rocket and entry to Fall Fest. Open to boys 7-10 years. Recruiting area will be setup on the Oak St. side of the school during the Fall Carnival. For info, contact Ray Garcia, Cubmaster, ray74garcia@gmail.com

The notice above implies that St. Francis is having its Fall Festival this coming week, but I couldn't find anything about it online. In fact, since the scouting notice came from Norristown.org's calendar, you may want to double check with Ray Garcia at the email address above in case it's an erroneous listing.

Next Friday, October 2, 3 pm at the Norristown Public Library, Creepy Cooking Class for kids K-6 grade. Learn how to make some ghoulish grub and sinister snacks in time for Halloween. Class size is limited, so reserve your space now by calling 610-278-5100 x205.

Also next Friday, 6:30 pm at Theatre Horizon. Elijah J. Thomas and "East Meets West." In this concert, European classical music and the Middle Eastern & Far Eastern sounds of Asia intermingle with American jazz. $15 at the door, and includes a BYOB pre-reception in the lobby starting at 6:30pm. Concert begins at 8 pm. For info, email elijah.thomas@temple.edu.

Norristown Public Library will host an Intro to Web Design class, open to the public on Wednesdays from 10/7 to 11/4 from 6-7:30 pm. Create a website for your business or personal use in this hands-on class. Learn about hosting, content, design and editing using Google Sites. No previous website/coding skills needed. Registration required as seats are limited to 15. $10/person. Register now by calling 610-278-5100 x0.


Friday, September 18, 2015

No Excuse to Stay Home Saturday

You'll take one look at the list below and say, "Ack! Everything's happening on Saturday this week." Almost true, but the times are accommodating enough that you can event hop pretty easily. Make a day of Norristown events. Four of them are even on the same street (Haws Avenue). I'm guessing more than one person arriving at Riverfest will have an All Saints' pie in their car trunk.

Friday, 9 am to 2 pm, Main Street in front of Courthouse, PARK(ing) Day. Check out the spaces created by the county planning office, the Municipality, the DEP and more. Find an empty space and create your own.

Friday,  10 am-12:30 pm, Catholic Social Services of Norristown (353 E Johnson Hwy), Baby Shower for pregnant women and mothers with babies under a year old. Information, food, raffles, gifts call Deborah, Doris or Judy at 610-279-7372 to RSVP.

Saturday, 7 am to 4 pm, Powell & Swede Sts. Habitat for Humanity's Rock The Block  According to the website, registration is required and the deadline was last Saturday, however, you can try contacting Nicole Pender at npender@habitatmontco.org or 610-278-7710 ext. 114 to see if they still need more. More info at  www.habitatmontco.org/rtb2015

Saturday 9 am before Riverfest at Riverfront Park (1 Haws Avenue), Community Cleanup of the park to help prepare for the festival. Volunteers welcome. This project is open to all ages. To RSVP, email sashe@montcooic.org or call 610-279-9700

Saturday starting at 10 am at Eisenhower Middle School, Convoy of Hope. Something FREE for the whole FAMILY (haircuts, lunch, entertainment, family portraits, groceries, health and job services and more, including free Pony Rides by Pony Tales.) If you'd like to volunteer, email convoyofhopenorristown@gmail.com

Saturday from 10 am-2 pm at All Saints Episcopal Church (535 Haws Ave), 4th Annual Pie Festival. Outdoor festival featuring lots of pie, bake sale, flea market (vendors wanted), kids’ games and activities. Proceeds benefit local food ministries and outreach. Only 2 blocks from Riverfest. Additional info, call 610-279-3990.

Saturday, 11 am-2 pm, Open House at ACPPA Community Arts Center (506 Haws Ave, behind Grace Lutheran). Stop by to see their new stuff (new ballet barres, mirrors and technology) plus learn about their upcoming programs for kids and adults. Refreshments, arts and crafts, a photo booth, and tuition discounts for everyone who stops by. First 25 families get goody bags.

Saturday, 11 am-dusk, Riverfest at Riverfront Park (1 Haws Ave). Free Pirate Dragon Boat rides, kids games, dedication of new benches fashioned by ACPPA Arts Center, food for purchase, Flower Ceremony at 2 pm (Mercury Rizing band begins sets immediately afterward), Cardboard Boat Races at 3 pm,. Wear your pirate gear and come ready to shiver your timbers. Anyone who wants to participate in the Flower Ceremony should arrive by 1:30 pm. (Email dragonboatcrew@gmail.com if you want to participate.)

Saturday, noon-7 pm, Main between Swede and Dekalb, Mexican Independence Day Festival. Music, dance, authentic Mexican cuisine and much more.

Sunday, 2:30-3:30 pm, Historical Society of Montgomery County (Dekalb and Roberts), Fragile Freedom: A Journey to the 19th Amendment. Using a combination of lecture, poems, and monologues about the women and men who fought for the 19th Amendment which secured women’s right to vote, playwright Christine Emmert takes a personal look at the fight for voting equality. Free, open to the public. More info, 610-272-0297, contact@hsmcpa.org

Tuesday, 7 pm, Municipal Hall, Zoning Board Hearing.

Thursday, 4–6pm, Montgomery County OIC, 1101 Arch St #2, OIC's Fall Open House. Explore OIC's various programs that impact the community: Camp Xtreme, Before/After School Care, Xtreme Learning Center Daycare, Pre-Apprenticeship, GED & Adult Basic Education, English as a Second Language, Computer Skills Training.

As always, remember to check the websites of the Norristown library and Elmwood Park Zoo for more events.

Also, for organizations planning events, if you don't want to conflict too much with other events the same day, remember to list yours on the town calendar at Norristown.org EARLY and also to check the same calendar before setting your date in stone to see what else is scheduled that day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A PARK(ing) Day Do-It-Yourself Manual

PARK(ing) Day is Friday. No, I didn't spell it wrong. In 2005, a design firm took over a parking space for 2 hours. They fed the meter, but instead of parking a vehicle, they laid down sod and turned the spot into a public park.

Now (from the website) "PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into 'PARK(ing)' spaces: temporary public places...PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals...creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world... Paying the meter of a parking space enables one to lease precious urban real estate on a short-term basis. The PARK(ing) project was created to explore the the range of possible activities for this short-term lease, and to provoke a critical examination of the values that generate the form of urban public space."

This Friday, Montgomery County and Norristown Municipality are taking over parking spaces on Main in front of the Courthouse. Here are things I find myself wondering about that: Will they pay the kiosk for their time? What will they do if someone's already parked in the spaces? Or will they spend tax money putting up No Parking signs to reserve the spaces for themselves? That goes against the whole point of the event. You're supposed to find an empty space--it's not supposed to be easy. Reserving the spaces is cheating.

It's also not supposed to be a government event, but totally grassroots. Montgomery County Planning Commission put an event on Facebook as if they're hosting the event. Norristown's Facebook page says their space "will feature Local Artists & Art Organizations, walking tours of the Philadelphia Museum of Art ‪#‎InsideOut‬ program! The event takes place on Main Street in front of Montgomery County Courthouse in conjunction with GVF, Montgomery County Planning Commission and others! Stop down between 9am-2pm."

I can picture a Dragon Boat in a space. 
This is wrong. The event is anytime Friday that anyone can find a space in an urban setting (in Norristown, figure anywhere downtown or on West Marshall where there are metered spaces). If you find a free space, you can use that parking space for the length of time that you feed the meter. You don't need the government's permission as long as you follow the law in every other way.

So think about it. How would you turn a parking space into a public park? If you decide to transform a parking space on your own, let me know. I'll come by to take a photo and help you feed the meter.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Football, Music, Better Block and More

Besides the events listed below, the Norristown Library has a whole slew of new programs for kids and adults. Click on http://mnl.mclinc.org/ for the complete list.  

Tonight, Friday, 6 pm, Pep Rally at the Norristown Youth Eagles Field 1001 Sterigere St, (Norristown State Hosp. Grounds), FREE Food for all players and cheerleaders. Please wear your Norristown Blue to represent our boys. NYE apparel will be available for purchase and the snack stand will be open.

Saturday beginning at 9 am, Norristown Youth Eagles start their season. Games all day long.

Saturday starting at 9 am at the Whitehall Road Entrance to the Norristown Farm Park, Sole Harvest 5K Run/Walk to benefit the Norristown Hospitality Center which helps the homeless. Fee $25-30. Rain or shine. Register online at this link.

Also Saturday, Back-to-school dance at the Carver Center (249 Jacoby St) for middle school aged kids. Cost is $5 and food will be available for purchase. Unfortunately, no time was given.

Sunday from 1-8 pm at Elmwood Park Bandshell, Music For Kids' Sake. FREE Arts and Music Festival benefitting Expressive Path. Snack bar will be open. Bring lawn chairs, blankets, picnics.

Monday 6-8 pm at Municipal Hall. Better Block Project kickoff. Community involvement to transform the corner at Main and Dekalb. 6 pm, Meet and Greet; 6:30-7 pm, Walk and Talk; 7-8 pm Better Block Presentation. Residents, community leaders, artists, planners, clergy, teachers, students, and businesses are all invited to join our Community Walk & Talk to experience the community in a new way.You can read about the Better Block team at this link 

Tuesday 9 am-noon at Municipal Hall. Better Block Workshop. Learn how to build a Better Block. (Note frm Elena: I assume the Monday night presentation will explain what the workshop will be about and who should attend.)

Tuesday starting at 6:30 pm at Municipal Hall, Council workshop. No agenda yet, but they will vote on whether to approve the new benches created by ACPPA for Riverfront Park.

Wednesday, 9 am-5 pm,  Free Rapid HIV Testing Day at the Norristown Health Center, 1221 Powell St. Call for info at 610-279-6095. Walk-Ins and appointments welcome. Online appointments www.ppsp.org

Thursday from 5:30-7:30 pm at the Norristown Public Library (Powell and Swede). Ready Montco Community Sign-up Day. Norristown Police, Fire and Municipal staff will be on hand to assist Norristown residents in signing up for the Ready Montco Notification system, the official source for notifications about emergencies, severe weather, crime alerts and disasters in Montgomery County. Ready Montco is administered by the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety and comes to you free of charge (text messaging and voice rates may apply).

Next Saturday, September 19 is Riverfest and in preparation for that The Norristown Project will be doing a cleanup of Riverfront Park (1 Haws Avenue) the same day (Sept 19) from 9 am to 10:30 am. Volunteers are needed to assist with collecting trash and assist Dragon Boat Club with the setup. If you can help, please RSVP this week to Shae Ashe at sashe@montcooic.org

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Gifts for Riverfront Park, from our kids

Another reason to come to Riverfest on Saturday, September 19 is to see the dedication of the new benches. Not just any benches either. Here's their story.

Back around the beginning of the year, I was at a Norristown Schuylkill Rivertown meeting. We were talking about placing both seating and artwork along the Schuylkill River Trail and in Riverfront Park. We looked at photos of benches made from warehouse pallets and thought that might be an economical way make seating. Environmental as well, because we'd be recycling the pallets. Depending how they were constructed and painted, they could double as artwork.

Someone (probably Robin Parker or me) suggested that we should ask ACPPA Community Arts Center if they'd like to work on the project. Long story short, Amy Grebe of ACPPA decided that it would be a perfect for their Summer ARTS Intensive in July.

Tom McGlynn of Feed The Burbs supplied the pallets. Exterior paint was donated. Amy designed the benches and did most of the construction. Her students sanded and primed the benches, then mixed the paints to get all kinds of vibrant colors, then they painted the benches.

In all, 60 students were involved in the project. The finished benches measure about 42" wide.

The new benches are scheduled to be approved by Council at their September 15th meeting (they need Council's approval to be used at Riverfront Park). Assuming all goes according to plan, the benches will then be dedicated in the park at Riverfest the following Saturday.

The best thing about this project is that it proves that good things can get done in Norristown. You don't need a lot of money, just creativity and energy. The energy in this case comes from the involvement of many people, especially our youth.

The more adults who work on a project, the more likely someone will have the skills or materials needed, or know someone else who does.

And our youth? They don't have preconceived ideas about why things CAN'T be done or about who should or shouldn't do the work. Look at the photos--kids of all races, backgrounds and genders. Doesn't that make you proud, Norristown?

So come out to the Council meeting next week to show your support of these students. Then come to Riverfest to see their finished benches become part of Riverfront Park, for all of us to enjoy. Come thank Amy and her kids for the great gifts.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Lots of Live Music and Other Events for the Week

Another Coffee With A Cop this week.
A word of caution AGAIN about the calendar on the Norristown.org site: several of the events are either old and no longer taking place, or are posted to the wrong date (for instance, the Wednesday night event at First Pres is listed under Sunday). I don't know if there's a software glitch making them post wrong (though I never have problems when I post events), or if someone who's posting at Municipal Hall just can't seem to get his or her dates correct, but check the website of whatever group is hosting each event to be sure. Hopefully this can be fixed in the future. It reflects badly on our town.

A reminder: Markley Street is reopening today.

Sunday from 10 am to 2 pm at Coffee Talk Artists' Co-op. Open Mic. Writers. Poets, Musicians, Song Writers, Comedians, come here and share you talents with others. Donation $5.

Sunday, 11 am to 3 pm at Norristown Maenner-Chor Club, 920 Haws Ave, Thomas Barone Memorial Car Show. Registration ($20 day of show) at 9 am. Breakfast sandwiches, coffee and donuts available at 8 am.

Also Sunday, all afternoon at Jus; Java, Acoustic Open Mic.

Sunday from 2-5 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo, FREE admission for all Norristown residents. Bring an ID that has your address. The same day from 2 to 4 pm, the Norristown Police Department will host their next Coffee with a Cop at Jus' Java's Zoo location. Stop by and say hello.

Sunday night's FREE concert, 7 pm at Elmwood Park's bandshell, features The Boogie Dogs. Last concert of the season. Bring a blanket or lawn chair.

Tuesday, 7 pm at Municipal Hall, Planning Commission Meeting. No agenda yet.

Wednesday, 4:30-6 pm at First Presbyterian Church, DeKalb & Airy Streets, the Literacy Council of Norristown will be conducting a free Orientation for adults wishing to learn more about becoming a volunteer tutor for adults needing help with reading, writing, math, GED preparation or English as a Second Language (ESL). After completing the Orientation, prospective volunteers may select a free twelve-hour Tutor Training Workshop to attend at a later date. Register online: www.LcnLit.org , email Executive.Director@LcnLit.org or call 610-292-8515.

Also on Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 pm at Municipal Hall, the Norristown Police Department will hold a public meeting to provide information about emergency services regarding the impact by Pope Francis’s visit to the region over the weekend of September 26 and 27. Norristown is one of four SEPTA transportation hubs in Montgomery County that will be used to transport 10,000 riders to and from Philadelphia each day. The anticipated influx of traffic and closure of major roadways will cause gridlock throughout the region. Any questions regarding the meeting may be addressed to Norristown Police Deputy Chief, Captain Rich Clowser at 610-270-0496 or at rclowser@norristown.org.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

RIVERFEST is Coming !

This past year, Norristown's Riverfest won the Montgomery Happenings Award for Best Family Event in the county. This year, you can help our town retain that title.

Riverfest will take place at Riverfront Park (1 Haws Avenue) on Saturday, September 19 from about 11 am until about dusk, hosted by the Dragon Boat Club of Norristown. They'll have boat rides, kids games and crafts, live music, and best of all, pirates. Yep, pirates on the Schuylkill. So put it on your calendar, dust off your eye patches and wooden legs, and start practicing your "Avast, ye mateys" and other pirate-speak.

Hotdogs and burgers will be available for a reasonable price (proceeds will go toward the cost of the event). DBC would appreciate donations of other types of food--baked goods, fruit, cookies, candy, drinks, etc. to round out the offerings at their food table. If you can help out, contact the email at the bottom of this article.

The main music event will be Norristown's own amazing Mercury Rizing band, who'll begin their sets at 2 pm. There'll be an Open Mic earlier in the afternoon. If you want to perform, or know anyone who wants to, contact the email below.

You can also donate little prizes for the kids' games. Or donate your time. Volunteer for an hour.

I'll have more info next week about Riverfest. The more people who get involved with Riverfest, the bigger it can be. To donate goods, money or volunteer, contact Robin Parker at rparker@dragonboatclub.org