Friday, May 27, 2016

Events for Memorial Day Week

Not too much going on in town this week, but what we've got is worth seeing.

Tonight, Friday May 27, 8 pm at Theatre Horizon (410 Dekalb), "Fully Committed" continues. This week's other shows are Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm, and Thursday at 7:30 pm. The show scheduled for Wednesday is sold out. The play will run through June 5. Check out the full schedule and buy tickets at this link.

Saturday at 11 am, join the Historical Society of Montgomery County in honoring the veterans buried at the historic Montgomery Cemetery. Meet at the Gatehouse of the cemetery, 1 Hartranft St. For information call: 610-272-0297 or email

Sunday, 7 pm Summer Concert Series continues at the Elmwood Park bandshell with Mercury Rising. Bring something to sit on. The snack stand will be open.

Monday, noon at Hancock Square (Swede and Main). The W.S. Hancock Society will present it's annual tribute to General Winfield Scott Hancock at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Wednesday, 6:30 pm at United Church of Christ, 1001 Swede St. Rock the Block Community Meeting. Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County will hold a community meeting to vote on a Rock the Block project. Rock the Block will be held this year on September 17th.

Thursday, from 5-8 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo. Montgomery County-Norristown Library presents Jazz at the Zoo featuring The N-Town Band. Music, hors d'oeuvres, silent auction. $50/person, profits go to the library's book fund. For more info, call 610-278-5100 ext.140.

Next Friday, June 3 from 10 am to 3 pm at Montgomery County OIC, 2nd Floor, 1101 Arch. The OIC, in partnership with United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, is hosting the first Skills to Succeed Training Workshop. This free event for Montgomery County residents will help give you an advantage over the job seekers as you increase your career exploration skills. To learn more, call 610-279-9700.

Have a safe Memorial Day. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Taking Action Before The Next Tragedy

Memorial for the victims at 825 Dekalb 
Since the tragic fire at 825 Dekalb, I've been reading a lot of comments about the incident, everything from "What do expect of Norristown?" to "This is why no one takes Norristown seriously as a place to invest in." The "this" being slumlords. I've even read comments that blame the victims instead of the landlords. No one came right out and said it, but these commenters seemed to object to the victims' level of income or their race, or both.

The thing is, none of the comments were very constructive or offered solutions. I WAS glad to read in the Times Herald that our good landlords are speaking out against non-licensed rentals, properties without smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and those so ill-kept that they're dangerous for the tenants.

But again, none of these comments help us solve the problem. And blaming people of other income brackets and races will NEVER improve Norristown. So, after giving it some thought, here are some things we CAN do.

Right after the tragedy, there were a lot of postings encouraging people to report houses in their neighborhoods to the Codes Department if they thought those properties had overcrowding issues or other codes violations. The problem with this is, most of us never go into the houses of our neighbors. We may not even know which houses are rented. Sure, sometimes you can tell just from how many doorbells or electric meters or satellite dishes they have, but are we supposed to inundate Codes with suspicions and no evidence?

Yet, we have 3 sets of individuals who regularly go into houses in Norristown in the course of their work: police officers, firemen and EMTs (emergency medical technicians). When my neighbor's roof collapsed in the middle of the night, she called 911. The firemen who showed up saw codes violations in the house and reported them. The house was found to be an unlicensed rental and the landlord was cited for that and all the codes violations.

However, I've heard stories of firemen being actively discouraged from reporting violations because, they've been told, that it's better not to get involved because nothing will be done anyway. This may have been true in the past but, I hope, not anymore, and especially in light of this recent tragedy.

So, we need to encourage emergency personnel of all sorts to report violations and overcrowded conditions to the Codes department. Maybe even develop an easy automated way to do it. And it wouldn't hurt to somehow encourage social workers, visiting nurses, physical therapists, etc. to do the same.

But how do we find non-licensed rental properties? Actually, we already have the tools, though no one's using them.

First of all, there's a database of Montgomery County deeds online. (Click here for the link.) Most databases have a way to query the information in them. It might  be a simple thing to ask the county for a list of Norristown properties where the address doesn't match the home address of the owner. That list could then be checked against Norristown's list of licensed rental properties. The rental at 825 Dekalb would have been revealed by this method. So would my next door neighbor's house.

This isn't foolproof, of course. Sometimes there's a good reason for an owner to have a different address, perhaps because the owner bought the house for a family member--an elderly parent or a son or daughter. And sometimes, landlords create separate limited-liability companies for each house and use the address of that property (though if they're going to that trouble, they're usually ligit and get a license).

Still, a simple computer search can probably reveal a majority of these non-licensed rentals. Norristown's Municipality may cry that they have no money to pay for the manhours to compare these addresses, or to have someone program a computer to do it. Well, if we find enough violations, the penalties will bring in revenue (and I personally think the max $1000 fine is too low for an unlicensed rental--we should consider raising it). Or perhaps we could find some volunteers around the community who'd be willing to have a crack at it. I'd volunteer my time to check the addresses in my neighborhood. Or hey, pay me minimum wage for a 2-3 weeks and I'll take on the whole project.

But let's not say nothing can be done and sit around to wait for the next tragedy.

At best, please go into the Montco Deeds database and look up the houses on your street. If any are listed as single-family homes, yet you know there's more than one family living there--or if you see any other violations--report the house to  the Codes department by calling the main number at 610-270-0441 during regular hours or at 610-270-0446 after 4:30pm.  Complaints can also be made online at this link .

Friday, May 20, 2016

Summer Is Coming. Honest.

The weather will change soon, and this week we have an outdoor movie, CADCOM's 50th Anniversary event (if it doesn't rain), and the beginning of the Summer Concert Series in Elmwood Park.

Tonight, Friday May 20, 8 pm at Theatre Horizon (410 Dekalb), "Fully Committed" continues. This week's other shows are Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm, Monday and Thursday at 7:30 pm. The play will run through June 5. Check out the full schedule and buy tickets at this link.

Also tonight at 9 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo's lower lot, Drive-In-Movie Night, featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks in The Road Chip. Gates open at 8 pm. $15 per car/members, $20 per car/non-members. Order tickets at this link. Even though it asks for # of people, order tickets based on number of CARS.

Saturday, 10 am-noon, 130 Wayne Avenue (near Markley and Spruce). Home Dedication. Join Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County as they dedicate their newest home renovation in Norristown. Habitat volunteers and the new homeowners have worked hard to make 130 Wayne Avenue into a beautiful home. Help them celebrate.

Saturday, 10 am-noon, New Life Plaza, 25 E Main Street. Photo ID Clinic. Free assistance for low-income residents who need assistance obtaining a photo ID.

Saturday, noon-3 pm at Norristown High School. The Rotary Club is hosting a Bike Drive to collect used bikes to send to 3rd world countries. They ask a voluntary $10 donation with the bike to help with shipping. They're also collecting portable sewing machines. For more info, call 484-994-2349 or email

Saturday from noon-5 pm at 340 East Oak St (Oak St Park), CADCOM is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Food, health screenings, music, kid's activities and more. FREE pony rides. Basketball tournament. Rain date June 4. To register your basketball team or be a vendor, contact Heather Lewis at 610-277-6363, ext 166 or email .

Sunday, 7 pm Summer Concert Series begins at the Elmwood Park bandshell with the Allen Reynolds Band. Bring something to sit on. The snack stand will be open.

Monday, 7-9 pm, Montgomery County Human Services, 1430 Dekalb. Home-Buying Seminar. Free home buying basics class sponsored by Genesis Housing. Learn about Realtors, Agreements of Sale, Mortgages, Inspections and More. Learn about Grant and Loan Programs for Homebuyers.

Tuesday, 3:30 pm at One Montgomery Plaza Suite 202. Agricultural Land Preservation Meeting. The Agricultural Land Preservation Board is commonly referred to as the farm board. The five-member board, appointed by the Montgomery County Commissioners, consists of two active farmers, one elected municipal official, one builder, and one member-at-large, in accordance with state law. The board meets to prioritize farmland for preservation and to negotiate values with farm owners. For further information, contact Elizabeth Emlen at 610-278-3754.

Tuesday, 7 pm, Zoning Board Hearing at Municipal Hall. No agenda yet.

Wednesday, 6-7 pm online at this link , Facebook Live Chat with the Municipal Administrator, Crandall Jones. You need to be a member of Facebook in order to ask questions.

Wednesday, 7 pm at Municipal Hall. Historical Architecture Review Board meeting.

Thursday, 4-6 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo, FREE Small Business Marketing Workshop. The 1st of a series of FREE workshops for local small businesses hosted by the Norristown Planning Dept.  Keys to marketing and promoting your business, growing your sales and getting your business noticed. Guest speaker: Kevin Homer, Navitas Marketing. Refreshments will be served. The rest of the series will be held on June 23rd and July 28th. RSVP with Bryan Smith, 266 East Main Street, Suite #7, 610-277-1085

Next Saturday at 11 am, for Memorial Day, join the Historical Society of Montgomery County in honoring the veterans buried at the historic Montgomery Cemetery. Meet at the Gatehouse of the cemetery, 1 Hartranft St. For information call: 610-272-0297 or email

Friday, May 13, 2016

Don't Tell Me Nothing's Going On In N-town.

Summer activities have begun. Saturday is going to be one of those days when you can't step outside your door without bumping into something happening in Norristown. Still, a lot of them are timed so you can get to more than one. Enjoy coffee with the NPD at 10, then hit the Historical Society's free program or go to the Carver Center's workshop, then dinner at Haws Ave Methodist to support the Youth Dragon Boat Team, then pick your evening entertainment~ghost stories at Selma, jazz at August Moon, the carnival at the Zoo, comedy at The Centre, or a play at Theatre Horizon.

Tonight, Friday May 13, 8 pm at Theatre Horizon (410 Dekalb), "Fully Committed" continues. This week's other shows are Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm, Wednesday (Norristown Night) at 6:30 pm and Thursday at 7:30 pm. The play will run through June 5. Check out the full schedule and buy tickets at this link.

Also Friday, Elmwood Park Zoo continues its Season Kickoff Carnival from 5-10 pm. Saturday, noon-10 pm, Sunday noon-5 pm. The carnival is free. Rides, food, games, etc, may be purchased on site.

Saturday from 10 am-noon at the Logan Square Dunkin Donuts, the ever-popular Coffee With A Cop.

Saturday, 10 am-1 pm at Elmwood Park, AKA Sorority Playground Project. Please join the ladies of AKA Sorority, Phi Beta Omega Chapter for a day of service as they beautify the grounds at Elmwood Park. They will be painting, cleaning the grounds, planting flowers, and much more. Also, they will be collecting old cell phones to recycle.

Saturday, May 14 from 12:30-2 pm at Montgomery County Historical Society (Dekalb and Roberts Sts) ~"19th Century Hippies: A Brief Look At America's Utopian Societies" presented by Rebecca Price Janney, the author of 19 books. FREE and open tot he public.

Saturday, 1 pm, George Washington Carver Community Center, 249 E. Jacoby St., Clearance Workshop, Volunteer Orientation. Learn how to obtain FREE and reduced clearances. If you're interested, call 610-272-7480 or email

Saturday, 4:30-7:30 pm, Dragon Boat Club of Norristown is hosting a Spaghetti Dinner and Dragon Sundae Bar to benefit the youth team at Haws Avenue Methodist Church (Haws Ave and W Marshall). Tickets $15.00 at door / $13.00 online. If you just want a sundae, the price is $5.

Saturday, 7-10 pm ~ Ghost Stories at Selma Mansion (1301 W Airy). Enjoy an informal tour of the mansion while listening to its ghost stories. Come anytime between 7 and 10. The tour takes 30-40 minutes. This is NOT a haunted house. $5 Adults, $3, kids, seniors and veterans. Active military and N-town firefighters, FREE. All proceeds benefits the restoration of the mansion.

Also Saturday, 8 pm at Centre Theater (208 Dekalb). Comedy club: Marc Standenmeier, Outdoor Kid. Also featuring 4 other comedians. Doors open at 7:30. $25 at the door, $20 online at

Saturday at 8 pm at August Moon (300 East Main), Second Saturday Jazz. Last show of the season, with the The Love, Lori Orchestra. Doors open at 7 for dinner. Sets on the hour. Entertainment Fee: $10.00, 2 Drink Minimum

Monday, 7 pm at Montgomery County Human Services, 1430 Dekalb. Free class on Money Management sponsored by Genesis Housing. Learn how to Set Up a Working Budget, How Current Spending Impacts Future Financial Options, Prioritizing Spending.

Tuesday starting at 6:30 pm at Municipal Hall, Council Workshop Meeting. No agenda yet.

Thursday 7 pm at Montco OIC (1101 Arch), Almost Home Graduation. Join Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County as they host a graduation ceremony for their Spring 2016 class of Almost Home. Come learn more about Norristown's newest potential homeowners and learn about their Almost Home program. Event will be held at the OIC on the 2nd floor.

Next Friday at 9 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo's lower lot, Drive-In-Movie Night, featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks in The Road Chip. Gates open at 8 pm. $15 per car/members, $20 per car/non-members.  Order tickets at this link. Even though it asks for # of people, order tickets based on number of CARS.

Next Saturday, May 21 from noon-5 pm at 340 East Oak St, CADCOM is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Food, health screenings, music, kid's activities and more. Rain date June 4. Vendors should contact Heather Lewis at or 610-277-6363 ext 166.

Summer concerts in Elmwood Park begin next Sunday, May 22.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Preventing Another Tragedy

44 East Oak
Here's one other thing Norristown needs to check out in the light of last weekend's tragic fire at 825 Dekalb. The fire killed 4 residents, 2 children. The house was registered as a single-family dwelling, yet according to the Times Herald, had no rental license and was housing perhaps as many as 16 residents.

So I was curious about the couple who owns that house. 

Since Montgomery County has its property records online, it was easy to find that this couple owns at least 4 other properties in the county. Possibly more, if their name was spelled slightly differently on the deeds. Most are listed as single-family dwellings. One, 44 E Oak Street, is here in Norristown.

They've owned 44 E Oak since 2010. It's a two-story rowhouse with only 1606 square feet of living space. The old photo in the property records shows a business had once occupied the first floor. So presumably there might have already been an apartment on the second floor. Yet the house is listed as single-family residential, not commercial.

I googled "Who lives at 44 E Oak Norristown" (which doesn't always get results but it was worth a try and I lucked out). listed 6 different people having that address. Possibly 2 are the owners. 1 other might be a duplicate.

That leaves at least 3 people with separate surnames. Still that doesn't necessarily mean that those people still live at that address. But given what we know of the couple, 44 E Oak ought to be checked to see if there are tenants occupying the house. If so, does the couple have a rental license for the property and are they renting to more than one single family? Or at least, are there separate apartments?

There you go, Codes Department, I did half your work for you for free. You're welcome.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Accidents Waiting To Happen

I'm sure most of you have by now heard about the fire last weekend at 825 Dekalb. Two adults and a child died in the fire and another, a little girl, just died yesterday.

According to Patch, there were 16 people living in that house. I haven't confirmed this and Patch has been wrong quite a bit in the last year, so it might not be true, but overcrowding is a huge problem in Norristown. Here's what I HAVE confirmed.

825 Dekalb is owned by a couple from North Wales. They've owned it since 2006. It's listed as a single-family residential unit, 3253 square feet of living space, 11 rooms, 6 of which are bedrooms. From what I heard from various sources,  the landlord either had a license for a single-family rental or no rental license at all. And the occupants don't seem to have all been from a single family, probably not even an extended family.

Chapter 222 of the Norristown Codes covers "Overcrowding of Dwelling Units," and Chapter 245 covers "Rental Property."  The punishment for overcrowding a rental unit is $300-$1000. Punishment for a non-licensed unit is the same, plus court costs, though every day a person is in violation is supposed to be a separate offense.

825 before the fire. A nice historic rowhouse.
Still, I know of an instance on my own street where a landlord didn't have a license to rent for 10 years before Codes took notice. He's still renting, so I'm pretty sure they didn't collect the minimum 1 million bucks that the Chapter 245 says he owed.

Imagine how wealthy a town we could be if we only collected all the rental violation fines owed. We could do away with parking meters altogether and even lower taxes.

As of the last census in 2010, Norristown has 13,420 housing units. Over 8000 of those are registered as rental units. Rental licenses are supposed to be renewed annually. The Code further states

"Upon the application of the owner for a rental license or renewal thereof, the Code Department may conduct an inspection of the property to determine and ensure that the residential rental property and each unit contained therein is not a public nuisance or substandard and meets all the zoning, health and safety requirements of the Municipality as well as general applicable law."

"MAY conduct an inspection...." But with a minimum of 8000 properties to inspect per year, plus inspections for new construction, and house and business remodeling, and things like electrical upgrades, how many inspectors would Norristown need to accomplish this? A lot of long-term renters in town will tell you they've never had an inspection of their unit, ever. ONE inspection of 825 Dekalb would have revealed the overcrowding violation and likely many others..

Add to that the fact that our Codes Department had their staff cut to save money. Really Norristown? The one department that we need to help clean up our slumlord problems and you cut their budget? Maybe we could stop giving tons of money to developers for a while while we fix our existing housing issues?

Oh and by the way, overcrowding is only fined in cases of rentals. A homeowner can pack as many people into their house as they want--as long as those people don't pay rent--with no fines, even if they're putting the neighborhood in danger. A developer who builds ultra-dense condo clusters doesn't seem to be liable if that overcrowding leads to more tragic fires.

I was at St. Patrick's Church last Saturday morning watching a bunch of cute little kids get their First Communion. One little boy didn't show up. He was in the hospital because he lived at 825 Dekalb. He lost at least one family member. He'll probably have PTSD for a long time.

We've got accidents waiting to happen all over town. Do we need a whole block to burn before we take action? We need to re-think our priorities before more people--more children--lose their lives.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Comedy, Theater, Fundraisers, and More

Today will be a total wash out, with an inch of rain predicted. But an end to the lousy weather is coming soon, with lots of events in N-Town all week..

Saturday, May 7, 11 am-1 pm at 101 East Main St. Join Congressman Brennan Boyle and his staff as they celebrate the opening of their Norristown District Office. For more information, please contact Shae Ashe at 610-270-8081 or at

Saturday, 8 pm-10 pm, at Centre Theater (208 Dekalb), Starving Artist Prevention presents Doogie Horner~A Delicate Man. This is a comedy show headlined by Doogie Horner of America's Got Talent Fame. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. They can be purchased at

Monday and Wednesday, 3-5:30 pm at the Carver Center, Youth Open Gym. Now through June 15.

Monday, 7 pm-9 pm at Montgomery County Human Services, 1430 Dekalb. Understanding Credit~Free class sponsored by Genesis Housing on understanding credit and credit scores. Obtain a Free Credit Report from Major Credit Bureaus with Scores. Learn How to Improve Your Credit Score. Register online at

Tuesday from 6 to 8 pm, the Historical Society of Montgomery County (1654 Dekalb) will host their first Introductory Genealogy class and they'll continue each Tuesday through the month. $40 for the series for non-members, $10 for members. Register at this link or call 610-272-0297.

Tuesday, 7 pm, Planning Commission meeting. No agenda yet.

Thursday, 11 am-1 pm, CADCOM hosts the Grand Opening of Universal Copy & Print, 113 E Main. Welcome at 11 am, ribbon cutting ceremony at 11:15 am, reception from 11:30 am-1 pm. UCP will be able to provide for all your copy and printing needs no matter how small or large. UCP will also be available for passport photos, internet café, retail items and walk up copy and print services.

Thursday, 7:30 pm at Theatre Horizon, "Fully Committed" opens with a pay-what-you-can night. The play will run through June 5. Check out the full schedule at this link.

Next Saturday, May 14, 4:30pm to 7:30pm, Dragon Boat Club of Norristown is hosting a Spaghetti Dinner and Dragon Sundae Bar to benefit the youth team at Haws Avenue Methodist Church (Haws Ave and W Marshall). Tickets $15.00 at door / $13.00 online at this link. If you just want a sundae, the price is $5.

Volunteers are needed at the Carver Center next Saturday for their 2nd Clearance Day Workshop, and all summer for a variety of activities. If you're interested, call 610-272-7480 or email

Also next Saturday, 7 pm to 10 pm ~ Ghost Stories at Selma Mansion (1301 W Airy). Enjoy an informal tour of the mansion while listening to its ghost stories. This is NOT a haunted house. $5 Adults, $3, kids, seniors and veterans, pay at the door. Active military and N-town firefighters, FREE. All proceeds benefits the restoration of the mansion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

HARB Explained

For this topic, I need to say this up front: Share this with your Norristown friends. There's too much misinformation floating around.

Norristown's Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB) are the volunteers tasked with approving changes to the facades (the outsides) of all buildings within our Historic Districts. If you own a house in one of these districts and you want to, say, put on a new roof or replace windows or even hang a sign on your wall, you bring your plans before HARB. They'll go over them in detail. If anything in your plans isn't appropriate to the historic look of the facade, or would in some way damage the outside of the building, you'll be asked to make changes to your plan. You (or your contractor) can't get a construction permit until the HARB sends their approval to Council.

Lately everyone's up in arms about this. Homeowners don't want to go before the HARB because they've been told by their neighbors or people at their church, or even folks at Boro Hall, how awful the process is and that HARB will make you do stuff you can't afford, etc. These are nothing but rumors. I'm going to tell you why going before the HARB is a good idea, for property owners, the neighborhoods, and for our town.

First, let's look at our districts. The map at the top of this blog is the Central Norristown Historic District and the green one at the left is the West Norristown Historic District. You notice that each one is shown in 2 colors. Each district has a Zone A and Zone B. The buildings in the center of each district are considered our most architecturally valuable so the rules governing changes to their facades are a bit stricter. Zone B is sort of a transition zone. There are also rules for the facades there but they're a bit more lax. Some people think every property owner in Norristown has to go before the HARB before doing home improvement. No. Only those people owning buildings within these districts and only changes to the OUTSIDE of the buildings that can be seen from a street or alley. So you folks in the North End can quit telling your neighbors to worry about it.

I observed HARB for the first time a couple of years ago, not long after I started the Norristown Diary. I was at Municipal Hall for another meeting and when that let out, there was such a horrendous thunderstorm raging outside, I decided to sit in on the HARB meeting in Council Chambers until the rain and lightening slowed down. After twenty minutes, I decided that they knew what they were doing and could be trusted not to do anything that would harm Norristown. One reason I hardly every mention them on the Diary.

Last week, after hearing a lot of the rumors at the Council meeting on April 16, I decided to attend a HARB meeting again to see if anything changed. I went to the meeting on April 25.

Well-maintained historic house at 907 Dekalb
HARB doesn't conduct their meetings like Zoning or Planning. It's not the Board up at the big table while the applicant and audience have to stay across the great divide on the other side of the steps. With HARB, the applicants are invited up to sit at the table. Their materials are spread out and the conversation is less like a board hearing and more like a chat around a kitchen table. The applicants can share their needs and vision. The board members share their expertise. Imagine being able to pitch your home improvement project to the cast of This Old House. You can get expert suggestions on what materials will work best for the price, have someone vet your plan for potential fire hazards, etc.

At both meetings, I heard HARB members give suggestions that would actually save the property owner money on materials. Now, I can't promise they'll be able to do this for everyone, but the members of our HARB aren't as strict as members of similar boards in other towns in our area that have historic districts (try fixing up a historic house in Philly if you don't believe me). Our HARB members do their best to work within the budgets of our homeowners. But they also do their best to protect our Historic Districts buildings for us. Not only is that important for Norristown's economy, it saves EVERY Historic District property owner money in the long run. Here's how:

The left side of this historic twin is going to be restored.
One of the HARB members told me last week "No one wants to have to come before the HARB, but everyone wants their neighbors to." Why? Because well-kept historic buildings raise property values. If they're maintained in a way that retains their historic facade, they'll appreciate in value faster than a new house or an older home that's been covered in siding or stucco. If you Google "property value of historic districts," you'll see dozens of studies and articles from all over the country that show how the property value of houses in a historic district are more likely to rise faster than the values of regular neighborhoods, all the more so if the district is listed on the National Register. (Go to this National Board of Realtors link if you want to read one of the articles.)

When HARB asks a property owner to make changes to their plans, the end result will be that the building in question will more likely retain or appreciate in value better than if the property owner made their own decisions. When homeowners try to do work on their own to their historical facades, without a permit, it's not only illegal, it usually lowers the value of the house and sometimes the neighboring houses. Encouraging each other to sneak around HARB rules and take the cheapest and illegal way out only succeeds in turning Norristown into a place that will never attract new homeowners or businesses.

This is why we need to support HARB and promote pride in our historical architecture.

HARB meets the 4th Wednesday of each month at 7 pm at Municipal Hall if you'd like to observe what they do. The meetings tend to run long because they take their time and do it right. Just tell them you want to observe and they'll invite you to pull up a chair.

If you're thinking of making changes to the outside of a historic house in Norristown, the HARB procedure is explained at this link. But if you'd like to ask HARB questions BEFORE making plans, come to a meeting. You'll have to wait until their scheduled cases have been taken care of, but they'll be happy to talk to you.

The board has vacancies at the moment, if you think you'd like to volunteer. They'd really like to have a realtor on the board, if you know anyone who'd be interested. But also, it would be nice to have someone who lives in one of the Districts and has done restoration work to their own facades, and understands the homeowners' point of view. Recommended that you sit in on a meeting before volunteering, but anyone interested should send a letter of interest and resume to Council President Sonya Sanders at

Monday, May 2, 2016

Short Memories

Old Borough Hall
In the last year, I've noticed what seems to be a growing trend in things not known or remembered about Norristown. I don't mean our lifelong residents. They're excellent sources of information, yet they're not often asked questions by the people who need the info, that is, our government. Last week's Council Meeting illustrated this trend, so let me correct some of the misinformation that was flying around that night.

The statement was made, with disdain, that Norristown has the largest set of historic districts in the whole state. I thought that sounded pretty impressive myself, and wondered why we weren't using the fact as a promotional tool. But then I fact-checked it and found it's NOT TRUE. Norristown's combined historic districts cover 4650 acres and approximately 3500 buildings. Philadelphia has 15 historic districts, with 22,000 properties. I think Philly might be the largest in the state, but I haven't gone through all the entries to be sure. But even if you eliminate Philly, there are several other towns in southeastern PA alone that have historic areas covering more acreage or more buildings, or both, than Norristown. West Chester, for instance ~ another county seat ~ has a total 5730 acres and 3560 buildings, 12 structures and 2 objects.

N-town's Historic Districts

But why was it said with disdain? Because the suggestion was made (by a director, not by a Council member) to eliminate one of the districts. Another borough employee said he didn't understand why the districts were so large ~ why didn't Norristown start small and let them grow? As if back in the 1980s council decided we needed historic districts, so they planted seeds that grew into Victorian houses. I guess they accidentally spilled the whole seed envelope on Main Street. You can't grow a historic district. By the time you're ready to expand, the buildings are gone.

If Norristown alone had established its historic districts, sure, they could eliminate one. But they didn't. The districts are federally mandated, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you go to the National Register listing for historic districts, you'll find that a whole slew of districts were added to the register in 1970 or later, all over the country. The reason is that in the 1970s, historic architecture across America became endangered species. A lot of it was destroyed for development. The Federal government created these districts to save the fine works of architecture that we had left and created tax incentives for people to restore them. (Unfortunately, the second Reagan Administration removed the tax incentives.)

The front of the Norris Theater, now in Florida.
Any lifelong N-town resident over 40 years of age will tell you about the Norris and our other theaters, old Borough Hall, both Ys and other landmarks, and they'll say what a shame they couldn't be saved. Back in the 1980s, they asked that districts be formed here too, to preserve the character of our town and protect our remaining historic buildings. In 1984, the Central and West Historic Districts were approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, then by the Feds, and listed on the National Register.

So no, we can't get rid of our historic districts. But let's look at the good they've accomplished.
The area along Marshall on either side of Markley was once littered with blighted industrial buildings ~ the Cigar Factory and the Olde Mill were vacant and blackened. The Scheidt Brewery looked like a war zone. The building at Markley and Marshall across from the Getty station was a mess. These structures were restored. The brewery restoration was so miraculous in how it transformed the site that it was written up in a national journal. Without preservation, we'd still have blight there today, or acres of vacant lots. And not just there, but throughout our historic districts.

West Chester, PA
Let's skip down the road a moment and look at West Chester. They designated the majority of their district when they revitalized their downtown. It covers their ENTIRE downtown, something Norristown was too short-sighted to do. West Chester has turned their economy around and a lot of that has to do with historic preservation. Don't believe me? Where is Norristown's most thriving shopping district at the moment? Our downtown is filled with vacant lots and stores. Look over on West Marshall, though, where the buildings are protected within the West Historic District. The facades have character and that attracts businesses.

West Chester's historic design guidelines begins with "Visitors and residents alike sense that West Chester Historic District is a unique place." Look up information on Norristown's Historic Area Review Board (HARB), assuming you can find it on the website (it's well hidden). All it says is, if you own a Historic Area building, you have to go before the board if you want to make changes to the facade. Nothing about us being a unique place. We need to change our attitude.

Norristown is LUCKY to have 2 National Historic Districts. We ought to be bragging about them. We ought to have signs on our main routes ~ Main, Swede, Dekalb, Airy, and Marshall ~ that say "Now entering Central Historic District ~ National Register of Historic Places," and the same for our West Historic District. Signs don't cost much and would go a long way toward instilling pride in these areas, both for our residents and our visitors. Why don't we want to impress the world by showing off what we have?

Yet, in order to use these Historic Areas to our economic advantage, we need to fully support our HARB board in their work, and HARB is probably the most misunderstood and maligned entity in Norristown. In a few days, I'll post another Diary entry, explaining what they do, how they do it, and how their work is quietly improving our town one building at a time.