Towns on the Brink: Norristown and Bridgeport

Once tethered to the Schuylkill River by industry, Norristown, and neighboring Bridgeport, are seeking to reclaim that bond--in modern fashion. In the Final installment of our “Towns on the Brink” series, we offer a fresh look at two very different communities with a common heritage.



 

 

It was the lifeblood. It nourished the mills and provided access that fed trade and industrial expansion. It defined the towns that clung to its banks.

But when the mills and the smokestacks retreated, the character of the towns changed. For those hit hardest, livelihoods vanished, businesses departed, and neighborhoods declined.

The river, of course, just kept rollin’ along.

When such towns reshape their profiles, they inevitably look to the river again. In Norristown, where the Schuylkill once powered industry, work is already underway—with projects on the drawing board—toward what municipal administrator Crandall Jones calls an “urban, walking, downtown community.” 

There are many facets to this image, but in the big picture, all roads lead to the riverfront. Major arteries are being reconfigured, a new turnpike interchange has been approved, biking and walking trails are joining hands and, in anticipation of a new-look Norristown, residential and commercial development activity has picked up.

“It’s a tsunami of development,” says Jones, after three years on the job. “But we have to make sure it’s smart.”

Jones and other civic leaders have brought a new energy to Norristown. County, state and federal officials recognize the potential and are lending muscle to the effort. It’s been a recipe for action.

Early movers and shakers had the same bug. For the municipal seal, they decided on a beehive as the symbol to accompany a Latin phrase for “boiling with work.” Situated within a tract of land originally purchased by Quaker merchant Isaac Norris from William Penn, Norristown became the county seat when Montgomery County was established in 1784, a year after the Revolutionary War ended. It was incorporated as a borough in 1812, only months before the start of a second war between American and British forces. In the following two decades, canals and railroads linked Norristown with Philadelphia and beyond. Mills—predominantly textile—churned on its waterways, and this seat of government became an industrial powerhouse, as well.  

Beginning in the 1880s and expanded during the first three decades of the 20th century, trolley and passenger rail lines shuttled workers and shoppers to the business district, which included movie theaters, department stores, and numerous retail shops. Though the loss of industry had already begun, the population peaked at 39,000 in 1960. A handful of years later, the new King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting malls conspired with the rise of suburban industrial parks to suck the life out of Norristown’s once vibrant downtown.        

Today’s official population of about 35,000 is amplified by another 12,000 to 15,000 residents not on the census rolls, according to councilman Bill Caldwell. “It puts us between Easton and Wilkes-Barre [in size],” says Caldwell, who lives in Norristown and, interestingly, cultivates bees in his backyard. “We’re on a bigger scale than most people think, and it brings a different set of issues.”

Like honesty in government, for example. Nine years ago, a former Norristown mayor was sentenced to prison for bribery and fraud, charges that stemmed from his term in office. By that time, voters had eliminated the position of mayor anyway, effectively making municipal council the prime decision-maker. Two decades earlier, Norristown had adopted a “home rule” charter, changing it from a borough to a municipality for added flexibility. By the time of the 2004 referendum, council felt that a new government structure would improve transparency and speed redevelopment. 

But speed is a relative term—especially when it comes to reversing the decline of a town. Stigmas wear off slowly. Much depends on higher levels of government, the health of the general economy, and the priceless value of persistence. “This is the Norristown I’ve been talking about for 20 years,” says longtime planning director Jayne Musonye. “We’ve had to sell our vision to both the outside world and residents.”

The sale has been made, and Lafayette Street—which parallels the river to one side and commerce-heavy Main Street to the other—is the linchpin. Its expansion, a three-phased project with current cost estimates at about $52 million (funded jointly by federal and county dollars), aims to ease traffic congestion and, eventually, open up the riverfront—politely characterized by Musonye as “underutilized”—to development. 

The first phase, which broke ground two years ago and has been completed, extends Lafayette about a half-mile eastward from its former dead-end in Norristown to Conshohocken Road in Plymouth Township, relieving the dense traffic on Ridge Pike, which becomes Main Street in Norristown. The second phase began in April and also has an expected two-year timeline. It extends Lafayette farther into Plymouth and widens Ridge to the Norristown border. Projected to begin in 2017, the final phase will widen existing Lafayette Street in Norristown. 

Meanwhile, the Chester Valley Trail, which follows an old rail corridor from Exton to King of Prussia, is earmarked to cross the river to Norristown via the DeKalb Street Bridge, where it will meet the Schuylkill River Trail, which will be moved closer to the river when Lafayette Street is widened. That project should go out to bid within two years and take another year to complete, says Montgomery County planner Dave Clifford.

An expanded Lafayette Street and an interconnected trail network mean freer movement for walkers, cyclists and motorists. The capper will be a new Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange. “It’s the foundation for progress,” says state Rep. Matt Bradford, who’s spent six years pushing for it. 

The PA Turnpike Commission has committed $45 million to build an on/off interchange connecting to extended Lafayette Street at a point where Plymouth Township meets the southeastern corner of Norristown—about two miles west of the Norristown exchange, which is actually in Plymouth. Without a retooled Lafayette, the interchange doesn’t happen. Without both of them, prospects for regional growth and a revamped Norristown—particularly its riverfront—are limited.

The dual project was conceived years ago by county commissioners and the Norristown council. While the interchange won’t be completed until 2020 (at the earliest), there’s already renewed interest in Norristown’s three-mile redevelopment area along the river.

“I’ve been hearing from developers and property owners [at the riverfront],” says Musonye, who was scheduled to hold a summit for the two sides at the end of June. 

Room for Change in Norristown: PLANNING DIRECTOR JAYNE Musonye at the site of the new Lafayette Street widening-and-extension project.

Across the bridge, the borough of Bridgeport has its own designs on the river. So does King of Prussia-based O’Neill Properties, which wants to build nearly 600 townhomes and apartments on 35 waterfront acres—the approximate footprint of an office park destroyed by fire 14 years ago. Known as Bridgeview, the project has been in the works for some time. It’s not the first proposal for the location. 

The objectives of borough and developer align, as long as riverfront access is a priority. “We want to reconnect to the river,” says borough manager Don Curley, who emphasizes that any development must preserve the view and link existing neighborhoods to the water. 

O’Neill’s plan seeks to do just that by creating wide approach streets and a “loop” to connect the new community with the planned extension of the Chester Valley Trail, which will reach Bridgeport before sprinting across the river to Norristown. 

Bridgeport’s historical connection to the river was practical rather than aesthetic or recreational. Its original Swedish settlement took hold in 1712 aside a shallow stretch of river forded by Gen. Washington and his troops en route to Valley Forge some 65 years later. By the mid-19th century, the locals exchanged farming for industry, when canals, railroads and the then-wooden DeKalb Street Bridge opened up the marketplace. Mills proliferated. Less than a square mile in area, Bridgeport incorporated in 1851, and the borough continued as an undersized, industrial heavyweight well into the 20th century.

Situated by the legendary Swede’s Ford and perhaps named for Washington’s intrepid army, the Continental Fibre Company was one of Bridgeport’s big hitters until yielding to the Continental Business Center. The latter was ravaged by an accidental fire in 2001 that resulted in the loss of more than 50 businesses and put a large dent in the local economy. 

But Bridgeport’s population has stabilized at around 4,500, down by about 20 percent from the peak years of 1930-70. If Bridgeview comes to fruition, an estimated 1,000 new residents will join the working-class borough, generating tax revenue that’s been missing since this half of the riverfront shut down. Businesses have been operating on the other half. 

Some changes have been subtler. Bridgeport’s median age has fallen a few years since 2000. The borough still boasts plenty of multigenerational families, but more than half of current residents are renters. “You used to know each house by the name of the family who lived there,” says borough solicitor Sal Bello, a Bridgeport native.

Churches have consolidated. And “The Feast”—an annual summer Italian festival that was part processional, part carnival—is no more, a casualty of host Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s merger with Sacred Heart Parish in adjacent Swedesburg. “It didn’t matter whether you were Italian or not,” Bello says of the festivities. “We had beer gardens, music, games, rides—people came from all over by the busload.”

The Feast may be history, but spirits are high at Taphouse 23, a gleaming gastropub that opened late last year after its owners refurbished the property. Located on Fourth Street (Route 23), the borough’s busiest commercial strip, Taphouse taps into the younger demographic in the borough and various surrounding locales.

Whatever changes visit Bridgeport, its values remain rooted in small-town USA. “There’s a strength that a lot of communities don’t have,” says Curley. “We don’t have the crime problem typically associated with some urban areas.” 

The numbers agree. The most severe crimes have been in the single digits in recent years. Most area classified “larceny-theft.” “It’s a caring community,” adds police chief John Dougherty, whose department distributes toys during the holidays and greets residents for “coffee with the cops” at the local Wawa. 

Dougherty stresses the importance of sharing information with neighboring departments—including Norristown—and says that filing reports on laptops “right in the squad cars” has significantly increased police presence. 

View from the Top BRIDGEPORT MAYOR Thaddeus J. Pruskowski stands at the top of a hill by the borough’s Memorial Park.

 On a sun-kissed Memorial Day weekend, Bridgeport’s steep, bumpy roads climb past tidy, compact houses to, fittingly, Memorial Park, where the local Little League team plays and the view is panoramic. The distant greenery is thick, and the angle isn’t quite right, but if you squint hard enough, you might pick up a sliver of river.

On approach to Norristown from King of Prussia and Bridgeport, Route 202 splits, with the southbound Dannehower Bridge to the west and northbound DeKalb Street to the east. Between the two is the Norristown Dam, where a new fish ladder facilitates the shad’s migration upriver to spawn. Just off the eastern tip of Barbadoes Island (a Schuylkill nod to the Caribbean), the dam may be a future source of hydroelectric power. In fact, county officials are evaluating that possibility. The 90-acre island once hosted a PECO power plant that was decommissioned years ago and has been demolished.

Near Norristown’s sleepy riverfront, Lafayette Street dead-ends just past Barbadoes Street, branching onto the Schuylkill River Trail, which leads to a modest park where Stoney Creek flows into the river. The basketball court and the playground equipment are silent.

Inland, Norristown has been alive with redevelopment. After more than two decades in the planning stages, Markley Street (the western prong of Route 202) is being rebuilt along its entire length. In effect, it’s a north-south counterpart to the Lafayette Street project. “These things cook slowly,” says council president Linda Christian. 

PennDOT expects Markley’s $21 million first phase, which began in 2013, to continue for another year, as improvements extend through neighborhoods from Elm Street to Johnson Highway, the northern border. Crews are replacing crumbling utility infrastructure and dramatically upgrading the roadway and sidewalk. The project’s estimated $16-million second phase will continue the work from Elm down to Main and replace or fortify bridges at both streets. “It changes the whole look of the community,” says Norristown chief planner Musonye. 

In another part of town, two new townhouse developments—each from Malvern-based Progressive Housing Ventures—have had a similar impact on a neighborhood grown shabby. At DeKalb and Elm streets, the dozen renovated homes of Arbor Heights were completed and occupied three years ago. Two blocks north, Arbor Mews offers 24 newly constructed townhomes, with financial assistance for first-time buyers. “It has created a chain reaction [of other development] in a difficult area,” says Musonye. 

Elsewhere in Norristown, developers are eyeing real estate for sizable projects. A $4 million conversion of the top two floors of the former PNC Bank building on Main Street to condominiums needs a state grant to complete financing. On the east end, a 157-unit luxury apartment building on Sandy Street was scheduled to break ground this summer. Demolition of the former Montgomery Hospital in the center of town is well underway, and a senior apartment project is ticketed for the site, pending approval of a construction loan and design review. And senior housing has been proposed for a shuttered Kennedy-Kenrick High School on Johnson Highway near DeKalb. 

On the other end of DeKalb, it’s uphill from the SEPTA transportation center on Lafayette Street to the heart of the historic district, where the block-long Montgomery County Courthouse commands the core. This stretch features Theatre Horizon, known for its gritty urban dramas, and is the target area for a rejuvenation of the arts in Norristown.

“We want to create an arts-and-culture district downtown—a home for artists,” says Kevin Homer, vice president of the Norristown Arts Council, which sponsors an annual festival. The vision is of a lower DeKalb Street busy with galleries, studios, theaters and smaller performance venues. 

Homer, who owns and runs a marketing agency in Trooper, is also president of the nonprofit Greater Norristown Corporation, whose combined public-private membership promotes regional growth. His agency designed Norristown’s municipal website and has been working on the new Norristown.com site, which will serve as an umbrella for all things Norristown. “We need a marketing, public relations, tourism effort,” says Homer. “Though it’s hard to drive to Phoenixville, people go there because they know about the bars and restaurants.”

Once sorely lacking in Norristown, this sort of perspective emerged a few years ago when local businesses seeking a boost approached the new municipal administrator. “The municipality is not a marketing group,” says Crandall Jones. “We’re bricks and mortar.”

But Jones, too, wanted to stimulate business, tapping Al Zone, director of Elmwood Park Zoo, to spearhead the effort. A man of high energy and self-reliance, Zone recruited Homer, who shares those qualities. Momentum was born.

Eddie Turner, a former councilman who now heads the Norristown Business Association, is also on board. Earlier this year, he started Fourth Fridays, a festive combination of food and music that kicks off at noon in the courthouse square and enlists local eateries to present live music throughout the evening. It’s not quite Mardi Gras, but people are beginning to take notice.

The vibe on Main Street is youthful and international. A recent sampling of restaurants included Almaz Café (Ethiopian cuisine), Las Palmas Del Sur (Mexican), Sessano Café (Italian), August Moon (Japanese, Korean), and Banh Mi Bar & Bistro (Vietnamese). Banh Mi owner Chris Nguyen says his restaurant has been attracting patrons from King of Prussia and Conshohocken. “They didn’t know what Norristown is,” he says, adding that he plans to open a second restaurant in town.

Norristown reflects two trends that are basic to socioeconomic comebacks in 21st-century American cities: the regard for ethnic/racial diversity as a strength and millennials’ attraction to urban environments. The population is split roughly into thirds among whites, African-Americans and Latinos, the latter group having increased sharply in recent years. The mantra, “Build it, and they will come,” suits Norristown. “Taxes are high, so ratables are needed,” says Musonye. 

And local leaders have embraced immigration. “We took a stand [a decade ago] and made a decision as a government that we needed to welcome immigrants,” says councilman Caldwell.

Ultimately, reality tempers all the promise and progress. Norristown still has plenty of run-down blocks and dispirited neighborhoods. But its tenor has changed since the day a few years ago, when Jones was asked—only partly in jest—by a fellow municipal administrator: “How many people got shot in Norristown last night?”

“I figured that it was time we changed the conversation,” Jones says.

Into the Wild ELMWOOD PARK ZOO’s Al zone feeds a few of the local residents.

 

"When we promote the zoo, we promote Norristown” Al Zone

During the noon hour on the fourth Friday of May, a trio fills the courthouse square with smooth jazz, drawing desk jockeys to sit and listen by the granite planters. In the evening, salsa lessons will be hosted by Vance Community Partners on Cherry Street, and Almaz will have live music until midnight.

Right now, it’s a perfect spring afternoon, and the mammoth, domed courthouse seems less threatening. Across Airy Street, First Presbyterian’s iconic spire punctures the sky, and the former Montgomery County prison—a padlocked, forbidding structure—awaits a creative developer. The latter is the kind of place that Jones and police chief Mark Talbot aren’t at all eager to fill. 

“The number of arrests doesn’t spell success,” says Talbot, who spent 18 years with the Reading police before taking the top job in Norristown in 2013. “I’d like to have no arrests.”

If none are warranted, that is. The recent strategy here has been intervention to reduce incarceration. The New Horizons Collaborative, modeled after a similar program in Philadelphia, engages the community to fight crime. “Government doesn’t make the prescription—the community does,” says Jones. 

The initial challenge was to win the confidence of residents. The first targeted neighborhood was within a five-block radius of a bar linked to a homicide. Spotty streetlights, loose trash, graffiti and vacant properties marred the area. 

After a street-by-street survey—“Knock and talk,” says Jones—during which they helped with cleanup, police and municipal department heads got the lay of the land, and residents had a better feeling about law enforcement and their government. “We knew they would be reluctant—previous programs didn’t deliver,” says New Horizons coordinator Kristi DeLorenzo. “Now, they’ll talk to us … trust us.”

The result has comprised working streetlights and reduced crime in this swatch of Norristown, says DeLorenzo, a crime analyst for the police. Overall crime has dipped on chief Talbot’s watch, with the most serious offenses (murder, rape and robbery) dropping from 1,399 in 2013 to 1,180 last year. Through late May of this year, serious crimes have decreased by 21 percent, and lesser crimes by 11, compared to the same period last year.  

Even beyond New Horizons, Talbot and the force have made a concerted effort to develop trust among the people they serve. Meanwhile, he uses a top-down approach for corralling area criminals. “We focus on risky behaviors at a high level,” he says. “[An area with] a high number of [serious] crimes already has a lot of quality-of-life problems.”

While the police build bridges, the municipal Citizens Leadership Academy schools residents in government operations and grooms them for leadership roles in their neighborhoods. “They want to know what they can do,” says Jones.

Norristown native Al Zone has brought a can-do attitude to Elmwood Park Zoo, a 50-acre wonderland in the northwest corner of town. Since he became the director four years ago, the number of annual visitors has nearly quadrupled to 450,000, and membership has increased from a meager 1,400 to 36,000. The annual budget has grown more than fourfold.

Zone introduced several new attractions: hand-feeding the giraffes and bison; child/adult zip-line courses through the treetops; Stella the great horned owl, who is Temple University’s live mascot; and Noah the bald eagle, who provided prized photo ops at all of the Philadelphia Eagles’ home games last season. (With a wingspan of seven feet, Noah should’ve been added to the Eagles’ secondary.)

Noah’s zoo residency is under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as is Stella’s. Zone underscores that Elmwood Park is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “We have to be creative to get [visitors] here,” says Zone. “Then we can educate them about the AZA’s Species Survival Plan and other conservation programs.”

His creativity is paying dividends beyond the zoo’s gates, thanks to his penchant for cross-promotion—Jus’ Java, a coffeehouse on Swede Street, also has a berth at the zoo. “When we promote the zoo, we promote Norristown,” says Zone.

Back on the river, shad are scaling the Norristown Dam fish ladder on their way to propagating the species. A few billion years ago, other forms of aquatic life wriggled ashore and eventually became the creatures that live at Elmwood Park. The architects of Norristown’s latest evolution are aiming for a shorter time span.

police chief Mark Talbot and New Horizons coordinator Kristi DeLorenzo

Norristown at a Glance

Location
Montgomery County (county seat), along the north bank of the Schuylkill River; 3.5 square miles in area.

Population: 35,000 (per census); actual count estimated to be one-third higher.

Budget: $30.5 million: two-thirds from taxes (real estate taxes more than half).

Income 
Median household: $41,664 in 2012 vs. $51,230 for the state.
Per capita: $20,540 in 2012.

Housing Facts
Rentals: 62 percent.
Median house/condo value: $131,700.

Crime Facts
Serious crimes: 1,399 (three homicides) in 2013; 1,180 (two homicides) in 2014; 344 (one homicide) in 2015 through late May.

Education Facts
Public schools: Norristown Area School District serves Norristown, East Norriton Township and West Norriton Township. It’s regarded as the most diverse Philadelphia suburban school district.
Test scores: Norristown Area High School is 66-percent proficient in literature and 56-percent proficient in mathematics, per a U.S. News & World Report evaluation.

 

Bridgeport at a Glance

Location
Montgomery County, along the south bank of the Schuylkill River; .8 square miles in area.

Population
4,500.

Budget
$5 million: $1 million from the sewer fund; $4 million from real estate and other taxes, and assorted fees. 

Income
Median household: $45,158 in 2012 vs. $51,230 for the state.
Per capita: $29,790 in 2012.

Housing Facts
Median gross rent: $910 in 2012.
Median house/condo value: $195,615 in 2012, compared to $163,800 for the state.

Crime Facts
Serious crimes: one in 2011, eight in 2012, seven in 2013, 10 in 2014, two in 2015 through late May.

Education Facts
Public schools: Upper Merion Area School District, including Bridgeport Elementary, the only one in the borough.

 

View our first installment of Towns on the Brink, which features Chester, here.

View our second installment of Towns on the Brink, which features Coatesville, here.

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