A powerful synthesis of many primary and secondary historical works that deserves emulation... a classic, imperative work for anyone engaged in the serious study of Pennsylvania [and], more importantly, for students of economic growth and social change.
— Walter Greason, PhD, historian

This work by urban historian Michael E. Tolle examines the past, present and future of eight classic American mill towns on Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill River. Its target audience is community activists in the eight towns and, by extension, activists in similar communities. The work attacks the myths and misunderstandings about what happened to our towns and cities after World War II, and attempts to replace them with a more accurate understanding of this controversial subject.

In The News

Historian and blogger Michael Tolle recently moved away from his home of 36 years near the Schuylkill River valley, but that doesn’t mean the region has captured less of his attention. This spring, Tolle plans to publish a book based on his historic studies of eight towns located along the Lower Schuylkill River between Reading and Philadelphia.  The book also explores how the towns could prosper in the future.
Tolle was struck by the historic similarities of the eight towns: Pottstown, Royersford, Spring City, Phoenixville, Norristown, Bridgeport, Conshohocken and West Conshohocken.
"All of these towns on the lower Schuylkill river all came into being for the same reason. They all assumed the same shape. The only difference between the towns other than their size is the topography on which they sit. Otherwise their commercial districts, their residential districts, their industry are all in the same place and in the same order," said Tolle.
Tolle said like many places in Pennsylvania after World War II, the eight towns began a long decline and experienced the loss of industry and the loss of the railroad. He found the trend of the eight river towns including their rise and fall began to diverge greatly by about 1980.
Most of the towns of the Lower Schuylkill Valley remain stagnant, Tolle said,  with the exception of Phoenixville, Conshohocken and West Conshohocken. Tolle started to think about how can these towns move past stagnation and become revitalized...

Read the full post (with map) on Newsworks.org: 



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"What Killed Downtown? remains a welcome contrast to countless other chronicles of downtown decline whose narratives depend on sociological detachment. Recognizing that true objectivity is impossible, Tolle instead depicts the Norristown transformation from the perspective of people who experienced it."
- Eric McAfee, Urbanophile

In 1950, the classic American downtown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, built around the six core blocks of Main Street, was the bustling commercial heart of central Montgomery County — and had been for over a century. Downtown merchants looked forward to an extended period of prosperity.

It was not to be.

By 1975, Main Street's core stood largely shuttered and deteriorating, with 99 storefronts vacant, and countless others lost to the wrecking ball, as first shoppers and then the merchants fled the inner city.

What Killed Downtown?

Historian Michael E. Tolle's extensive research into the collapse of downtown Norristown reveals not only the many answers to this question, but also recreates the classic American downtown shopping experience, long an American characteristic, but now largely foreign to anyone below middle age.

In so doing, Tolle lays bare the fundamental incompatibility between the urban grid and the automobile, as he recounts how a middle-sized American city struggled — and failed — to solve the issues of traffic flow and parking, issues that are no closer to solution today, regardless of the size of the city.