In 1950, the classic American downtown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, centered on the six blocks of Main Street, was the bustling commercial heart of central Montgomery County, and had been for over a century. With depression and war in the past, downtown merchants looked forward to an extended period of prosperity. It was not to be.
By 1975, downtown’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 Main Street.
What Killed Downtown? Was it…
- The Malls? Commercial wisdom points to the King of Prussia Mall as the prime suspect. But were there accomplices?
- Municipal Government? The Main Street merchants always believed that the Borough Council was the culprit–and with good reason.
- The Downtown Merchants themselves? Did the shopholders blind themselves, then step into the firing line, ignoring the threats of a changing world?
- Or was it something else…something more fundamental?
Historian Michael E. Tolle’s extensive research into the collapse of downtown Norristown reveals not only the answers to these questions, 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 the issues of traffic flow and parking, issues that are no closer to solution today, regardless of the size of the city.