Sunday, August 11, 2013


Having linked up on Facebook with all sorts of Pottstown people to be sure I know as much about what's going on in the borough and environs as possible, I noticed a post by Sheila Dugan the other day that got me thinking.

In addition to being Pottstown's Main Street Manager, Dugan is also fairly passionate about her advocacy for her Pottstown neighborhood.

(I've noticed that many of Pottstown's greatest champions are often those who have come from other places and perhaps recognize Pottstown's charms with the eyes of an outsider, but that's a discussion for another day.)

Anyway, Sheila and her husband Gene own and run Grumpy's Hand Carved Sandwiches on High Street and live with their brood of vivacious children just a block away on North Hanover Street.

Sheila posted on Facebook asking people to contribute to a page describing what they like about Pottstown.

This seemed like a good idea to me.

Certainly, there is no shortage of places where people can complain about Pottstown, The Mercury's own Sound Off being primary among them, "so why not a place where things you like can be posted?" I thought.

It's one of the reasons Eileen Faust and I started the "Positives in Pottstown" Facebook page.

Several of Dugan's neighbors posted with lists of things to like about this town; the usual suspects -- downtown stores trying to stand out, Smith Family Plaza, Memorial Park, historic architecture, walkable community.

I thought briefly about contributing something, but I wasn't sure what it was I would say.

Then I got busy and the opportunity slipped away.

But last weekend my sister, in an abundance of generosity, decided to give me a birthday present that consisted of her family and mine using her credit card points to stay overnight in a motel at the Jersey Shore.

As I have written about here in the past, when I was a child, my grandparents owned a small, unheated, un-air conditioned house on Long Breach Island (in Brant Beach of course).

It was purchased in a time you did not need to be a millionaire to do things like that and when barrier island property prices did not rival those found on Manhattan island.

So as a child, I spent two weeks each August in Brant Beach with my parents, my sister and the friend each of us had selected to come along.

Many happy memories and rituals -- all fiscally impossible on a reporter's salary in today's top-down economy -- were made there.

Nevertheless, the imprint was made so the Atlantic coast has always had a special place in my heart and it is invariably the place where I become the most contemplative, whether its on LBI, Sag Harbor or Cape Cod.

We were in Seaside Heights last weekend, and I will confess time on the boardwalk there does not inspire contemplation, except, perhaps, about -- how shall I put this? -- the uniqueness of American culture?

But a swim in a calm Atlantic Sunday, helping my son and nephew body surf, had its usual effect and when we got back to good old Pottstown, I took my Hillary Mantel book (and a strong gin and tonic) out onto our front porch.

When Karen and I placed our bets and put all the money we would ever have down on a house in Pottstown, I had only two requirements -- off-street parking and a front porch.

Our home, built in 1918 with some truly gorgeous built-in woodwork, is in a quiet neighborhood in the numbered streets and has both.

To be sure, it has given us headaches: a new roof, a new waterline, new porch posts, plumbing, heating, all the usual burdens of home ownership.

But if time on the beach has taught me anything, it's how to put those things out of your mind and take a moment to look around.

It's something Buddhists call "mindfulness," and it also figures in many yoga practices.

So that moment came as I sat on my porch and looked around.

I thought about something Tom Hylton once wrote that has always struck me; that we all know what kind of town we want to live in, it's where we go on vacation.

Perhaps it was residue from a day at the beach, or because the temperature was so mild for August, or because the light was so pleasantly diffuse, but I had that same feeling sitting on the porch that I usually only have in the early evening at the beach.

Across the street, my neighbor on a double lot has the oldest house on the street and keeps his lawn in pristine condition.

An American flag was waving in the warm summer breeze from his front portico and I noticed I was taking the kind of slow, deep breaths usually reserved for watching the sunset over Barnegat Bay.

For a few moments I felt content; just to sit there, sip a drink and enjoy the quiet moment.

I would like to say this is a regular occurrence, but in this electronicized interconnected time; in this punishing economy; working in a business that is fighting (badly in most cases) for its very life, there isn't a lot of opportunity for moments of contentment.

The house directly across from mine has been foreclosed upon, dashing hopes of a worthwhile home re-financing and our front door has twice had its glass shattered by vandals.

And despite what I still stubbornly continue to believe to be its undeniable potential, Pottstown continues to drift, with little agreement about what it wants to be when it grows up, or how to get there; so often see-sawing between those who want to "worship the problem," as former schools superintendent Reed Lindley once so exactly put it, and those who want to pretend those problems will go away if we stop reporting them.

It is not a recipe for long-term contentment

And it occurred to me that perhaps it is an absence of contentment that is felt so keenly by so many of the borough's older residents, those who expected to quietly live out their days in the house they had finally paid off, living off their pensions and Social Security.

The fact that it has not turned out that way, that the tax burden has made that income inadequate, that Pottstown is no longer the town they had known in their youth, all create an environment for uncertainty, and its offspring, anxiety, not for contentment.

But despite all these challenges, contentment can be found in Pottstown --

  • Sometimes that contentment comes in small dollops, like sitting in the beer garden with friends at the Carousel of Flavor; 
  • Sometimes it comes in a rush that comes and goes before you recognize it was there, like the way the community came together last year to save the Halloween parade;
  • And sometimes contentment creeps up on you like a kind of slow burn, maybe when you're sitting on your porch with a good book, and you start to think about how lucky you are in neighbors; that your child is quietly thriving in an diverse school district which is unfairly under-rated -- a school district that is populated with teachers who inspire him and which is replete with free opportunities for growth and new experiences; that your commute to your job is less than three minutes and, despite its frustrations, that you love what you do.

I'm sure there are people who will tell me that contentment is a state of mind independent of where you are. But although Americans move around a lot more than in other cultures, we still cling tightly to the idea of "home," and I find it hard to contemplate being content without being happy in my home.

So I guess ultimately, I would answer Sheila Dugan's question -- "what do you love about Pottstown?" -- by saying that: Contentment is possible here, but, counter-intuitively, sometimes you have to work at it.


  1. Supremely on target. Thanks, Evan, for a thoughtful piece.


  2. GReat Piece... I find mine in the morning on my back deck, when the grass is cut and trimmed and knowing that this yard is what I like to see.

  3. Evan, as a life long resident, I agree with you that Pottstown has some very good qualities. I realized that the other night when my wife and I sat on the porch talking to our neighbors. Then it happened. At about 10:00 that night, one neighbor decided to tune up his motorcycle, loud pipes save lives you know, and that started the dogs barking. In one block we have 1 neighbor with 4 dogs, another with 2, and one more with one. Sounded like a dog pound. Nothing like the sounds of urban life!