What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls


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.

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About the Author

Author Name : Michael E. Tolle

     After earning a B.S.F.S. (Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service) from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Michael E. Tolle spent a year studying the Vietnamese language before serving two years in Viet Nam with the Agency for International Development (USAID), as an Assistant Relief/Rehabilitation Advisor to the Vietnamese government's refugee program. Upon returning to the United States, he and his wife Barbara settled in the riverside community of Port Indian, just upriver from Norristown (and downriver from Valley Forge), Pennsylvania. He was in succession a carpentry contractor and energy conservation consultant before entering into the most satisfying phase of his life, providing the primary care to his two sons. He will always be most proud of his efforts during this time. As circumstances allowed, Michael earned a M.A. in History at Villanova University, then began teaching history at local colleges, including both Montgomery County and Delaware County Community Colleges. His involvement with the Historical Society of Montgomery County provided him with much of the primary research material for this, his first book. After enduring the highly varied weather of Southeastern Pennsylvania for over thirty years, he and his wife currently reside in San Francisco, California, which experiences neither winter nor summer.


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