“America’s dad” Bill Cosby went on trial in Norristown on Monday morning, and the journalists swarmed. They brought big tents and satellite trucks, camera lenses of every imaginable size, and microphones on long metal arms to angle over their competitors.
Some people would kill for that kind of media attention.
Not Hank Cisco.
“I think they ought to put that case on an island so it doesn’t tie up traffic,” said Cisco, 93.
Cisco has lived in Norristown since childhood, worked as a Norristown cop for decades, and is now in his 12th year as appointed — but unpaid — ambassador of the beleaguered borough.
He loves his hometown.
But as the poorest municipality in one of Pennsylvania’s biggest, richest counties, Norristown is a place that just can’t get ahead of its dodgy reputation, he said.
Cisco, like others in the 34,500-resident borough, doesn’t think a two-week celebrity trial will do much to help Norristown’s bottom line or its image, beyond the bump a few eateries ringing the courthouse at Swede and Airy streets might enjoy.
“I’d rather have a big musical or a big sporting event capture the attention of everybody, rather than a crime,” he said. “I don’t need crime. There used to be a comedian in New Jersey. I can’t remember his name. Very, very popular guy. And he’d say: ‘Oh Norristown. You can travel its circumference of three miles and never leave the scene of a crime!’ He was kidding, but Norristown has had the image of not being safe. We have a new chief of police, a lot of change, crime is down. But the perception is the perception, that crime is in Norristown, so we’re working on that.”
The immigrant community has helped lead a business resurgence, with countless ethnic eateries, salons, stores, and more popping up around town in recent years.
Mexican immigrant Elma Aranda opened a bodega called El Rincon de Mexico Market 20 years ago on what was then a gritty, graffiti-covered stretch of Marshall Street. Since then, she expanded to open a restaurant of the same name next door. Most storefronts for blocks on either side boast immigrant-owned businesses.
Aleksandra Eigen, who emigrated from Poland, opened a coffee shop called Coffee Talk on Marshall Street, after a brief stint in the suburbs.
“We had bought a beautiful suburban home on an acre, with a swimming pool. It was the American dream — and it was so boring! The suburbs are the incubator for sociopaths: You have your own garden, your own park, but you hate everyone who steps on your grass,” Eigen said, who moved into Norristown in 1995. “There’s a lot to do in Norristown. It’s not only [people on] welfare. I love it. It’s a beautiful town, with a history. We are located in the most wonderful place, where we have access to the river, the parks, the highways.”
Cisco agreed: “Norristown is like a beggar sitting on a pot of gold. We have everything here. We’re the county seat, we got the riverfront, we got transportation, we got the courthouse. When I started as a policeman in 1951, we had 12 schools, we had the YMCA and the YWCA, we had a lot of things that aren’t here now. Lower Merion took away our businesses. Even the prison moved out of town. But little by little, we’re coming back.”
Still, Norristown is a place where progress proves the old saying “two steps forward, one step back,” some merchants agree.
While Marshall Street blooms with business, for example, sales are sagging because deportation fears have scared some shoppers away, Aranda said.
And parking meters installed several years ago have also dented business — and even drove Eigen to close up shop in 2011.
“You are not making money when you are selling coffee if you’re not Starbucks,” Eigen said, adding that the parking meters were her tipping point.
Eigen opened an artists’ co-op, gallery, and bed-and-breakfast in her coffeehouse. And that’s the only reason she looks forward to the Cosby case this month: The courtroom sketch artist Christine Cornell is staying with Eigen during the trial.
“I really don’t care about this, watching somebody so old in such a horrible situation,” Eigen said of Cosby’s criminal troubles. “This is just kicking somebody who is already down, so I have no interest in this.”