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Their arts in the right place: Diverse Norristown is determined to reinvent itself as a cultural center

WHEN NORRISTOWN Municipal Administrator David Forrest went to see Theatre Horizon's rendition of "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)" last winter, he thought he was just out to support local artists and absorb a little culture. Little did he know that, a year later, Norristown would be preparing to launch a full-scale arts district.

WHEN NORRISTOWN Municipal Administrator David Forrest went to see Theatre Horizon's rendition of "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)" last winter, he thought he was just out to support local artists and absorb a little culture. Little did he know that, a year later, Norristown would be preparing to launch a full-scale arts district.

"There's a story that we need to tell, and we need to get it out there to attract people to this area," Forrest said recently.

It's the story of how Norristown, a fading industrial town (and the Montgomery Count seat) on a rusty bend of the Schuylkill, has found a new vitality and a mission to reinvent itself through the arts.

"This is an asset we've got that we haven't really, until now, promoted," Forrest said of the Arts Task Force that was formed around the Montgomery County Cultural Center that Theatre Horizon and two other troupes, the Centre Theater and the Iron Age Theatre, call home.

Arts-driven revitalizations are nothing new. Philadelphia is surrounded by suburban towns, from West Chester to Ambler, that have found new life through an infusion of culture. And many county seats - Bucks County's Doylestown, West Chester in Chester County and Delaware County's Media - have reinvented themselves with boutique shops and destination restaurants as well.

But now it's Norristown's turn.

Through the support of the municipal government, the arts community and local residents, Norristown is hoping to put itself on the map - a colorful, lively and daring map.

"Norristown is yearning for a glorious past it had in the '50s and '60s when it was a shopping mecca," Erin Reilly of Theatre Horizon said recently. "People from the Main Line and King of Prussia and the 202 corridor would come here to see movies, go to restaurants, go shopping. Norristown is looking to restore Main Street to its former glory."

Theatre Horizon wants to help.

Before rooting itself at the Centre Theater on Dekalb Street a year ago, the group - founded in 2005 by Reilly and co-artistic director Matthew Decker - performed on random stages, in frog-filled parks and even in a pub.

The company's current production, continuing through Jan. 3, is "Holiday Show," a musical set in a fictional jazz club on New Year's Eve 1949. (See sidebar.)

"It's really important for a theater company to have a home," said Reilly, who lives nearby in the Roxborough section of Philly.

Reilly and Decker have taught acting at Montgomery County Community College, and they have an educational component to Theatre Horizon that includes a summer drama camp and the Autism Drama Outreach Program, which pairs autistic children with local actors to develop communication skills.

"By calling Norristown our home," Reilly said, "we've been able to have a place where audience members can come back to again and again.

"What we're doing is a no-brainer," she said. "It's been done in Ambler, Phoenixville, Old City [Philadelphia]. These are all old industrial towns that revitalized around the arts. The Media Theatre acted as the linchpin of that revitalization, and Ambler has really turned around because of two theaters [the Ambler Theater movie house and the Act II Playhouse]."

The view from the hill

"Norristown Arts Hill," announced Gene Frank, Norristown resident and member of the Norristown Arts Task Force. "We have a name. Norristown Arts Hill has arrived."

After seeing "Wllm Shkspr" last year, Forrest contacted Reilly, and last summer, the Arts Task Force was launched. It's been meeting every two weeks and includes members of the area arts community such as Matt Conant of Project Twenty1, an organization for filmmakers, and Nancy DeLucia of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, as well as Forrest, and Norristown Councilman Bill Caldwell and Business Development Coordinator Gabriela Prete.

The task force has been identifying potential spaces for use as studios, galleries and cafes in the Norristown Arts Hill district, which runs along Dekalb Street from Lafayette to Marshall.

Arts Hill will be launched officially during a celebration of the arts planned for April 23-24.

"In any revitalization that has happened anywhere the arts have been a critical piece and we are going to be no different," Caldwell said. "It's our opportunity to put ourselves on the map."

Added Frank, "Norristown is making a statement by choosing to create this cultural district. We want people to come here. We want people to shop here. We want people to eat here. We want them to come to our arts and cultural events. We want them to live here and we want Norristown to finally be a destination town."

The town should be attractive to creative businesses because of its proximity to public transportation (SEPTA's Norristown Transportation Center got a new, 522-car garage last year), inexpensive real estate and diverse community, its supporters say.

"The tough thing is getting people from other towns to visit Norristown and have a reason to stay and shop," Prete noted over a cup of coffee at Maddy's on Main. "A lot of people just come for the courthouse, and it's a shame because there are things that they are missing."

It's their town

Larry Hollander may live in West Norriton, but he's been plugged into the Norristown community for the past 25 years as the owner of a thrift store on West Marshall Street.

Larry's Thrifty Shoppe is one of the many casual meeting places for the local population on this bustling street near Arts Hill.

"It's a small community - completely diverse," Hollander said when asked why he loves Norristown. "It's finally building up to where it should be. It's a wonderful town."

The West Marshall Street retail corridor starts just past the Cigar Factory residential lofts at Astor Street and ends at the Sneaker Villa at Kohl Street. The sidewalks are dotted with more than 100 Mexican restaurants, Latino markets, specialty stores and salons as well as a tasty new Dominican spot called Miledy's Kitchen.

Norristown has a population of about 31,000. About 50 percent of the residents are African-American, but there are also significant Latino, Korean and Jamaican populations.

"Here is Norristown: You see not only one community, but all the communities," Abdourahamane Barry, a Guinea native, said as he stopped in at Coffee Talk across the street from Larry's. "A lot of communities meet here."

"I love it here," added Aleksandra Eigen, co-owner of Coffee Talk with her husband, Joel. "Diversity first. There is economical voluntary gatherization. It's great to be liberal enough to accept all the economic levels, and Norristown does that."

An immigrant from Poland, Eigen added, "A side of Norristown that I absolutely adore is that it reminds me of Europe in many ways. We choose to live on commercial streets. We have stores across the street - we practically have no need for a car. We have public transportation, river, parks, access to the highways. It's fantastic living. People have dreams about cities like this because of the history and heritage."

Michael Rotondo and his wife, Liz, moved to a quiet neighborhood in Norristown when they got married. Thirty-seven years later, having raised three kids there, they still call the 400 block of West Fornance Street home.

"I grew up in Conshohocken," said Liz Rotondo, a teaching assistant for kids with autism. "And when I was young, our big thing was to come to Norristown on the weekends and shop."

Added her husband, "People from all over would come to Norristown [in the 1960s]. There used to be hundreds and hundreds of stores. There was a time on a Friday or Saturday where you could hardly walk down the sidewalk on Main Street it was so crowded. It was magnificent!"

Times changed, but the Rotondos' affection for their town never wavered.

"We've always loved this neighborhood and we've always had hope for Norristown," said Liz Rotondo. "Things aren't moving quite as quickly as we had hoped they would, but it seems like they are going in the right direction now."

Added Michael Rotondo, "I think young people tend to go where the arts are. If we get that first, then it can draw younger people back into the neighborhoods. Can you imagine with the [Elmwood Park] zoo and the park and the creek? And now you have theater and the arts . . . Can you imagine? I think it would be fantastic!"