My little Jenkintown

In April of last year, the website of the National Geographic published a glowing piece by Marguerite Del Giudice about Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. The piece compared it to Mayberry, citing its pleasant peculiarities such as the “Color Day” festivities, and its happy, tiny school system. People do seem to outwardly love this town. When I moved here in 2002, I had in some ways achieved a life-long goal: To live in a traditional, walkable community with easy access to a very busy passenger rail system.

Fourth of July in Jenkintown
Fourth of July in Jenkintown

Situated just to the north of Philadelphia, Jenkintown residents can hop a train at the historic train station and hop off in Center City a half hour later. In contrast, driving adds at least fifteen minutes and parking fees to your trip. As someone who has promoted such a lifestyle for so long, I could finally boast my bona fides as a sustainable development advocate. I was living the dream, brother.

Unlike my years living in Worcester, Massachusetts, I didn’t get all that involved in town politics for the first decade or so. Jenkintown seemed to do just fine without me. The borough had just completed a downtown beautification, it had a highly rated school system, and though it had a struggling commercial district, one could easily point the finger at the Dark Lords of PennDOT who converted Old York Road, our main drag, into a veritable four-lane expressway with an unenforceable speed limit. No small downtown thrives against such an onslaught of traffic.

Jenkintown had just completed a lovely new town square with gazebo (a small block off from Old York Road), and staged more downtown events than you could shake a stick at. I often boasted to non-residents of the amazing variety of housing types — everything from classic Philadelphia-style row houses to grand Victorians, all well-preserved single family homes. What’s not to love?

The Borough Manager has a knick-name?

Jenkintown Borough Hall
Jenkintown Borough Hall

The very first sign of trouble came early. My wife and I had purchased her childhood home from her late mother’s estate. We got a good deal, so we took out a mortgage that allowed us to renovate the place, giving it a much needed kitchen upgrade and second bathroom. During construction, my discussions with the contractor lead to stories about doing work in Jenkintown.

At one point in the conversation, he referred to our-now-former Borough Manager as “Uncle Ed”. I did a double take.

“Uh oh,” I winced. “You have a knick-name for the Borough Manager?” Our contractor and his employees all chuckled and rolled their eyes. Our guy then told the story of how Ed Geisler seemed to have a problem with one particular homeowner, refusing them their necessary permits for a home-improvement project. The battle went on for months if not years, eventually landing in court. Despite the money spent on legal fees, Geisler wouldn’t budge. Finally, Borough Council had enough and ordered Uncle Ed to stop the nonsense.

This is classic small town bullshit, I thought to myself. Don’t piss off Uncle Ed, or you can forget that new bathroom. I heard other stories about the guy as well. Pretty much everyone we met in town had one or heard one, too.

We have a new Borough manager incidentally, but we still have those stories.

Peeking under the concrete

downtown jenkintown
Downtown Jenkintown

Most people have some complaint about where they live and can cite many ordinances or fees they consider ridiculous. It comes with the territory. Local governments must be accountable and balance their books. Sometimes, the history behind those fees and permits gets lost in time. Towns can’t just print money to pay bills. Any opportunity they seize to impose a fee seems reasonable to Borough Hall, but that’s typically the case everywhere, and we can’t escape that, can we?

Jenkintown’s Borough Council consists of twelve all-volunteer members, which to me sounded a little excessive for a town with a population of only 4400, but hey, they work for free. The majority of them belong to the Democratic party, which you might expect considering the Borough resides well within the solidly blue zone on the southeast end of the state, book-ending what everyone refers to as Pennsyl-tucky. Democrats do well here.

If you plant stakes in one place long enough, you get to know it intimately. If you own a home and you want to do nice things to it, you start to know your town administrators by their first names, since there’s not too much you can do to improve your house without getting their signatures on a piece of paper.

Want to plant a tree? That’s ten dollars. Take one down? That’s twenty. We had to apply for a permit to place a shed in our backyard, replacing a dilapidated one of the exact same size on exactly the same location. Borough ordinance specifies sheds must lie at least five feet from the property line, and though I do own a tape measure, no matter. That was $35 and an on-site inspection.

If you own a business in Jenkintown, Borough Hall becomes a regular hang-out for you. There’s a tax rate on service businesses; another on retail and wholesale mercantile businesses; and on rental income. Then add a one-percent earned income tax, a $52 “local services” tax, and of course a hefty real estate tax if your business owns the property.

For residents, owners of a small home with 1500 square feet can expect to pay around $6,000 per year in real estate and school tax, which incidentally does not include trash pickup. For that, you pay an additional $172 per year (although the Borough will hand you free stickers with the recycling symbol to affix to a barrel of your choice).  Finally (I think), Jenkintown imposes $10 “per capita” tax for everyone in a household between 18 and 66.

Jenkintown's sidewalks: Publicly owned, privately maintained.
Jenkintown’s sidewalks: Publicly owned, privately maintained.

Actually, it doesn’t stop there. In our very walkable Borough, I believe every street has a sidewalk bordering it. The Borough falls in line with every other municipality in Pennsylvania and makes homeowners directly responsible for the physical maintenance of the sidewalk and the adjacent curb. If the Borough inspects your curb or sidewalk and cites damage, you must file for a permit ($25) to get it fixed, hire your own contractor, and pay out of pocket for the job. Pedestrian infrastructure maintenance does not fall under any kind of long-range, Borough-managed plan. If a citizen files a complaint about your sidewalk, you might come home to a big white “X” on your sidewalk block. Remember: You don’t actually own this property.

This policy doesn’t sound strange to Pennsylvania natives, because the Commonwealth adopted it during the Garfield administration, a time when only the wealthy owned urban property with a sidewalk in front of it. Many other states enforce similar rules, although not my home state of Massachusetts. There most towns with sidewalks assume responsibility for what is public property.

If for whatever reason you don’t have the money available to perform the fix, you face a fine of $185 per day. You can go to jail. The Borough makes no provision for hardship, this despite its majority representation belonging to a political party that ostensibly represents the “little guy”. The Borough once did the work themselves eventually and slapped a lien on your property for the cost, but no longer. You pay up or get out or go to jail, no matter that you’ve reliably paid your property tax since the day you moved in.

Gilding the lilly

Jenkintown High School
Jenkintown High School

Ms. Del Giudice’s article painted a lovely picture of the town, and for the most part, it rings true — especially if for those who earn Jenkintown’s median family income of $111,000 or more. At that level, a family has ample financial buffer against municipal tax and fee hikes, which while annoying, won’t trigger financial catastrophe. The author’s description of her home’s location indicates that her family fits this description.

Ms. Del Giudice’s article, and many others, have pointed to Jenkintown’s excellent school system, though calling it a system is a bit of a stretch. The district has a two-building campus with a student body of only 600. It ranks number 41 out of 500 in the state in testing, but it does spend $22,000 per pupil. By contrast, the number one district in Massachusetts — no slouch when it comes to education — spends $16,000 per pupil in a district about the same size.

What it doesn’t have includes a swimming pool, shop classes, computer labs, and other resources and activities available to students in larger school districts. In short, Jenkintown kids get a classic prep school education — its cost heavily subsidized by homeowners of all classes. If you have multiple kids in the system, you get more subsidy.

While this communal scheme has served us well in the past, today it shows signs of major stress. Wealthier communities typically get better schools, and wealthier communities tend to get even wealthier. The rising tide can’t work when the less wealthy have some very leaky boats.

Meanwhile, we have a Borough councilor, and a former teacher, expressing an opinion that we need to spend more on education, this despite the fact that Pennsylvania already ranks in the top-ten states for education spending. Where he wants this funding to come from is anyone’s guess. How many times can you gild the lily before it shines enough for you?

If one looks at who serves on the School Board, an independent, tax-levying entity, you’ll find most members there either serve in academia or maintain ties to it. One suspects that none of them need to dip into the grocery budget to cover the ever-increasing school tax levy.

Headwaters of rage

I suspect that in most communities, people will express a mix of fear of and disgust with their local government. Indeed, it has become quite fashionable to rage against the political machine these days. It’s why we have the Tea Party. It’s why we have Donald Trump. The outrage of the proudly ignorant has lead us all into very stormy political seas these past couple of decades, but if Tip O’Neil’s adage that “all politics is local” rings true, then so is the rage such politics can produce.

One of many housing types
One of many housing types

A family income of $110,000 per year is hardly wealthy in the grand scheme of things, but at the local level it provides plenty of insulation from the struggles of one’s lower-income neighbors on the other side of the hill. Once a family feels secure in their situation, has a retirement set up, and has provided for their children’s education, the last thing they want is a change to the status quo — no matter how solid the argument in its favor, or how obviously it might benefit them.

As mentioned above, Jenkintown’s housing types include row homes and their later offshoots, the twin, designed for blue collar workers. What’s left of Jenkintown’s working class still lives in those spaces and in the many tiny single-family homes, but I can only wonder for how much longer.

We have a school system that outsiders desire, but the cost of it will eventually shut out those who need it most. Also, the school district currently struggles to absorb the growing number of children who live in Beaver Hill, a large condominium complex which gives families ready, discount access to arguably the best school system in the region. Homeowners, many with no children at all, hold the bulk of the bag.

Pennsylvania does have a group campaigning hard to change this system by eliminating the school tax, and instead source education funds from the sales and income tax. In theory, this spreads the burden more evenly, and I see its merits. Even when I didn’t own a home, I thought property taxes were a dopey way to fund schools. Meanwhile debate rages between homeowners facing foreclosure on one side and the education industrial complex on the other.

Ms. Del Giudice’s article fails to describe any of this, of course. I doubt her editors wanted such a piece, but it paints a dangerously incomplete picture that omits those struggling to stay here and share in “that Jenkintown vibe”. This includes not only the blue-collar types, but many long-time residents on fixed incomes — some of those multigenerational types mentioned in the piece. I doubt she knows such residents, including the elderly couple on Rodman Street who this year face an $11,000 bill for sidewalk repairs. I’m sure she’d get an earful.

Shut up. Sit down.

hiway theater
Hiway Theater

People here don’t like to speak up, and if they do, they’re painfully polite about it. One resident speaking before Borough Council about his sidewalk repair experiences practically pulled a muscle trying not to complain about the policy. This despite how it forced them to delay replacement of their draft-riddled windows. “I guess my kids will have to put up with plastic on the windows for one more year,” he shrugged. The councilors all smiled and thanked him for stopping by.

The risk of becoming “that guy” runs high in this town. Speak out too loudly or too emotionally, and you risk becoming a pariah, even if all you foretell comes true and is backed up by hard facts. Hardships, other than health or major personal tragedy, brook little sympathy with residents, but you will get some extra “likes” on your Facebook page.

One might expect that in such a liberal enclave, as Ms. Del Giudice writes: “When bad things happen, we instinctively come together, like people most anywhere, I suppose. But here the experience feels magnified. Here, people are known individuals.” I hate to sound cynical, but that sounds like a quote from a real estate agent.

Indeed, we all have problems or already know people with them, and we only have so much empathy to go around. Nonetheless, we still want to believe we live in a real community, despite not understanding what that word truly means.

I applaud the spotlight shone on our little town of late. Besides the National Geographic piece, the show “The Goldbergs” is set in Jenkintown. Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper comes from here and frequents Fil-a-bagel when he visits his mom. We all feel validated from this attention.

We might want to remember that David Lynch’s movie “Blue Velvet” also took place in a bucolic small town. The opening scenes of the movie seemed to anticipate Ms. Del Giudice’s descriptions of Jenkintown.

Yet, under all that heart-warming imagery lies the inevitable politics, petty grudges, inertia, and pointless nonsense any truly accurate accounting should include. The pretty version makes residents feel all warm and fuzzy, but it does a great disservice to anyone thinking of moving here.