An enduring Mennonite value emerges: New urbanism in Downtown Norristown

Cory Suter, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life

A new movement is emerging that I believe is at the heart of what it means to be Mennonite. Embracing the values of community and stewardship, New Urbanism is a set of ideas that builds on our heritage and provide hope for our future. It may or may not be a suprise that Mennonite Central Committee’s humble Crossroad Gift & Thrift in Norristown, PA, is a model enterprise.

For decades, cheap energy, and new technologies have enabled a mass expansion of asphalt and large homes across our countryside. Fueled by a desire for increased personal space, many people have left close-knit urban/village communities to live in sprawling suburbs. Farm and woodland, once a plentiful wealth of renewable resources, is disappearing. To get from one place to another, we generally burn a rapidly depleting resource in an automobile, which is built out of numerous resources strip mined from the earth. These trends are not sustainable long-term, since we rely on our land and natural environment for life. Is there a way to be better stewards?

As Mennonites have known for centuries, quality of life is found in good relationships, not material resource consumption. Mennonites have a rich history of striving to live in community, simplicity and a caring partnership with the earth. To promote these same values, the new urbanism movement calls for walk-able communities where people can enjoy the convenience of shopping, work, school and an outdoor park within walking distance of home. In these classic neighborhoods, people are not dependent on automobiles for their mobility. The more intimate physical proximity enables richer relationships than when individuals are isolated in a car on their daily commutes.

Walkable neighborhoods typically have multi-use buildings where people live above the stores and offices where they or others work. This strategic way to use land is better stewardship than consuming acres of land to build houses with garages separated by roads from an office building with a parking lot.

Suburbs have some benefits such as, providing space for trees, gardens, and hobbies. However, if there are better ways to be stewards of the earth and create community, then Mennonites should be leaders. In some places, we already are. Located in a historic building, in the walkable old community of Norristown, Crossroad Gift & Thrift shares a building with a second floor residence. An informal survey shows that over 80% of Crossroad Gift & Thrift’s customers come to the store as pedestrians without an automobile. Nearby public bus, train, and trolley transportation
have aided this trend. Nevertheless, in true urbanism fashion, more than half of regular customers
live within walking distance of the store.

This intimate connection to place has enabled Crossroad Gift & Thrift to build a unique community.
Many customers stop by the store multiple times a week to catch up on local news, find out the latest bargain, or to have a friendly chat. The line between customer and volunteer often blurs as people in the neighborhood are excited to help make their ‘home’ store a nicer place. In fact, four of our most regular volunteers are non-Mennonite Norristown community residents.

To further embrace the ideals of new urbanism, Crossroad Gift & Thrift is committed to be a good steward of our resources. Our retail space is tiny by modern standards, but that hasn’t stopped us from diverting a truckload of merchandise per week from local landfills into ‘new’ homes. Our secret of success has been to charge low prices on quality items, which gives our customers the dignity of greater purchasing power and increases our weekly sales volume. As some successful retailers have also discovered, we believe that it helps more people and makes sound business sense to make a little profit off a lot of items rather than to make a big profit off a few sales.

Rene & Cory.jpgA visit to one of Mennonite Central Committee’s examples of new urbanism is well worth the time. Crossroad Gift & Thrift is best experienced during community hours, 9:30am to 4:30pm, Monday through Saturday. We encourage the use of public transportation and walking, but will welcome anyone with a big smile.