Saturday, 24 October 2020

Musikfest founder Jeffrey Park’s ‘Stronger Than Steel’ excerpts: Bethlehem’s renaissance

For 10 weeks, Jeffrey A. Parks, founder of Musikfest, ArtsQuest and SteelStacks, has been sharing exclusive excerpts from his newly released book “Stronger Than Steel: Forging a Rust Belt Renaissance.” The book chronicles the development of Musikfest, Christkindlmarkt and the Banana Factory during the period when Bethlehem Steel was failing; the emergence of the Lehigh Valley as a region, and the transformation of the empty Bethlehem Steel plant into LVIP VII, Sands Casino Resort and SteelStacks.

“Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Cultural Trust) and Bethlehem (Musikfest) began using arts strategies for revitalization in 1984, followed by Philadelphia in the 1990s (Avenue of the Arts). The outcome of combining arts strategies with more traditional development strategies as Bethlehem, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have done is revealed in charts in the book: Of the 18 cities in Pennsylvania with a population more than 20,000 in 2016, Bethlehem is one of two cities in Pennsylvania with a population greater than it had in 1950 (the other being Allentown); Bethlehem has the highest median household income, highest median residential property value and the lowest poverty rate of those 18 cities! And most important in terms of community viability, Bethlehem is third, behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, in the percentage of residents aged 25-34 with college or graduate degrees. Arts strategies are now being used by other cities including Lancaster and Easton, with stunning success in the last 10 years. In 2016 as it was celebrating the 275th anniversary of the founding of the city, Bethlehem was experiencing a renaissance that bodes well for its future.”

This final excerpt is from Chapter 28 of “Stronger than Steel,” “Bethlehem at 275.”

Many factors have contributed to Bethlehem’s success. Laying the groundwork was the visionary work of Bethlehem Steel’s Hank Barnette and his team, who steered a dying company while planning for its host community’s survival. In 2016, Route 412, the four-lane boulevard that connects SteelStacks and LVIP VII with Interstate 78 and was part of Barnette’s check list, opened after much delay. Representatives of the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park announced that a Candlewood Suites Hotel would occupy a prominent spot along the thoroughfare. LVIP also reported that only eight industrial lots remained for sale on the former Bethlehem Steel property and that it was marketing 19 commercial lots along Route 412. LVIP VII, with over $100 million in infrastructure development, is bigger than all of LVIP’s previous parks combined. So much development within 20 years of Bethlehem Steel’s closing is testament to the work of Barnette, LVIP, the Lehigh Valley Partnership, Northampton County, and others.

The visibility of the arts impresses visitors to Bethlehem. One eye-catcher is ArtsQuest’s hot glass studio, a gamble when it was developed because of its expense and trickiness to run safely but today a major draw. On the first Friday of each month guests swing to a live band playing on the studio floor as teams of glassblowers create a special sculpture for the evening. Everyone, from 12-year-olds in the ArtSmart afterschool program to high-powered white-collar professionals looking for a creative way to relieve stress, flocks to the studio.

When locals are entertaining guests, they now have many choices — a live concert or a festival most days of the year, art galleries, a tour of the former steel plant, art house films, or an evening walk for a drink at a craft distillery, dinner at a speakeasy with 1920s music, or dessert at a fine Italian restaurant. They can top off the evening at a concert by local artists against the backdrop of the illuminated blast furnaces. Bethlehem’s robust arts scene sets it apart, as visitors soon discover. Many return frequently or even become residents.

In 2017 the Rudy Brunner Foundation announced that SteelStacks had won the Rudy Brunner Award for Urban Excellence, putting Bethlehem alongside Boston and San Francisco as the only cities in the United States to host a project that has won both the Brunner award and the Urban Land Institute’s Global Award for Excellence. Since its inception Bethlehem has welcomed diversity, creativity, and enterprise. Volunteers, public officials, entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists, educators and community members continue to work together and succeed because, in acting together, they are indeed stronger than steel.

Rocky Rapids Press

As Jeffrey Parks decided to create his own company to publish his book “Stronger than Steel,” he wanted to give it a name that related to the story of the renaissance of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that is told in the book. When he found that the obvious place-related names of the city and the Lehigh Valley region were taken, he resorted to something less obvious, the lyrics of Lehigh University’s Alma Mater which he learned as a student.

“Where the Lehigh’s rocky rapids rush from out the west

Mid a grove of spreading chestnuts, walls of ivy dressed.

On the breast of old South Mountain, reared against the sky,

Stands our noble Alma Mater, stands our dear Lehigh.”

The non-navigable river flows through the city, divides its two distinct downtowns and during most of the year is so low that canoeists must work to avoid the outcropping rocks, particularly in the area that abuts the former Bethlehem Steel plant. Thus, Rocky Rapids Press was born.


« »