For 10 weeks, Jeffrey A. Parks, founder of Musikfest, ArtsQuest and SteelStacks, has been sharing exclusive excerpts from his newly released book â€śStronger Than Steel: Forging a Rust Belt Renaissance.â€ť 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.
â€śPittsburgh (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.â€ť
This final excerpt is from Chapter 28 of â€śStronger than Steel,â€ť â€śBethlehem at 275.â€ť
Many factors have contributed to Bethlehemâ€™s success. Laying the groundwork was the visionary work of Bethlehem Steelâ€™s Hank Barnette and his team, who steered a dying company while planning for its host communityâ€™s survival. In 2016, Route 412, the four-lane boulevard that connects SteelStacks and LVIP VII with Interstate 78 and was part of Barnetteâ€™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 LVIPâ€™s previous parks combined. So much development within 20 years of Bethlehem Steelâ€™s closing is testament to the work of Barnette, LVIP, the Lehigh Valley Partnership, Northampton County, and others.
All this has meant that the economic fortunes of Bethlehem, and the South Side in particular, have soared. At the same time culture has flourished, lifted by the Banana Factory, SteelStacks, Godfrey Daniels Coffee House, Touchstone Theatre, Lehigh University, Lehigh Valley Charter Arts High School (opened in 2015), and a campus of Northampton Community College. Other signs of prosperity are the multiple facilities operated by St. Lukeâ€™s University Hospital; the Greenway Commons project of 200 apartment units, with first-floor retail, under construction on Third Street; and a six-story office and restaurant project across from the Banana Factory. Lehigh University has announced that it intends to increase its student body by 1,000 undergraduates and 500-800 full-time graduate students and plans to build housing for its expanded population closer to the retail district. The university, led by its new president, John Simon, is coming to the South Side development table. Like other colleges it realizes that its students want to be a part of a vibrant community.
Early in 2016 Mayor Robert Donchez announced a plan to place directional signs guiding visitors to and from Bethlehemâ€™s two retail districts, now known as the SouthSide Arts District and the Moravian Historic District. When completed, the wayfinding system will reinforce the distinctiveness of both parts of the city as cultural tourism, now attracting over 8 million guests to the city each year, continues to grow. In December the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that, through the efforts of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, the federal agency had placed Bethlehemâ€™s Moravian National Historic District on the U.S. Tentative List for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Just a week later a group representing UNESCO stopped in Bethlehem to visit SteelStacks. Group members were familiar with Volklinger Hutte in Germany, the former steel plant that already is a World Heritage site, and were impressed with SteelStacks. Is it possible that one small city could have two World Heritage sites?
ArtsQuest continues its mission of community development. With the support of two generous donors, the organization has hired a director of education, Lisa Harms, who connects the arts and ArtsQuestâ€™s community resources with Kâ€“12 education throughout the region. ArtsQuest is working with school districts on a variety of arts-related programs. In early 2017 it partnered with the American Society of Civil Engineers to bring more than a thousand students from five school districts and two private high schools to SteelStacks to see the movie â€śDream Bigâ€ť and to discuss with engineers a career in the field. Harms says the area needs an arts preschool program and foresees establishing one at the Banana Factory, among other opportunities.
Although hot weather held down attendance for half of Musikfest 2016, Christkindlmarkt had record attendance, perhaps because the weather was warmer than usual. The Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas set a monthly attendance record in December 2016 by topping its previous best by 20 percent. Musikfest CafĂ© Presented by Yuengling also set a record for attendance and revenue, with shows across the spectrum of contemporary music and comedy. With these program successes, the leaders of ArtsQuest are hoping to move forward with renovating the 26,000 square feet of the former Bethlehem Steel Turn and Grind Shop, which is adjacent to the SteelStacks Visitor Center. The renovated building would provide indoor space for festivals at SteelStacks and for educational exhibits, sculpture shows and the latest hot form of entertainment, the cirque. ArtsQuest also is rethinking the Banana Factory after almost 20 of deferred maintenance and tremendous program growth.
The visibility of the arts impresses visitors to Bethlehem. One eye-catcher is ArtsQuestâ€™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 â€” 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. Bethlehemâ€™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 Instituteâ€™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.
As Jeffrey Parks decided to create his own company to publish his book â€śStronger than Steel,â€ť 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 Universityâ€™s Alma Mater which he learned as a student.
â€śWhere the Lehighâ€™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.â€ť
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.