Apr 1, 2010

Double Down(Towns)


People often speculate as to why Bethlehem now is a destination, while, too often, Allentown is considered a place to avoid. The long answer will not fit within this short post, but here may be a few reasons. Bethlehem had two downtown's, on both sides of the river. While downtown Allentown certainly was the premier shopping area for the Lehigh Valley prior to the malls, it may have become a victim to over-planning. In the late 60's, early 70's, Allentown attempted to compete with the suburban malls by building a canopy on Hamilton Street. The viability of Hamilton Street was extended for a few years, but the magnetism of Hess's could well have been the reason. Bethlehem also built a pedestrian mall on Broad Street, but the historical quaintness of Main Street remained. Although the commerce in it's southside business district languished, the architecture remained. By the time Allentown removed the canopies in the late 90's, the architecture of it's buildings had long been bisected and altered. As historical became chic, Bethlehem profited from having done less in the past.

It's southside business district is a time capsule, architecturally unchanged since the turn of the last century. It now is becoming a mix of boutiques and bistros in a fashionable historic setting. Last, but not least, Bethlehem benefited from consistency of developmental leadership. While Allentown has had a succession of Economic Directors, Tony Hanna, with benefit of his institutional memory, has led Bethlehem for many years.

Shown at the top is pop up photo matches from the 1930's, promoting Julian Goldman's Fine Clothes For The Family on the South Side, East Third Street. Also shown is Tony Hanna, along side of the former Goodman Furniture Store.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike-

Bethlehem came pretty close to detroying its northside downtown back during the "period of overreaction" (1960 - 1980). Many older cities went into overdrive in an attempt to compete with suburban shopping centers. Some evidence still exists- the south side of West Broad between New and Guetter and the north side of West Broad, between Guetter and Main were bulldozed during this period. These were the first drastic moves in the attempt to remake the downtown per the grand plan presented by a major NY firm, paid for by Bethlehem Steel. The grand plan showed an entirely new downtown, an ambitious plan which would have seen the demolision of both sides of Main Street from Broad to Church, with possible exception of the Central Moravian Church. At the end of the day, cooler heads prevailed and historical preservationists and smart politicos decided that less is more. Instead of just tearing down the old buildings along Main Street, grants were received to make those quaint changes that we enjoy today. Main Street is the heart of the downtown because it is unique. How many American cities can boast of having four centuries of architecture within a four block stretch? Imagine a Main Street without the 18th century gem known as Sun Inn. As I recall, the haste that resulted in demolishing those parts of Broad resulted in two decades of vacant parcels and the loss of some buildings that should have been saved such as the Nile Theater. The Plaza Mall was a proven failure, but thankfully that was corrected only recently. Still, it is not fair to criticize leaders from that era for trying to stem what they percieved as the beginning of the end to their downtowns. Looking back, Bethlehem thrived because instead of trying to compete with malls, it decided to emphasize its uniqueness. Want proof? Take a look at that "lifestyle" center. It's a 21st century version of what Bethlehem, Easton and Emmaus already have!

I enjoy your historical blogs.


Mark from Bethlehem

michael molovinsky said...

mark, thanks for your informative comment. i have some connection with bethlehem; my mother grew up there and my aunt and uncle lived on s. new st. for a while. i remember the hot chestnut vendors there on the corners during the winter. the same uncle would come to own the globe theater years later, until a fire destroyed that landmark.

Anonymous said...

One adaption Bethlehem did make that Allentown did not was 378. This is the most under estimated, but most important one of all.

The naysayers in Allentown killed 178. The city never adapted to the transportation mode of the 20th century, the automobile.

Anonymous said...

A little more Bethlehem history:

Allentown was an extremely progressive city (in my view). Their Park & Shop program and the resulting infrstructure to support city parking proves that far-sighted leadership saw the writing on the wall regarding post WWII changes. They recognized the impact of cars and made appropriate moves starting in the 40's. Even the mall-ization of Hamilton Street (easy to criticize today) was a reasonable attempt to stem the tide of suburban shopping lure. Bethlehem has a downtown expressway link because of Bethlehem Steel. Steel decided it would build a grand corporate skyscraper in an then-suburban locale (8th and Eaton) on land it wisely purchased years earlier. They used their clout (considerable) to create a major intersecton where none previously existed. That was no accident that there was an entry/exit ramp a few meters away from the proposed Tower. Another case of "what was good for the Steel was good for the City" thinking.

Mark

NLVlogic said...

I'm convinced that the downfall of Allentown was precipated by the cruising ban, which brought all of us out of towners to center city. Not liking to so-called hot rodders, Allentown made Hamilton St one way and posted cops on the corner to count how many time any car passed by. Cruisers could only traverse the Street one time before getting stopped. They'd ask us what business we had in Town.
Today on the other hand, many shopping malls invite us. All grown up now, the car clubs meet monthly in trexlertown, and its a big event for the local stores. I'd like to recall the exact dates in the begining of Allentown's ban, cause the editorial in the paper then predicted the city's demise. A friend of mine had a resturant on Hamilton St, which quickly folded after the cruising ban.

Looking To Escape said...

People often speculate as to why Bethlehem now is a destination, while, too often, Allentown is considered a place to avoid
.
Many cities in the south can not claim old charm. Some have been purpose built for their new industrial citizens.
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Allentown's fall from grace has several causes and have been widely discussed in many columns.
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I did suggest Allentown start a program of tearing down some of the aged row homes in center city and replace them with new up to date housing that would appeal to higher income individuals.
Imagine what a sales point to help attract an operation like Google when the mayor can say we have NEW homes for your employees that are green powered, internet and modern entertainment ready with attractive green areas for your kids to play in and just walking distance from downtown restaurants.
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I suppose the connected parks will be a huge sales feature.

michael molovinsky said...

looking to escape, allentown did construct new houses around 8th and walnut. the demand was very limited. it was necessary for the builder to rent out the new completed houses which he couldn't sell, and let stand the foundations of others he started. certainly the housing market crashed, but that aside, living in mixed income neighborhoods is a social experiment that does not appeal to all.

Anonymous said...

Looking -

No higher income individuals will be drawn to Allentown because the homes are new. There is an ample supply of such homes in far more hospitable areas just across the city line.

If I might add one thing to MM's comment to you, it is that I believe the homes at 8th and Walnut even came with tax exemptions (courtesy of the KOZ's. Even then there was still limited demand for the homes.

Tearing down the homes is not the answer. For an amount far less than what the "new" homes cost, you could purchase, gut and furnish an existing home with whatever you want. And you recapture a charm that the suburbs cannot replicate.

However, until the voters of this city elect an administration that is willing to focus on the core issues of city government, Allentown will languish. Playing real estate developer with taxpayer cash gets more press, but this city needs the basics.

Adequate police protection, responding to quality of life issues, responsibly maintaining the city's infrastructure, controlling city spending and stopping the deterioration of our neighborhoods are far more important than the high-priced, low-return ventures this administration has undertaken.

I hope you were being sarcastic about the connected parks being a sales feature.

Looking To Escape said...


michael molovinsky:
looking to escape, allentown did construct new houses around 8th and walnut

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I have walked past that area many times. It was too small a development and left it low income rentals all around, which created a rose in the toilet bowl effect. Pretty poor planning.
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Mixed income neighborhoods are an awful idea, a product of feel good social engineering.
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Anonymous said...
Tearing down the homes is not the answer. For an amount far less than what the "new" homes cost, you could purchase, gut and furnish an existing home with whatever you want. And you recapture a charm that the suburbs cannot replicate.

.
Charm isn't a selling point to many. As I pointed out earlier, many southern towns are doing quite well without the 1880's charm of central Allentown. It's not about charm.
Keep in mind my idea is on a far larger scale which starts creating an environment. City money would be seed money in the hopes private developers may pick up the slack. These new homes could be built in the style of 1880's era homes.
.
I was being sarcastic about the connected parks.

Tony Hanna said...

Michael,

I just am catching up on my "blog reading," and saw your quite complimentary comments about my longevity in my position - three mayors and 12 years - as Director of Commmunity and Economic Development for the City of Bethlehem. Thanks for that.

I love Allentown, like you do, but I have to say that Bethlehem has been a pleasure to work in, despite the challenges. The biggest difference between Allentown and Bethlehem, having worked in both cities and lived in the Allentown my whole life, is that the middle class never left Bethlehem's downtown neigbborhoods, especially on the North Side. The creation of the Historic Bethlehem historic district in 1961, the first in the state, was a crucial move in helping to preserve the charm and ambiance that remains and thrives, not only on Main Street, but also in the neighborhoods around it.

While Allentown had equal if not better residential areas surrounding its downtown, attention wasn't paid to keeping the middle class in their homes and neighborhoods and they eventually fled, first to suburban parts of the City and second to the the suburbs outside of the City. The neighborhoods were backfilled with a different demographic and the homes owned and occupied by their owners became apartments and rentals adding to the destabilization. I could go on, but I am tired and still nursing a bad back and leg.

I would love to discuss a "Tale of Two Cities" sometime and perhaps we can do that. There are lots of reasons for Bethlehem's successess and I certainly don't rank high on that list. What is important is the high degree of commmunity patience and cohesiveness that just doesn't seem to exist in Allentown. Hope to have a chance to chat in the near future.

Tony

Resident of Allentown said...

Good observation NV Logic. I thought I was the only one who noticed how quickly center city Allentown went down hill after they shut down people cruising "the circuit". It seemed the officials liked the money it brought in but not the hassles. A lesson for others perhaps.

michael molovinsky said...

tony, i felt allentown's mistake with it's initial historic district was that it was simply too large, 25 square blocks. i was friendly with many of the first wave and they were spread out from 8th st. to 12th, linden to liberty. had the district started out perhaps with 5 square blocks, they could have created a nucleus, then expanded. as it turned out, they "almost" took over the 300 block of 8th, "almost" the 400 block of 9th, and that was the most success they had.

Bill said...

This is a really interesting blog and thread. I live in Allentown bit grew up in Bethlehem. There are some really good perspectives here!

An in depth "tale of two cities" blog piece sounds like a worthy effort.

Anonymous said...

Bill said...
This is a really interesting blog and thread. I live in Allentown bit grew up in Bethlehem. There are some really good perspectives here!

An in depth "tale of two cities" blog piece sounds like a worthy effort.

Forget the proposed 'blog piece.' Let's have a non-hyperbolic panel discussion someplace in the flesh. I'm tired of us 'anons' (lol) spewing in anonymity. lol I am sure MM can find a local college to host such an event and perhaps get a respected local journalist (I'm sure there's one out there) to moderate.

Anonymous said...

We would do well to defer to Tony Hanna on this issue. He is right on the money in my opinion when he states that communities tend to reflect their citizenry. The Allentown I remember (of my youth) was a city that worked. It was neat, orderly, clean, progressive, charming and successful. Today, sadly, it is none of those things. The maladies Allentown suffers today were a long time coming. Allentown's decline took longer than the similar urban decline suffered by other cities. Most cities began to see the demographic shift Tony points to beginning in 1950 or so. In cities like Wilkes Barre, Scranton, Reading, Camden, even Philly and Pittsburgh, we are talking about population declines of up to 50%! Allentown's population has not declined, but it has shifted. The outward migration of white, working/mid-class homeowning citizens has been "balanced" by an influx of increasingly poor, minority renters. The downtown businesses follwed suit, departing to greener pastures. Businesses usually follow the money. Suburban shopping centers cater to the new, wealthier neighborhoods and the cities suffer as a result. Cities rot from the inside out. Strong urban neighborhoods usually mean strong retail centers.

The Allentown freefall will continue until or unless something is done about the imbalance mentioned above.

Mark from Bethlehem

michael molovinsky said...

mark, as you may or may not know, in 2005 i addressed the issues you raise. I actually went one step beyond and explained why allentown became a poverty magnet, in many ways causing it's demise. my candor was called anything from politically incorrect to racist. if interested, you may click on the molovinsky for mayor window located on the right sidebar. unfortunately, as a city we continue down the same path.

Anonymous said...

Mike-

No I did not know that but am not surprised. Whatever you do, don't speak the truth if it can even remotely offend someone.

I meant to include this link - http://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/dept/planning_Zoning_Permits/walkability/AbbreviatedStudy.pdf

which is entitled "The City Livable: Modest Proposals for a More Walkable Downtown", by Jeff Speck. It also explores why one city is more successful than another.

Mark

michael molovinsky said...

mark, i regret that my comment blocks do not, for the most part, show links. it is an apple safari/blogspot issue. i say for the most part, because computer genius blogger LVCI establishes links, but i have no idea how.

Anonymous said...

Try this City of Bethlehem site, which links to the report. It has to do with "walkability".

http://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/dept/planning_Zoning_Permits/walkability/index.htm

Mark