Jun 1, 2023

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 its southside business district languished, the architecture remained. By the time Allentown removed the canopies in the late 90's, the architecture of its 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.

reprinted from April 1, 2020

ADDENDUM JUNE 1, 2023: Because of the NIZ, Allentown's former mercantile district has transformed into an urban office park, complete with new company housing for the office workers. Like an office park owned by one entity, downtown Allentown is now also essentially owned by one person, and it looks it. I do not believe that Allentown can ever again become a destination, it simply has no atmosphere.


  1. You can't underestimate the benefit of the regional school system (Bethlehem, Fountain Hill, Bethlehem Township and Hanover Township) and how in-city residents have access to excellent public schools. Bethlehem residents never had to flee to the suburbs to escape unsafe and deteriorating quality public schools. Maintaining their base of homeowners and having a high quality of life has really given Bethlehem an edge over Allentown. I'd argue as well that Bethlehem has been less victimized by bad local politicians, where Allentown is still suffering from terrible political decision making (i.e. rental conversions, police pensions etc.).

  2. Unless one is a fan of metal and glass buildings the downtown is not your relaxation destination. Cozy, charming, relaxing,...one can find these qualities in Bethlehem and Easton, not in the NIZ.

  3. People never really were attracted to the Hamilton Street Mall. The canopys and wide sidewalks were not the attraction of going there. It was the stores that drew people to shop there. It was the Whitehall and especially the Lehigh Valley Mall, with the acres of free parking and the controlled indoor environments that drained the shoppers from Hamilton Street. LANTA provided the busses from Allentown to Whitehall, and the Plaza as well as the LVM movie complex emptied the movie theaters on Hamilton. Then the criminal element moved in as city government encouraged the dependent class from larger cities to move to Allentown. The 20-year difference between 1975 and 1995 altered Allentown forever. Bethlehem also suffered from the flight to the suburbs by the retailers, but somehow did not see the sea change of its population fleeing to the townships by the importation of the dependent class. It also did not destroy its former commercial district like Allentown did, turning it into a grand office park with its own company housing. Boutique shops in an alley and relying on bars and expensive restaurants will not replace the former retail district in an age of online shopping. Especially when the criminal element, which is worse than it ever was before 1975 looms over the city like a dark grey cloud thanks to the foresight of community leaders who imported the dependent classes, giving Allentown issues it simply did not have before 1975. Also a uniformity of government it also did not have in its past, when diverse policies were the rule. Today one political party holds all elected offices in the city with little chance of any opposing views being heard.

  4. A good summary of the history of Hamilton Street. Sadly, planners misjudged the social changes in Allentown. Allentown didn’t do enough to encourage redevelopment 40 years ago. Educated, white, suburban-raised boomers didn’t want grandma’s house in town. They were happy to sell it at a bargain rate to someone who would throw in a couple more sinks and stoves and rent out three apartment flats in a row house, because in Allentown you could rent out almost anything as an apartment to new Americans. The neighborhoods were disseminated, and the burbs flourished. Allentown could have learned from other cities going through similar problems, like Lancaster and Baltimore, who worked to maintain neighborhoods and redevelop by offering incentives to bring owner-occupants back in town. Renters don’t save neighborhoods.

  5. 8:03am and 9:53am Good Commentary and summary observations, on what has happened to our once beautiful City,. It starts with City Hall, and on Council, giving away all the "freebees" Which the "slumlords" encourage and add too......PJF

  6. Finally the truth has been spoken