Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bethlehem: A Tragedy Unfolding

I have tried, and will continue to try, to keep anything that could be dismissed as "politics" out of this blog. This is bound to be thought of as the exception--yet, when I see what seems to me to be a tragedy of massive proportions unfolding before my eyes, I have to do what little I can against it.
The tragedy can be summed up this simply: the historic little city of Bethlehem, a place encapsulating three plus centuries of American history and tradition, is being sacrificed on the altar of "profits without honor." The spiritual tradition of the Moravian founders, the ethnic variety of the peoples of the South Side, the vision of great industrialists, all of this is on the chopping block. And the would-be executioners seem to be working faster and faster.
It began many years ago, with the once-independent South Bethlehem. Little store was set by the residents of this neighborhood. Their opinions did not matter, since they were believers in the wrong religions and came from the wrong national origins. A whole municipality--Northampton Heights--was wiped out because Bethlehem Steel found it inconvenient. Lehigh University destroyed a neighborhood which stood in the way of its expansion.
Since those days Steel has died, and the ethnic mix of the South Side has changed dramatically--though one thing has never changed: South Siders, whoever they happen to be, continue to be thought of as the source of most of the city's problems. And a second, related development is this: the neighborhood itself has continued to be thought of as no-account. A prominent local historian has established that, over the past two decades, between 120 and 130 buildings have been demolished there. Some of these, like architect Albert W. Leh's masterpiece that ended its existence as Broughal School, were truly important, not only in themselves, but to the culture of the entire city.
It is as if Bethlehem's South Side were a mine, not a neighborhood.
There doubtless are old-line residents, never reconciled to Bethlehem's cultural diversity, who have viewed these doings with indifference, or--sometimes--with downright hostility. After all, in essence it has only been the South Side, right?
Only now it isn't any longer. A wooded hill that once shaded the root cellars of Colonial (north side) Bethlehem has been demolished and replaced by a huge, unbelievably ugly college dormitory in pseudo-Early American style. This aberration has been perpetrated by Moravian College itself. Planned diagonal parking spots on historic Main Street's lower end--which, if they are built, are scheduled to make questionable use of Federal Community Block Grant funds--are being ramrodded by the Bethlehem City Government.
On the South Side, the chief "miner" seems to be ArtsQuest, which has absorbed the city's once-innocuous and beautiful Musikfest. The evolution of this organization proves that it is possible to give even music a bad name. So far ArtsQuest has taken out at least one historically important building on the former Bethlehem Steel site. It has also made it clear that the small businesses in the South Side business district are fair game for its cutthroat brand of competition. Just like Leviathan in the fish bowl.
Why am I telling you this? Because we have thought for years that it couldn't happen here--but it is happening. If you too live in an old and cherishable place, get ready to fight. And to bleed. And to lose a lot.
If you MUST lose, lose everything but hope.

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