ArtsLehigh is happy to welcome a Kristen to the site. She’s writing on assignment throughout the summer. But we don’t want to say anything more – she does a fine job introducing herself. We hope you like to read about her perspective. We believe her reflections gives us all something to think about.
It never occurred to me to educate myself about the city in which I was going to college. You see, it’s easy to ignore Bethlehem when you are studying at Lehigh University. Even easier, when you play basktball there too. During my fives years of being a student-athlete, I often felt resentment towards the South Side. I never got the warm-and-fuzzy feeling, and so I never returned it. Maybe this is an elitist attitude that most students and professors unknowingly have toward Bethlehem, not wanting to be bothered by a city that’s trying to make a come-back. There are other, more important priorities to give your attention to. Everything is too comfortable up on the hill, sitting physically higher than the place it overlooks. And let’s not forget that Lehigh is an institution founded on tradition and excellence.
That same model is what made Bethlehem Steel a powerhouse in the industry. But its reluctance to change also led to its downfall. Pay attention, Lehigh community. Just because it always was, doesn’t mean it needs to be. I’m talking about the giant gap between the people who learn and profess at the university and the people who live and work in the city of 75,000. As a student, I have felt this estranged relationship. As a graduate, I am trying to do something about it.
Last weekend, I moved out of my studio apartment on West Packer. Certain that I would not miss anything that I was leaving behind, something still was pulling inside of me. I realized I would be leaving an entire experience behind me, a missed opportunity to share time with Bethlehem. And now I was leaving for good. Or so it seemed. During my fifth year at Lehigh, I pursued a second degree in English (my first is in Journalism) and completed a creative writing thesis in poetry. But as great as that sounds, I had spent the majority of the year looking for other like-minded creatives like myself. I discovered zero. Trying to share my poetry with my teammates was a disaster I had learned a long time ago. The clique-ish groups in Drown Hall were hard to track down and few and far between. It just seemed that creativity was not something valued by anyone at Lehigh. Until I discovered ArtsLehigh the day before I moved out of Bethlehem. It might be a shame that I hadn’t known about it sooner, but it could also be a saving grace and a second chance for me to explore a city that I had written off a long time ago.
I recently read an article by New York Times writer Mark Bittman, called “Imagining Detroit.” Though on different scales of struggle, Detroit and Bethlehem have some similarities. First, the cities themselves were both heavily dependent upon a giant industrial company, whether it be cars or steel. During its prime, Bethlehem Steel was No. 8 on the Fortune 500 list in 1955, supplying metal for every bridge and tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. Not to mention their steel built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and 1,127 battleships during WWII. Second, they have faced hardship and struggle when those companies went under. Bethlehem Steel had lost the contract to build the monumental Twin Towers in The World Trade Center, NYC while small subcontractors had found the niche of using cheaper, imported steel from China and won the contract. By 2002, Bethlehem Steel dropped to No. 440 on that same Fortune 500 list. Third, these cities have been on the road to recovery for quite some time, just now making some tangible progress. Detroit is returning to food markets and gardening while Bethlehem is stepping up is arts and entertainment scene with the newly constructed SteelStacks Center. In short, they are being innovative by being creative.
Now that I have a better understanding of how great this city once was, I have a deeper sense of sympathy for the people who live here. Tragedy struck and left its mark. Lehigh sat up on its hill and remained rich while the students took on the excuse of Before My Time. But if any change is going to be made, understanding the history of where things come from is crucial. Being a part of the conversation is just a small step toward being a part of the solution. ArtsLehigh has been doing this for years, mostly without the help of the students whom they represent. And so my hope for this summer is to get involved, be creative, learn from the city, and offer my experiences through writing and photographs. Telling a story is all about the process, the narrative arch. Change happens here.