Imagining Bethlehem – First post from new Blogger; Kristen Dalton

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.

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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.

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5 comments

  1. Kristen,
    Your story is like so many others who have passed their four and sometimes more years living in South Bethlehem and never really knowing South Bethlehem. What is happening here is transformational and I am thrilled to be a part of it. I’ve always said that some day they will be writing books about the Bethlehem transformation from a mighty steel town through despair and on to a diverse cultural and economical community. Perhaps you will be the one to write that book. Thanks for staying and enjoy the ride.
    Dale

  2. Kristen, welcome to Bethlehem. For YEARS we have been trying to connect Lehigh students with our community. We have failed miserably for the same reasons the student body has failed to appreciate us. Many of us have not appreciated them.

    Ironically, my daughter Kristen has a MFA in creative writing (poetry) from PSU’s Main campus. She teaches AP English at Easton High School after 5 years of college instructing, which is poverty wage. She took quite a few courses at LU and enjoyed them very much.

    As a member of the Mayor’s South Side Task Force for many years, I have had the privilege of watching Lehigh, ever so slowly, come down off the mountain to join us here in a renaissance of the south side. Former LU President Gregg Farrington had the vision to realize the importance the future of this once steel making capital of industry. He help usher in the partnerships that we are now nurturing with Lehigh and the many other partners involved here. President Alice Gast has taken up the mantle. Dale Kochard and Silagh White are close friends of mine who are just as excited as I am about future here. To me, LU is an integral partner in the future of this city. We are more than just an old steel town; as the Sands-Bethlehem Bethworks project rolls into Phase 2 there are still many more things to be done. NCC, Steel Stacks, NMIH, PBS 39, and of course the Sands Hotel cponvention center with a casino are slowly coming on line.

    But the real future of the city; the real job creator that will make take city into the next centure, the real reason for Lehigh stuidents to graduate and STAY, is the rest of the old Steel land down on LVIP 7 and the Majestic site closer to I-78. bethlehem WIll be a great place to work, live, and play. Out historic district on the north side of the river has always been reason to live here. Now there is so much more!

    I wholeheartedly welcome you to the wonderful renaissance.
    Roger

  3. Dale and Roger, thank you very much for the warm welcomes. It seems you both have seen the vision for transformation before anyone knew what it would become, and I am glad to be joining in. There is so much yet to be imagined!

  4. Kristen,
    Thank you. I find your article enlightening and refreshing. Your comment “It never occurred to me to educate myself about the city in which I was going to college” drew me to the rest of your excellent story.

    I teach in Bethlehem schools and I find the same disconnect tends to exist between my high school students and Lehigh. They initially view “the Hill” as an elitist community with little to offer them. In partnership with Bethlehem South Side Recreation we create grass root basic opportunities for them to feel ownership in their community, Bethlehem. Lehigh is an integral part of the Bethlehem community.

    You guys, (students, staff, infrastructure) are important to the vitality and strength of this City. I would venture to say that Lehigh did well in your educational process. I believe this to be true because an outcome you are sharing with us is a greater understanding of your global community. How cool is that?

    Life is rarely one dimensional. Sometimes, knowledge is merely incidental. For example, I am a huge Lehigh Basketball fan. And having gone to most Lehigh Women’s and Men’s home basketball games over the course of many years, I had no idea you were also a writer. Good luck in your endeavors. I believe your work and will enhance and encourage the fabric of this entire community.

  5. Kristen,
    Awesome. It always bothered me how little other LU kids got off campus – even if to get a cup of coffee at Deja Brew or to linger over a delicious meal at Blue Sky. In my last 3 years, I rarely went on campus for anything other than class and shows at Zoellner (and practice of course). But Bethlehem is lovely and I’m glad you know it and want others to as well. I miss is a lot and can’t wait to be there again. Such a good city.
    Court


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