Anglican Theological Review
By Patrick Malloy
Professor, General Theological Seminary NYC
Rector, Grace Allentown.
The current “great recession” has had an impact on Allentown, Pennsylvania, just as it has on every city in the world. Well before the days of Bernie Madoff and subprime mortgages, though, Allentown and the other cities of the Lehigh Valley were navigating an economic tragedy.
The driver of the Lehigh Valley’s economic fortunes was the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. It was headquartered in a twenty-onestory building, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley by only eight feet, but that was enough to dispel any doubts about who dominated the economy. Its research center and executive dining room sat clearly visible on the highest mountain in the Valley, a looming reminder of the power that controlled the destiny of nearly every person below. And there below, deep in the crevice between the hills, was the plant that produced the steel that made Bethlehem and its neighboring cities thrive. Allentown was one.
The Bethlehem Steel plant was the largest factory in the world, and they say it glowed red in the night and lit up the sky for miles. It is empty now and decrepit except for one small corner that has become a Sands Casino. So grand are the buildings that they are striking even in their rusted decay. The mountaintop building has been absorbed by Lehigh University, and the office building stands dark and empty, towering against a sky no longer bright with the furnaces’ fire. The fate of many who once worked for Bethlehem Steel is like the fate of the company’s real estate. So is the fate of many of their descendants. So, too, is the fate of many of the people who moved into the homes of the workers who made the steel. As they chased faraway jobs, their once grand houses were divided into makeshift apartments, while “outsiders,” who brought with them problems that the Lehigh Valley had never known, resettled the neighborhoods. Center City Allentown, more than any other place in the Lehigh Valley, fell apart.
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