Harrisburg is really into public art. I’ve mentioned before that they are a city that turns everyday objects into works of art. I’ve shared my reflections on a sculpture that fascinated me. I’ve also shared posts of the remaining pieces from their Cow Parade. On a recent trip to the city, I went searching for more cows based on the sightings someone posted from 2019. In the process, I stumbled across ducks! I found 3 of the 15 ducks that popped up in Harrisburg in 2019. (I also received confirmation that the stray dinosaur I found on a previous trip to the city was from their version of Dino-Mite Days that happened in 2018.) Below are the ducks I found on this trip. I’ll share the “new” cows that I encountered in future posts.
While wandering around Rutland, Vermont’s third largest city coming in at around 16,000 residents, I found a bridge. Naturally, I walked across it. The bridge connects the worker housing on the flats to the cultural/civic center on the slope beyond which are the wealthier residences. In addition to overcoming the obstacle of the elevation change, the bridge spans the remnants of the formerly extensive rail yard much of which has been converted to a shopping center.
There was also a railroad bridge near the other end of the shopping center. By the time I found this bridge I was hungry, overcome by the humidity, and over a mile from where I was staying. A little farther on were some creeks that probably have bridges over them. I’ll have to look for those the next time I’m in town.
Rutland is a small town in Vermont of just over 15,000 residents incorporated in 1892. At one point, it was a major railroad hub for local marble quarries. Its past and present is clearly reflected in its public art.
Instead of the fiberglass sculptures I stumble upon in many cities, in Rutland, I discovered a series of marble sculptures featuring important people from Rutland. The people honored in the sculptures I found are Paul Harris, founder of the first Rotary club; Andrea Mead Lawrence, an Olympic skier; William G. Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous; the immigrants who worked in the quarries; and Martin Henry Freeman, an African American educator and abolitionist.
Today, Rutland has a strong environmental and arts focus. In my wanderings, I discovered two sculptures from the Trash2Art series, one from the HeART of Rutland series, and several murals. The mural of whales was particularly eye-catching given that the ocean is hours away. I wondered about the choice of subject until I saw the closest cross street was called Wales Street. The moose just up the street were almost as elusive as real moose – despite multiple trips to Vermont and one to Alaska, I have yet to see a live moose.
The New Bethlehem, PA, Memorial Bridge holds a special place in my heart. After going through the woods for hours on the way to grandmother’s house, New Bethlehem was a landmark that we were getting close. A few more wooded hills and a few more river crossings and we’d be there.
I wonder if in addition to the answer to “are we there yet?” changing from “no” to “almost,” I also enjoyed the intimacy of New Bethlehem after hours on the impersonal and distant freeway. In the previous five hours of diving, we crossed many bridges over many waterways including both the eastern and western branches of the Susquehanna River. But what little I remember of the bridges on Rt 80, they are distant from the water and between the speed and concrete barriers, there is not much to see. At New Bethlehem, the water is right there, almost within reach. Plus there’s a mini waterfall to enjoy.
In my new habit of taking “Sunday drives” (though usually on Saturday), I recently wended my way through the hills to drive across this bridge again for the first time since I was 12 (and first time across as the driver). Of course, I stopped the car to be able to get out and walk across. There is a nice riverfront park on the eastern side, which is either “new” or just not as noticeable when driving.
After my disappointment in trying to reach the lakefront at Grant Park, I had given up on reaching the shore on that trip. The weather had been perfect (being August instead of April), but it seemed I was fated to not wade in the lake.
However, after exploring the former site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in Jackson Park (post pending), I was making my way to a bus stop to return to my hotel and found myself on a path to the 63rd Street Beach. Lake Shore Drive still continued along the lake’s shore, but it was not an obstacle here as it bridged over the pedestrian trail.
While mounting frustration had turned me back from the lake in Grant Park, the ease of following Jackson Park’s meandering trail turned me away from my original goal to add a stop at the lake beach. The beach house suggested days of better maintenance and greater usage, but the beach and adjoining greenspace appeared to be a pleasant amenity for local traffic.* While tourists may have found their way there in 1893, I seemed to be the only one when I visited.
*My tendency to take photos of things rather than people presented a missed opportunity when picking photos for this post. There were several small groups of people on the beach and more carloads of people enjoying picnics on the other side of the beach house. Yet, none of the photos I took that day included any of these people.
While exploring the Grant Park viaducts on my 2019 trip to Chicago, I discovered that they were connected to promenades leading to the lake. I decided to wend my way through Grant Park by strolling down one promenade to the lake and another back to Michigan Avenue and so on, weaving back and forth. It turns out that this is no longer an option.
On the 1920s map that inspired me to visit the viaducts, the only divider in Grant Park was the railroad tracks bridged by the viaducts. The rest of the park showed on the map as a vast open space where I assumed the promenades were designed for wealthy residents and visitors to take the air and see who else was in town (or perhaps that is just the influence of reading Jane Austen so much). While it didn’t matter to me who else was in town, strolling along the promenades seemed a nice way to take the air.
Whatever the original intent, today the promenades are chopped up by their modern antithesis – the multi-lane, high speed road. While there are several promenades spaced throughout the park, I only found one that had a protected pedestrian crossing over the many lanes of Columbus Drive. Clearly, this was the grand promenade. In addition to being the only one with a safe passage, past Columbus it featured an opulent water fountain.
Having already crossed a significant barrier, I assumed it would be a clear walk to the waterfront after that point. However, on the other side of the fountain, I found the even more formidable barrier of Lake Shore Drive, aka Route 41. All interest in continuing with my promenade evaporated even though the lights and crosswalks suggested the ability to cross safely. Instead, I spent some time admiring the fountain before returning to my hotel.
I was disappointed at discovering that the connection between the park and the lake was an optical illusion. Yet, it came as no surprise to find the lake front prioritized for cars. It is a recurring experience to find an urban waterfront cut off from the rest of the city by a major roadway barrier, or in this case two.
Allentown, PA, had been on my travel list for years because of the awards and acknowledgements it was receiving from the planning community (and because I grew up near there). When I finally visited, the only thing that engaged my interest was the Liberty Bell Museum. There was a stark contrast between the cohesion and vibrancy of Bethlehem’s main street, where I stayed, and the hodge-podge of Allentown’s main street. The proportions in Allentown felt all wrong. In the core, the roads and sidewalks felt too narrow for the density and height of the buildings. At odd moments, this claustrophobic spacing suddenly opened out into large vacant plazas with buildings placed far from the road. After the pleasant surprise of Bethlehem’s tree-lined, historic business district with wide sidewalks for promenading and window shopping (and now social distancing), Allentown was a disappointment.
However, since being home, I find I have a growing appreciation for one of Allentown’s newer developments. The PPL Center gave me a sterile vibe at the time. I only glanced at the façade as I investigated the map out front with recommended lunchbreak walks and the historic building next door. From the outside, the partial attention I gave the center suggested a shopping or office complex. It wasn’t until I accidentally entered the lobby and saw the stadium seating beyond the ticket booth that I realized it was an arena. Perhaps due to my distraction at the time, it was only in the comfort of my home that I registered my shock over finding an arena that managed the rare feat of fitting into its surroundings.
Pittsburgh’s arenas have done the opposite. For decades, there was the Civic Arena that looked like a spaceship plopped down in the middle of a city spewing parking lots out from the landing center. A flagship of Pittsburgh’s Urban Renewal, it has since been demolished with the plan to rebuild the urban fabric on the site to reconnect the Hill District to downtown. The replacement arena made some attempts to fit in more with its neighborhood. It is built up to the sidewalk or, rather, the sidewalk is built up to it creating a large sea of concrete out of proportion with the sidewalks opposite. The principal street façade includes one restaurant open to anyone inside or outside the arena during normal restaurant hours, though I don’t recall ever seeing anyone eating at their sidewalk café (even before quarantine and social distancing). Instead, the restaurant feels like a weird mistake pasted onto the building’s towering blank wall.
In contrast, the street facing restaurants in Allentown’s arena are part of the reason I mistakenly identified the structure as a retail and office building. They felt like places with lives of their own, independent of special events. The plaza in front of the arena is proportional to the plaza on the adjacent corner. The building is built up to the sidewalks with the same building height and sidewalk width as the surrounding urban fabric. As a result, this arena blends into its neighborhood, such as it is.
While looking for churches on Bethlehem’s South Side, I discovered fun, colorful planters lining the business district’s streets. I photographed 25 that were along my path, though there were many others if I had taken time to continue wandering.
The planters are a beautification project of Bethlehem’s South Side Arts District Main Street Program. Pittsburgh gets a shout-out as inspiration for the arts work of this organization, but I think they’ve surpassed Pittsburgh with this project. While Pittsburgh has various murals and hosted a dinosaur fiberglass fundraiser during that fad, it doesn’t have initiatives to turn everyday street objects into public art canvases. I’ve enjoy stumbling across these everyday artworks in Bethlehem and Harrisburg.
While exploring Bethlehem’s bridges, my eye was caught by the numerous spires rising above the surrounding buildings of South Bethlehem. Instead of resting upon returning to the hotel, I felt compelled to go back out and take a survey of religious buildings within walking distance. Due to the topography, those on the slopes of South Bethlehem were the easiest to spot, but I also located some in Bethlehem’s historic district and in West Bethlehem. I found twenty-three buildings in all.
As with my experience in Erie, I was surprised that the vast majority of these buildings were still open for use as religious worship. Bethlehem Steel Company was the main employer in Bethlehem for most of the 20th Century. Like steel mills elsewhere in the northeast, its business declined. In the early 2000s, the company went bankrupt. This makes it seem like the town should have experienced the classic rise and decline of other Rust Belt Cities.
One of the typical landmarks of this change is an abundance of vacant or adaptively reused religious buildings. In Pittsburgh, I have found over 50 former churches and synagogues now being used for secular purposes or in the process of being converted to secular purposes. Many more are vacant and boarded. Wilkinsburg, a town adjacent to Pittsburgh, has so many closed churches that its zoning code incorporates guidelines for converting church buildings to secular uses. Homestead, PA, the former home to US Steel and the site of the famous Homestead Steel Strike, has several shuttered churches. Bethlehem’s religious buildings did not fit this pattern.
In searching for an answer to what made Bethlehem different than other steel towns, I realized that the business districts and residential areas I passed through were mostly intact. There were few vacant buildings and no vacant and abandoned grass lots. This suggested that Bethlehem did not experience the same decline as the other former steel towns that I have explored. The historical population data corroborated this hypothesis. Bethlehem and Erie experienced their peak populations in 1960; Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg in 1950; and Homestead in 1920. In 2010, the cumulative population loss from each city’s peak was:
The stable population of Bethlehem explains why so many religious institutions are still operating. It doesn’t explain why the people stayed when the jobs left.
I picked up Jeffrey A Parks’s “Stronger than Steel: Forging a Rust Belt Renaissance” to look for clues to what made Bethlehem different from other Rust Belt cities. For the most part, it seems to have pursued the same actions and initiatives as elsewhere. Bethlehem’s leaders even hired consultants from Pittsburgh in the 1950s to learn how to do Urban Renewal. Other similarities include the creation of a redevelopment authority, the use of eminent domain to force people out of their homes for commercial development, the building of a highway through town, and the change of traffic patterns to prioritize the regional over the local.
The one thing mentioned in Parks’s book that was different from other cities was the school district. In the 1960s, the Bethlehem School District expanded to incorporate two rural townships. These townships later became wealthy suburbs that combined with the population of Bethlehem to create a racially and economically diverse district. Parks’s implication seemed to be that the result was a school district with better funding and resources than its neighbors. Perhaps, as a result, families did not have the conversation about moving to the suburbs for better schools as their children approached school age.
A decent inner-city school district may reduce the flight to the suburbs. It also may attract new residents. Yet, I wonder if it is enough to prevent hemorrhaging population loss as a region’s major employer cuts jobs in the decades before it closes.
Looking back at the original intent of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge and comparing it to its use today, I find myself asking a new question: what is the purpose of a bridge? The word bridge is often used metaphorically to describe something that brings two things together. At the same time, there is a running joke in Pittsburgh (the City of Bridges) that if it involves crossing a bridge, people would rather stay home. This conflict of ideas between a bridge as a connector and a bridge as a divider is illustrated by the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.
The Hill-to-Hill Bridge started out as a connector. A Y at the north end linked West Bethlehem and Bethlehem to the main span which connected to South Bethlehem. The ramps in-between connected the neighborhoods to the businesses on the flats by the water.* Over time, the priority on connection disappeared as the bridge was modified. Of the seven original approaches, three were demolished, one was permanently closed to through traffic, and one was changed to one-way traffic.
The explanations I came across for alterations to the bridge seem reasonable, but they do not tell the whole story.
- Reason #1: Industry changed and shut down in Bethlehem as with other Rust Belt cities. Some of the business destinations connected to the bridge were among those that closed, removing the need for the connection.
- Reason #2: Cars became bigger, faster, and more numerous, making it harder to navigate the tight turns on some of the approaches.
The story that is overlooked by these explanations is that in the 1960s a new highway was built from the north directly tying into the bridge. The introduction of high-speed traffic to the bridge, or to any roadway, certainly makes it less safe for local traffic.
As a result of the addition of the highway, instead of connecting the neighborhoods of West Bethlehem, Bethlehem, and South Bethlehem, the bridge funnels traffic directly toward the former steel mill, Lehigh University, and other points south. In fact, the residents of West Bethlehem are practically excluded from using the bridge to get anywhere, as the western ramp is closed to through traffic (though open to parking). To use the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to reach South Bethlehem, a resident of West Bethlehem would have to drive north several blocks to get on the highway going south. Alternately, a resident could go south by taking Spring Street, a road parallel to the western and eastern wings of the bridge, (by)passing under the main span, then skirting around the hill of historic downtown, and taking the Fahy Bridge instead.
People living and working in the historic downtown area (the Bethlehem neighborhood) are also now limited in their use of the bridge. If coming across the bridge from the south, they can take the eastern viaduct to enter the historic downtown, but to leave the area by way of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, they would have to drive north to the same highway access point as the residents of West Bethlehem. They could alternately take the Fahy Bridge for a more direct route south.
Use of the bridge is a little easier as a pedestrian, though it is still the most challenging for residents of West Bethlehem. For pedestrians to access the bridge from the west, they would have to use the sidewalks on Spring Street, walk under the main span, and climb a towering staircase up to the sidewalks on the bridge. If they are not able to use the stairs, they could keep going on Spring Street up the hill to the eastern end of the viaduct. Once on the bridge, both the historic downtown and south side are accessible. Given the history of the bridge, I imagine that there once was a time when there were crosswalks at the intersection of the main span and the east and west spurs so that pedestrians had full use of the structure just as drivers would have had.
The shift in the bridge’s focus from local to regional traffic seems like a classic case of the Urban Renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. The discussion among planners and officials in recent years is how do they undo or erase the mistakes of Urban Renewal. Pittsburgh is trying to reconnect the local by returning some one-way roads to two-way traffic and by building a cap over the highway that divided downtown and the Hill District. As I watch these developments in Pittsburgh, I wonder if there are ways to return the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to a focus on the local.
For example: The highway has to end at some point, which is currently at the southern end of the bridge. What if it were moved to the north end of the bridge? If a traffic light were introduced there, the western branch could be reopened to through traffic and the eastern branch could be restored to two-way traffic. Pedestrians would also be able to then use all the remaining approaches. Thus, West Bethlehem, Bethlehem, and South Bethlehem would be reconnected for the enjoyment of pedestrians and drivers.
This suggestion is based upon the assumption that the local community would want to be better connected by way of this bridge. Perhaps the question that should come before “what is the purpose of a bridge?” is “who gets to decide the purpose of a bridge?”
*By prioritizing connections, Clarence W Hudson, the bridge’s designer, was forced to develop a one-of-a-kind truss design to accommodate the railroad tracks beneath the bridge and the connections coming into the bridge. There is no record of this truss design being used on any other bridge.
Previous posts in this series:
What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition I (July 18, 2012)
What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition II (July 27, 2012)
What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition I (April 18, 2013)
What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition II (February 1, 2020)
What is a Bridge? Bethlehem Edition I (July 1, 2020)