Arena Developments

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.

Ringing the Bells

A deep, full-bodied gong expanded through the small basement of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, PA, after the docent tapped the clapper against the replica Liberty Bell. Depending on the source, the US government commissioned 53 or 57 replica Liberty Bells from a French company in the 1950s. One was kept in France and the rest were distributed to each of the US states and territories. Most were put on display somewhere in the State Capitals. Pennsylvania was one of the exceptions.

During the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell and other bells from Philadelphia were hidden in the Zion Reformed Church’s basement in Allentown to protect them from the British troops. Now the basement is a museum to the Liberty Bell, featuring Pennsylvania’s replica bell along with artifacts from the Revolutionary War. The replica bell is whole with the famous crack depicted by a line drawn with a Sharpie marker. As a result, there isn’t the concern that ringing the bell will worsen the crack and perhaps split the bell in two as there is with the original. Still the docent must tap the bell very gently in demonstrations as it was designed to be heard 20 miles away. In the small basement, the full sound could cause auditory damage.

Most days in Pittsburgh, I can hear the neighborhood Catholic church bell chime the hours. Under the right weather conditions, I can hear a church bell from another neighborhood. The Catholic church is within a mile of my house. The other church is up to 2 miles away. Though I don’t subscribe to any organized religion, hearing these bells gives me a feeling that I am part of a community. The bells of the Allegheny County Courthouse downtown inspire a similar feeling of belonging when they ring at noon and 5:00 pm. These sounds create a shared experience between me and all the other people within earshot of the ringing bell.

The difference in capacity of the Liberty Bell and the bell of the local Catholic church reflects the style of living at the time they were established. In the days of the Liberty Bell, most of the country was agrarian with people spread out on farms often at least 20 miles away from the nearest town or hamlet. Fast forward to the 1910s, when the local Catholic church was established in a growing, dense urban environment. Most parishioners lived in the same neighborhood as their church, not more than a mile or two away. Today, in post-suburbanization US, people live in different neighborhoods or even towns from where they worship or work. In such a world, there isn’t one civic or religious institution that everyone within earshot subscribes to. I am glad to live in a neighborhood where there still is a bell to remind us every so often to look up from our digital devices to see and hear the world immediately in front of us.