The Story of the Spires – Bethlehem

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:

CityPopulation Loss
Bethlehem1%
Erie26%
Pittsburgh55%
Wilkinsburg49%
Homestead85%

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.

Flood Measures

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There is an enormous floodwall on the Covington, KY, side of the Roebling bridge, which spans the Ohio River.  It shocked me to see such a huge wall when I was there last year.  I wondered if there couldn’t have been some other means of flood control that would not have produced such a large barrier.  It reminded me of the significant physical barriers to the waterfront that I observed in Erie, Pittsburgh, Homestead, PA, and Cleveland.  Unlike Erie, Homestead, and Cleveland, Covington did not have any significant economic drivers separated from the town by the barrier wall.  The river side only had a small park and parking lot.

In addition to acting as a barrier, the sheer massiveness of the flat concrete wall bothered me.  I wanted to see it broken up into staggered segments, even though I knew that would not be useful in a structure intended to block the path of water.  However, Covington handled the flat wall with style by turning it into a canvas for a giant mural.  Almost as long as the wall itself, this mural depicts the history of the crossing at this location from 8000 BCE to the present day.  While the mural did not help with the scale of the wall, it broke the monotony while turning it into a destination for its own sake.

In the back of my mind, this wall continued to bother me until observing the effects of the significant flooding experienced in Pittsburgh this year at the forks of the Ohio River (see Checking on the Rivers and The Aftermath).  A google search showed me that the flooding Pittsburgh experienced in February this year also affected the Covington-Cincinnati region in the worst flood in that area since 1997.  The concept of a wall still bothers me, but this one probably prevents a lot of property damage and Covington has taken steps to soften its negative effects.

Homestead High Level Bridge

I got off the bus a stop or two before the Homestead High Level Bridge (aka Homestead Grays Bridge).  As I walked down Brown’s Hill Road, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that my sidewalk turned into a drain.  From a distance it looked like the sidewalk continued all the way to the bridge as it was the same material and same width the whole way down.  However, at one point it suddenly changed from being a flat sidewalk to a v-shaped drain.  Fortunately it had not rained recently, so the drain was dry and I was able to continue on my way.  If I were a person with a mobility disability trying to get down to the bridge, this would have presented a serious problem. There was no warning for this change and the nearest traffic light was some distance back uphill (because of the traffic level this is not a road where it is wise for any person to attempt to j-walk).  I did not walk on the other side of the road, so I am only assuming that the sidewalk there would be accessible (that is, not turn into a drain).

The walk across the bridge itself was fine.  There is sidewalk on both sides and no fence to cage you in or to block the views.  It was a windy crossing, which reminded me that every time I’ve walked the Highland Park Bridge, I’ve noticed the wind.  It made me wonder if there is something special about the location of these two bridges or if it is merely coincidence that they are windy.  One factor in common between the bridges is that there are the last bridges within the city on their respective rivers when traveling away from downtown.

There are several interesting sites visible from this bridge (most of which are not within the boundaries of the city of Pittsburgh).  First is the view above of Homestead.  In this shot there are five churches visible, just outside the frame are three more to the left and one more to the right, within several additional churches just a little farther out from this core.  I find the close proximity of so many churches interesting first because it is a clear indicator of the past of this town (a major mill town with numerous immigrant groups) and second because about half of these church buildings are vacant or for sale.  It is a dream of mine to create a master plan for adapting these churches to new uses that complement each other, address some of the needs of the town and act as a productive catalyst for lifting the town out of decay.  As I still haven’t figured out what these uses would be or how to implement the adaption, it currently remains a dream.

A project that I’ve heard was supposed to lead to the revitalization of Homestead was the creation of the Waterfront Mall on the former Homestead Steel Works site (originally part of the Carnegie steel empire before being sold to US Steel).  The revitalization plan did not work out and it is popular to criticize the design of the mall and point out all the reasons for this failure.  The most glaring reason is that the roads were designed so that people coming from the city can completely avoid going into the town when going to the mall.

Another negative factor about the mall, which doesn’t necessarily have any effect on the potential to revitalize the surrounding area, is the limited walkability of the site.  It drives me nuts and definitely is a major factor curtailing my use of the mall.  Part of the mall, pictured above, is walking friendly.  However, as someone once pointed out to me, this is where all the expensive stores are and chances are that people shopping here have cars.  On the other side of the bridge and across a couple parking lots are the rest of the shops laid out in a long string of big box stores including Target and the grocery store (which as the same helpful person pointed out are frequented by people without cars).  I have nightmares of the long trek lugging my growing number of purchases all over this site as I travel between stores and then try to find a bus stop that will take me out of this barren landscape toward home (an absurdly difficult feat).

The image above shows the never-ending parking lots along the long string of stores.  From this view it looks far more green than it feels on the ground.  One other aspect of interest is the black shapes above the America flag, which are the abandoned structures of the Carrie Furnace, one of the few remnants from the Pittsburgh region’s industrial and steel past.  I say “abandoned” but this perhaps is not an accurate term as there are plans and efforts underway to use the site.  An August article in the Post-Gazette discusses the efforts of volunteers to save the site and turn it into a museum.  The first half of another article from June talks about development plans for turning the land surrounding the furnace into an office/industrial park.

A final site of interest visible from the Homestead High Level Bridge is the slag heap which is now home to the “Somerset at Frick Park” housing development.  When I get caught up with posting about the walks I’ve done since starting my blog, I’d like to write about some I took before my blog began, including the hike through Frick Park and over this slag heap.  I suppose given my interest in seeing vacant property, including brownfields, within a city reused, I should be pleased with this development.  I think I’m getting a bit hung up on the irony of the site–once a dump site for the refuse of mines and industrial sites, now the site of luxury homes and condominiums.