Why I Hate Allentown

OK, two things…one, “hate” is a strong word, it caught your attention right? I don’t really HATE Allentown, I’m just disappointed with it-but that makes for a boring title. Second, if I’m “Michele of Bethlehem” why is my first post about Allentown? Because I said so.

Now that all that is out of the way…

I actually have very fond memories of Allentown growing up in the Lehigh Valley as a kid. One word, Hess’s.

When I was little, my grammy and I used to take the bus from South Bethlehem to Hamilton Street and make a day of shopping and eating in downtown Allentown. We would start at McDonald’s for breakfast, then go shopping up and down Hamilton Street, and of course to Hess’s. Right when you walked in there would be counter upon counter of perfumes. I’d spray every last one on me. Not so much because I liked the way they all smelled, but because the smell would make her gag.

Anyway…there were toys, clothing, jewelery, shoes, huge chandeliers, marble, models, talking elevators, the place was magical for a little girl. My grandmother would then drag me out of the store and we would continue down Hamilton to Woolworths’s which she always called the five & dime. We would get ice cream sodas and I’d spin around on the stools at the counter. Then it was back to Hess’s for more shopping and then to cap off a perfect day…the Hess’s patio.

Models would glide around the tables and the waitress brought the kid’s meal out in a little refrigerator. I still remember my grandmother would order the turkey platter and I’d order the kid’s burger. Once the waitress left my grammy and I would switch plates, me eating the adult portion turkey platter, her the kid’s burger. And of course there was the mountain of gigantic strawberries and whipped cream that was Hess’s strawberry pie. This story also partially explains my horrible relationship with food but…that is a post for another day.

This was in the late 70’s through early 80’s, by no means Allentown or Hess’s hay-day but well before its demise. Actually, at that time I thought of Allentown as the cool place to be and Bethlehem as *gasp* boring. And it was true. Back then.

So what happened?

Hess’s actually helped accelerate its own demise by expanding into the suburbs (Hess’s West, East, and South are now Bon-ton’s, Hess’s North I believe was roughly where Sam’s Club in Whitehall is today) but suburban sprawl was happening regardless of Hess’s expansion, and the Lehigh Valley Mall and what happened next in Allentown would have killed it with or without the help of Hess’s own expansion.

In the late 80’s & 90’s Allentown was in denial. They denied that gangs and crime were problems.  They believed that the only gangs in the area were “copycat” gangs, not the real deal. Of course the truth was New York City was chasing its criminals out and they took I-78 straight to Allentown’s doorstep. The city was not prepared to handle gang related crime and the criminals knew it and exploited it.

Combine crime with absentee landlords and dirt balls like Mark Mendelson who got away with decimating the city’s housing stock and landmark downtown buildings and the city was left with a huge mess. A mess that has taken and will continue to take Allentown years to dig its self out of.

So what does Allentown need to work on in order to have any shot of reclaiming even a glimmer of its former glory? Well, working on the crime problem would be number one on my list. Not all of Allentown’s crime problem is tied to actual crime however. I would venture to guess that the perceived crime as many times greater than the actual crime rate. If people perceive an area as unsafe it doesn’t matter if they are wrong, they are still not going to visit.

Concentrating on the “small things”  like litter, graffiti, double parking, noise complaints, and loitering can work wonders on lowering the perception of crime in an area. Of course reducing the actual crime rate and seeing fewer headlines about shootings and stabbings outside of its public schools would also help.

So what is next?

People are willing to trade some level of security for culture. People will leave their safe havens in their McMansions (again, another post for another day) to get some culture in the cit but the reward needs to outweigh the risk. Some, particularly young professionals, will jump at the chance at city life. Think NYC, Philadelphia. Today for many people the math does not add up to make a visit or a move to Allentown worthwhile. How do you solve the imbalance? 1) Lower actual crime. 2) Lower perceived crime (taking care of the small stuff, appearences). 3) Increase the number and quality of cultural attractions.

Allentown has concentrated on number three in the last few years (restaurants, ball fields, automobile museums, plans for additional river front development) and up until recently has basically ignored numbers 1 and 2. It is refreshing to see that the current administration is working on first appearances by targeting slum lords who let their properties waste away and by finally acknowledging they have a double parking problem in the city. Still, they have only begun to scratch the surface. There is a lot of room for improvement.

Downtown Allentown still has a few old gems, including its beautiful historic architecture and the Art Museum, that passed the test of time. But besides a few additions like the Allentown Brew Works little has endured to replace the numerous treasures lost. The key to making investments in cultural improvements pay dividends is to simultaneously work to improve the crime issues-both actual and perceived. The city needs to be less inviting to criminals to achieve this.

So why do I “hate” Allentown? Because they gave up and I see little hope that it will ever return to being an exciting place to be like it was when I was a kid. (Exciting in a good way, not in a fear-for-your-life way)

Look, I know that even if Allentown solved its crime problem that Hess’s is gone for good but I cringe every time I hear someone comment “Ugh, Hess’s again? stop living in the past.”

Most often the people who say this never experienced Hess’s and it was something one must experience to “get.” The closest I believe you can get today to experiencing Hess’s is to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood on Hamilton – Remembering Hess’s You can pick up a copy at the Moravian Bookshop or by making a donation to PBS39 WLVT .

56 responses to “Why I Hate Allentown

  1. I used to LOVE Hess’s too. It was an adventure to go shopping and lunch at the Patio was always a dream. I too went with my grandmother (nana) and often wax nostalgic for what it used to be.

    • Thank you so much for the comment Suz! My FIRST comment no less! I’ve heard from others as well since posting this morning and it seems like going to Hess’s with our grandmothers is a great memory for many of us. I’m glad I could inspire some nostalgic waxing for you! I hope I am able to keep your interest with my future posts as well.

  2. My experience with Hess’s was the one in Palmer Park, b/c my family is from Easton (don’t laugh). I fondly remember the rainbow colored boxes that would have a sweater or some other outfit on Christmas Day. I remember wandering through the toy department there, and thinking it was a pretty awesome place. When getting wrapping paper a few weeks ago from the attic, I found a few old Hess boxes… 🙂

    Easton has a lot of the same problems of course…

    • Topperwein, thanks for writing! I have some old Hess’s boxes as well, I’d love to get some more memorabilia but it gets pricey. If you liked the toy department at Hess’s East (the one at the Palmer Mall) you would have been amazed by the one on Hamilton St. The satellite stores (Hess’s East, West, North, and South) had some of the same items but didn’t have any of the flair or ambiance of the Hamilton Street store. We used to go to those when we had to buy something, and to Hamilton Street when we wanted to be entertained!

  3. Charlene Madritch

    As you know by my name, I’m old enough to be your mother. In my day Hess’s was to Allentown as Macy’s was to New York City….the up-scale interior, the windows and decorations at Christmas, the best place to let Santa know you were a good little boy or girl this year and hint at what you hoped for on Christmas morning. Of course, Santa was on the fourth or fifth floor in the large TOY DEPARTMENT, so customers had to go past a lot of merchandise to get to him. Max Hess was no fool, many other things I’ll be too polite not to reveal here but he was a good merchandiser. The Patio was a big treat for me because my beautiful Aunt Myrtle was the hostess there for many years. Back then you had to be real good looking to get the job as The Patio hostess. Had my first taste of Chinese food at the Patio. Never had Chow Mien that good since. There were five & dimes on Hamilton Street that had affordable things to buy which were made in America & fountain counters for special drinks…malteds were my favorite. As teens we spent time at The Colonial, a beautiful true theater. We spent money, when we had it, at Speedy’s Record Store. We felt safe because we were safe even on dates in the evenings. Now even driving down Hamilton Street I lock my car doors AND I WANT TO CRY FOR WHAT IS NO MORE!!!

    • Hi Charlene! It’s great to hear from you after all these years! I feel your pain. I lived and worked in Downtown Allentown, on Hamilton St. for two years, right when they were tearing down the old Hess’s building-very sad. Did you ever check out the video from PBS I mentioned in my post? There are a lot of great memories, maybe your Aunt Myrtle is in there somewhere! Thank you for sharing your memories, I would have loved to gone to Hess’s in its hay-day.

  4. Coming from Easton we were not big Hess customers – we had Orr’s of Easton and Warren and Pomeroy’s and a Sears. We always watched the TV fashion/toy show because one of the models was the wife of my dad’s co-worker. We would always go for back to school (tho we did not buy) and then again to see all the Christmas wonder. When I was a kid Easton had some Big Time shopping downtown so we did not have to go to Allentown.

    • Thanks for posting Donald! We didn’t go to Easton much when I was a kid but I used to go exploring when I was in High School…mostly to that “wicker” store…what was the name of that place? Anyhow…..I also bought my Jr. Prom Dress at Sigal’s in Easton. It was gorgeous in a 1990 sort of way. I always liked the Orr’s in Bethlehem too, I remember the elevators. Not sure if I ever went to the one in Easton.

      They don’t make stores like any of those old stores anymore.

  5. In many ways Allentown still views itself as a farm town and mecca for the Pennsylvania Dutch. It never embraced it’s newly diverse (non-white) population. For example The Great Allentown Fair is for many both the high and low is the cultural high light of the year.
    It is amazing to me how a city of 100,000 people, the third largest city in an important state like Pennsylvania has had no one with a vision or if they had a vision did not have the skills to bring others with them.
    Allentown sits in the third largest media market in the state and shares a media market with NYC and Philadelphia. Easton has tapped into it’s proximity to NY and Bethlehem via Artsquest has aggressively courted Philadelphia and Allentown……
    Maybe Allentown really has nothing to offer which is why all the creative energy is settling in Easton & Bethlehem.

    • Allentown itself does have some things to offer, namely its architecture but nobody has bothered to find a way to put it to good use. There are some business and homeowners on 8th St. in particular that have done an excellent job in restoring some of the old homes. But aside from a few home tours no one has done much else with this huge resource. It’s a shame.

      One of my biggest complaints is all the whining their mayor does about how Bethlehem gets all the attention (look back to the Sands announcement and when Bethlehem expressed interest in hosting the AHL hockey team as examples). It’s childish and unproductive. And its a shame because he’s done some other things that I think show signs of moving in the right direction. I’m particularly a fan of the Hall of Shame for landlords that don’t keep up their buildings but it really is just a small piece of the puzzle, by no means the cure. It amazes me how long it took to get any kind of certificate of occupancy requirements in the city and how much resistance it met. It only went into effect less than THREE YEARS AGO. It’s normal just about anywhere else, even in cities and boroughs a fraction of the size.

      I told Cory Booker he needs to come to Allentown when he’s done in Newark…but it will be too late at this rate.

  6. Pingback: Bucket List Update – America On Wheels is AWESOME | Michele of Bethlehem

  7. I grew up in west end Allentown, I used to hear stories about hess’s and also how you could leave your front door open, letting the breeze come in through the screen door when my parents were growing up. You could leave your bike in the front yard without it being stolen by morning. If you got in a fight, it was one on one, and not 3 cousins and an uncle with a knife joining in. I wish I could’ve grown up when linden and Hamilton streets were the cruising route, and the Ritz was the hangout spot. Now adays 1 in every 6 girls in Allen high is pregnant. It’s pretty sad how this city has gone downhill.

  8. I hear you JC. It seems there aren’t many places left anymore where you can leave your doors unlocked anymore. I grew up in Hellertown and we definitely did back then, but wouldn’t even do that there today.

  9. we loved hess’s!! the logo, the boxes… i think we still have one around somewhere. also, the wassergas store — thank you for finding that. we are from durham and hate how a lot of the land has changed but love the area so…

    • Thanks for the comment Franc (a year later, sorry, catching up) yeah, I have a bunch of boxes, if my mom sees them at yard sales she buys them for me, I had to tell her to stop, they are kind of hard to store and I’m not sure what I’ll do with them. I would love a coffee cup though!

  10. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m
    not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say great blog!

  11. Seriously , as long as you are not involved in things you should not be. You will have no worries walking around in Allentown. I do so everyday and never have had a problem. My father is 70+ and also does so every day , he walks from the West End all the way to 4th and Hamilton every day. Never had a problem. People like yourself have to stop living in fear of non-whites. As long as you mind your own business , do not get involved in things you should not be doing. You will be fine , trust me.

    • Nowhackedout. Wow, I don’t think you really read my article. Either that or you didn’t comprehend it.

      That being said, the parts about the city not doing anything are no longer true, they are really making some great strides with large projects like the arena and related development as well as some of the smaller quality of life issues that I had said they were ignoring, such as cracking down on double parkers. None of this was happening when I wrote this. I’m happy with the progress being made but they still have a ways to go to get the people out of their suburban fantasy lands and into the city.

  12. I think the city needs to be concerned about the amount of businesses and residential units that are empty. The City of Allentown is attracting a lower income population overall. If you want business to prosper, give tax rebates. The City still charges a pretty substantial business tax on top of regular property tax. The school district is also a very big problem. Crime has been of the rise.
    This city has some really nice architecture that could be renovated and renewed. Instead we attract low income people that slum lords provide sub standard housing for. Rent is higher and the houses look run down. Just take a ride through town and you will see.
    You need someone in the City government that has a clue and some experience. The only thing the City has for politicians are a bunch of union loving, good for nothing, welfare handing out losers. We have the residents of the City to blame for that because they keep voting these people in. Start with good leadership and the City will be turned around. Maybe someone who ran a successful business, not just a college grad with a degree in political science.

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