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 .