THIS WEEK IN BETHLEHEM HISTORY: Northampton Heights -- Twice a victim, part 1
If possible to interview displaced residents and former home owners who survived the senseless destruction of their Southside neighborhoods half a century ago, perhaps they would quote from Terrance Rattigan's play, "The Winslow Boy": "You shall not side with the great against the powerless." And yet, during the 1960s, Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority indeed sided with the all-powerful Bethlehem Steel Corporation and condemned Northampton Heights.
What best illustrates the great and the powerless in this scenario? Look to the beginning of the last century.
In 1904, Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939) invested in the Bethlehem Steel Company and restructured the plant, which met phenomenal steel quotas that brought about global recognition to South Bethlehem.
Although a national depression struck in 1907, prosperity followed in 1909 only to see Bethlehem Steel workers strike in 1910 for safer working conditions.
Four years later, World War I (1914-1918) was declared in Europe and Bethlehem steel production boomed. Adding to the celebration after the war, residents welcomed the unification of Bethlehem and West Bethlehem on the north side, with South Bethlehem and Northampton Heights on the south side.
Celebrations soon dampened with the passing of Prohibition, the 18th amendment banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Though difficult to enforce, it diminished sales by Uhl, Widmer, and South Bethlehem breweries, which supplied beer to local hotels and private taverns throughout Bethlehem.
The stock market crash of 1929 hurled the nation and Bethlehem into the Great Depression that lasted through the 1930s. World War II (1939-1945) saw "lean years" with rationing and "tight money." After the war, exhausted citizens throughout the country struggled to maintain their towns and neighborhoods, while returning GIs sought "fresh" neighborhoods to raise their new families.
Against this scenario, the Southside witnessed a silent exodus as residents left town for the suburbs. Residents who remained were economically challenged with little capital to maintain their homes, and absentee landlords collected rent money but neglected to reinvest in upkeep of their properties.
This nationwide behavior included Bethlehem, summed up in the 1961 article of the New York Herald Tribune: "Like many another American city, Bethlehem was faced with inner rot. Congestion, grime and obsolescence were all eating away at its core, and where there had once been thriving downtown areas that were a source of pride to citizens, industrial and residential slums were gradually taking over."
The article vividly portrayed the whole of Bethlehem as a "seedy industrial town" in need of adrenalin. During the 1950s, Bethlehem elected officials devised ways for Bethlehem to shrug off its apathy. Mayor Earl Schaffer embarked on a master plan for "redevelopment, urban renewal and highway improvements."
But as many found during the 1960s, construction of Spur Route 378, a convenience for motorists to Bethlehem Steel's headquarters on E. Third St., wouldn't be the first urban renewal project on the North side to displace long-time residents. Construction of the new Civic Center featured a new city hall on the east side which included the mayor's office and police department; on the west side, the public library. Builders blocked part of New Street and razed one block of historic Church St.
In this new climate of urban renewal, old buildings often seen as out dated, were razed and replaced with straightforward architecture during the 1960s-70s with minimal detail, devoid of style.
This came at a time when no person or organization had the clout or sensibility to retrofit or reassign "second uses" to existing structures or evaluate, perhaps even "save" certain aged buildings. Once in high gear, simple respect for iconic Southside structures less "historically" relevant to their older Northside counterparts, were overlooked by the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority.
On East Third and Adams streets, the Municipal Market house designed by architect, A.W. Leh (1848-1918), housed the mayor's office, the police department and related staff (relocated at the new Civic Center on Church St.), and a retail market on the corner that served the city since the 1890s. By the 1960s, the Municipal Market house was vacant, neglected then destroyed and replaced by a rural strip mall, visually out of place on East Third Street.
At the corner of New and East Fourth streets, the New Merchants Hotel, then a "seedy" home of many low-income residents was razed. The block gave way to the Fred B. Rooney Senior Center, a 151-foot-tall, 14-story monolith erected in front of Lehigh University campus, which forever altered the Southside skyline.
The Bethlehem Brewing Co. at East Fourth and Webster streets, undoubtedly the victim of poor sales because of nationwide "corporate" breweries, was put out of business. The brewery shared half a city block with Holy Infancy Parochial School and a convent at East Fourth and Taylor streets. The school, convent and brewery were all razed to accommodate the Andrew W. Litzenberger public housing facility, a contemporary building again out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood.
At the same time, Lehigh University caused a furor, pitting neighbor against neighbor when it seized their homes and displaced them in its effort to expand the university campus from Packer Avenue to Morton Street and Webster to Vine streets. The "approved" plan was condoned by the Redevelopment Authority, which destroyed four city blocks even as distraught residents watched bulldozers level their homes and businesses.
The dust had barely settled in these targeted Southside neighborhoods when the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority's "big sweep" soon focused on Northampton Heights.
Next week: Part 2 Declaration of doom