Forging Ahead 3: Bethlehem

The blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel can still be seen above the homes where steel workers once lived.  Now the furnaces are part of Steel Stacks, a tourist attraction.  John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

The blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel can still be seen above the homes where steel workers once lived. Now the furnaces are part of Steel Stacks, a tourist attraction. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

“There’s something attractive about the scale and what (the furnaces) look like. They’re artistic when you look at it. They’re gothic. They’re severe.”

Bethlehem: poised for the future with a nod to the past

Bethlehem stole its skyline from Germany.

Like the town of Völklingen on the river Saar, one of the defining features of Bethlehem is the cluster of five blast furnaces that stands along the Lehigh River.

They tower above everything else, rust scabbing off in pieces the size of dinner plates. A labyrinthine grid of ladders and catwalks wind up and around them. At night, they’re lit green and red, purple and blue.

In front is an outdoor stage — a white, geometric tidal wave shape that pops against the shadowy furnaces — and an oxidized steel sculpture. A 550,000 BTU channel of natural gas shoots three-metre-high flames from the piece. The effect is that of a bridge arcing from the furnaces to the ArtsQuest Center, a brutalist building of concrete and glass.

It’s a scene straight out of “Blade Runner,” with just a dash of Coachella mixed in.

Even as this place has been re-purposed for the future, it’s impossible to forget its past.

When Bethlehem Steel shut down here in the ’90s, there were mixed feelings about the 1,800 acres left vacant. Some thought the furnaces should stand as a memorial to more than a century of steelwork. Others saw them as 21-storey monuments to failure.

A man walks his dog along a parkway near the former Bethlehem Steel plant where the blast furnaces can still be seen in the background.  John Rennison The Hamilton Spectator 4/10/15

A man walks his dog along a parkway near the former Bethlehem Steel plant where the blast furnaces can still be seen in the background. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

BethWorks Now is a group of local and New York City investors who bought 134 acres. They sold 40 acres to Sands Casino Las Vegas, which built a hotel and casino on an old ore pit at the east end of the property.

A second organization called Sands BethWorks Retail (a 50/50 collaboration between Las Vegas Sands Corporation and BethWorks Now) donated 12 acres to PBS, ArtsQuest and the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority.

Remediation for the land cost around $100 million, one-third paid by steel before the site was sold.

Now there’s a PBS station on-site. The visitor’s centre is managed by ArtsQuest, a non-profit arts education centre that pushes the arts as an economic driver.

In planning the new site, ArtsQuest representatives visited Germany for inspiration. The Ruhr Valley, long known for its blue-collar roots, was gaining recognition for the way it adapted industrial lands to incorporat mill buildings.

The main entrance to Steel Stacks.  John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

The main entrance to Steel Stacks. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

ArtsQuest chose to do the same with what’s now known as Steel Stacks, an arts and entertainment complex that opened in 2011. It carried a $70-million price tag including all the cap-and-cover a steel site needed.

ArtsQuest raised $26 million to build the ArtsQuest Center. The City of Bethlehem and the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority (BRA) put in $40 million.

Their biggest event is MusikFest. The 10-day festival that brings 900,000 people each year and sees $1 million spent in the city.

It has featured musicians including Modest Mouse, Tegan and Sara and Cake. When folk rockers Delta Rae played, the band spent the day snapping selfies with the blast furnaces. Then they went home and wrote a song about Bethlehem. So did Grant Lee Buffalo. Ditto Grammy-winner Nanci Griffith.

Steel Stacks wasn’t an immediate success. Initially ArtsQuest dug themselves into a financial hole by programming seven nights a week.

“We kind of had that arrogant ‘if you build it they will come mentality’ and quickly learned the patterns and the behaviours of the area,” says Kassie Hilgert, CEO of ArtsQuest.

Kids have soccer on Tuesday, there’s too much work to do on Wednesday and no one goes out on a Monday.

They only recently erased the debt from the early days. Now they program 1,500 camps, classes and concerts a year, but they only do it Friday through Sunday.

Two small theatres show independent films and live comedy including locals as well as big names. New York is only 90 minutes away. Close enough for John Oliver to tape “The Daily Show” in the morning, drive down in his Prius for a show, then head back to the city in the evening.

Cabaret-style rooms hold anywhere from 150 to 400 people. Sometimes it’s standing-room only. Other nights, you can order dinner and drinks to your table while you watch blues singer Joan Osborne.

From almost every seat in the ArtsQuest Center, the blast furnaces are visible through the north-facing glass wall. A few rooms are outfitted with shades. At corporate events, clients found their employees were distracted by the view.

It’s impossible not to be. When people walk into the complex, it’s like they’re seeing New York City for the first time. They can’t open their eyes wide enough to take it all in. There’s an innate desire to know more.

SEE: Steel Stacks Photo Gallery here.

“There’s something attractive about the scale and what (the furnaces) look like,” says Hilgert. “They’re artistic when you look at it. They’re gothic. They’re severe. When you look at them you just wonder what was that like when it was operating?”

Bob Bilheimer grew up in Bethlehem.  John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

Bob Bilheimer grew up in Bethlehem. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

Near the end, it was sad, says Bob Bilheimer.

Bilheimer grew up in Bethlehem. His brothers worked in the mills. His father was assistant superintendent. When his mother was 18, she was a receptionist. Now 90, she still talks about the day she was called into the office of the general manager to model the uniforms women would wear when they were called to become plant patrolmen during the Second World War.

“An upswept hairdo and red finger-nails don’t prevent this girl’s welding with the best of them, doing a man-sized job in helping to build Liberty ships,” read a 1943 print ad promoting women at the mill.

In 1998, when the coke ovens finally shut down, Bilheimer was general manager of public affairs for the company.

It would have been easy to tear everything down and put up a strip mall, he says, just to get something on the land. There was pressure from the community to find another industry to use the site.

Bethlehem Steel felt a sort of responsibility to the city where it was founded. At one time Bethlehem (the company, not the city — a distinction people make all the time) was the second-largest steel producer in the U.S. There was a sense of wounded pride.

The company, and ultimately the town, decided to try something to bring the site back into the city. Something forward-thinking while still nodding to the past.

The mixed use development changed the character of Bethlehem’s south side, Bilheimer says.

Often, smaller mill towns didn’t really exist before the mill showed up. Bethlehem is unique in that the city was there before the mill arrived. Part of it, anyway.

The Lehigh River, a 175-kilometre tributary that winds through the Appalachian Mountains, cuts Bethlehem in two.

The city was founded on the river’s north side. In the 1700s a Protestant denomination known as the Moravians settled. There, streets are wide and cobbled. They’re lined with Germanic buildings and dramatic Colonial architecture. They were churches and apothecaries and shared housing for single women. Now they’re bookstores and gift shops and chocolatiers.

When the first furnace was blown in 1863, it was on the opposite side of the river. Slowly, south Bethlehem cropped up around the mill.

The houses on the south side are built into the hills. A rabbit’s warren of side streets sprout off main streets. They disappear into the woods or run past row houses whose front doors are flush with the sidewalk. The entire city used to move with the machinations of the mill, with one-way streets guiding shift workers in and out of the plant.

Hilgert regularly sees former steelworkers at SteelStacks. Some are unsure about the new use, but when they look around and see the effort put into interpreting their time there, they usually return.

It starts with the ArtsQuest Center, where almost everything is local. The architects of the building, Spillman Farmer, live down the road. The steel came from Erie. The concrete exterior intentionally shows fabrication seams, a subtle nod to workmanship. A less restrained tip of the hat is the hot orange paint found throughout the Center. The colour, International Orange, is the exact shade of the Golden Gate Bridge. The structural steel for the famous landmark was poured in Bethlehem.

ArtsQuest is rehabbing the old turn and grind shop, where steel went for final fabrication. It will cost $12 million to redo the roof and the broken windows. Finished, it will offer additional office and programming space. They just need to find someone who wants their name on a 26,000-square-foot building.

Something that already has financing is the Hoover Mason Trestle, a project of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority.

The raised corridor used to carry rail away from the blast furnaces. In July, it will look like Manhattan’s High Line, a disused railroad spur that’s now a park in the meat packing district. The trestle will link SteelStacks with the casino-hotel Sands Bethlehem.

The hotel and outlet mall in Bethlehem built on the former Bethlehem Steel plant.  John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

The hotel and outlet mall built on the former Bethlehem plant. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

An old red industrial crane marks the Sands complex, which opened in 2009. It cost the casino $800 million to build and includes a spa and an outlet mall with stores including Coach New York and Nine West.

The casino and hotel employ 2,350 and draw 8 million visitors each year. Steel Stacks brings an additional 1.5 million. Orlando, Fla. only gets 44 million and they have Disney up their sleeve.

There’s no pretending people visit the casino to learn about steel. They stay in the attached hotel and they swim in the hotel pool. They shop in the outlet mall and they eat either in the casino restaurants, or between hands right at the playing tables. But the building makes an effort. Hallway walls are decorated with mill schematics. When you get off elevators you see framed black and white photos of former workers. Soon the walking path will provide direct access to the visitor’s centre, though Bethlehem is more interested in residents than visitors these days.

The area still has a high percentage of locals who were born there (the highest in Pennsylvania, actually), but it’s starting to draw from other parts of the country.

There aren’t any Fortune 500 companies flocking to Bethlehem yet, but Synchronoss recently moved there. The high-tech app company, which has locations in France and Australia, settled in one of seven office parks owned by Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Inc. LVIP VII is built on 1,000 acres of the former Bethlehem site, just east of the casino. It was acquired from International Steel Group, which bought the assets of Bethlehem Steel. The various companies located there employ 3, 000.

Affordable housing and good transit have drawn some New Yorkers, despondent about the possibility of ever owning in the city. A four-bedroom family home in South Bethlehem can be had for $200,000. If you can work from home a couple days a week and bus the 90 minutes to the city the other three days (a Bethlehem bus leaves for New York hourly), you can mix a slowed-down small-town lifestyle with all the culture of a bigger city such as nearby Philadelphia.

To ArtsQuest’s Hilgert, Bethlehem is a grand experiment. She sees industrial space as an opportunity, not just in terms of development, but in looking at the way we re-use what is considered waste.

No space is waste, especially not in a city.

“Imagine a city the size of New York or even Edmonton if they had 1,800 acres in the heart of their city that they could redevelop?” she says. “Urban planners would give their left arm for that.”

akenny@thespec.com

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