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South Bethlehem

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As Bethlehem grew beyond its Moravian beginnings and matured into a commercial city of consequence in the second half of the nineteenth century, the district across the river remained a separate political and cultural entity. Unlike Moravian Bethlehem to the north, South Bethlehem was the site of a spectacularly burgeoning industrial quarter and all that went with it. In 1917, through the concerted efforts of the business communities on both sides of the river (who foresaw a larger city better able to compete economically with Allentown and Easton), a greater municipal Bethlehem absorbed South Bethlehem. The unified city gained a tangible connection in 1923 with the construction of the combination concrete arch, steel truss Hill-to-Hill Bridge. The span stepped across the river in graceful half-round arches, for the first time providing efficient communication between Bethlehem's two communities and supplanting the only previous connection, a rickety covered bridge that was regularly clogged by backups from railroad grade crossings on the south side.

South Bethlehem's significant growth dates from the 1850s, with the establishment of Saucona Iron Company (renamed Bethlehem Iron Company and later Bethlehem Steel Corporation). Arrival of the locally owned but soon to be New York–operated Lehigh Valley Railroad inaugurated the transformation of riverfront farmland into an industrial city. By the twentieth century, Bethlehem Steel was an industrial colossus, stretching east more than three miles along the river and south more than a mile to Hellertown. As this is written, that physical fabric disappears with demolition proceeding from two directions, almost a mile of building has been removed from the west end and the coke plant has been dismantled at the east end. In the process, an original iron foundry has been cleared of subsequent accretions, revealing a heroic stone cruciform structure. Its fate, along with that of adjacent towering blast furnaces, a number of mighty industrial structures, and the old thirteen-story General Office Building ( NO38), is at best uncertain as the Las Vegas Sands Casino prepares to build a glitzy glass and steel casino and hotel (by Baltimore and Chicago architects RTKL) while partnering with the Smithsonian Museum to build an interpretive museum that will highlight the remaining fragments of the industrial giant. A few “incubator” buildings, small research and development facilities for light industry, have begun to fill the west end of the site. They appear harmless and noticeably unheroic in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel's rusting carcass.

Commercial and industrial South Bethlehem developed in concert with a growing immigrant workforce, almost all of whom were Roman Catholics. The Irish came first, followed by central Europeans, particularly Slavs and Hungarians. Their arrivals can be charted by the building of churches across the south side of the river. While mansions rose on Fountain Hill ( NO35), single houses, twins, and rows of attached houses grew in piecemeal fashion, absent attempts at creating planned communities such as occurred across the river at Elmwood Park ( NO31) and Pembroke Village ( NO32). Nonetheless, a lively commercial district developed, stretching along 3rd and 4th streets parallel to the steel mill. A few traces of that thriving urban commercial street life remain and the extant buildings have been altered, not often for the best. The most senseless recent civic vandalism was the demolition of the City Market building, a massive three-story Romanesque Revival brick structure that covered an entire block at the corner of 3rd and Webster streets. The best collection of extant commercial buildings lines 3rd Street between Webster and New streets, their jumble of forms and details representative of the variety of architectural styles available in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although altered at street level, the contiguous three- and four-story buildings maintain a street line that hints at the district's former physical character.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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