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Allentown

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In 1735, Philadelphia merchant William Allen, Andrew Hamilton's son-in-law, bought five thousand acres along the Lehigh River from his business partner Joseph Turner, who had recently acquired the land from Thomas Penn. Little development took place before 1753, when a new road connecting the county seats of Berks and Northampton counties was surveyed through the Allen tract. In 1761, seven hundred acres of Allen's land were surveyed for a new market town at the confluence of Little Lehigh and Jordan creeks. Forty-two blocks were platted around a square, set athwart the Reading-Easton road, and the community was named Northampton Town (its name was changed to Allentown in 1837). Growth was slow and by the time of the Revolution only about fifty houses stood. Nonetheless, it was here that the Liberty Bell was hidden in the basement of Zion Reformed Church (620 Hamilton Street) during the British occupation of Philadelphia. Despite this momentary glory, Allentown grew at a slower pace than Easton or Bethlehem, where the Moravians established a lively and varied economy, but after it became the seat of newly formed Lehigh County in 1812, it grew quickly. A prison was built at 5th and Linden streets and five years later a courthouse was completed ( LH5).

The opening of the Lehigh Canal led to an iron industry along the river and creek banks. After the Civil War, Allentown's business leaders made concerted efforts to lure new businesses. Textile manufacturing grew to such a degree that by the early twentieth century it rivaled iron as the most important industry. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Mack Trucks established a plant and became an important employer for the next half century. In 1913 a new concrete arched bridge over the Lehigh River at 8th Street opened the east bank of the river to significant commercial and residential development. With the completion of a similar bridge at Tilghman Street in 1929, Allentown and Bethlehem became linked in a seamless connection across the county line. To the west, real estate developers Kaeppel and Kester began building large numbers of single-family and double houses around Muhlenberg College ( LH15), a neighborhood advertised as “College Heights.” Meanwhile, downtown Allentown's spine, Hamilton Street, benefited from City Beautiful impulses. In 1916 the first of many attempts to remove the Center Square war memorial ( LH1), to ease traffic flow, was rejected.

Remarkably, not even the Great Depression could stop Allentown's progress. The city's conservative Germans had shunned investment in the stock market, and the local textile industry executed a prescient switch from silk to other fabrics. From 1931 to 1933, the Depression's worst years, business activity declined, but over the course of the decade the number of manufacturing jobs in Allentown actually increased. Allentown continued to thrive until the 1960s, when ill-conceived urban renewal schemes obliterated entire blocks east of Center Square. On the west end of Hamilton Street many of the old mansions disappeared. Stores and customers migrated to two new malls with ample parking along U.S. 22, north of town. The Whitehall Mall (1967) was the first enclosed mall in eastern Pennsylvania outside greater Philadelphia. And when the even larger Lehigh Valley Mall was built on an adjacent tract in 1976 it meant the end of Hamilton Street as a viable commercial location.

Allentown's manufacturing base gradually collapsed, first the textile and metal industries, then Mack Trucks, which abandoned its huge works for new plants in the South. Allentown lost population in the last decades of the twentieth century, hemorrhaging north and west into suburban sprawl. Nonetheless, efforts continue to recover some of Allentown's lost physical fabric. A fine new office building ( LH10) has gone up on Hamilton Street, and local preservation organizations have helped rehabilitate some of the town's best rows of houses. But the loss of the manufacturing base makes recovery difficult. The town's plight was famously chronicled in Billy Joel's song “Allentown”: “Well, we're living here in Allentown / And they're closing all the factories down.”

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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