The Bethlehem Study

Hi.  My name is Elena Carey and I’m a rising senior at the College.  This summer I intend to study how zoning in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania helps create different meanings and identities in distinct areas of the city.

Beginning my first blog post feels similar to beginning my research.  I’ve never written a blog entry before, just as I’ve never conducted a ten-week, independent research project.  Both ventures make me nervous.  I want to do everything right, and do it well, and I want to create something meaningful.  I’ve been working on my research project since I arrived home from school last week, and it still mostly feels like looking at a blank sheet of paper.  At least I’ve exceeded that step in this blogging endeavor.

The summer stands before me to be filled with the completion of interviews, the collection of surveys, and the excavation of book shelves at numerous libraries and at city hall.  I have the impulse to do everything at once, but that’s impossible.  Often rather than laboring over putting my various research methods into action each day, I find myself staring at a single book for an entire morning or looking up resources, which have uncertain and varying degrees of usefulness to my project, on the internet for hours.  Yet I’ve just begun to realize that the best place to start is not buried in crumbling, old pages of zoning ordinances, or well-intentioned and pixilated community organization websites, but in introductions to other individuals.  And thus, just as I began my research a million different ways at first, I began this entry in a similar fashion, and ultimately returned to an introduction as preface.

I only came to this realization on how to begin yesterday.  After hours of toil at home, yesterday I decided to simply explore the city of Bethlehem for a day.  As I knew it to be impossible to accomplish any less in doing this than in what I had achieved throughout my initial days of research, I packed a lunch and upon arrival in the city stuffed a meter with enough quarters to buy me eight hours.  Although I had visited the Bethlehem Area Public Library and made a superficial attempt at discovering helpful documents, I had never entered any of the other libraries in Bethlehem, and thus I determined to orient my excursion around these landmarks.

I first arrived at Lehigh University’s Linderman Library and promptly fell in love with it.  I have an affectation for libraries, especially any vaguely Beauty and the Beast-eque, and the Linderman Library was a sight to behold by any Disney standards.  After introducing myself to the librarians there, and receiving their advice on various sources within the library, I researched the original Moravian settlement, which eventually became Bethlehem, there for the morning.  Around noon, I decided to walk to the North Side of the Lehigh River.  As I walked along one of the bridges that crosses the Lehigh, I could turn to see the Bethlehem Steel iron castle to the east, the various neighborhoods of the Southside seeming to push at each other and scramble up the hill behind me, and the North Side ahead – its calmness and order sure to make its Moravian founders proud.

Perhaps this would be an opportune time to interject an explanation of why I chose to pursue this field of summer research.  I want to study zoning because of sights such as the one I experienced when crossing the bridge.  I intend to become an urban planner eventually, and I find that looking at a city never ceases to inspire awe.  Cities create a place out of a space, house people and their complicated interactions, and are home to dirt and cleanliness, order and unrest, creation and destruction, and an endless list of more contradictions.  I don’t want to rid these places of their complexity, but I want to study the intricacy, and find ways to disentangle the components that are harmful to the citizens and to the environment.  I want to make cities better, and I have decided to begin by trying to understand zoning.  I believe zoning offers a fundamental place to begin studying urban centers because it encodes the way that people organize cities.  In this research project I hope to make sense of how zoning influences the life of city residents.

So, as I crossed the bridge, I moved from one zone of the city to another and found it almost startling how evident this transition appeared.  On the North side of the Lehigh River, I walked up Main Street – a street fit for a children’s picture book and a far cry from the jumbled and crowded streets of the South side.  I eventually made my way to the Moravian Bookstore (the oldest bookstore in America), the Bethlehem Visitor’s Center, and then to the library at Moravian College.   At each of these places, I introduced myself and was flooded with advice about resources to exploit in my research endeavor.  It constantly pleases me to see how happy people become when asked for their input on a topic they know well.  Eventually I made my way back to the South side, stopping at the Bethlehem Area Public Library to discover the local history room, as well as the other Lehigh University library, Fairchild-Martindale, to watch a PBS documentary on the Bethlehem community on the way.

The Linderman Library at Lehigh University (The Chronicle, Carlson 2008)

The Linderman Library at Lehigh University (The Chronicle, Carlson 2008)

Although I had little I would have been able to check off a to-do list, I felt much more accomplished after this day than all the previous combined, simply because I had introduced myself to people.  Many of these individuals (the librarians especially) I’m sure will continue to be of aid in my research, and to have formed connections with individuals eager to help feels like an important step in this daunting research process.

Comments

  1. bdnorris says:

    Elena,

    I completely understand how overwhelming it may be to start a research project, but it sounds like your walk through Bethlehem was a great start! It seems like personally interacting with the city seems like one of the best ways to start this sort of project. What made you choose Bethlehem in particular to focus your research on zoning?

  2. Sara Pandl says:

    Elena,
    You have made a great start! Zoning is intended to help citizens with place-making both as a way to bring form to a community as it envisions its built future and mix of land uses and also as a reaction to problems and unattractive, unhealthful and unpleasant conditions.
    I look forward to reading the rest of you blogs throughout the summer!

  3. Hello,

    This research area strikes at the heart of civic culture in America. So much of what we think of community, cooperation, and even government is determined by our immediate surroundings and neighbors, I feel. I was wondering if you’ve encountered any mixed (income) housing programs or initiatives in Bethlehem. If not (or if so), what’s your opinion of such initiatives? Good luck this summer!

  4. Elena,

    I second Ben’s question. Is it that you’re from there or are there other reasons? I don’t have a way to objectively verify this before asking, but I have the impression that there are some small cities in America that have a celebrity and importance disproportionate to their size. I can’t prove that that’s the case and not just selection bias on my part and privileging a coincidence when I happen to see the same city’s name twice, but I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that America’s mythology has something of a love affair with small towns and small cities. This might be out of the purview of your research, but do you have any thoughts on that? Is there something about Bethlehem in particular that makes it a good case study?

  5. ekcarey says:

    Hi all!

    Thank you so much for your comments. First I’ll address Ben and Mac’s question. I chose Bethlehem, yes, partly because I live near to the city. But I think really this closeness stirred an interest that resides in more than simple convenience. I find the city really beautiful, but containing so many different components – the Moravian settlement remnants, the eclectic South Side, the steel factory, two colleges etc. The distinctness of separate areas of the city fascinates me, and so I wanted to endeavor to learn how these areas are encoded, and how the people understand them.

    And Macs, I can say with certainty America does have a love affair with small towns and cities (I, myself, being subject to this love affair). Just the other day I was at the South Side Film Festival in Bethlehem viewing a film titled Building America in Bethlehem about the rise and decline of Bethlehem Steel. It was told in a rather romantic fashion, and included segments detailing the graffiti at the plant. One tag on a piece of steel equipment had been painted one of the final days before the factory’s closing and read: “paradise lost.” That’s what I think America’s fallen in love with in these industry towns: the paradise lost sentiment associated with often hard, sometimes hellish, but completely necessary work.

    I think many other towns and cities could function as good case studies as well, but I think Bethlehem may be particularly well suited due to its layout and land use policies. The areas of the cities are rather distinct, since they used to be separate boroughs entirely, and the city has just approved a new zoning code, which makes all of this research even more intriguing.

    Devin, I must admit that I don’t know much about housing programs or initiatives in Bethlehem. I think that the South Bethlehem Neighborhood Center helps provide housing, although whether its mixed income I’m not sure. I’m sure though my research will necessitate studying these issues at some point though, so I’ll get back to you when I learn more!