Blast Furnace Phoenix: The Death and Life of Bethlehem Steel

Blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel--Library of Congress, compiled 1968 by the Historic American Engineering Record

Blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel–Library of Congress, compiled 1968 by the Historic American Engineering Record

Since its beginnings in 1861, Bethlehem Steel was an industry giant.  If you’ve ever driven over a bridge, you’ve driven over Bethlehem steel–the company supplied material for the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington bridge, and countless other transportation projects.  Bethlehem steel was used in the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center in New York City.  It was used in cannons and naval guns for World War II.  It was the bulwark of employment for the Lehigh Valley.

I never knew it as such.

For me, Bethlehem Steel was the depressing figure represented in Billy Joel’s song “Allentown” (which was actually about Bethlehem, but Allentown is easier to rhyme).  It meant job layoffs and run-down buildings that reinforced my perception of the South Side as the “bad” part of town.  Reading the paper, the only stories about Bethlehem Steel were stories of woe: looming bankruptcy and broken promises in regards to pensions.  In 1995, when I was in 8th grade, the company ceased operations in Bethlehem.

Broken out windows on old steel site

Broken out windows on old steel site

This left the buildings sitting around rusting like an urban graveyard.  It was clear that any revitalization of the South Side needed to address the land and buildings left from the company, striking a balance between recognizing their historical importance and giving the city the new jobs it needed as it remodeled itself on a tourist-driven economy.  There were rumors that the Smithsonian was going to come and create a Museum of Industrial History, but the process was so slow-moving I didn’t believe they were actually true (Googling, it turns out the site is still under construction).  The Johnson Machine shop, which I remembered as warehouses with broken windows, was transformed into condominiums, a fitness center, and a restaurant in 2006.  In 2007, the main site was controversially sold to the Sands corporation to build a casino, hotel, and shopping center; plans for the hotel and shopping center were delayed due to the recession, but the casino construction went ahead using an industrial theme.

Sands Casino

Sands Casino

The blast furnaces themselves were such a unique architectural feature that the city decided to preserve them–especially when they attracted Michael Bay’s notice, who used the site as the set for a fictional Chinese city in the movie Transformers 2.

Steel set for Transformers 2

Steel set for Transformers 2–from Transformers Live Action Movie Blog

The furnaces then became tied to the city’s other great passion: the arts.  Since 1984, ArtsQuest has promoted the arts in Bethlehem primarily through Musikfest, a free (except for the “big name” groups) concert festival, and then through the Banana Factory, a community arts and education center a short distance away on the South Side.  When the steel site became available, they seized the opportunity to take their mission even further, creating an arts and cultural center dubbed the “SteelStacks”.  With artistic lighting, the blast furnaces create a stunning backdrop to the indoor and outdoor concert spaces that SteelStacks offers along with its cinema and farmer’s market.  The organization is very careful about offering a balance of ticketed events to ensure that they support themselves with free events to allow all citizens access to the arts.  I’ve been very excited to see the ways they’ve partnered with the schools to allow students to have “real” performances and exhibitions (especially since the neighboring Allentown School District is threatening to eliminate the arts from their schools due to budget cuts).  All in all, I’m proud to see my hometown honor its past while looking to the future.

Levitt Pavilion opening--from

Levitt Pavilion opening–from

Blast furnace, meet QR code

Blast furnace, meet QR code

This entry was posted in Exercises and tagged , by Katie Kaczmarek. Bookmark the permalink.

About Katie Kaczmarek

1st year English Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. I'm interested in investigating how print authors are changing the way they write to appeal to the generation who reads differently because they have grown up with technology.

13 thoughts on “Blast Furnace Phoenix: The Death and Life of Bethlehem Steel

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