in 1982, the american steel industry was collapsing.
Unemployment in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was 13%. The historic downtown was in decline and residents were leaving town. In 1983, Bethlehem’s civic leaders decided to take an unusual direction to try to stem the tide of deindustrialization. They held a music festival!
Thirty-two years after the first Musikfest was held in 1984, in spite of the closing of the steel plant and subsequent bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel, Bethlehem is back on top. In 2016, among Pennsylvania cities with a population over 20,000, Bethlehem was one of two cities that had a greater population than in 1950, while boasting the highest median household income and the lowest poverty rate. Most impressive is that in the demographic of 25-34 years old with college degrees, Bethlehem, a city of 75,000, ranks ahead of the national average and just behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the state’s largest cities. Bethlehem has successfully reversed the brain drain and has become a magnet for the educated workforce.
STRONGER THAN STEEL is, in part, a memoir by Jeffrey A. Parks, the attorney who conceived Musikfest, the downtown festival that premiered in 1984. The author escorts readers on a journey from the quaint colonial Moravian village along the Lehigh River, that today represents the largest collection of colonial- era Germanic style buildings in the United States, through the industrial revolution and early twentieth-century boom to the bust of deindustrialization.
Parks describes the collapse of the downtown, as suburbs grew along with the ubiquitous malls. Simultaneously blight removal was used to rip up the downtown, while with federal subsidies, housing for low income residents exploded, leaving downtowns with a limited customer base. It was in the midst of this crisis that Bethlehem turned to a music festival to both support its small, historic downtown and to try to change the narrative that was inflamed by Billy Joel’s “Allentown”, the anthem of deindustrialization that includes Bethlehem in the lyrics.
The book shares stories of and from leaders who created Bethlehem’s historic district, the first in the state; created parks from former industrial sites adjacent to the downtown; restored Main Street; united the Lehigh Valley region to leverage economic development prospects; laid out a plan for the reuse of the steel plant; and took advantage of Pennsylvania’s new gaming industry by attracting a major gaming company to the former steel plant.
Today, Musikfest draws one million people annually. ArtsQuest, the non-profit parent of the festival, operates two cultural arts centers: the Banana Factory and SteelStacks, presenting over 2,000 programs each year. Educated young people are returning to find a culturally, socially and economically robust city.
STRONGER THAN STEEL is a first-hand account of the decline and revival of a city that was once the national poster child of deindustrialization, but is now the model of adaptation to a post-industrial economy. Jeffrey A. Parks shares the highs and lows of a thirty-year adventure in urban revitalization.