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 an arts 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. The annual Musikfest draws one million people. The non-profit ArtsQuest operates two cultural arts centers: the Banana Factory and SteelStacks, presenting over 2,000 programs annually. 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 a passionate outreach to artists, arts organizations, community leaders and public officials to build community by making arts accessible in public spaces, a practice now called creative placemaking. Parks concludes that arts that are relevant to the community and offered in public spaces are crucial to building social capital, which in turn is important to community viability and economic prosperity. With three decades of experience in presenting arts programs in public spaces, Parks points to the arts as the distinguishing factor in Bethlehem’s community development, both because the arts have brought together people from all sectors of the community, regardless of economic or social status, and because the arts have helped to attract and retain creative workers needed for the region’s businesses from healthcare, education and financial services to manufacturing, logistics, arts and hospitality.
Today 28% of the population of Bethlehem is Latino, primarily from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Two of seven city council members are Puerto Rican. STRONGER THAN STEEL chronicles Bethlehem’s history of inclusion beginning with the Moravian founders of the city and reflected in the development of a Latino music stage at Musikfest, which sent a clear message of inclusion of that growing community in the city’s signature event.
With ArtsQuest, the parent non-profit that now presents Musikfest and the arts programs developed over 30 years, generating over six billion annual media impressions, Parks notes that the arts have a significant influence on a city’s brand. That brand is also essential to attract creative people and investment that sustain and grow a community.
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, creator of Musikfest and founder of ArtsQuest, shares the highs and lows of a thirty-year adventure in urban revitalization.