“We’re the Only Steel Town to Make it Out Alive”: Post-industrial ‘Success’ and Erasure in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Pete Hodson discusses social memory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and his internship at the National Museum of Industrial History:

It’s late November 1995. A steelworker whistles ‘Amazing Grace’ through the plant tannoy as Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnace is tapped for the final time. As the molten metal gushes into transportation cars, workers adopt solemn poses for commemorative photographs. The media turn up for interviews and film workers streaming out of the gates who will never return. After constant operation since 1863, Bethlehem’s steelworks falls silent. It’s a familiar story replicated across the United States. Economic void, cultural loss and social vacuum are terms to describe what usually comes next. Bethlehem, however, likes to market itself as the city that escaped shutdown unscathed: ‘we’re the only steel town to make it out alive’. If it has, what’s the magic formula? If it hasn’t, how has it avoided being written-off as a rust-belt failure?

Bethelehem
Bethlehem’s ‘South Side’, with the five blast furnaces in the background.

I arrived in Bethlehem in July 2018 for a Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership internship, based at the Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH). I knew next to nothing about the city nor its inhabitants, but I was well versed in North American deindustrialisation literature. As such, I expected a Detroit, or a Youngstown – in essence, a place still convulsed by the economic aftershocks of industrial decline. This is where the literature takes you, to the towns and cities where the negative effects of deindustrialisation are writ large on bodies and landscapes. Outwardly, downtown South Bethlehem appears to be in relatively good shape, using the standard metrics of urban regeneration success: nice paving, the presence of high-end shops and trendy bars. But these measurements are useless without exploring local social memory. Landscape aesthetics are unimportant; it is how people feel, use and understand spaces that can unlock deeper meaning, and expose hidden power structures.

NMIH occupies Bethlehem Steel’s former Electrical Repair Shop. Built in 1913, this imposing brick structure is one of a handful of repurposed buildings in a vast brownfield site hugging the Lehigh River. Over the road, the thirteen-storey headquarters lies asbestos-riddled and vacant. Looming into view across the car park are the five, rusting, blast furnaces. Regeneration is work-in-progress. Sands Casino, opened in 2009, is the area’s new commercial ‘anchor’ and occupies the eastern end of the sprawling site. Intriguingly, Sands Casino owns all of the land – including the iconic blast furnaces – and controls access to (and use of) space. Local people are sceptical about the durability of the new casino economy. The community is only too aware of the risks of placing all the eggs in one basket. One South Bethlehem interviewee recalled, as a child, she saw: ‘Things puffing away and the lights were all on at these main offices. And you saw something that was so vibrant. Will it ever be that again? I don’t know that gambling will ever do that’.[1] Bethlehem has endured Marx’s dictum of ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – and is braced for a second wave.

casino
Slot machines at Sands Casino, South Bethlehem.

NMIH opened in July 2016 after a somewhat turbulent genesis. Importantly, Bethlehem Steel is not the museum’s sole focus. NMIH dedicates substantial space to the Lehigh Valley’s textile and garment industry. The dominance of “The Steel”, physically and psychologically, served to obscure deindustrialisation in other sectors. The predominantly female-employing textile trade shed hundreds of workers after 1945, yet barely registered beyond immediately affected families. Hierarchy is apparent in popular memory: steel is ranked above garment manufacturing. NMIH is addressing this imbalance and has created a permanent textile gallery at the museum.

NMIH
NMIH exterior. Twin building, to the right, lies abandoned like much of the brownfield site.

My primary role at NMIH is to collect the oral testimony of Bethlehem families who lived through the deindustrialisation process. Oral history’s ‘deep, dark secret’ is that orality is often lost.[2] Typed-up transcripts create an enormous ‘flattening of meaning’.[3] To help combat this, NMIH decided to capture oral history on video and make the interviews digitally accessible for the public to research their ethnic, industrial and social history. Local historical societies have already begun the task of collecting oral history, but their work is patchy and rarely in the public domain. There is also evidence of bias towards early twentieth-century European ethnic history at the expense of more recent Hispanic immigration. Today, South Bethlehem is a majority Hispanic neighbourhood. Terraced homes originally built for first-generation European migrants have, in turn, been colonised by new arrivals from Puerto Rico, Mexico and further afield. Early Hispanic migrants, like ninety year-old Ismael Garcia, were actively sought by Bethlehem Steel to toil in grimier trades (notably the coke works). “The Steel” provided Ismael with a dangerous but lucrative living and the opportunity ‘to better myself. I didn’t care about how hard I worked’.[4] More recent arrivals have struggled in the post-steel low wage economy: ‘Now they want to chase them [Hispanics] out of here’ remarked Ismael, with more than a hint of irony.[5] The voices of Latino Bethlehem are seldom heard in narratives of the city’s industrial heritage, or those concerning its cultural rebirth. As Jackie Clarke reminds us, power structures and agendas also exist at a local history level, as well as within larger public history institutions. Dominant perspectives can bury others.[6]

So to return to the original question: has Bethlehem weathered the storm, relative to other former steel towns? We need to find methods of describing deindustrialisation in ways that moves beyond the simple binary distinction of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. The reality is murkier and more complex. The often crass boosterism of local authorities and the popular tendency to talk-down deindustrialising communities can become hegemonic labels. On the surface, Bethlehem has indeed ‘made it out alive’. A combination of luck, foresight and close narrative control saved the city from a worse fate. A number of key factors are at play. Crucially, the plant died slowly. Closure was neither sudden nor brutal. Economic diversification occurred from the 1960s, so other local employment soaked up job losses. (North) Bethlehem was founded by German Moravians in 1741 lending the city other (pre-steel) cultural resources to fall back on. Perhaps most significantly, there was an early recognition of what must be done to thrive in a consumer economy: investment in place-based arts, culture and urban beautification. The deprivation afflicting sections of Bethlehem’s Hispanic population reminds us that this economic model does not work for everyone.

How do we really measure post-industrial transformation? By unemployment figures, or the number of hipster bars? Local community social, economic and cultural well-being must remain the most important consideration. Whilst it is clear that Bethlehem emerged comparatively unscathed, it still bears the hallmarks of a community adjusting to relative economic trauma. The froth and excitement surrounding cultural regeneration can further obscure the plight of the marginalised. NMIH’s oral history project is an important means of excavating the myriad lived experiences of the unfolding deindustrial process.


Pete Hodson is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. His thesis is titled Memory, conflict and class: the experience and legacy of deindustrialisation in Belfast and North East England since 1970′. It adopts a comparative approach to examine the consequences of ‘managed’ and ‘catastrophic’ deindustrialisation. He has recently published in Cultural and Social History and has a forthcoming article in History Workshop Journal.

phodson01@qub.ac.uk


 

[1] Michael Frisch, ‘Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method’ in Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy (eds), Handbook of emergent methods (London, 2008), p. 222.

[2] Interview with Kathie Klein, 5 September 2018.

[3] Michael Frisch, ‘Oral history and the digital revolution: toward a post-documentary sensibility’ in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The oral history reader (2nd edn., London, 2006), p. 102.

[4] Interview with Ismael Garcia, 5 October 2018.

[5] Interview with Ismael Garcia, 5 October 2018.

[6] Jackie Clarke, ‘Closing Moulinex: thoughts on the visibility and invisibility of industrial labour in contemporary France’ in Modern & Contemporary France, vol 19 (2011), p. 454.

 

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