South Side Arts District

South Side Arts District

Organized in 2015, Bethlehem’s South Side Arts District is building on a resurgent business and cultural district anchored by the SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus and the unique shops, pubs, and restaurants that are creating a sustained buzz in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

The South Side Arts District, part of the nationally recognized Main Street program that seeks to revitalize downtowns and central business districts, started in partnership with Lehigh University and the Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation to help spur
economic development.

In under two years, the organization has staged events, sponsored public artwork—both aesthetic and functional—and added colorful landscaping to foster a vibrant urban setting that exudes safety, hospitality, and energy.

With breathless enthusiasm, Missy Hartney, South Side Arts District Manager, is as proud of what her group has achieved as she is eager to tap into the possibilities as South Bethlehem continues to evolve as a sought-after destination.

Here’s what the Bethlehem native had to say recently about the South Side Arts District’s work and what lies ahead.

Why is art important to the South Side community?

Communities gain tremendous value from art: socially, culturally, and economically. Strong public art transforms environments, and it creates a stronger sense of identity and the feeling of belonging somewhere. In turn, that creates loyalty and a more productive workforce. The thing that I like best about public art is that it’s accessible to everyone—you don’t have to go to a museum to see it, and it’s there for you to appreciate any time. It encourages people to think, to pay attention, and to have a conversation, whether they like the work or not. We are living in a time when everyone is moving so quickly, and I like the idea that the South Side Arts District is making an effort to slow people down, to stop and look, and to reflect on what they see.

What are your goals for the South Side Arts District?

We really want this community to be an inviting place for artists and entrepreneurs, where you feel the spirit of enthusiasm from every angle. When you step back and look at South Bethlehem, there are so many great things happening because business owners are working together collectively to support economic development and enrichment of the artistic side of this community.

Can you describe some of your accomplishments and new projects inspired by the South Side Arts District?

One of our first projects, done in collaboration with ArtsQuest, was a 34-foot-high by 45-foot-wide mural depicting work life at Bethlehem Steel on East Third Street right off the Fahy Bridge. It created a buzz in the Valley, which is really what we wanted—to start a conversation and a dialogue revolving around the subjectivity of art.

We also welcomed a new mural at Bonn Place Brewing Co. on Taylor Street, which was done by Lehigh University students, and features a Mountain Hawk theme.

In July, we added seven artist-designed bike racks throughout the district. They’re both functional and beautiful. One of them is shaped like the Star of Bethlehem. Another functions as a café table, allowing bikers a place to park, relax, and enjoy the restaurant scene.

We’re also extremely proud of our South Side Ambassadors, who work hard to keep the district clean and provide hospitality to visitors. We’ve done quite a lot to improve the landscape of South Bethlehem, and we’re just getting started with our first South Side Restaurant Week last month. We’re extremely excited to showcase all the amazing cuisines South Bethlehem has to offer.

Why did you want to be part of this organization?

South Bethlehem is on the cusp of a major revitalization movement. We’ve seen it with the addition of ArtsQuest and the Steel Stacks campus, but we’re really just getting started.

We want to be recognized nationally as a dynamic community where existing businesses thrive and new business want to be located, where visitors and patrons feel comfortable and welcome. We want to be known as a community where diversity and heritage are respected and celebrated, and where community stakeholders work together to plan for a vibrant future. To be a part of that is a once in lifetime opportunity.

Is the Arts District a purely volunteer organization?

No, but we need volunteers. Right now, it’s a two-person employed staff and five volunteer committees helping us execute our goals. But as we add more events and community projects, we will certainly be looking for volunteers in the community.

What has been your proudest achievement with the arts district?

Our collaborations. The community, business leaders, and shop owners have all really stepped up to the plate and are ready to work to make the district reach its full potential. And it’s been really inspiring to see so many people working together to make South Bethlehem everything it can and will be.

What makes South Bethlehem special and fertile ground for your organization and its work?

When you step back and look at all South Bethlehem has to offer, there’s a lot. We have unique boutiques and shops like Color Me Mine and Apotheca. We have historic attractions like the National Museum of Industrial History or viewing the old blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel from the Hoover Mason Trestle. Of course, we also have amazingly diverse restaurants. There’s The Bookstore Speakeasy, where you can step back in time to the 1920s; Jenny’s Kuali, which serves Malaysian and vegetarian fare; or Molinari’s, which serves Italian cuisine so authentic that you’ll probably speak a little Italian by the time you leave.

Then there’s our entertainment offerings like Touchstone Theatre, Zoellner Arts Center, Godfrey Daniels, SteelStacks, the Sands Event Center, and on top of all that, we have a multitude of diverse events we host, like Musikfest, First Friday, Spring on the South Side, and now Restaurant Week.

You can’t help but want to be a part of it all. We’re a district on the move. When I look around, it’s exciting to think of what will happen here over the next few years. Everywhere you look there’s expanding opportunity for leisure activities, beauty, and art.

What’s on the horizon?

We’re revamping First Friday, which has long been South Bethlehem’s signature monthly event. We want to keep all of the great features in place now, but we’re also working hard to bring back the artistic and bohemian feel that it once had by partnering with Lehigh Valley Underground. Starting in September, each First Friday will host a series of concerts showcasing at least five different music venues and genres throughout 3rd and 4th Streets with one main stage artist outside.

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