Allentown’s 250th Anniversary

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down…

The City of Allentown has blown those 1982 Billy Joel lyrics sky high with its 250th anniversary celebration, a multi-part extravaganza stretching from New Year’s Eve 2012 to New Year’s Eve 2013. TV host and magician Barte Shadlow, with input from residents in many city neighborhoods, has replaced those dismal lines with words he believes more fitting for today’s city:

Well we’re thriving here in Allentown
It’s the jewel in Pennsylvania’s crown

“A lot of great stuff is happening here,” Shadlow said. “I thought it would be fun to rewrite the song and emphasize the positive.”

In this 250th year or – if you can handle this – the town’s semiquincentennial anniversary, there is much to celebrate and a lot of celebrating going on in Pennsylvania’s third largest city. In fact, Mayor Ed Pawlowski said, “This is an exciting time in our history. We are very optimistic about the future and we are proud of our past. Allentown is blessed with many civic-minded people, businesses, and community and neighborhood groups and organizations that combined their talents to produce a fantastic weekend celebration that culminated with the Points of Pride Parade and Community Festival.”

The September parade said it all about Allentown.  One of Allentown’s own, NFL football legend Andre Reed – called “one of the greatest wide receivers of his era” – was emcee at the parade’s opening ceremonies and at the festival following. Parade-goers visually traveled through the centuries as each division represented a 50-year period of the city’s history. The final division portrayed the city’s future. The festival brought together all the communities that comprise the city and offered food, art, performances and lots of fun-filled activities.

That big weekend, the centerpiece of the yearlong celebration, also featured a Peace and Prosperity Ecumenical Service. That event began with a cookout in Arts Park and then moved on to an evening service in Symphony Hall.

As part of “Hess’s Hollywood on Hamilton” several area restaurants rolled out red carpets for diners in honor of Hess’s Patio, serving favorites from the old menu. Party-goers capped off the evening with a VIP after-party at Cosmopolitan where all the guests were asked to wear either red or retro costumes. It was a particularly appropriate place for the VIP party. The elegant restaurant’s giant, bright-as-diamonds chandelier once hung from the ceiling of the old Hess’s Department Store.

Tara Craig, special events manager for the City of Allentown, called the city’s response to the celebration heart-warming. “I’ve known we’ve been fortunate to have such wonderful sponsors and partners in an ordinary year but this year everything was elevated. I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm among businesses and organizations and individuals and I was surprised at how creative our population is. An event like this takes a lot of energy but it requires a lot of creativity, too.  It was wonderful to see the dedication of so many individuals and to feel their love for the city,” says Craig.

Throughout the year that creativity and energy popped a number of annual programs under the anniversary umbrella. They included the Summer in the City Music Series, the Plaza Growers Market, the anniversary concert at West Park, the Old Allentown House Tour, Maze and a Movie at Dadonna Terrace, the Seventh Street Day of the Dead Festival and the Halloween Parade.

Still to take place are the Downtown Tree Lighting Ceremony on Nov. 29, the America on Wheels Gala on Nov. 30.

Partygoers will have it all as they mark the end of the anniversary and ring in 2013 at a downtown event. The year’s Grand Finale, which begins at 6 p.m., is planned to be family-friendly and will feature food, beverages, carriage rides, fire dancers, ice carvers and a countdown-to-midnight. A half hour before 2013 arrives, those attending will join together on Hamilton Street to watch the Liberty Bell drop to ring in the New Year. The Town Bell from Zion’s Church will also be rung. Participants can buy 250th commemorative bells to help them remember the year in an especially historic way.

The Liberty Bell has special significance for Allentown and marks the city’s dedication to the American cause.  Patriots feared the British would capture the treasured bell when they occupied Philadelphia and melt it down to make their own weapons. They took the Liberty Bell from the city and carried it to Allentown where they hid it in Zion’s United Church of Christ on Hamilton Street. It was one of 11 city bells swept away to Allentown for hiding.

The celebration would surely surprise William Allen, who in 1762, drew up plans for a country village. Allen, chief justice of Colonial Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court and former mayor of Philadelphia, named his village Northamptontown, but to most it was simply Allen’s town, until it became Allentown in 1838.

Some Allentown treasures

• Allentown has more parks that any city of its size in the country.  They vary from Trexler Park, off Springhouse Road, a great place to jog or walk; West Park, between 15th and 17th streets, its bandshell filled with music most summer evenings, to Arts Park, a treasure stowed on the northwest corner of Fifth and Court streets, between the Allentown Art Museum and the Baum School of Art.

• A great place for luncheon is the Café at the Allentown Art Museum. It is just off Arts Park and in the summer workers often order take-out at the Café and dine al fresco in the park. In cold weather, but warm and cozy in the Café, they can admire the wintry park scene through walls of glass.

• Speaking of lunch, Syb’s West End Deli at 2151 West Liberty St., is a favorite hangout of Muhlenberg College students as well as West Enders.  An old-style Jewish deli with all the trimmings, it offers both a sense of nostalgia and one of permanence.

• Another Allentown institution is Camody Shoe Services at 502 North 15th St. In an age where many good shoe repair shops have gone the way of dinosaurs, Camody’s, with its rich scent of fine leather and polish, just goes on and on.

• Those who want to dig into the events of Allentown’s distant past, long before the Allens arrived, would find a visit to the Museum of Indian Culture especially interesting. Situated at 2825 Fish Hatchery Road, it has a great Northeast Woodland Room where visitors can learn how the original people made tools, twisted cords from plant fiber and seemingly pulled fire from stone or sticks. Beadwork, pottery and baskets made by the Lenape, the Passamaquoddy and the Iroquois are on display at the museum.

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