Destination Neighborhood: Allentown’s West End Theatre District

Destination Neighborhood: Allentown’s West End Theatre District

By Frederick Jerant

Visit any decent-sized city, and you’ll probably find some “destination” neighborhoods – special shopping districts, ethnic strongholds, or historically significant zones.

And in the west end of Allentown, you’ll find the West End Theatre District, a bustling enclave of residential properties, merchants and artistic venues that’s like no other place in the city – maybe even the entire Lehigh Valley.

The District is bordered by 17th, 22nd, Washington and Liberty Sts. It encompasses about 5,000 residents and nearly 160 businesses, ranging from national chains to single-site merchants including Blink Optical Boutique, BOUTIQUETOGO and STEP in 4 MOR.

And its name reflects the four key venues within: the 19th Street Theater, Theatre 514, Muhlenberg College’s Performance Center on Chew St. and the Pines Dinner Theater on 17th.

Getting better all the time

Thanks to an ongoing revitalization effort spearheaded by the non-profit West End Alliance, the district has become a real draw – not just for the neighbors, but for people throughout the Lehigh Valley as well.

Joe Schaffer, owner of Allentown Appliances, and a member of the Alliance board, is pleased to be part of it.

“It’s a unique situation,” he says, “because it’s a neighborhood as well as a business district. I can walk to my bank or to a restaurant, and drop in on a neighbor on my way back. The atmosphere is completely different from a strip mall’s.”

He adds that his business carries some hard-to-find items, so his customer base comes from a wide area. “When customers come in, I tell them about the other things they can do around here, like the Civic Theatre or the Fairgrounds Farmers’ Market.”

Birth of the Alliance

The seeds for the Alliance were inadvertently planted when a major auto parts store announced its plans to take over a then-vacant property on 19th St.

“It started as a group of people coming together for a common cause,” recalls Michael Drabenstott, president of the West End Alliance. “We saw that building [site of the former Shanty restaurant] as a cornerstone property, and thought that Auto Zone would be better suited to another location. And so we fought it.”

“We decided to take a more proactive stance, looking for other things we could do to make the area more attractive to the residents and to bring in better-fitting businesses.”

The group succeeded, and Auto Zone finally opened at 15th and Tilghman Sts.

That victory led to the formal founding of the West End Alliance as a 501(c)3 neighborhood development organization. Its governing board includes representatives of residents, nearby businesses and Muhlenberg College.

“We decided to take a more proactive stance, looking for other things we could do to make the area more attractive to the residents and to bring in better-fitting businesses,” Drabenstott adds.

The Alliance’s efforts were enhanced by a 2004 marketing research study, performed by Muhlenberg students, that addressed such concerns as perceptions of the area, improvement ideas, and other matters.

Much more than a facelift

Those improvements are most obvious in the heart of the District – that is, 19th St. between Liberty and Tilghman. The more attractive, pedestrian-friendly area offers a sort of welcome mat for businesses that might move in, and for consumers aiming to spend some money.

The recently completed $1.6 million streetscaping project saw the replacement of sidewalks and curbs; installation of new power lines; new brickwork at crosswalks; the planting of young trees along the curbs, with ground-level uplights for soft visual accents after sundown; flower-filled planters; installation of several bike hitches; attractive park benches; and nighttime lighting for the World War II memorial at 19th and Allen.

Board member and Blink Optical owner Suzanne Hauck adds that the architect worked with neighbors and board members in choosing many of the design elements.

And while some vintage commercial architecture has disappeared from the downtown scene, businesses in the district can benefit from an ongoing façade restoration program.

“The city of Allentown and qualifying merchants will each pay half of the costs of renovating storefronts in the District,” Drabenstott says. “We’ve already received several applications and  hope to award the funds within the next few months.”

He adds that, although “anything goes” is not permitted, the guidelines of the program are not excessively stringent. “Plans will receive an architectural review, to ensure they’re appropriate to the neighborhood. We want the designs to echo the Art Deco look of the 19th Street Theatre, but not necessarily imitate it.”

With so many visual changes, it should surprise no one that the district will continue to work with its businesses, residents and the Allentown Arts Commission in presenting curated art exhibits at Blink and Theatre 514. “We’ve done this for three years,” Hauck says, “and we host openings together. It gives people a chance to meet the artists and discuss their works.”

Synergy abounds

To understand the level of synergy in the district, just consider the long relationship between the 19th Street Theatre and Muhlenberg College.

One of the District’s anchor properties, the venue opened in September, 1928, making it the oldest movie theater in the city. It’s been home to silent films, talkies and even accommodated the original 3D trend. In 1957, the Civic Little Theater (now called the Civic Theatre of Allentown) bought the property, and added community stage productions to the entertainment mix.

(The theater group also offers acting programs for youth and adults; its illustrious alumni include former residents Amanda Seyfried, Michaela Conlin, Dan Roebuck, Dane DeHaan and Christine Taylor.)

Today, the 19th Street Theatre is the last single-screen theater in Allentown. It shows about 60  independent and international movies each year and hosts special events such as “Science on Screen,” which paired fanciful movies with scientific presentations.

It also operates Theater 514, a flexible “black box” venue for staged and film presentations.

When Dr. Randy R. Helm became president of Muhlenberg College, “The 19th Street Theatre was one of the first things I noticed in the area,” he says. “And when I looked around the neighborhood, I saw family restaurants, interesting shops and other attractions within walking distance of the campus. As I got to know the neighborhood better, I thought Muhlenberg should partner with everyone who wanted to make this a lively place.”

“It’s been amazing to work with President Helm,” says Michael Traupman, managing director of the Civic. “He’s helped reduce the ‘town vs. gown’ mentality by bringing much of the Muhlenberg community into the theatre and into the neighborhood.

“The school’s activities committee selects films for late-night viewing, and those are open to the public. Students qualify for member-rate tickets and other discounts. And some of them serve internships with us.”

“It’s one of Allentown’s gems,” adds Michael Bruckner, Muhlenberg’s vice president of public relations, “and we want to see it improve. It also helps us with our student activities and recruiting programs.”

And Muhlenberg was there to help the Civic cross its $160,000 fundraising goal to convert both theaters to digital projection – a major undertaking but a necessary one, as movie distributors have all but eliminated 35mm prints.

“We can now show a wider variety of films, with a high-quality image,” Traupman says, “and even carry simulcasts of opera performances.”

In return, Muhlenberg enjoys increased access to those facilities. For example, its film studies group views relevant movies as a part of their classes, and professors sometimes use films to enhance class discussions.

The District is also home to some notable special events, particularly the annual Oktoberfest celebration.

“There had always been a ‘fall festival’ run by the Alliance,” says Blink’s Hauck. “I suggested doing Oktoberfest as a fund-raiser for District projects, and it has really taken off.” The day-long street party (on October 5 this year) features plenty of live music – everything from polka bands to crunching blues – authentic German food and other munchies from local vendors, beers by Fegley’s BrewWorks, Vynecrest wines, arts’n’crafts and lots, lots more.

More to come

Despite the extensive renovations, the Alliance is not resting on its laurels. Future projects (in various stages of planning) include:
• A major renovation of Theatre 514. Its capacity, patron comfort and accessibility will increase; and the screen will be repositioned for an enhanced viewing experience.
• The replacement of the forbidding chain-link barrier at the Fairgrounds with a more attractive black-powder-coated fencing and new gates on Liberty and Chew Sts. “There will also be brick columns every 50 to 100 feet,” Drabenstott says, along with additional sidewalk and crosswalk work at key intersections.
• A full-scale renovation of the 19th Street Theatre, to restore the luster of the grand old building.
• Expansion of Oktoberfest. “We plan to go clear up to Allen St.,” Hauck says, “and feature more artists and more crafters – sort of like a street-long art walk. We might add an acoustic music venue and a second beer stand at the corner, as well as a bigger kids’ section.”

The investments of time and effort are paying off.  Amy’s Sweets and Treats recently opened, Mayfair will return to the Fairgrounds, a hair salon is in the works, and the legendary Shanty restaurant is being prepped for reopening, Drabenstott says.

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