Those who consider history as nothing more than a dry iteration of facts and figures irrelevant to modern life should think again. In South Bethlehem, the past is a dynamic platform for building a burgeoning present and securing a flourishing future. And SteelStacks counts among the driving forces behind the economic—and cultural—turnaround transpiring in the abandoned brownfields of Bethlehem Steel. Crowds drawn to the community-focused site by concerts, movies, and festivals—most recently, ArtsQuest’s annual Musikfest, which set a new attendance record of 1,196,000 patrons—are ensconced in the bygone heyday of steel manufacturing. Massive blast furnaces, towering more than 200 feet in height and vibrantly illuminated at night, serve as the iconic backdrop to this lively riverside attraction.

The near-10 acre SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus, initially opened in early 2011, currently encompasses the four-story industrial-chic ArtsQuest Center, the Levitt Pavilion outdoor performance amphitheater, broadcasting headquarters of PBS 39, several repurposed historic buildings—the oldest of which houses the Bethlehem Visitor Center—multiple plazas, and the Hoover-Mason Trestle, an elevated walkway (which is free and open to the public) stretching a half-mile along the former narrow gauge railroad line that delivered iron ore and coke to the furnaces.

This one-of-a-kind arts, entertainment, and recreation complex, where industrial heritage melds with social and economic revitalization, recently achieved recognition on the national stage. “The SteelStacks campus and the Redevelopment Authority and its partners—ArtsQuest and PBS 39—were awarded the 2017 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence,” reports Tony Hanna, Executive Director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority. “It’s been an incredible success.”

Four other finalists providing stiff competition for this prestigious award, which honors innovative urban transformation, included ambitious projects in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and New Orleans. Past accolades bestowed on SteelStacks include the 2014 Global Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute.

“Big organizations such as the Bruner Foundation and the Urban Land Institute that do vast amounts of planning and review of projects both nationally and internationally look at SteelStacks and go, ‘You’ve created a special place,’” says Tony, who notes that more than exceptional aesthetics distinguish the campus. “When you look at Steelstacks, it’s an everyman’s story—and an everycity’s story. Every city in the Rust Belt has an old factory site, maybe an old steel mill or paper plant sitting on a river, and what we’re shown them is that with a little imaginations, a little chutzpah, and some creative financing, you can make a SteelStacks happen.”

When Bethlehem Steel Corp. ceased manufacturing operations in the city in 1995, the civic-minded company made several costly but ultimately fruitless attempts to redevelop the site—rather than simply fencing the 1,800-acre property and walking away. And, of course, there was a fiscal imperative to reinvent what amounted to 25 percent of the land in Bethlehem. “This was a significant amount of real estate which, when it was running as a plant, was generating a tremendous amount of revenue for the city, both in terms of jobs and real estate taxes,” Tony says.

The genesis of SteelStacks was sparked in 1997 when the City of Bethlehem and the Redevelopment Authority partnered in planning with the nonprofit ArtsQuest organization. “Things fell into place,” says Tony. “It was sort of a natural evolution.” Sands BethWorks donated adjacent land for SteelStacks, which “would be an anchor equal to the Sands Casino. One end was anchored by gaming, entertainment, and restaurants, and the revenue derived from the casino—the real estate taxes—were reinvested back into the site to create this arts and cultural campus to basically balance it off.”

For those looking to delve into Bethlehem’s steelmaking legacy, guided tours offer a spectrum of immersive experiences, such as “SteelWalkers Tours” and “Steeples and Steel” mini-bus tours offered periodically by The Steelworkers Archives, and Historic Bethlehem’s “Rise & Fall of Bethlehem Steel Walking Tour,” which highlights the multicultural and social aspects of life in the surrounding community.

“We talk about all the different ethnic groups that came to Bethlehem to work in the steel company. Walking through South Bethlehem was like walking through Europe or, later, other places in the world, because of all the different nationalities and languages spoken, and all the different smells of the foods cooking,” says Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites. The organization also offers a “Hoover-Mason Trestle Guided Tour.” All guides have a connection to Bethlehem Steel, either through a relative who worked there or as former employees themselves. 

On the cultural side, more than 750 free musical performances are presented each year, plus ticketed concerts, comedy shows and classes, and movies shown on two screens at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, featuring special screenings and series. 

ArtsQuest partnerships range from Peepsfest every December 30 and 31—a family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration that showcases the signature sweets of Just Born Quality Confections—to after-school programming for at-risk youth and numerous other appealing educational opportunities for children of varied ages. “Obviously there are major events that we produce, but ArtsQuest offers access to arts and culture to everyone,” says Patrick Brogan, chief programming officer.

This month, Oktoberfest, a free family-friendly festival, is the place to place to “come and have fun and celebrate the area’s German history, a little bit of our own Pennsylvania flair,” says Patrick. “It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, with events like the ‘Hasselhoff Off,’ where contestants dress like David Hasselhoff, all the way to the ‘Wiener Dog Races’”—i.e., dachshund races—“which is about as much fun as you can have on a Sunday afternoon.” Also look for beer, pretzels, brats, and other German food specialties.

In November and December, Christkindlmarkt marks its 25th anniversary with a stellar array of fine artisan crafts to tempt holiday shoppers Additional diversions include demonstrations, live music, and breakfast with St. Nicholas.

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