West Allentown

By Kathryn Finegan Clark

Without a doubt, the most colorful, endearing and enduring holiday tradition in Allentown’s West End is the annual staging of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

This adaptation of the 1843 classic will mark its 21st year at the Civic Theatre of Allentown. Last year, more than 7,000 tickets were sold, some of them to families who return year after year to shiver with fear, cry and laugh with a cast of local actors.

This year’s performances run from Dec. 3 through Dec. 15, along with four days of matinees for school children throughout the Lehigh Valley.

Artistic director William Sanders pays homage to the audience each year by inserting a small surprise either in the script or setting, some little change or addition that will attract their attention, a special treat for their loyalty. The actors, too, are local for the most part, and many are children, products of the Civic Theatre School, which for 50 years, has provided training in drama and the theater arts. They take part in children’s productions and audition for and perform in regular shows. Sanders, who’s been artistic director at the theater since 1990, and Sharon Lee Glassman, president of the theater’s board, adapted the classic for their Allentown audience.

The ornate theater at 527 North 19th St. was built in 1927 for vaudeville acts and silent films, and Sanders calls the Art Deco structure “the historic grande dame of the West End.”

The West End extends roughly from 19th Street in the east to Cedar Crest Boulevard on the west, and from Route 22 southward to Route 222.

The 1920s and 1930s were important years in development of the area. It is a steady, substantial place, a pleasant collection of quiet neighborhoods and well-trimmed lawns and shrubbery with a few mansions scattered here and there.

In a way, Allentown’s West End is a community caught in time. Its streets are mostly uniform blocks of attractive tree-shaded single homes. The area grew steadily as development moved westward from the Lehigh River, and city streets began to take over what was once sprawling farmland.

Although there have been changes, of course, such as the addition of shopping centers, much of the community appears now as it did before World War II, offering an air of welcome stability. Few of the existing homes were built after 1939. Cedar Creek Park, with its meandering creek and Lake Muhlenberg, stretches along the West End’s southern border. A rose garden there is glorious in the spring, a riot of colorful blossoms spreading sweet scents and delighting gardeners.

Just north of the park fronting on Chew Street lies Muhlenberg College. Founded in 1884, the liberal arts school is named forHenry Melchior Muhlenberg, who headed the Lutheran Church in Colonial America.

The 82-acre campus is a mix of handsome architectural styles, old and new, that somehow fit comfortably together as a seemingly unending stream of ever-young students walk the shaded paths to their classrooms.

A West End landmark, as well as the college’s grandest structure, is the Egner Memorial Chapel. With its soaring arches and glowing stained glass windows, the stunning chapel is said to be one of the finest Gothic campus churches in the country. Its December candlelight services, a holiday tradition, are popular with students as well as West End residents.

Muhlenberg College, like many educational institutions accepted only men for its first 100 or so years, but turned to co-ed admissions in the 1950s. It maintains an enrollment of about 2,200 undergraduates but it also offers continuing education, summer programs and online classes.

Students and many faculty members are tightly bound to the community surrounding the campus and involved with community partnership programs. Town and gown truly work together here.

Cedar Crest College, just a few miles away at 100 College Drive, was founded in 1867 as a women’s liberal arts college and has steadfastly maintained its all-female status admissions policy ever since (note: men are admitted to the college’s evening division). Its 1,400 female students live and study at the 84-acre park-like campus. Its William F. Curtis Arboretum is nationally registered and contains more than 130 species of trees.

Cedar Crest, like Muhlenberg, also works well with its West End community, offering continuing education and graduate programs.

One of two very unusual places on campus is the Rodale Aquatics Center. While not a part of the college, the center offers swimming lessons and provides opportunities to the larger community to develop mind, body and spirit, encouraging a healthy lifestyle.

The other is the Da Vinci Science Center at the corner of the Hamilton Boulevard Bypass and Cedar Crest Boulevard. Built in 2005 on land leased from Cedar Crest College on the edge of the campus, the center measures 25,000 square feet and has 30 work stations and space for about 200 exhibits.

The Da Vinci venture was born in 1989, a collaboration between Lehigh University, the Junior League of the Lehigh Valley and the Bethlehem Junior Woman’s Club. The organization adopted Leonard da Vinci as its muse.

After morphing through several name changes and partnerships it became an independent non-profit organization in 1999, and has settled on Da Vinci Science Center as its name. It promotes the study of science through hands-on problem solving and helps young people to learn about career opportunities in science and technology.

In a single year, 2008, for example, sources claimed the Center worked with more than 75,000 people, including nearly 21,000 children from 56 school districts who experienced either structured Da Vinci Science Center field trips or outreach programs.

The center also provides training to elementary educators from the region’s school districts and there’s even a pre-school program.

Allentown’s West End is actually a suburb masquerading as a city that offers convenience, culture and comfort—a distinctive atmosphere surrounded by urban greenery, and a nice place to live.

Kathryn Finegan Clark, a journalist and winner of a National Press Club award and state and regional prizes, has been writing feature articles for Lehigh Valley Marketplace for several years.
In last month’s Because You Live Here, it was stated that Chuck Bednarik, John Grogan and Mike Portnoy were natives of Coopersburg; this statement was incorrect. Marketplace regrets the error.

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