When Bethlehem Steel closed down in 1995 after 135 years, Sands Casino and Arts Quest moved in. Come to the Lehigh Valley for historic cobblestone streets, the oldest book store in the world, one of the largest Celtic Festivals and Music Festivals in the US, real American Factory tours, a juicy steak at Emeril's, and a gin concoction at an authentic speakeasy.
Bethlehem Steel, which you may recall from Billy Joel's song, Allentown ("Out in Bethlehem they're killing time; Filling out forms; Standing in line") once employed 30,000 workers. Behemoth blast furnaces -- five stretch a quarter mile and belch cobalt-blue flames -- were emblems of this working class town. The factory pumped out the steel that built New York's Empire State Building, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, and thousands of structures in between.
Reclaiming Pride Through the Arts
After it closed in 1995 after 135 years, the former Bethlehem Steel complex became the largest Brownfield redevelopment site in the United States. Honoring the factory's history while nurturing one of the country's largest Arts and Cultural organizations, Arts Quest (which debuted in April 2012), entwined amid rusted out 230 ft. high smelters and abandoned industrial buildings on what is known as the "Steel Stack Campus," became a way to bring economic development to the area.
"10 Days, 15 Stages, More Than 500 Performances"
Though Arts Quest is new, Bethlehem, PA is no stranger to the performing arts. Bethlehem's flagship festival is Musikfest; a mostly free summer (August) Blues and Rock fête which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2013 and is the "Largest Free Music Festival in America." Fourteen out of fifteen stages on twenty acres offer free access.
Bethlehem Takes A Gamble
Sands Casino took over a good portion of Bethlehem Steel in 2009, and purportedly brings 5-7 million people to the region. Sands Casino enjoys a very close partnership with ArtsQuest. Just walk out the casino door and you'll find the vestiges of Bethlehem Steel; outbuildings and furnaces lit up at night like the Land of Oz. Some buildings have been repurposed as event and performance spaces, auditoriums, cinemas, with plans for more revitalization in the works. "There's no reason this mile long block of structures can't be turned into another Austin or Nashville," says one town official.
Built Like A Mack Truck
Make sure to visit Mack Truck Customer Center in Allentown. Currently the Testing and Development facility for all trucks made in the nearby Macungie, PA plant, it was opened as a museum in 2010. Check in at the front desk, which is actually the grill of a Mack Truck. Behind the receptionist, an LED lit array of 112 Bulldog ornaments -- marking 112 years in business -- fades from red to white to blue, signaling that Mack trucks have always been Made in America.
Two Mack brothers launched their wagon and carriage company in Brooklyn, NY, then, in 1905, joined a third brother who lived in Allentown, PA. The Macks began to develop the heavy-duty vehicles most identified with the company today. So solidly were they built, JP Morgan himself backed the company, which went on to manufacture military vehicles for the First World War effort. GI's noticed that the front grill of the Mack Truck looked like a bulldog, and thus a corporate symbol was born. The first hood ornament design was carved from a bar of Ivory Soap and in 1933, the somewhat blocky Bulldog radiator cap became the identifying feature of every Mack Truck.
The museum offers a timeline of the company, which flagged a bit in the 1960's. Enter forward-thinking Zenon C.R. Hansen, who pumped up the workforce with "you make the difference" coins that he'd distribute to employees going the extra mile. "Without you there'd be no Mack Truck," he'd say. In 1970, Hansen led an expansion that continues to this day.
Plan on about two hours to tour the museum. In addition to the timeline and artifacts, you'll see prototypes of engines that never made it into full production (like a jet engine with no power to speak of but could work up quite a bit of speed). You'll stand in the "Sound Room," a warehouse-sized engine testing room encompassed by foam walls that completely eliminate noise emissions, and enter another testing area where 60 MPH winds, icy conditions, and other settings for extreme environments can be artificially generated.
The Lehigh Valley is replete with automotive history; the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first superhighway in the country. And racing champion, Mario Andretti, lives nearby. So, it's only natural that the America On Wheels Museum should be located in Allentown.
America On Wheels is one of those quirky collections where Pee Wee Herman's bike sits next to a 50 year old MG, go-carts, and antique cars. There's an old Harley, a UPS Truck with two million miles on its odometer and a Stanley Steamer steam-driven car. Perhaps most fascinating is a mock-up of "Guys Garage," - a reconstructed garage from the 1950's stocked with hand tools; not a hint of computer electronics. Top off your visit with an egg cream at the "Hubcap Café" - an authentic 30's soda fountain shipped in from Lyons, Indiana.
The Lehigh Valley is also known for products recognized around the world. And two factory tours give you hand's on experience;
Color Outside the LInes
Plan on two to four hours at the Crayola Experience . Soon to upgrade the facility to "brand level," The Crayola Experience is not a factory tour per se but a manufacturing demonstration and hands on wonderland, with nine interactive "activity stations." Over 45 billion crayons have been made by Crayola since the factory opened in 1903. Initially, local farmers were hired to hand label each crayon for nineteen cents an hour before that task was automated in 1943. Made from paraffin wax, clay and pigment, Crayola Crayons are listed on the "Top 20 Most Recognizable Smells" list. You can while away a good number of minutes in the comprehensive gift shop where the "Largest Crayon In the World" - at 15 feet long and 1,500 lbs - is displayed among all things Crayola.
Smell the treated wood, tread on sawdust, watch artisans measure, sand, glue, and stain the parts of each Martin Guitar into a burnished, musical whole. Learn about "highly engineered bending devices," otherwise known as clothespins, and see the special robots built to polish each guitar body to a high gloss. Though cut and polished by machine, each guitar is still hand-assembled with the same care and precision that each of six generations of Martins have since CF Martin opened its doors in 1839. The narrated walking tour takes you past craftsmen and women working on 8,000 acoustic guitars in various stages of assembly, with 250 completed every day. Who loves these Martin Guitars? The Japanese do! And Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, John Mayer. The Beatles used them for the White Album. Steven Stills coddled one on the cover of the first Crosby, Stills, Nash album. Paul McCartney played one during Superbowl halftime, and Jimmy Buffet came in to personally check on his custom design. Tours last about an hour and run from 11am-2:30PM Monday-Friday. Free.
Where to Eat
If you're in the mood for an excellent steak, inventive cocktails and toothsome sides, go post haste to Emeril's Chop House at Sands Casino. White linen, crystal, attentive service - you'll feel like a million bucks even if you've emptied your wallet at the gaming tables. If Emeril's is too rich for your blood, down a pint at St. James Gate traditional Irish Pub or head to the "market" - a Food Court where you can get a (relatively) modestly-priced "Mo' Burger." In town on the factory side of the river, enjoy a Prohibition-era cocktail at The Bookstore; a low-ceiling, candlelit speakeasy that is literally hidden behind a bookshelf. Cross the river to Historic Bethlehem, and visit the British Isles at McCarthy's Tea Room, a cozy, unpretentious place for breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner, where homemade soups and stews will put you right.
Where to Shop
If it's a Kilt you'll be lookin' for, there's a selection at Donegal Squaree; your source for everything Celtic. Next door, visit the "World's Oldest Continuously Operating Book Store," the Moravian Bookshop, which has many books and a dizzying number of gifts, home goods and even food.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Bethlehem was built for those natty steel and railroad tycoons in the 1920's and has surged back to life recently as the most posh full-service hotel in the Lehigh Valley. Try the Moravian Sugar Cake - it's complimentary with your coffee in the lobby every morning. Traditionally elegant guestrooms are worth taking the slow creaky elevator to get to, and many have wonderful views of Bethlehem's Historic District. Or, stay in the Sayre Mansion, an 1850's mansion built for Robert Sayre, a founder of Bethlehem Iron Works, the Lehigh Valley Railroad and philanthropist. Each room exudes understated luxury. A complimentary two-course made-to-order breakfast is served in the grand dining room.