People still look at me funny when I say Rodale is headquartered in the Lehigh Valley. Sometimes I'll say Emmaus, sometimes Allentown or Bethlehem. But unless they are longtime organic gardeners or farmers, in which case Emmaus (the birthplace of the organic movement in America) and Maxatawny (home of the Rodale Institute) are considered Mecca, most people are not familiar with our little valley. (Unless they already live here, of course.) Sometimes I'm just fine with that because, after all, one of its charms is that it's not crowded, overpriced, or filled with trend seekers just passing through. Other times, such as when I am hiring people, I wish it were a little more trendy. But the truth is, our lack of trendiness kind of filters out the superficial people and helps me find the authentic people who truly fit our culture.
What's not to love about this place? First, it's filled with fresh air and nature and lots of places to enjoy it--such as the Allentown Parkway, Trexler Memorial Park, South Mountain Preserve, the new Saucon Rail Trail, and the Bob Rodale Fitness Park, which is perfect for kids learning to ride their bikes. Parking is easy and mostly free--and don't tell anyone, but the parking tickets you get here are less than actually paying for parking in other cities. It's diverse (ask for the real Chinese menu at Asia). The schools are great--Moravian Academy is best-in-class for half the price you would pay for a comparable school in Manhattan. And, unlike Manhattan, our real estate is reasonable. As my daughter says, for the price she paid for a "one-bedroom" apartment in New York City, she could have bought a MANSION here. Plus, restaurants like Bolete are as good as, or better than, any restaurant I've eaten at in New York or anywhere else.
And--music gets its own paragraph here--while we don't have a major stadium here, what we have are awesome places to see artists on their way up and on their way around. I'll never forget when I saw Kenny Chesney at the Allentown Fair before he started playing in the 50,000-seat stadiums. He was AWESOME. Same goes for Keith Urban at Musikfest. Yes. That same Keith Urban who is now a judge on American Idol. Or the Avett Brothers at Zoellner? Practically a religious experience. Seeing Bob Dylan play one of his most articulate and best shows ever at Stabler a few years ago was religious! And if we want to see the big shows, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to Philadelphia or New York.
Sometimes people who move here say it's hard to meet other people. I think even for people who have lived here all their lives it can be hard to meet other people. But one of the best ways I've found is to join a nonprofit board. Once you get under the hood of this valley, its diversity and all the different businesses and stories and talents here are truly amazing. Whether it's the arts represented by the Allentown Art Museum, Baum School, and Banana Factory, wildlife represented by the Wildlands Conservancy, or sports centers like the Velodrome (where you can get ORGANIC food that tastes awesome on a Friday night in the summer), there is something for everyone.
But I would be remiss in talking about my love for this place without mentioning our traditional cultures and history--yes, I'm talking about the stubborn, hard-headed Pennsylvania Dutch (blood of which I have my fair share). This valley was settled by a people who are disciplined and determined--and who know how to make a great fasnacht once a year.
Unlike other towns outlying the big cities, we don't have a superiority complex here. If anything, we have an inferiority complex. We've seen the rises and falls (Bethlehem Steel) and the bubbles burst. But out here, it's easier to take the long view.
As we say at Rodale, our roots grow deep. And there is not much soil more fertile, rich, and alive than good old Pennsylvania dirt.
Photo by Mark Iampietro
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com