Reckoning with Racism

Latest in a series of posts in the wake of the George Floyd murder

These two of the most familiar Insurrection Day images demonstrate that we have a ways to go toward achieving the American Dream of a multi-racial democracy in which all people are truly equal.

Gadfly is fond of saying that the murder of George Floyd triggered (another) national reckoning with race. And fond of saying that the Bethlehem Area Public Library has done a wonderful job of providing resources and programs that enable us to do the kind of reading, viewing, thinking, discussing, learning that that reckoning requires of us if that death is to have any lasting meaning.

Gadfly recommends these two programs now in progress.

Sundays January 3, 10, 17, 24 from 12:00-1:30

Information and registration

Note especially Rayah Levy, “The Modern African American Experience in Bethlehem,” January 24

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The next two meetings of our “conversations” will be based on the last two chapters of Kendi’s book, but the discussion is free-ranging, and you can profit even if you can’t complete the reading.

register here

COVID-19 infections here among highest in the state

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

“Bethlehem and Whitehall Township among Pa. ZIP codes with the most new COVID-19 infections this week.” lehighvalleylive, January 15, 2021.

All I can give you is the grim headline. My Gadfly “subscriber exclusive” account to lehighvalleylive.com isn’t working. Sigh.

Stay safe out there!

Allentown Police Department: involving social workers a good idea, disagreements about funding

Latest in a series of posts in the wake of the George Floyd murder

So much going on at the national level. Hard for Gadfly to think about local matters these days.

But here he continues to keep an eye on what’s happening in our neighborhood regarding reimagining the way public safety is done in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Gadfly has been worried that we will soon be in a “George who?” state if we don’t keep our eye on the ball.

Allentown is a little bit ahead of us in terms of movement on concrete proposals, but our police department has made moves toward partnering with the Health Bureau, and we’re looking forward to a Public Safety Committee meeting soon.

We’ve entered the election campaign season, and Gadfly wonders if reimagining public safety will be an issue.

He hopes so, while there is still some GeorgeFloyd momentum.

See here and here for Gadfly’s review of the Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS program cited in this article.

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selections from Andrew Wagaman, “Who should respond to 911 calls related to mental illness? Allentown discusses police alternatives, though path forward remains hazy.” Morning Call, January 14, 2021.

Allentown officials are largely in agreement: Recruiting social workers to help city police respond to 911 calls involving mental health crises, substance abuse and homelessness issues is, conceptually, a wise move.

But some are reluctant to bring in a consultant until they are sure Lehigh County officials and one of the regional health networks are on board — and prepared to provide funding. Others fear mental health professionals will expropriate, rather than supplement, police resources.

Allentown City Council set aside $100,000 in its budget this year for general consulting services. Legislators Ce-Ce Gerlach and Joshua Siegel want to spend a share to figure out how to adapt programs used in other cities where mental health workers assist or replace police officers in certain “community interventions.”

The best-known policing alternative is the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets model, developed by the White Bird Clinic in the late 1980s in Eugene, Oregon. Two-person teams consisting of a medic and a mental health crisis worker serve as the first responders to nearly a fifth of all emergency calls. Their uniform is a hoodie, and they do not carry weapons. The goal: connect people in crisis with services such as housing programs, youth counseling and drug rehabilitation rather than incarcerating them.

Dispatchers are trained to recognize which calls can be routed to the CAHOOTS teams. In 2019, police backup was requested just 150 times out of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, according to the White Bird Clinic.

Larger cities such as Denver, Houston and most recently Chicago have begun pairing police officers with mental health workers trained in harm reduction and deescalation. Each program is a little different, but generally, the social workers conduct welfare checks, respond to suicide threats and handle calls involving people with mental illness or substance abuse.

Locally, Bucks County last month announced a two-year, $400,000 pilot program that will pair social workers with police officers during mental health-related incidents in Bensalem Township, the township with the county’s largest police department. It’s based on a similar program in Dauphin County.

Supporters say such programs reduce the chances of violence between police and citizens, and save local governments money. More than a fifth of fatal encounters with police involved people with mental illness, according to one study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. And law enforcement agencies spend roughly $1 billion a year transporting people with severe mental illness, according to a 2017 Treatment Advocacy Center survey.

Allentown police Chief Glenn Granitz Jr. said pursuing a pilot program like those in Dauphin and Bucks counties is a “no-brainer.” But it shouldn’t come out of the police budget, he said, arguing that the city already comes up short in measurements of officers per capita.

“We would be served well by adding [both] police officers and social workers to improve the safety and quality of life in Allentown,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Mayor Ray O’Connell said city and county officials are meeting next week with interested community partners like Thomases and officials with St. Luke’s University Health Network to figure out how best to proceed. Before council calls in a consultant, officials need to pin down the questions it wants answered, O’Connell said.

“Go slow to go fast,” O’Connell advised council.

It’s important for Allentown to signal its commitment to other important stakeholders involved, Gerlach countered, in order to prevent inertia.

“I would urge us to be the one to lead this, and demonstrate some buy-in,” she said.

Over the past year, calls by Siegel and Gerlach to reallocate some of the police department’s budget to various social services have vexed Councilmen Daryl Hendricks and Ed Zucal — both retired city police officers — and Councilwoman Candida Affa. On Wednesday, Affa praised the merits of a CAHOOTS-style program but feared it could come at the expense of the police department.

“When you start taking money from the police budget to fund these programs, the citizens of Allentown won’t stand for that,” she said.

While the Eugene Police Department does fund the CAHOOTS program, it ends up saving millions annually because of its reduced call volume, Siegel said.

“We should be less wary of a reimagination or reallocation of public safety, because the need is still being met. We’re just shifting who’s meeting the need,” Siegel argued. “The community is being kept safe, the individuals in need of services are being addressed. But now, rather than being met with punishment, they are being invested in through mental health services.”

Locally, officials have been taking incremental steps reevaluating how it handles behavioral health calls.

For example, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin last month announced that the office’s Regional Intelligence and Investigation Center will work with local mental health experts to ensure crisis intervention training provided to the Allentown Police Department is as effective as possible. It will also work with the Allentown Health Bureau on data-driven efforts to prevent opioid overdose deaths.

The Lehigh County public defender’s office hired a social worker in early 2020 to assist clients with a variety of issues, and plans to hire another this year.

n Allentown, about 40% of police officers have undergone crisis intervention training led by mental health providers and family advocates, and Granitz said during an October budget presentation he’s committed to having the entire force complete the training in 2021. His department is also teaming with Cedar Crest College to measure whether its training and community partnerships are curbing repeat behavioral health emergencies and police use-of-force incidents.

In a separate initiative with Cedar Crest College, Allentown will begin a three-year process in 2021 of establishing a community police program. Part of the process will be researching community policing programs in other cities.

Bethlehem seeking World Heritage status

Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem history

Federal Register Announcement: Historic Moravian Bethlehem Named on Potential Nomination to World Heritage List

Huzza to Charlene Donchez Mowers for two decades of work! Gadfly never knew. The payoff of such a designation would be significant. What say? Can you help?

selections from Christina Tatu, “Bethlehem needs your help to secure World Heritage status.” Morning Call, January 12, 2021.

Bethlehem’s historic Moravian buildings could be recognized as an icon, landing on the World Heritage List along with wonders like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza, but the city needs the public’s help to get there.

Comments are being taken through Jan. 26 on the next potential nomination to the World Heritage List. The comment period was announced Monday via a posting in the Federal Register.

The World Heritage List was established in 1972 to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”

There are 1,000 sites on the list — 24 are in the United States, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty in New York.

World Heritage sites don’t receiving funding, but city officials have said the designation would signify to tourists that Bethlehem is a must-see attraction.

Charlene Donchez Mowers, longtime president of Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites, has been working on securing the international accolade for nearly 20 years.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem is working with the Moravian community of Herrnhut, Germany, with the goal to submit an extension to the 2015 World Heritage listing of Christiansfeld, a Moravian Church settlement in Denmark. The extension would include Herrnhut, the Moravian Bethlehem District in Bethlehem, and possibly other historic Moravian communities around the world.

Today, the Moravian story is told in the well-preserved, Germanic architecture that still stands in the heart of downtown Bethlehem.

Moravian Bethlehem includes the Colonial Industrial Quarter, God’s Acre cemetery, the Sun Inn and buildings of the Central Moravian Church, the city of Bethlehem, Historic Bethlehem and Moravian College. The district includes two buildings recognized as national historic landmarks — the Waterworks pump house and the Gemeinhaus community hall.

The U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012 recognized that district’s importance, naming it a National Historic Landmark District.

To comment on the nomination, a letter of support may be mailed to Jonathan Putnam, Office of International Affairs, National Park Service, 1849 C St., NW, Washington, DC 20240.

Comments can also be e-mailed to jonathan_putnam@nps.gov

Northside: “an area in transition”

The latest in a series of posts on Northside 2027

“In order to have healthy downtowns, healthy commercial areas,
we need to have healthy neighborhoods.”
Darlene Heller. Planning Director

It’s nice to see two important projects, both fathered by Councilman Reynolds, coming online.

Gadfly means the Climate Action Plan and now Northside 2027.

At the meeting of the Northside 2027 Task Force on Tuesday, Darlene Heller, Bethlehem Planning Director, rehearsed the history of the project, which goes back as far as 2017, and outlined the goals (4 mins.):

She focused attention on the first three general categories here in her presentation,

offered the vision statement,

and reminded us of the boundaries and constituent elements of the Northside area.

to be continued . . .

Surgical demolition required!

Latest in a series of posts on the Swifts

The Swifts are coming in April!
Won’t you join with us and contribute?
Click here for the GoFundMe page.

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photo by Jennie Gilrain

One of the many fascinations of the “Saving Our Swifts” project has to do with the demolition of the Masonic Temple.

No slam-bang, no, sir.

The delicate touch of a surgeon is needed to leave Hotel Chimney Swift intact.

The migratory Swifts are creatures of habit. They’ve been visiting the Masonic chimney for years. Like the Gadflys to Ocean City.

Developer Noble is trying not to disturb their routine. (This guy is something else, isn’t he?)

Take a good look at the territory.

Whattaya think?

What odds do you give for a successful surgery?

Well, not to worry too much.

If the chimney can’t be saved, Developer Noble will build a new one a short distance away (yes, this guy is something else, isn’t he?), and the smart money says the Swifts will find the new digs.

This photo was taken a week ago. The surgery might be done. Gadfly is not mobile. Can anybody put eyes on the scene and report back?

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In case you are disoriented, you can click here for the GoFundMe page.

Replacing a roof in the age of sustainability

Latest in a series of posts on the environment

Alison Steele is a Liberty High School alum who traveled the world looking for adventure and purpose before finding it in Pittsburgh.  She has made it her mission to help others make more informed decisions around how they interact with people and the planet.

Gadfly has often called your attention to Steel Town native Steele’s blog. He is particularly struck here by the kind of and amount of research and thinking relative to a decision that in the “old days” of his less-than-admirable energy unconsciousness he would have made with the snap of his fingers.

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“My Cabin Doesn’t Leak When It Doesn’t Rain, Part 1

Cost analysis

In spring 2018 some shingles blew off of our roof in a bad storm, and we got a leak that made its way through our attic and down to our living room. This was not too surprising, given that our asphalt roof (generally considered to have a 20-year life) was at least 20 years old when Christian bought the house 10 years prior. He had a stack of extra shingles that came from the last roof replacement and had been using them to patch and perform roof maintenance as needed, but that supply finally ran out. Long story short, it was time to shop for a new roof, and I began exploring options.

At the time, I wrote a blog post based on some cursory research of roofing materials and investment value of asphalt, metal, and the new Tesla solar shingles.[1] Unfortunately, much in the tradition “The Arkansas Traveler,” [2] a song that was sung to me as a child (and clearly had an impact), “my cabin doesn’t leak when it doesn’t rain,” meaning Christian’s patch let us put that decision on the back burner while I did some more research. Nearly two years later, that research still hadn’t happened, and it was time for the house to remind us of our responsibility… on Christmas Eve.

We spent the holiday emptying pans of water in the attic and calling roofing contractors for quotes. I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s diving into materials research, product warranties, and recycling options to build on my original blog post, which was only focused on financial investment, not product lifecycle. . . .

continue on Alison’s blog

“My Cabin Doesn’t Leak When it Doesn’t Rain,” Part 1

The Northside 2027 kick-off

The latest in a series of posts on Northside 2027

Gadfly teases no more. Here’s what brought all those power brokers together!

Northside 2027

NS 2027 final brochure Spanish

NS 2027 final brochure English

Setting the table for the night’s activities:

Mayor Donchez:

Superintendent Roy:

Moravian President Grigsby:

CACLV Head Alan Jennings:

Let’s refresh ourselves on this wonderful project.

to be continued . . .

Gadfly gadabouts

“The sky’s the limit”
Councilman Reynolds

Gadfly was steppin’ out last night.

There he is in full COVID beard and fresh t-shirt in the company of (with 40-some others) the likes of Mayor Donchez, President Grigsby, Superintendent Roy, and Representative Samuelson.

Heavy hitters.

What do you suppose the occasion was?

“The sky’s the limit,” Councilman Reynolds said, “especially with the enthusiasm and passion we have here.”

What do you suppose he was talking about?

Gadfly loves to tease.

to be continued . . .

My Bethlehem App Introduced

My Bethlehem PA App

Mayor Bob Donchez announced today the availability of the new My Bethlehem PA App. “The My Bethlehem PA App provides access to information regarding COVID-19, Lehigh County and Northampton County Crisis Intervention, Parking, the Bethlehem Service Center to register or report a problem and information for those visiting our wonderful City, to name a few,” Donchez said. All you need to do to download the app on your Apple or Android phone is go to the App Store, type in My Bethlehem PA, and download it. There is no fee to download the App.

A new face in the race

Latest in a series of posts on candidates for election

Candidates for various elective positions all across the Valley and, in fact, state-wide, made very brief presentations at the Bethlehem City Democratic Committee meeting last night.

Bethlehem candidates Councilpeople Reynolds, Callahan, and Crampsie Smith spoke — as well as new face Hillary Kwiatek running for Council.

Councilwoman Negron attended the meeting but did not speak.

Councilman Reynolds is, of course, running for Mayor.

Councilman Callahan said he was not sure at this point if he is running for Mayor but for Council for certain.

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith is running for a 4-year Council term.

The presentations are brief. One candidate likened it to speed-dating!

Gadfly hopes you will listen to all. But especially to Hillary Kwiatek’s.

 

 

 

Gadfly apologizes to Councilwoman Crampsie Smith. The audio clip here is from the last City Council meeting. He made a mistake when uploading and now unfortunately can’t restore the proper clip.

Our walking trails, a least recognized aspect of our quality of life

Latest in a series of posts on the pedestrian bridge

Followers will remember the skirmish over the feasibility study for a pedestrian/biking bridge across the Lehigh River back during budget approval time.

Councilman Callahan vigorously objected to funding the study, though he said he was pro-bridge and just against spending the money on a “luxury” while we were cutting staff positions in an austere budget mode that was likely to continue.

Gadfly is happy to call attention to this appreciative witty essay about our local trail system by Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation President & CEO (and former Bethlehem mayor) Don Cunningham.

selections from Don Cunningham, “The Groundhog Day Quality of Pandemic Life.” Morning Call, January 7, 2020.

The Groundhog Day quality of pandemic life that makes one day familiar to another returned to the Lehigh Valley with the cold weather.

It came just in time to create a new set of holiday challenges.

Gone, and quickly forgotten, was the exhausting schedule of holiday parties, work dinners and family gatherings. That was replaced with a new set of challenges, such as telling grandpa there’s no family gathering this year because we don’t want to be responsible for killing him, and what to do with a week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Humans adapt our complaints quickly. We are quite nimble this way.

Last year’s “the holidays are exhausting” became this year’s “what are we supposed to do?”

My challenge is I can’t sit still for more than about an hour.

Fortunately, I live in the Lehigh Valley, have the ability to walk and love history, cities and nature.

One of the least recognized aspects of the Lehigh Valley’s quality of life is the system of walking trails that weaves through the region and showcases its authentic mix of cities and towns, natural environments, rivers, streams and canals and three centuries of history.

It’s all free and pandemic safe.

Many of the trails were built to replace former railroads so they pass through industrial areas, natural environments, alongside bodies of waters and connect boroughs and cities. Most of them are part of the larger Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, which preserves and interprets the 165-mile transportation corridor that fueled America’s industrial revolution with the Lehigh Valley as its centerpiece.

Both Lehigh and Northampton counties and the 62 distinct municipalities of the Lehigh Valley have shown great vision in working with state and federal leaders to develop these trails.

The attractiveness of the Lehigh Valley today, which is vital to our economic renaissance and continued success, is built on the foundation of past economic success and the recognition that quality of life keeps people and companies living and coming here.

While struggling through the temporary closure of the region’s wonderful restaurants, performing arts venues and tourism destinations, these trails remain open and important.

This holiday season I strapped on gloves, a knit hat and jackets and revisited my favorites and discovered some new ones.

I walked for the first time the Karl Stirner Arts Trail in Easton that runs for about two miles along the Bushkill Creek from the magnificently renovated Simone Silk Mill on 13th St. to the Delaware River. The trail is extraordinary, lined throughout with public art tastefully placed in a natural setting.

Long on my bucket list, I finally got to Hellertown to walk the Saucon Rail Trail, a 7.5-mile converted railroad track in Lower and Upper Saucon Townships and Hellertown Borough.

My 24-year-old son Brendan, forced out of Brooklyn and back into his old man’s house in Bethlehem by the pandemic, joined me on many of the walks. In Hellertown, we were fortunate enough to walk into a low-lying fog as we approached the 18th Century Heller-Wagner Grist Mill on Walnut St. The fog over the adjoining pond was as spectacular of sight as I’ve seen.

Once again, I hit my old favorite the Ironton Rail Trail in Whitehall and Coplay and marveled as always at the Coplay Cement Kilns, which helped launch the nation’s Portland cement industry here in the 18th century. The kilns are as striking of an industrial relic as Bethlehem’s preserved blast furnaces, whose best viewing point is from walking the Lehigh Canal Towpath through the Christmas City.

I returned to the great short loop walking trails of Trexler Park in Allentown and Northampton County’s Louise Moore Park in Palmer Township, both wonderfully maintained. For a natural experience that required boots in the snow, I got back on my favorite, Bethlehem’s Monocacy Way, which runs along the Monocacy Creek and connects Illick’s Mill (built in 1856) to the Moravian Colonial Industrial Quarters of the 1700s where America’s first municipal water system was developed.

As long as my legs carry me, despite pandemics and quarantine, I’ll always have something to do and explore in the Lehigh Valley.

O, yes, election season has begun

Latest in a series of posts on candidates for election

ref: Councilman Reynolds opens his mayoral campaign
ref: Thinking about the primary election
ref: Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance issues a CALL TO ACTION

As Gadfly tries to dial back from the national drama (though this week promises to be as portentous as last), he would like to call attention to the beginning of the local political campaign season.

In an event likely to have been overshadowed by the insurrection, Councilman Reynolds kicked off his run for mayor last Wednesday. He should never have any difficulty recalling the exact date he tossed his hat in the ring!

Four City Council seats are also on the line.

Elections excite the Gadfly. They represent periodic new beginnings, fresh starts.

And Councilman Reynolds has laid out substantial visions for the future to woo our votes.

And we will hear more from campaigns that will necessarily have to be run under pandemic rules.

How interesting. What impact will there be on such standard fare as door-to-door solicitation, meet-and-greets, candidate nights, and so forth? Will campaigning radically change? Will we see innovative tactics?

You’ve seen Gadfly hope for competition, the vigorous exchange of ideas in the public square that makes us all better.

He would particularly like to see people of color and women candidates.

But sometimes, as they say, you gotta watch what you ask for.

The Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance is looking for candidates.

That does not bode well, thinks the Gadfly.

We’ve seen one commenter in these pages say that “this group seems to prefer labels & fear-mongering to actual analysis or truth.”

And to wonder “what the term ‘Marxist’ means to them.”

Another poster found the LVGNA commentary “pretty awful . . . incendiary and off-putting, not an opening for a conversation.”

If there is one thing that the insurrection tells us, it’s that we need to seek a greater sense of community.

In addition, Gadfly hears President Waldron’s wise call for civility in our local dealings.

As a first step in fielding a candidate, Gadfly would ask LVGNA to stop the name-calling and to explain how Marxism pertains to the actions done by and positions held by current elected officials.

Mayor Donchez: 2021 promises “transition back to normality”

Latest in a series of posts on City Government

As said, the insurrection has fixed Gadfly’s attention for the past half-week. Inevitably so.

And, among other things, it was an opportunity to ruminate on leadership.

More specifically, on the essential need for good leadership.

Gadfly has recently written that Mayor Donchez is in the 8th inning of his two terms as mayor and a year away from (probably) the end of several decades of public service to Bethlehem.

We need him to not only remain a steady hand but to continue to actively respond to the challenges on several fronts the likely rough year ahead will pose.

It was good to hear his positive voice yesterday morning, even if the piece was written before Wednesday’s chaos.

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selections from Robert Donchez, “Your View by Mayor Donchez: Bethlehem will continue to move forward in 2021.” Morning Call, January 10, 2021.

New Year’s Eve has always had a profound effect on me, but none more than this year. It is the reflection and the contemplation of a year’s worth of goals and hard work that has come to pass.

As I counted down the moments to the dawn of a new year, with many of my friends and family members unable to join me because of the pandemic, all I can think about is the unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy we witnessed at just about every turn of 2020.

And I cannot help but spend New Year’s Eve pondering the events missed: weddings at Hotel Bethlehem, concerts at Musikfest, graduations, family picnics, just to name a few. There is no doubt that this has been a challenging year for everyone.

Last January, I unveiled ambitious goals and initiatives for Bethlehem, bolstered by strong national and local economies. It was soon after the New Year that we began to hear the words that have become household terms: coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic and social distancing.

Inside City Hall, I worked with my cabinet to take all the necessary steps to keep our employees and residents safe, while continuing to deliver all the essential services a city is responsible to provide. As we learned more each day, our policies and procedures continuously evolved. City employees adapted to every change with courage, cooperation and flexibility, while remaining focused on our mission.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allowed the counties to provide funding directly to businesses. In addition, Northampton and Lehigh counties provided grants to Bethlehem to purchase first responder equipment, personal protective equipment and information technology equipment, and supported our response to our downtown communities, specifically the restaurants that have been struggling during this time.

As we continue to navigate the ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines, I encourage all of our residents to support our local businesses in any manner possible.

The impact of the pandemic derailed economic activity across the country. Bethlehem was not spared, and our revenues did not meet expectations for 2020. We made a number of adjustments to reduce expenses and limit the deficit, including a hiring freeze, employee furloughs and the closing of pools, parks and traditional summer programming.

Despite the challenges, Bethlehem continued to move forward in 2020, and I am pleased to share some of our accomplishments for the year. . . .

As the sun sets on 2020, Bethlehem will continue to move forward in 2021.

We hope to see the beginning of the development of the Martin Tower site, continued redevelopment of the Westgate Mall with the opening of the new Weis supermarket, the completion of Lehigh University’s Health Science Building, the construction of a second hotel on the Wind Creek site and some additional housing in both of our downtown districts.

As 2021 brings hope of an expected transition back to normality, we keep in mind the lessons learned from the challenges and frustrations of 2020. Among the most important of these lessons is gratitude.

We all owe a special thank you and appreciation to all of the health care workers and essential workers who have done a tremendous job seeing us through these unprecedented times.

Tomorrow is a bright new day for Bethlehem. I can assure you we will continue to work to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and am confident we will emerge stronger than ever.

Developer John Noble commits to preserving our spectacular aerial acrobats

Latest in a series of posts on the Swifts

The initial campaign surge has slowed!
Won’t you join with us and contribute?
Click here for the GoFundMe page.

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selections from Christina Tatu, “For the birds, a Bethlehem developer takes the unusual step to preserve a chimney during demolition.” Morning Call, January 7. 2021.

When Jennie Gilrain saw the massive flock of birds, spinning like a dark tornado over her South Side neighborhood, she made it her mission to track them.

A member of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, Gilrain and her husband, Mark McKenna, found the birds at the former Bethlehem Masonic Lodge on Wyandotte Street, where she observed them coming and going from the building’s 95-year-old chimney like plumes of swirling smoke.

That was two years ago, and it was the first time Gilrain had seen chimney swifts, a small gray bird named for its favorite urban roost: tall hollow structures like chimneys and smokestacks.

“They are like aerial acrobats. They court in the air and the male will fly in tandem with the female. They swoop together, and when they go into the chimney, it’s the most spectacular sight,” Gilrain said.

The birds have plenty of options in Bethlehem, once an industrial hub with older buildings and former factories. But Gilrain knew this particular building was slated for demolition. When chain-link construction fences went up around the Masonic Lodge and neighboring Wilbur Mansion last month, she asked developer John Noble to reconsider his plans.

“He called me and I just told him about the birds. I was a little scared because I had my own prejudices about developers. I thought he might try to get rid of the birds,” Gilrain said.

Instead, Noble wanted to see the birds’ habitat preserved.

In the past week, Noble and his team have slowed their demolition, taking care to keep the 45-foot-tall chimney intact even as they remove the building it’s attached to.

“More than likely if we were to demo it at a normal pace, the chimney would already be down,” Noble said. “The guys doing the demo are really talented, and it’s made life more interesting for them. They don’t normally tear down a building and leave a staircase or chimney.”

Noble said he was compelled to help after learning about the birds and seeing a video of their aerial acrobatics. Like Gilrain and McKenna, what he saw inspired him to act.

“I’ve got to do something to make sure these birds are impacted in the least amount possible,” he said.

The chimney swifts spend their winters in Brazil, but in April they return to North America to lay eggs. Gilrain would expect no more than five pairs to nest in the chimney this spring since they are territorial during that time.

It’s from August to October, when the birds are migrating back to South America, that they put on a spectacular aerial show, with huge flocks stopping at known roosts along the way. Gilrain counted 2,200 birds coming from the Masonic Lodge’s chimney last year.

The demolition of the building is expected to take another five to six weeks. If for some reason the chimney can’t be saved, Noble plans to construct another one, about 60 feet from the original.

Noble says his redevelopment of the 4-acre property will transform the city’s gateway at the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, with an upscale hotel, apartment complex and new restaurant.

His plans involve tearing down the Masonic Lodge to build an addition to the former Wilbur Mansion at 623 Cherokee St., expanding it to house nine hotel rooms, a 120-seat conference center and 90-seat restaurant and bar. Noble is also planning 50 one- and two-bedroom apartments with a lobby and lounge, exercise room, mail room, storage units and rooftop terrace with fire pits.

It’s not yet clear how much it will cost to preserve the lodge’s chimney.

The Lehigh Valley Audubon Society started a GoFundMe page to raise $50,000 for the preservation. The group hopes some of the money from the “Save Our Swifts” campaign can go toward educating the public about the birds.

“Potentially tens and thousands of birds use this chimney as a secure roosting site at night and without it, they end up on the sides of buildings and trees in the area. And if you have a cold raining night, they can succumb,” said Peter Saenger, Lehigh Valley Audubon Society president.

It’s more critical than ever that the public understands the birds’ importance and their impact on the environment, said Saenger, a biology professor at the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College.

Some of the factors contributing to their demise include habitat loss, domestic cats and window collisions as more buildings go up, Saenger said. People should be concerned because birds help make our environment more comfortable by removing thousands of pests every day.

A single swift can eat up to 2,000 insects a day, he said.

It’s unclear how many swifts call the Lehigh Valley home because they roost in hard-to-access areas, but it’s safe to say tens of thousands make their way through the area during their fall migration, said Scott Burnet, a member of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society.

As more buildings are torn down and chimneys capped, Burnet has taken to making “towers” for the birds. He’s built 19 throughout the region, including one in his Allentown yard.

He and other members of the Audubon Society hope to raise enough money for an official count of the population and educational efforts. Gilrain has applied for a grant from the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium to organize public forums with the Audubon Society and Bethlehem Public Library.

“It’s so fascinating to me these birds have adapted to an urban environment. Originally they rooted in old-growth forests and hollowed out trees,” Gilrain said. “Now that the old-growth forests are almost completely gone, they have adapted. It’s almost like the swifts have grown up with our city.”

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Click here for the GoFundMe page

Councilman Reynolds opens his mayoral campaign!

Latest in a series of posts on candidates for election

“Bethlehem has always been a wonderful place to live but it is time for us to become something more. We need a clear vision for the future of our city that builds on our strengths and reimagines what our community can be. ”

J. William Reynolds Announcement

Reynolds campaign website

Reynolds Facebook

Saving the swifts: “The miracle on Wyandotte Street”

Latest in a series of posts on the Swifts

The initial campaign surge has slowed!
Won’t you join with us and contribute?
Click here for the GoFundMe page.

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Jennie Gilrain, who spearheads the Save Our Swifts campaign, made this impressive presentation to City Council last night (4 mins.):

First:

I want to share an uplifting story in the midst of difficult times! A group of citizens from all walks of life is joining forces to save tens of thousands of Chimney Swifts, a bird in sharp decline, by saving their Urban Habitat, the Masonic Temple chimney at 202 Wyandotte Street in South Bethlehem. Developer and property owner, John Noble, has agreed to save the chimney, while demolishing the building around it, in order to save the birds. I visited the demolition site this afternoon to see the chimney still standing. The Western wall has been ripped away and the steel beams have been cut flush to the chimney’s edge. So far, so good. However, in the end, if the existing chimney cannot be saved, Noble has agreed to build a duplicate roosting tower on the property, 60 feet to the North of the original.

The Lehigh Valley Audubon Society is raising money to support this effort through a Save Our Swifts GoFundMe Charity. According to Peter Saenger, local Audubon President, this level of cooperation between developers and conservationists is extremely unusual and highly commendable. I call it, “Miracle on Wyandotte Street.”

Second:

The Lehigh Valley Audubon Society and Bethlehem Area Public Library have applied for a Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium grant to support a series of Public Forums to facilitate discussion about the relationship between development and conservation. I invite members of Bethlehem City Government–the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Environmental Action Committee to join the panels, and I invite the public to participate in the forums. More on this when we find out if we got the grant.

Finally:

In light of the tremendous community effort to Save Our Swifts, I would like to make a formal request to you, the Members of Council and to you, Mayor Donchez:

Just as many cities around the world and throughout the United States have named particular bird species as their own; and just as so many years ago the State of Pennsylvania named the Ruffed Grouse the Bird of Pennsylvania, I propose we name the Chimney Swift, “the Bird of Bethlehem.”

The chimney swift is not only a beautiful aerial acrobat, but a welcome insectivore, consuming twice its body weight in bugs each day.

Thank you for hearing me and for considering embracing this bird as Bethlehem’s own.

I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Jennie Gilrain