It makes one wonder what hold the developers have

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods)

Kate McVey is a concerned citizen, 30-year resident of Bethlehem, professional organizer, dog owner, mother of two children, been around, kosher cook . . . explorer.

Gadfly:

Are there written rules and goals for the planning commission and the zoning board? Do those committees adhere to those goals? Do the planning and zoning boards work for developers or the citizens? If variances and changes are constantly made for the developers, what is the point of rules and regulations?

It does make one wonder what hold the developers have over the city council, planning commission, and the zoning board.

Development is necessary, development need not be a bad thing, but, where is it going, and is it meeting a need of the community or just the goal of the developer?

Kate

Reflections on Southside Bethlehem, Part 5: My New Neighborhood

(Conclusion of a 5-part series of posts on the Southside by Anna Smith)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Gadfly:

The Southside is far from a monolith, and I moved a mile across town this past winter. I’m not sure what my neighborhood’s challenges and opportunities are quite yet, but I’m starting to get a feel for my new community. I look forward to continuing conversations about my neighbors’ hopes and fears for their community over the backyard fence and on nightly dog walks on the eastern side of south Bethlehem.

I bet that housing affordability will be a big one—my mortgage payment is a lot cheaper than what I paid in rent for a much smaller and more run-down place on the Southside. Rental prices are spiraling upward, and there isn’t nearly enough affordable, quality housing to go around. It seems to me that neighborhood change is accelerating these challenges, and the stories I hear from residents on a daily basis illustrate the human impact of our affordable housing crisis. What do we do about it? As always, my inclination is start by listening.

There are no simple or straightforward answers when it comes to dealing with neighborhood change. But as it continues, here are a few principles that I’ll be keeping in mind:

  1. The Southside is a unique, diverse community with individuals who have a range of perspectives on any issue—any attempt to suggest otherwise is disrespectful to the experience and agency of those who call our community home. All have the right to be heard.
  2. The best ideas usually come from those who have personal experience with the topic at hand. If they are not at the table, then we should stop discussion until they are and do what it takes to make participation easy—even if it means taking a step back or down.
  3. Southside Bethlehem has always changed and will continue to change. However, the inevitability of change does not mean we have to accept all changes as inevitable.
  4. Deficit-based thinking leads to missed opportunities, or worse, can lead to the accidental destruction of assets. If we can identify what is great about our neighborhoods, we can preserve it and use it as inspiration for future development. Always start with assets.

It may be hard to believe, but former Southsider and folk singer John Gorka wrote this song about south Bethlehem in 1991. Concerns about neighborhood change are hardly new to the Southside and are indicative of a deep sense of commitment to a community. The least we can do, and the best place for any of us to start, is to listen to them.

Reflections on Southside Bethlehem, Part 4: The Specter of Student Housing

(Fourth in a 5-part series of posts on the Southside by Anna Smith)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Gadfly:

Campus-community tensions are an inevitable component of any college town. South Bethlehem and Lehigh are no exception to the rule (if you can find an exception anywhere, I’d love to hear about it!). Once again, your perspective depends on your location (in this case, physical location matters), and your frame of reference. Here are a few of the things I’m thinking about these days.

Going back at least a decade, the expansion in off-campus housing for Lehigh University students drastically changed the face of Fifth Street, Hillside Ave, Birkel Avenue, and Montclair Avenue. Once home to families and homeowners, portions of these streets are now almost exclusively student housing. This transition was painful for the remaining homeowners who feel that the community where they bought their homes has disappeared. They can probably sell their homes for more money now, but the emotional component of losing a neighborhood has to be recognized, and we can’t deny that the look and feel of a community has value for those that call it home. Backyards once home to meticulously tended rose gardens have been converted to parking lots. Remnants of student parties are piled high on trash day, and old couches continue to appear on front porch littered with beer bottles. Neighbors who have witnessed the transition from Bethlehem Steel retirees to students are entitled to their frustration. Not all students are bad neighbors, but that’s not the point.

Like development, however, the student housing expansion did not occur in a vacuum. Without student housing, what would have happened to these properties? Overall economic trends in south Bethlehem and similar deindustrializing communities would suggest that many of these properties would not have been purchased by homeowners following the relocation of their original owners. The neighborhood would have experienced change with or without students—what that change would have looked like is difficult to say, and value judgments are beyond the scope of this discussion. However, the lack of a resident voice—the lack of choices—in what happened to these neighborhoods was enough to create a sense of impotence among those left behind. That frustration can be difficult to understand for those focused solely on the economics of the situation, but taking some time to listen to the stories of our neighbors brings the aches and pains of neighborhood change into view.

For those living on the outskirts of the student neighborhoods, the student housing discussion is quite different. Give them Birkel and Fifth, my former neighbors on Carlton plead; just don’t let them take over my neighborhood. The students are generally fine people, but they just have different hours and lifestyles that don’t mesh well with raising a toddler. Doesn’t it make more sense to concentrate the students close to one another and to campus? What family wants to live across the street from a student dorm, anyway? The conversion of single-family homes to student housing feels threatening to residents on the outskirts of predominantly student neighborhoods who are watching their blocks change more rapidly than they ever had before. What will they do if they are the last homeowners on the only block they have known for the last 50 years?

Anna

Reflections on Southside Bethlehem, Part 3: An Alternative Approach to Development

(Third in a 5-part series of posts on the Southside by Anna Smith)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Gadfly:

Instead of starting with nothing, why don’t we start with something? Community-driven, asset-based development is an alternative approach that some community organizations have taken in south Bethlehem, and that can be applied to any potential development project. Working with residents and other stakeholders to identify a neighborhood’s strengths and assets and then creating a plan for development that builds off those strengths ensures that development adds to a neighborhood’s character without erasing the elements that attracted development in the first place.

A classic example is the South Bethlehem Greenway—a defunct rail line was converted into a community park that connects south Bethlehem commercial districts, improving walkability in an already walkable community.

On Hayes Street, the historic architecture of St. Stanislaus church was adapted into a multi-purpose space for the Southside Lofts affordable apartment community.

In both examples, a community need or challenge was identified and a strategy was developed to address that challenge by building off existing assets.

This approach brings its own challenges, and no development project will ever be supported by everyone. However, making an effort to engage community members tends to make for a better project in the end.

Anna

Reflections on Southside Bethlehem, Part 2: “Ten years ago, there was nothing here”

(Second in a 5-part series of posts on the Southside by Anna Smith)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Gadfly:

“Ten years ago, there was nothing here”

This refrain is a classic remark at grand openings and ribbon cuttings throughout the Southside these days. I know why it is used—perhaps there was nothing here that attracted your attention, money, or time. However, as a lifelong resident, it’s hard not to take this personally; I was here. My family was here. We shopped, ate at restaurants, went to school, and played at parks here ten years ago.

We erase the livelihoods of thousands with a single phrase when we speak of development as if it has occurred on a blank canvas. Development never occurs in a vacuum—“nothing” may have been a vacant lot where neighborhood kids played or a makeshift community garden. Good, bad, or somewhere in between, I doubt it was nothing. In fact, there was a reason that someone chose to invest in this area to begin with—if there were nothing here, why would you spend time and money to build something new here?

History and perspective matter, and they inform the decisions we make and our evaluations of their potential impact. I don’t expect someone who doesn’t live in my neighborhood to truly understand its assets (how could they?), but I do expect them to try. Listening is a good place to start.

Anna

In these first two posts, Anna nails something important to me as I think of the “divide” between CPs Negron and Callahan on visions of the Southside. I tend to use their expressed views as my frame of reference. What I hear in BC is measuring change “in investment dollars, new construction, jobs created, businesses opened—the bigger the numbers, the better.”  ON measures change in a totally different way (though in her long remarks at the last Council meeting, she is certainly appreciative of and even proud of some of the things that BC talks about). “Listening is a good place to start.” Yes.

And check out the Southside Multi-Cultural Fest this weekend too

courtesy of CW Negron

HOLY INFANCY MULTI-CULTURAL FEST

Come join us for food, music and fun for the whole family!

 When: Friday, June 14th from 5:00-10:00 pm and Saturday, June 15th from Noon-10:00 pm, 2019.

 Where: Holy Infancy’s School at 4th and Webster Streets and extending into the beautiful Greenway behind the school.

 What: Come and enjoy delicious multicultural ethnic foods throughout the two-day family-friendly affair like no other in the Lehigh Valley.  Experience a variety of music from multiple cultures and ethnic dance performances, including community resources, museum displays, and children’s activities.

Please plan on coming and bring your neighbors, friends, and family!

For more information visit: www.holyinfancychurch.com or call at 610-866-1121

Check out this “Southside” web site!

Gadfly calls your attention to this important project out of Lehigh University with which we plan to collaborate:

 Southsider: Celebrating Bethlehem’s Southside Culture

The Southsider Vision

Southsider focuses on celebrating our vibrant arts district by creating a forum for reportage on arts programming and local artists on the South Side of Bethlehem. With funding from the Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative and the South Side Initiative of Lehigh University, Southsider reporters compose articles that include reviews of theatrical performances, musical shows, films, and gallery openings. We also provide interviews with area artists and discussions of the ongoing arts programming and arts organizations on the South Side of Bethlehem.

We envision a website in which residents of Bethlehem can reflect upon the power and import of local arts events, artists, and cultural organizations. While Southsider staff will continue to pen articles for the site, we hope that community members also will take time to write pieces that discuss South Side arts and culture.

—–

Please put this one on your speed-dial!