Old City Allentown

Part I – December 29, 2020

A mountain range looms to the north, blue in the winter light and dusted with snow. The rising sun changes the color of the rock face to the west, from a dusky copper to gold, as fleeting blackbirds dot the lightening sky. Some soar close to the second floor windows, a balcony of sorts where I bring coffee each morning. It’s not Boulder or Bavaria, but instead the view from West Turner Street in Old Allentown. The rock face is the massive brick façade of a public school, and the black birds are a flock of determined crows whose main base of operations is the adjoining playground. I have spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia and New York City, but in neither part of the Northeast Corridor did I find a rowhouse with an unobstructed view to the north, where clouds gather daily over the Blue Mountain. Nor did I find a garage or a free standing sun room where I can play cello in the morning without riling the neighbors. I found these favorable conditions in Old Allentown, where against the advice of Lehigh County friends, I moved in last month.

True to the realtor’s description, the house was pristine, but with a color scheme dominated by high gloss mustard, burgundy window sills and a shade of clay that surfaced in unexpected places, even the ceilings. I started painting shortly before Thanksgiving and finished four weeks later. Nights were not yet freezing, so I could soak brushes and rollers overnight in preparation for the next day’s work. The stubborn shades and glossy surfaces needed three coats after sanding, and the project became all encompassing, putting legal work into a temporary back seat. Fortunately I discovered the Muhlenberg College radio station, which accelerated the last few days of solitary scraping, edging and rolling with musical oddities such as David Bowie singing operatic jazz. With my immediate surroundings improved just in time for Christmas, I started to run again, finding a course south on Ninth Street past the PPL Building, descending a mountain path known as Junction Street, then finding the entrance to the Lehigh Parkway.

Here, one unexpectedly finds a fine gravel running path on the side of a creek, and as a Philadelphia resident for the past 25 years, the sights of the next five miles were remarkable. No plastic bags blowing in the bare branches, no trash cans overflowing with dog leavings mixed with bottles and fast food containers, no occasional scream to make you wonder if it was serious or just someone’s way of having fun. The quiet, clear creek was enough, but then I ran into the Christmas decorations for the Parkway. They began with a pair of brightly colored tin soldiers from The Nutcracker, each about 25 feet high, and proceeded to a multitude of brightly lit figures in a wide green meadow, including a troop of elves bringing wheelbarrows full of wish lists into Santa’s Mailroom. I turned around at a covered bridge, red, old but still functioning. The signs said the park closed at 4:30 p.m., and the orderliness of it all made me want to obey the rules, to exit promptly.

The steep road back to the City reminded me of Morningside Park in Manhattan, with ancient staircases made from massive blocks of stone, ascending from a valley that true to the Allentown song, was dominated by what looked like an abandoned steel mill. But unlike the view from Amtrak as it passes through North Philadelphia, this industrial relic was not collapsing, covered in graffiti, or partly consumed by fire. It was just there, shining in the sunset, seemingly awaiting a reopening. I thought it could house the biggest distillery in Pennsylvania as my uphill pace slowed to little more than walking speed. As dusk closed in, the east facing side of the PPL Building became a towering Christmas Tree of green and red light. There was much to appreciate here, but the streets were empty.

The Old Allentown I have seen over the past few weeks has solid infrastructure, safe streets, and block after block of attractive new urban construction. Sadly, the pandemic of the past 10 months has deprived these places of their purpose. People don’t go to the office anymore, nor are they allowed, after hours, to check out the array of new bars and restaurants on Hamilton Street. The adjectives I have come up with for the Arts Walk from Fifth to Seventh Street don’t do it justice, so I will describe the area instead. One enters through an alley at the back of the second Lehigh County Courthouse, the one built in 1914 from gigantic blocks of granite. The floor level back windows, easily ten feet high, are protected by wrought iron grilles that are works of art in themselves. The back door of this building was not intended for public display, instead it connected to a service alley, but it is now a monument to industrial hand work that nobody can do anymore. Walk west past a grassy park, to another service entrance, this one to the Miller Symphony Hall. I am certain that few members of the public, aside from musicians and other performers, have spent time around a stage entrance. I remember them from music school days as an attitude adjustment room, a place to quell pre-performance jitters where dancers smoked before the show. People walking by (where are they?) may notice that the stage entrance shows a grittier side of the performing arts than what the audience sees as the lights dim down. The way west towards Seventh Street passes several outdoor seating areas, again situated near the service entries of large buildings that front Hamilton Street. Here, there would be enough privacy to have lunch alone without feeling odd, with enough visibility to feel safe.

The genius of Arts Walk is in making inaccessible places not only visible, but interesting and worth spending some time in. But upon entering the new brick food court last week for some Eggnog Ice Cream ($8 a pint, worth it), I noted with concern that I was the only customer in sight. Assuming pandemic restrictions ever end, I think the City needs a concerted effort to bring in new residents. A 50th anniversary concert by the Doobie Brothers next summer will fill the streets that night, but the City needs more to grow. Manhattan would be the perfect place to advertise. That city is more crime ridden now than it was in the infamous early 1980s, and if the legal profession is any guide, clients no longer expect or even want a sit-down meeting in the corner office of a trophy building in Midtown. There are billboards on the Northeast Extension, depicting the wholesome family fun to be had in the Lehigh Valley for northbound drivers who already know about it. Why not install a few signs in North Jersey, across from a refinery or in the swampy approach to Manhattan by the landfills, telling those suffering commuters that life could be much better (walk to work, own a home!), a mere 90 miles due west.

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