Giving new life to urban cores while preserving cultural history

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Artists rendering of new Crayola exhibits.
Artists rendering of new Crayola exhibits.

Few will argue that, for many, the Lehigh Valley is a “best-of-all-possible-worlds” location: We have the varied attributes that attract a dynamic population to our region.

Historically, the Lehigh Valley’s industrial strength dominated industries from steel to textile, and our Valley is still home to the remnants of these histories. Cathedrals of industry stand throughout the Valley as reminders of our past and offer a wealth of opportunity for future use. These great machines are our Acropolis, our Roman Forum and our Great Pyramids.

Through thoughtful planning and a diversity of use, the revitalization of our urban infrastructure can yield vibrant and dynamic communities. Many once-forgotten neighborhoods throughout our country have been reunited with their communities and flourished through smart redevelopment.

The revitalization of SoHo, one of the richest communities in Manhattan, exemplifies how a dying part of an American city can return to life as a richer, more diverse and economically stronger destination.

SoHo was the heart of manufacturing in New York in the 1900s. By the 1950s, many of its manufacturing facilities began to outgrow their lofts and leave Manhattan. The area became a castaway void; a district of utilitarian buildings that were unsafe to visit.

A lack of diverse use and planning foresight killed the urban life of this once-vibrant district. Eventually, city planners looked to gentrify while urban pioneers began to occupy. Megastructures and major thoroughfares were proposed long-term, while artists began to squat immediately.

SoHo’s rebirth was attributed to artists whose pioneering spirit and modest necessity stimulated rapid renewal. Though true urbanity doesn’t occur solely with population density, this increased density complimented with varied uses contributes to a neighborhood’s vitality.

Although there is very little manufacturing in SoHo today, art, high-tech startups, housing, eateries and boutiques add to its character. SoHo now stands as a tangible example of how the core of an old city can be given new life without abandoning its cultural history.

Our Lehigh Valley is home to three unique, yet related, urban cores. Allentown appears to be on rapid pace of repositioning itself as the Valley’s crown jewel of culture. Revitalization efforts there, including PPL Center, the Waterfront and the Neighborhood Improvement Zone’s unique opportunities, present opportunities for the future.

Bethlehem, as the Valley’s industrial giant, has learned the lesson of preserving cultural history; historic districts on the North and South sides have created two uniquely walkable downtowns. Cultural projects on Bethlehem’s South Side continue to find success as ground zero for a resurgence of arts and culture.

Easton, with a rich transportation history dating to the Industrial Revolution, continues to thrive as a hub for transportation and government. Easton also has experienced a cultural revitalization of its own, as institutions such as Lafayette College, Crayola and the State Theater have helped downtown Easton to grow into a cultural center.

The tax benefits available to jump-start Pennsylvania’s urban core are a very attractive catalyst for redevelopment, but are short-lived. Revitalization provides long-term ecological benefits as well.

Although the Valley’s industrial buildings may have outlived their original purpose, they lend themselves to being adapted, often with less environmental impact than new construction. When planned well, these areas provide a mix of residential, office and leisure spaces that are safe for users and promote activity of vitality and economy.

The revitalization efforts occurring in each of our major cities are generating the creative, intellectual and economic capital that fuels innovation and growth.

As we move forward with these goals for our communities, it’s important to remember our history. As ever, we are faced with economic, social and ecological challenges that call for integrated planning efforts.

The Lehigh Valley has unique opportunities for historical value and new growth to exist side-by-side, providing the kind of infrastructure, built environment and social context that will continue to draw people to our area. These challenges will require the kind of steadfast leadership that has served our Valley for generations, as well as informed planning and a bit of flexible spontaneity.

To remain vital, Lehigh Valley communities must become reacquainted with the creative, innovative, intellectual, cultural and technological histories that define us.

Joseph N. Biondo is an award-winning design principal at Spillman Farmer Architects, an architectural firm founded in Bethlehem in 1927. He can be reached at jbiondo@spillmanfarmer.com or 610-865-2621.

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