After more than three decades of culminating innovative strategies to support the transition of Bethlehem from a steel industry town to a vibrant arts community, ArtsQuest founder Jeff Parks shares his stories in his first book, “Stronger Than Steel: Forging a Rust Belt Renaissance,” which publishes this week.
Written in the first person, Parks covers topics ranging from tactics and strategies that worked well in Bethlehem in the 1980s through the early 21st century. He weaves the tale of many prominent figures in Bethlehem throughout its history and how their legacies created the inclusive, culturally vibrant city it is today.
“I wrote this book for two reasons,” Parks said. “The first was to document what’s happened in Bethlehem since 1980 … The second was to add to the national conversation about strategies that can be used to affect revitalization in post-industrial communities.”
Parks said that the arts have a significant value in terms of building social capital in a community, branding a community and making a community a desirable place to live.
“Those are the kinds of things that I wanted to emphasize, to the extent that any other community can adopt some of these strategies,” he said.
The book details census figures to highlight the recent journey of the city, which lost thousands of jobs when its largest employer, Bethlehem Steel, started eliminating positions in the 1970s and ’80s, and eventually ceased operations in the ’90s.
Today, Bethlehem has the highest median household income and lowest poverty rate among Pennsylvania cities and continues to attract young, educated residents, according to Parks.
He attributes much of the success of the community to the accessible arts and cultural programs in the city, which is home to nearly 75,000 people.
Parks, of course, founded Musikfest, an annual summer economic boon for Bethlehem and the region, a massive success that triggered even more arts and cultural events and venues – all under the umbrella of ArtsQuest, a nonprofit organization.
The second part of the book highlights the revitalization of the city and how the Lehigh Valley came together as a region for economic development, tourism, transportation and planning, as well as how Bethlehem embraced regionalization.
Parks details his firsthand experiences of how Musikfest came to fruition and grew over the years to become the nation’s largest free-admission music festival.
“What I tried to include very specifically [in the book] is the culture that was established by the early Moravian settlers [in Bethlehem],” Parks said.
Parks said that when Musikfest was created, it reflected the values and the culture that were instilled, beginning with the Moravians.
“One of those things was inclusion,” Parks said. “Moravians were inclusive. … They didn’t view race as anything other than being human, they worshipped music and also drank alcoholic beverages.
“So, beer, music and inclusion was the formula that created not just Musikfest, but the things that followed it.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
The book goes on to talk about how ArtsQuest – formerly known as Bethlehem Musikfest Association – expanded and added the Christkindlmarkt holiday marketplace and the Banana Factory arts center.
The book concludes with chapters devoted to the story of the redevelopment of the Bethlehem Steel plant, which was the largest brownfield project in the United States in 2001.
Parks said the book is full of behind-the-scenes stories of how 1,800 acres of industrial land became three successful enterprises: an industrial park, destination casino and the regional arts and culture campus SteelStacks, now home to ArtsQuest.
The 10-acre SteelStacks campus, which was listed in 2014 on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, annually draws more than 1 million visitors from 45 states for concerts, festivals, events and other arts programming.
NEW BOOK LABEL
When Parks looked into publishing the book, he explored options and decided to self-publish under his own, newly created label, Rocky Rapids.
“There are so many publishing companies out there that it took me forever to come up with a name,” said Parks, who handed over the reins to ArtsQuest to Kassie Hilgert at the start of 2015.
He said he had one day to come up with the name and he wanted a regional name. He started to recite part of the Lehigh University alma mater – “Where the Lehigh’s rocky rapids rush from out the west.”
“The symbol [for his publishing company] is a canoe on the Lehigh River with the steel plant behind it,” said Parks, a Lehigh alumnus.
The book retails for $19.50 in paperback and $9.99 for Kindle and Nook e-book editions.
It can be purchased at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, which will offer signed copies, as well as other local bookstores and online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
On Friday, June 22, from 5-6:30 p.m., Parks will do a reading and book signing in the Blast Furnace Room of the ArtsQuest Center. The next afternoon, he will sign books at Barnes & Noble at the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley in Upper Saucon Township.
He also will be signing and selling copies during the 10 days of Musikfest in Bethlehem, Aug. 3-12.