by Jaime Karpovich
“The buildings we find beautiful are those that represent our ideas of a meaningful life.” — Alain de Botton
It was an evening of a Southside Bethlehem First Friday. I was on a singular mission to buy my first piece of grown-up art (an original piece that cost more than my share of the rent) and I knew I wanted the subject to be the Bethlehem Steel Mills. Late in the evening, I rounded the corner of a gallery and came eye-level with a piece by Marty Desilets that perfectly captured the ways in which something decayed and nearly forgotten can be seen anew. A literal reframing. I plunked down my deposit and a week later rearranged everything in my apartment around it, and never looked back.
It’s the Steel Mills that hold the most symbolism for me. I have occasionally referred to Bethlehem as “The City of Second Chances,” and it’s most evident in those old mills. They have stood as silent witnesses to generations of workers who built homes, built families, built lives here. They watch as we do the same now, our new futures hugged by these structures like relatives with wisdom to impart.
The two downtowns have become my extended front porches. The street that boasts the address of the oldest continuously running bookstore in the country is the same street with commercial space that has held several different restaurants in the last two years, trying on different cuisines like prom dresses. Between those, a third space resells used and upcycled clothing and accessories—breathing a fresh start into something that’s been around a while.
I watch the dogs greet each other on the sidewalks. I know what parts of town I can count on for the smell of fresh bagels or garlic bread or imported cigars or old books. I am full of a small hope when I see children learning through repetition and reinforcement that this is what a community looks like. (It looks like us.)
Bethlehem takes chances. We will try almost anything once, as the notion of learning through experience is lived out in our history but especially in our present. Bringing community together through public events, advocating the arts, encouraging the support of small businesses—these are values that Bethlehem takes seriously. We don’t just talk; we do. And that action-based mindset is becoming contagious.
Multiple times in less than a year, I have seen many a “wouldn’t it be nice if . . . ” idea turn into an initiative with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people behind it, thanks to a city that believes in itself and its residents enough to follow through. We are in a crucial (and lucky) time in Bethlehem’s history: the new beginning. The Second Chance.
When I imagine what Bethlehem will be like in 5 or 10 years from now, I believe what we are creating here will continue to inspire others to make it their home. They will continue to make inspired additions to a city loved for its history. The projects and places that could be most important to residents are the ones that are currently forming in our brains and will become a reality, with the support of our community. Someday, someone will say, “I can’t imagine this place without . . . .” and fill in the blank for your favorite business. Our personal goals carried out, built up; our own abstract skylines standing strong as steel.
Jaime Karpovich is a cook and author of Save the Kales! blog, voted best local food blog by readers of The Morning Call. She is currently working on creating a Bethlehem Food Co-op to supply the city with fresh, local food year round, and teach public classes on how to make vegan cheese from cashews.
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