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I'm gazing out the passenger window of Olga Negron's car at the most sprawling complex of warehouses I've ever seen. Devoid of any signs of human life, hundreds of acres of land are scraped flat as a pancake for giant, windowless buildings stocked full of merchandise for Amazon, Walmart, and Reeb, to name just some of the more prominent brands. The area, known to logistics wizards as LV Industrial Park VII, has roads wide enough to handle eighteen-wheelers running four abreast, which makes Olga's SUV feel like a toy.
This is the landscape of the new American economy, where no one makes anything anymore, but they sure do buy! We're in eastern Pennsylvania, only a few minutes from the New Jersey border and barely an hour from Port Newark, where thousands of containers of non-American-made stuff lands every day. From there, containers are loaded on trucks, which take them to Bethlehem, their temporary resting place until a signal from Arkansas or Silicon Valley directs them to a Walmart in Baton Rouge or a warehouse in Texas. The good society turned into the goods society, and in the case of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it stands on the ruins of the industrial society. If you dig a few feet beneath LV (Lehigh Valley) Industrial Park VII, you will find the remnants of Bethlehem Steel, once the citadel of this nation's industrial prowess.
"This is the largest brownfield site in the country," Olga tells me. When she's not serving as the first Latina elected to the Bethlehem City Council, she works for a law firm managing hundreds of personal injury claims. Her clients are Lehigh Valley residents, many of them warehouse workers and 80 percent of whom are Latino. "Warehouse jobs aren't great, but better to build warehouses on brownfields than farmland," she says with the hint of a sigh, one that presaged other sighs I'd hear during my time in Bethlehem. It's a sound like a blues song, one that if you could write lyrics for might go like this: "There were good times, there were bad times / But today's times ain't as good as the good times / Ain't as bad as the bad times."
For more than one hundred years, Bethlehem Steel sprawled across sixteen hundred acres in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Its beating heart was a series of belching smokestacks and blast furnaces that forged billions of tons of steel to build, among other things, 1,100 World War II warships. Bethlehem Steel closed in 1995, a victim of a changing world economy, throwing thirty thousand people out of work and terminating the hopes of generations of families that could make solid middle-class lives from good-paying union jobs. The industrial site remained vacant for many years, holding groundwater contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethane. Great truckloads of soil had to be hauled away to landfills so that Bethlehem could begin to reinvent itself and create a new identity.
Olga's vehicle wound its way out of Warehouse World into the city's nearby core. We soon passed Sands Casino, which was the vanguard of Bethlehem's post-steel redevelopment — gaming being a tried-and-true government economic-revitalization strategy that too often defines the limits of the public sector's imagination. In the case of the Sands, however, a flickering flame of originality turned into a soft, warm glow of creativity. Yes, it brought roulette wheels to a city formerly powered by waterwheels, but in an uncommon flight of fancy, the casino's developers would preserve the skeletal remains of Big Steel: smokestacks and boilers, massive I-beam sculptures, and giant, ancient gears more reminiscent of the Stone Age than the industrial age. Bold architectural acts of adaptive reuse turned irreplaceable masonry structures into art spaces and museums. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, immigrants traveled across the globe to become steelworkers in Bethlehem, each day walking from densely packed neighborhoods to the mill. Today's residents and visitors can still experience an authentic twenty-first-century version of the city's gritty past, generally free of Disneyfication and insincerity.
The casino would not only celebrate the arts but also become the first place in Bethlehem to embrace the country's growing love affair with food. Chef Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans fame would open his first of three restaurants in 2009 in the casino and its adjoining hotel. It was certainly a coup for a city of seventy-four thousand to be the only place in the Northeast with Lagasse restaurants.
Bethlehem would follow a trajectory from mills to warehouses to casinos to arts to food — never a straight line, of course, but certainly a lifeline for a community cast adrift by the sinking of Big Steel. Other forces would contribute as well, such as the city's longstanding academic institutions, Lehigh University and Moravian College; its major hospital, St. Luke's; and in an ironic twist of history, the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center. Barely within commuting distance of New York City, the Lehigh Valley became a refuge for thousands who believed that the metro New York region now had a giant target on its back for fanatics of all stripes. Following 9/11, Bethlehem itself experienced its biggest population bump since 1950.
As one who came to Bethlehem twenty-five years ago from Puerto Rico, Olga takes Bethlehem's renaissance with a grain of salt. "It's still too controlled by special interests, money, and good ole boy politics," she says. While acknowledging the big players who hit economic development home runs, Olga puts more stock in the hundreds of singles that its residents scattered north and south, east and west. These grassroots efforts have created dozens of restaurants, a new Charter Arts high school, a food and farm program at the community college, a new supermarket in a food desert, farmers' markets, festivals, and numerous no-profit and nonprofit organizations that raised the city's quality of life while also taking care of those left behind.
You get a quick idea of what these connections look like while chomping on a Brewers' Grain-Fed Burger at Fegley's Brew Works. It's a half-pound, intense beef experience from a cow raised at nearby Koehler Farms and fattened on spent grain from the Susquehanna Brewing Company. Not only does it take your palate to those special places only a superior burger can go, but its sheer righteousness envelops you in a virtuous glow of sustainability. As I'm washing it down with a Hop'solutely Triple India Pale Ale in one of those oh-so-warm-and-cozy wooden booths, I'm joined by Rich and Diane Fegley, owners, operators, and inventors of Fegley's Brew Works.
"I went to Drexel University for an English degree, and worked for the Johnson and Johnson Corporation, but it wasn't until I got into home brewing that I got interested in the restaurant business," Rich tells me as he unravels the Brew Works creation story. After a stint in Boulder, he and Diane returned to Bethlehem, their hometown and still home to their extended families. They were determined to open a restaurant and brewery, which they did at what was the absolute nadir of Bethlehem's post–World War II existence. "The Bethlehem Steel plant had been slowly shutting down for years ... and the downtown had been bled by the malls and box stores. On the same day in 1998 when we opened our doors on Main and Broad, the Historic Hotel Bethlehem [just down the street] declared bankruptcy and closed." Rich and Diane were either the most courageous and committed citizens of their generation, or Pennsylvania's most foolish entrepreneurs.
For a couple of years, their restaurant and brewery was a lonely outpost in what decades earlier had been the city's commercial hub. However, their bet — clearly a long shot at the time — paid off, but most important, their business gave heart to others who hoped that downtown, and the city as a whole, would turn around. And it did. Historic Bethlehem, with the Moravian Book Shop as the country's oldest bookstore, proved too strong a draw, and the Historic Hotel Bethlehem would be renovated and returned to its past glory.
As I walked the two blocks down Main Street from the Brew Works to the Hotel Bethlehem, I counted no less than twelve eateries, including a cidery and Johnny's Bagels & Deli. As a bagel devotee, I visited Johnny's the following morning, where I would discover that Johnny Zohir learned his bagel-making craft in New York City. The bagel, cream cheese, lox, and capers were perfectly proportioned and gave me just the right amount of "crunch and chew." The counter help calls you "boss" in that make-believe deferential kind of way until you pay your bill, after which they ignore you completely. They, too, had just the right amount of crunch and chew.
For their part, the Fegleys are committed to sustainability and a more expansive definition of "local." In addition to recycling brewer's grains through livestock feed, they work to reduce waste, including recently eliminating plastic straws, and are active composters. "'Local' is problematic because you can't get enough local," Rich tells me. He also notes that the big food service companies like Sysco and US Foods are certainly offering more sustainable food but no locally produced food. "But with their technology and online purchasing systems, they sure do make it convenient," he notes. Nevertheless, when Brew Works is not buying from farmers like Koehler Farms or Breakaway Farms and Butchery, they are using regional distributors like Pocono ProFoods. By keeping their purchasing and overall orientation regional, Rich and Diane see their business having a significant economic impact. They opened a second restaurant in nearby Allentown in 2007, and altogether the two sites employ almost two hundred full-and part-time staff members. Brew Works inspired dozens of other food and beverage entrepreneurs, and pioneered Bethlehem into a twenty-first-century food scene.
A River Runs Through It
Anyone who knows Bethlehem will probably acknowledge that it is two cities in one, divided north to south by the Lehigh River and seven sets of railroad tracks. The North Side, which includes the historic downtown, most of the higher-end restaurants, and Moravian College, is generally more affluent. Crossing the river over the Fahy Bridge drops you into a cityscape so dramatically different you feel as though a stage manager just pulled a set change on you. While the north's European roots stretch back 275 years, the South Side's are more recent, multiethnic, and blue-collar. Its various neighborhoods, admirably rich in history, diversity, and food, in some ways stand apart from each other, and in other ways are joined at the hip.
Like all writers who want to "do justice" to a place and its people, I struggle to find the voices that can not only tell their story but also relate it to that of their community. That search is never easy, but on really good days — coasting your bike downhill with a strong wind at your back — someone just right falls into your lap. For me, that person was Jake Hoffman, born and raised in Bethlehem and now living in Portland, Maine, which for the purposes of this book only, means he has "dual citizenship." In all cases, I selected the cities for this book before I selected the people to interview, but when I told my son that I had selected Bethlehem, he reminded me that his four-year college roommate and longtime bandmate, Jake Hoffman, was from Bethlehem. "And he's a foodie, Dad."
Jake, age thirty-three, graduated from Bethlehem's Freedom High School, the city's sister high school to, believe it or not, Liberty High School. His dad worked as an accountant at Bethlehem Steel until it crashed and burned, and then he transitioned to become a railroad engineer. His mother is a high school dance instructor at Charter Arts. When it comes to the divide between Bethlehem's north and south, you might say Jake has dual citizenship there as well. Raised in a pleasant middle-class neighborhood on the North Side, he developed an early passion for food. It's a passion he shares with his brother Eric, who went on to become a professional chef. "Our family always came together around food, which was a time we'd all get creative," he tells me. "Local and fresh food was just kind of a value we grew up with." Though Jake ultimately chose music as a career, his heart and soul are closely linked to food. "I'm the head chef and gardener in our household," he says of the home he shares with his wife, Emily, in Portland, Maine.
Jake's first job as a teenager was at a Thai restaurant on Bethlehem's South Side. "I was fascinated by diversity, so working at the restaurant in that neighborhood gave me a chance to experience it firsthand. ... The steelworkers were diverse, and so was the neighborhood." There was a strong Latino influence to the South Side's restaurant scene that reflected the influx of people from Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and Peru. According to Jake, none of the restaurants are "super fancy places, but there's enough going on in different neighborhoods to give you a good comparison." Indeed, the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem lists fifty-one eateries, cafés, wine bars, and brewpubs on the South Side, a rather incredible number given the compressed geography and relatively small resident population.
About the time Jake was heading off to college in 2003, "the food scene just kind of exploded. There were farmers' markets and CSAs. There was also a Wegmans supermarket that opened." Given the chain's reputation for high-quality, sustainable fare, and the absence of a Whole Foods, the arrival of a Wegmans within the city's limits was a momentous occasion. Jake thinks the city's proximity to both Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Emmaus, Pennsylvania, also played a role in its evolving foodie culture. (As one who was subjected to a steady regimen of fatty meat, potatoes, and delicious pies, I would probably recommend that Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine carry a surgeon general's warning.) On the other end of the spectrum, Emmaus is home to the epicenter of America's organic movement, Rodale Press. "Though they may be weirdos, they have had a major influence," said Jake.
When I asked him to compare Bethlehem's food consciousness to that of Portland, Maine, a place he is intimately familiar with, he said with a smile, "Bethlehem's foodies recognize ingredients and seasonality; Portland's foodies recognize their exact location and politics." Wherever Jake's city of residence, his love of food is rivaled only by his devotion to music. "Musikfest defines Bethlehem's identity because it's about food and art!" Eventually operating on a scale that would dwarf Woodstock, Musikfest started in 1984, featuring 295 performances on six stages, attracting more than 180,000 people to Historic Bethlehem. Over the past three decades, the event evolved into one of the largest and most diverse music festivals in the nation, with more than five hundred shows on sixteen stages over ten days. Each year more than nine hundred thousand people make their way to the Lehigh Valley to experience all the music and food the festival has to offer.
As much as "the food scene has blossomed in Bethlehem," Diane LaBelle says, "it's the arts that saved the city." LaBelle is director and cofounder of the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, which opened in 2013. She deliberately chose to locate the school on Bethlehem's South Side, in a redevelopment area that qualified for the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program. The school has 650 students but no cafeteria, which according to LaBelle, is partly by design. She told me that she wants the school to be an integral and supportive member of the community. That means all those students must find lunch off school grounds. Similarly, the school offers ninety-two evening student performances per year that are attended by friends and family members who often use the occasion to dine at South Side restaurants.
Charter Arts isn't the only educational institution in the area. From the South Side's river valley, you ascend quickly to the mountainous heights that envelop 150-year-old Lehigh University. Lehigh is an old institution that until recently maintained a guarded relationship between its campus and the community. When it finally began doing some outreach — breaking through classic town/gown paranoia — a pent-up dam of economic demand flooded nearby neighborhoods. But regardless of timing and intention, both schools are now vital contributors to Bethlehem's South Side food scene.
For its part, Charter Arts draws students from twelve surrounding counties and forty-seven school districts. In Diane's estimation, the arts are a growing field — an industry of its own making — that her kids will move into for decades to come. But having said that, she also describes how food is integrated into the school's life and curriculum. "Food is a big part of the language curriculum, and soon we will have a professional kitchen," I was told when I spoke briefly to a creative writing class during my visit. But for the meantime, the lack of a cafeteria remains problematic, especially since 35 percent of the school's students are eligible for the free and reduced-price federal lunch program. Because there's the economic impact from students buying lunch locally — 650 students multiplied by five dollars a day — in a community that still needs more money flowing through it, the school will offer only limited eat-in options for the foreseeable future.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Food Town, USA"
Copyright © 2019 Mark Winne.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction Chapter 1. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Chapter 2. Sitka, Alaska Chapter 3. Alexandria, Louisiana Chapter 4. Boise, Idaho Chapter 5. Youngstown, Ohio Chapter 6. Jacksonville, Florida Chapter 7. Portland, Maine Conclusion
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“As only a longtime leader in the food movement can, Mark Winne introduces us to the unsung heroes of local food revitalization, demonstrating how food policy councils, farmers' markets, community gardens, and farm-to-school programs can help struggling communities rebuild."
“Food Town, USA may prove to be the most hopeful and important book to take the food movement out of the predictable culture wars between big city and forgotten countryside, between blue and red, and between glamorous and unfashionable places. Whether it’s craft beer or food sovereignty, Winne gives voice to those who are reinventing the food movement in their own language.”