Renewal gone bad ruined jewels of Hazleton’s past

Originally published in today’s Standard-Speaker (August 11, 2013)

The Duplan Silk Mill, weathered by age and decaying since its purpose expired, inelegantly attracted attention earlier this summer. Its tower began to crumble pieces onto Fulton Court. The crowning structure atop this industrial behemoth, once the world’s largest silk mill, decomposed at the beginning of a season overdosed with discontent, frustration, and uncertainty in the Mountain City. Amidst fitful rain storms and stifling heat, Hazleton’s thermostat was turned up by violence, crime, and the unfortunate afflictions of much larger cities.

The present malaise engenders fear for the future and evokes nostalgia for a past both real and imagined. Has Hazleton been here before? Is this just an ornery stage in its impassioned history? The challenges Hazleton confronts are not necessarily unique or new, but its past experiences and current efforts to inoculate hope cannot be ignored. Post-industrial cities throughout Pennsylvania offer lessons in overcoming anguish and renewing hope. In spite of its present condition, the fragile Duplan tower survives as a portal to an earlier time when Hazleton endured another period of discontent.

Jean L. Duplan expanded his French silk weaving empire in the late 1890s. After Congress imposed a tariff on foreign silk, he entered the American market and founded the Duplan Silk Company in New York. Continued success necessitated further growth, and Duplan initially funded a small mill in South Bethlehem.

By 1898, Duplan wanted to have a larger building for his company with an advantageous location. The magnate visited Hazleton that March and was immediately repelled by the city’s conditions. The proposed mill site stood on a muddy, swamp-like tract scarred by mine caveins. An open sewer openly flowed through the property and the urban squalor of surrounding areas proved unappealing. Initial intelligence reports warned Duplan to avoid the area because of its militant-like labor force, and it was startling to witness a small city where over 30 languages were spoken. The high altitude didn’t help matters, and he felt the city’s undesirable weather would compromise the silk making process.

The rapidly growing Hazleton desperately needed a sound industrial base to augment the mining industry’s erratic employment. The community rallied and incentivized Duplan with offers he couldn’t refuse. Churches throughout the city collected 25 cents from members, banks sold bonds, and the proposed site, although shabby, became Duplan’s best financial option. The Duplan Silk Mill was born, and its daunting 600,000 square feet employed thousands until its closure in 1953.

Duplan operated during a boom period for Hazleton, when its downtown possessed the Art Deco mood and sophistication of an Edward Hopper painting. Its physical face symbolized the energizing concept of the great American city, an urban center filled with theatres, department stores, tall buildings, and stylishly tiled entrance ways to all forms of commerce.

World War II was the intravenous drip that sustained Hazleton’s economy, but it was only a temporary fix. Upon the war’s conclusion, Hazleton underwent the economic changes that struck industrial cities throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The war-time demands for coal and many manufacturing plants dissipated when soldiers returned to their jobs, enrolled in the G.I. bill, or came home to nothing.

Single industries dominated Hazleton and other similarly situated cities, and now those industries were gone. From Chester’s shipyards and Trenton’s ceramics plants, to York’s automobile factories and Bethlehem’s steel, Mid-Atlantic cities languished in a national economy that shifted from manufacturing to services. The Duplan’s closure was part of this trend, and subsequent back-to-back hurricanes that destroyed many Hazleton mines placed the city in a state of panic. Its response to these post-industrial maladies paralleled other American cities.

Bethlehem was Hazleton’s closest comrade in this post-war era of uncertainty. Although the Bethlehem Steel Corporation remained prosperous after the war, the city realized the need to diversify its economy and eliminate the threat of urban blight. The local Chamber of Commerce formed an economic development committee to attract employers to the area. The city also embraced the urban renewal program contagiously sweeping many struggling cities during the next decade.

Enacted as part of the federal Housing Act of 1949, the urban renewal program served as an initiative to help cities counteract decline. Armed with federal grants, cities declared residential neighborhoods and business districts “blighted,” and demolished these areas in the hope that something better would replace them. Bethlehem targeted the South Side, designating this working-class and ethnically diverse section as “blighted.” In one stunning instance, the entire Northampton Heights neighborhood was razed in 1968, forcing over 900 residents to leave their homes so the twenty-block area could accommodate a new furnace for Bethlehem Steel.

Chloe Taft, who has studied Bethlehem’s drastic reshaping of its landscape at Yale University, wrote that urban renewal “often veiled agendas to clear cities’ poor and ethnically marginal neighborhoods for ‘profitable’ uses.” Whatever profits struggling cities derived is largely dismissed today, for the federal urban renewal program was considered a failure by the time of its abolishment in 1974. Hazleton was another victim of this delusional experiment, and the redevelopment authority began its optimistic drive to “renew” its own South Side in 1960.

Beginning in 1968, the Downtown South Urban Renewal Project, with millions in federal assistance, demolished 16 city blocks of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, believing that these “blighted” acres would produce profitable development for downtown. Instead, the project destroyed a distinctive neighborhood, displacing 184 families, 221 individuals, and demolishing landmarks like the Lehigh Valley Train Station, the Winfield Hotel, and the Liberty Band Hall.

In an analysis of the project’s fallout in 1988, the Standard-Speaker’s Bob Salitza concluded that, “Downtown South never became what its planners envisioned a quarter century ago. Vacant land leaves the area looking somewhat barren. Mine Street remains little more than a narrow alley, and the old Lehigh Valley railroad tracks continue to slice through Hazleton’s heart.” A quarter century since this assessment, the description remains dishearteningly contemporary.

Downtown South tragically confirmed a total indifference for Hazleton’s history and heritage. By leveling residences that fed downtown commerce, the project also robbed the city of valuable tax revenue. Pictures of what urban renewal erased appropriately arouse anger and a sentimental pain, a realization that the beauty certain buildings and neighborhoods possessed will never return. It’s a state of mind shared by countless natives of cities like Hazleton. South Bethlehem was just another casualty in urban renewal’s noxious path. But the “Christmas City” still checked its behavior through initiatives that eventually made Bethlehem a desirable tourist destination.

Unlike Hazleton’s renewal, which was a plan without a vision, Bethlehem’s urban renewal
attempted to preserve parts of its historical past. Although the city demolished much of the South Side in the 1960s, Bethlehem also revisited its Moravian heritage and modernized its downtown through preservation. Applying the concept of “historic renewal,” Bethlehem restored and promoted Revolutionary War-era buildings downtown and attracted walking tours during the Christmas season. The residential areas surrounding Bethlehem’s downtown were left intact and remain appealing today. The pedestrian-friendly downtown maintains the energy emanating from
so many old postcards of bustling Americans cities.

Cruising through Hazleton, the buildings and memories lost frequently overshadow the efforts now made to renew the city. The hallucinatory belief that tearing down city treasures improves the area finally seems passé, as evidenced by the Markle Bank and the Castle. Now these landmarks, along with the Hazleton National Bank and Traders Bank buildings, are going concerns. Most Precious Blood school did not have to suffer the fate of St. Gabriel’s High School, and now serves area youth as a community center.

In the mid-20th century, Hazleton reflexively welcomed improvement projects that consistently backfired. Despite the city’s distress, Hazleton has now entered a period of ambitious and responsible efforts to improve its downtown and neighborhoods. From the United Way to the Hazleton Integration Project, organizations throughout Hazleton have reinvigorated a sense of purpose for the city. Hazleton POWER! tirelessly works to improve, promote, and embrace Hazleton’s potential. The organization, which recently became its own nonprofit, has quickly developed a community network of individuals committed to remaking the city’s image in ways that inspire idealism and temper negativity.

Projects and events like POWER’s Downtown Clean-Up and Movie-Night at the Markle, along with the Historical Society’s regular open houses, reacquaint Hazletonians with the subtle beauty and clear possibilities for the city. The challenges Hazleton faces remain daunting, but it can find solace knowing that so many small post-industrial cities shared its problems. The Historical Society’s daily Facebook posts may unearth recollections of what was lost, but it also shows what remains. Hazleton should embrace its unique cultural identity, establish historic districts, promote its novel restaurants, and replicate Bethlehem’s historic renewal.

There is so much hidden beauty in this exasperating city, and it lingers in the powdery silence of those snow-covered nights, blossoms during sun-kissed summer days, and perseveres as autumn mysteriously transitions the city into a prolonged wintry slumber. Reflecting on the lessons learned from old images of New York, the journalist Pete Hamill once advised, “Leave things alone. Give up the idea of constant renewal, that variation on the dream of perpetual youth. Seek what is truly valuable. Embrace it. Protect it. Love it.” Hazleton has many challenges to overcome. Let the city embrace its past, protect its present, and nurture its future.

McElwee works in the government relations sector and assists with the Greater Hazleton Historical Society Facebook page. He will be pursuing his master’s degree in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. He can be reached at cfmcelwee@gmail.com.

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