Stronger than Steel is the story of a company town, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that used alternative economic development strategies, including arts, tourism, and a casino to propel its way out of devastation of deindustrialization. Bethlehem's strategies have been rewarded with dramatic results.
In 2016, among Pennsylvania cities with a population over 20,000, Bethlehem had the highest median household income, lowest poverty rate and highest residential property value. Bethlehem has successfully reversed the brain drain and has become a magnet for an educated workforce, attracting millenials with college degrees and retirees looking for a culturally dynamic community.
The book is, in part, a memoir by Jeffrey A. Parks, the attorney who conceived Musikfest, the downtown festival that premiered in 1984 and now attracts over one million guests annually; Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem, an annual Christmas festival; and the Banana Factory Arts Center. Parks lead the team that developed the ten acre SteelStacks Arts and Culture Campus in the former Bethlehem Steel plant. Parks is an advocate for the incorporation of the arts in community and economic development planning.
Stronger than Steel begins with a brief history of Bethlehem which was a closed Protestant Moravian community from its founding in 1741 until industrial revolution invaded the town with a canal, then a railroad. When a zinc smelting plant opened in 1853, it was the beginning of hot metal production that lasted until the steel plant closed in 1995. It was iron and steel brought men from all over Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico to the town. The men brought wives who attracted industries that employed women, including textiles and confections. The industries were the backbone of the community until after World War II, when the twin forces of deindustrialization and suburbanization conspired to turn Bethlehem, and most other industrial cities, into repositories of industries that were dying, impoverished residents who moved into the row houses abandoned by the now suburban middle class, and civic and religious institutions that could not move.
While Parks infuses his story and first hand observations throughout the book, he artfully incorporates the stories of many of the individuals who played key roles in developing the city that exists today. City officials, community and business leaders offer insights into the evolution of the community.
Stronger than Steel is a passionate outreach to architects, planners, artists, arts organizations, community leaders and public officials to design urban spaces for community connections, a practice now called creative placemaking. Parks concludes that arts offered in public spaces are crucial to building social capital, which in turn is important to community viability and economic prosperity. With ArtsQuest, the parent non-profit that now presents Musikfest and the arts programs developed over 30 years generating over 6 billion media impressions annually, Parks notes that the arts have a significant influence on a city's brand. That brand is also essential to attract the human and economic capital to sustain and grow a community.
Stronger than Steel tells a complex story that runs counter to the current narrative about the Rust Belt. For those interested in this pragmatic, positive version of our country's troubled post-industrial communities, it is a must read.
Jeffrey A. Parks is a lawyer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1983 Parks launched his career as a Social Entrepreneur by conceiving a signature festival: Musikfest, which is now the largest free admission music festival in America, held in the city's small, historic downtown every August. Parks founded a German style holiday market, Christkindlmarkt, to support the downtown and the Christmas City brand, followed by the creation of an arts center in an old banana distribution warehouse near the closed Bethlehem Steel Plant. After a visit to Germany's Ruhr Valley, he developed the concept of a cluster of arts activities around the dormant Bethlehem Steel Blast Furnaces. The arts and culture campus became the highly successful, award winning SteelStacks. The non-profit ArtsQuest, led by Parks for its first 32 years now operates the two campuses and serves two million people each year with over 2,000 arts and cultural programs. SteelStacks is one of only three real estate projects to be awarded the Urban Land Institute's Global Award for Excellence and the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence. ArtsQuest is widely credited with the success of Bethlehem in navigating the travails of deindustrialization and suburbanization to become a culturally and economically robust twenty-first-century city. Parks serves as Chair of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He has served on the Board of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, the jury for The Waterfront Center Awards for Excellence, Discover Lehigh Valley (tourism promotion agency) and the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. He is a frequent speaker on the topic arts and post-industrial revitalization. Parks also serves as Vice President of Alibi Music Library, a music production library. Since retiring from ArtsQuest he has become engaged in residential real estate development. While Parks and his wife Susan are the current caretakers of their 1895 Victorian home in Bethlehem's Moravian Historic District, they also enjoy traveling, with favorite spots including Meran, Italy; Sedona, Arizona and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. The canine that shares their home these days is a Havanese rescue named "Folly." Parks is a graduate of Lehigh University and the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania