Pennsylvania was built on industry, particularly steel, shipbuilding and the railroad. But over the years, priorities shifted. The steel industry collapsed. Shipbuilding became obsolete. And a significant portion of the railroad was replaced by the trucking industry. So what happens to the cities built on industry when those industries fail? If they have a vision, they reinvent in search of a new image. Here are three interesting Pennsylvania cities that have seen surprising reinventions from industrial to artistic: Bethlehem, Erie and Altoona.
It’s hard not to notice the former Bethlehem Steel Plant when visiting Bethlehem in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region. This behemoth stretches for almost a quarter-mile and its two largest furnaces are more than 230 feet tall. In its heyday, each furnace at Bethlehem Steel produced 2,600-3,000 tons of iron per day—and at one time there were seven furnaces in operation. Most of the iron was used in steel-making and the company was responsible for manufacturing the steel for many prominent US landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the George Washington Bridge in New York and the Hoover Dam. But on November 18, 1995, the furnaces lost their flames.
So what do you do with a massive steel plant when its steel-making days are done? You reinvent it as an arts and entertainment venue. Today, the former steel plant is known as SteelStacks—a 10 acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun offering more than 1,000 concerts and eight different festivals annually. Over the past several years, more than $70 million has been invested into the SteelStacks project. Through these efforts the former ghost property is once again thriving—this time as a premier destination in the Northeastern US for music, art and entertainment.
Since its opening in spring 2011, more than one million people have visited SteelStacks to enjoy countless musical performances, films, community celebrations and festivals including Musikfest, the largest free music festival in the USA.
In the mid-19th century, Erie was a booming city full of industry including shipbuilding, steel and manufacturing. Once part of the Rust Belt, Erie’s economy declined as manufacturing needs changed. The decline earned the city some unflattering nicknames by residents—the “Mistake on the Lake” and “Dreary Erie.” But Erie has shaken off those monikers and reinvented itself as a vibrant city for arts and culture.
Museums and galleries sprinkle the area. Melodic symphonies and trendy pops concerts of the Erie Philharmonic fill the halls of the Warner Theatre while independent thought-provoking films are screening at FILM at the art museum. Housed in an 80,000 square foot complex that ties together five historic buildings, the Erie Art Museum is a recipient of the nation’s highest honor for museums—the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.
The city also has an excellent public art program—The Big Picture. Brought to life by the Erie Art Museum along with Erie Arts & Culture, the YMCA and Tungsten Creative, The Big Picture is motivated by the belief that public art transforms people and spaces and enhances the quality of life. This year The Big Picture produced its first large-scale mural, Erie Industry, by artist Ehren Knapp. The mural celebrates Erie’s manufacturing legacy through the melding of historic elements of Erie industry.
With the completion of Horseshoe Curve in the mid-19th century allowing the westward expansion of the railroad across the Allegheny Mountains, freight train traffic was operating at full throttle. As a city literally built by and for the railroad, Altoona was thriving. But with the advent of the automobile and a new focus on the trucking industry, the railroad fortunes began to decline forcing Altoona to change direction.
The railroad history is still embraced and celebrated at the Horseshoe Curve National Monument, the Altoona Railroad Museum and through railroad themed art and artifacts sold in local shops. But today, there’s a new focus—art and theatre have stepped into the spotlight.
Evidence of the city’s new focus can be seen in places like the historic 1906 Mishler Theatre which has undergone a multi-million dollar restoration to restore its former glory despite having suffered through a devastating fire and years of neglect. Located downtown, this Beaux-Arts Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This stunning performing arts venue offers a wide variety of the best in live theatre, music and dance including performances by the Altoona Community Theatre, the Allegheny Ballet Company and the Altoona Symphony Orchestra.
Downtown Altoona is also home to one of the four campuses of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA), which maintains permanent and rotating exhibits by local, regional, national and international artists. SAMA was designed with state-of-the-art exhibition and storage space for quarterly exhibitions and a rare collection of albumen photographic prints by William H. Rau, the official photographer for the Pennsylvania Railroad at the turn of the 20th century.
Wandering the downtown streets of this charming city, the railroad responsible for Altoona’s existence makes its presence known as those distant train whistles continue to blow.
Have you experienced the arts in these reinvented Pennsylvania cities?
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