History of Bethlehem, PA

Lehigh University South Side Initiative - Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was founded in 1741 as a utopian religious community by the Moravians, a central European pietist sect.   In its early years, Bethlehem was one of the most technologically advanced and most egalitarian places in North America.  An imperfect utopia, however, the community held slaves, was built on land appropriated from native people, and abandoned its egalitarian experiment after one generation.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, Bethlehem became one of the iconic steel towns of industrial America. Home to the Bethlehem Steel corporation, the city produced the steel for a century of skyscrapers, bridges and battleships.  Immigrants from many nations came to work at the Steel and built the vibrant, tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods of the South Side. After the Second World War, and unionization of the plant, Bethlehem became a model of industrial working-class prosperity.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Bethlehem endured the familiar fate of deindustrialization. Over fifteen years, thousands lost their jobs. The former Bethlehem Steel site was the largest urban brownfield in America. Poverty rates are high on the South Side of Bethlehem today and our community suffers from many of the social problems that accompany poverty in the United States.

Bethlehem is engaged today in the dynamic process of reinventing itself as a post-industrial city.   Development of the Steel site has included the opening of an arts center, public television station and casino, and other urban renewal projects are under way.  SSI contributes to the process of urban reinvention by fostering the study of our most pressing challenges and facilitating democratic deliberation and action.