Redevelopment Achieves Mixed Results at Historic Site in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Chloe Taft’s book From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City opens new avenues for evaluating the redevelopment of the massive steel manufacturing site in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, following the plant’s shutdown in 1995. In the years leading up to the 2009 opening of the Sands Casino in that spot, MARCH invested in the effort to realize an historical interpretation of the site.

By Howard Gillette

Front cover of From Steel to Slots. Used with permission from Harvard University Press.

A smart new book, Chloe E. Taft’s From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City,[1] opens new avenues for evaluating the redevelopment of the massive steel manufacturing site in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, following the plant’s shutdown in 1995. At once an examination of economic restructuring and the ways contemporary actors are mediating the effects of that shift, Taft’s book also explores the challenges of using the site to convey the rich history of industrial production. Given MARCH’s own investment of time and resources in the effort to realize a robust historical interpretation of the site in the years leading up to the opening of the Sands Casino there in 2009, Taft’s findings are suggestive and important. They provide a framework for the discussion that follows.

The seeds for Taft’s examination of Bethlehem’s postindustrial transition were planted early in her life. Her grandfather worked as a mechanical engineer at Bethlehem Steel from 1961 to 1977, and holiday visits to her grandparents in their retirement left a firm imprint of the city’s complex character. In 2004, while at Williams College, she made the company’s closure the subject of a research project in a sociology class on social disasters. Struck by the stark transition from steel production to gambling on this historic site, she began to perceive not simply the end of a way of life but also a challenging shift to a new economy.

Taking up the subject again for her dissertation in American Studies at Yale, Taft observed in a series of interviews with those most affected by this shift how frequently they pointed to the surviving landscape—not just the industrial plant but its nearby neighborhoods and churches—as sources of strength. As she conducted her archival research, she realized as well that valuing the built environment in Bethlehem went back generations. Residents called the preservation of the city’s Moravian roots on the city’s North Side “historic renewal.” If the next stage in the city’s redevelopment was to be successful, many local people thought, a good portion of the steel plant had to be preserved. Here was an opportunity to incorporate a truly important national site into a larger story of work, religion, and community.

While preservation of the site was not a foregone conclusion, a combination of grassroots advocacy, a responsive city government, and a major business capable of generating the funds to sustain restoration in return for the zoning variance that would allow it to operate in town created favorable conditions for achieving that goal. Despite vocal opposition to gambling from many area residents, city and state officials embraced the arrival of a casino, envisioning both new jobs and enhanced tax revenue from  gambling and tourism to nearby sites. However, unlike Pittsburgh, where most of the Homestead Steel Works were bulldozed in the 1990s to make way for a shopping center, Bethlehem made a virtue of preserving the presence of what has locally been termed The Steel. Although a good number of the buildings that once crowded the company’s eighteen hundred acres are now gone, many at the core remain, including five of the seven iconic blast furnaces that once operated at the site and continue to dominate the skyline on the city’s South Side.

Bethlehem Steel 2016. Photograph courtesy of Howard Gillette.

Nonetheless, The Steel’s surviving presence is subject to all the pressures of what Taft, in accordance with prevailing academic discourse, identifies as the elements of a neoliberal economy “with their business-friendly approaches to regulation, the globalization of profit interests, and the decimation of social protections for workers and the places in which corporations operate”(14). From Steel to Slots includes some wonderfully evocative comments from contemporary casino workers, like one who describes without irony the analogy between blackjack and steel production, where “the chips are your assets that you use to facilitate your production, and your dealers are your line workers. And that’s the factory” (112). Yet even as these workers embrace their freedom to move between jobs, Taft makes clear that such mobility comes at the cost of the benefits and security previous generations of steelworkers on the site had fought to attain.

Taft dismisses any possible impression that she welcomes a transition that has shred a social safety net forged by years of hard bargaining. Still, rather than simply decry the postindustrial condition, she finds reason for hope in certain continuities. Drawing from extensive interviews, she locates “openings” for self-determination in the various ways residents draw strength from past experiences. “Like the ore bridge marking the entrance to the Sands Casino,” she writes, “the layered histories in the postindustrial landscape offer scaffolding with which a diverse range of citizens regularly build narratives and rituals that grapple with corporate agendas and modify cultural expectations that sustain forward-looking approaches to redevelopment” (17). Indeed, Taft shows that even those most affected by The Steel’s demise have managed their own defense by drawing upon individual and collective memory both to influence design decisions for reuse of the site and to extract value from it by honoring the hard and often dangerous work that had gone on there. The larger shift to an interpretive venue for industrialism in a postindustrial political economy, however, has proved a more difficult proposition.

Early Efforts to Preserve and Interpret the Site 

Initially, Bethlehem Steel took the lead in the effort to preserve its legacy, commissioning a plan for the site as a commercial as well as a tourist destination. But the company’s filing for bankruptcy in 2001 ended any expectation that it could sustain redevelopment itself. As ownership of the site passed first to the International Steel Group and subsequently to a group of investors mostly located in New York City, new prospects emerged. The most striking was the possibility of locating a slots casino on the site, as Pennsylvania moved to legalize gambling. In 2005 the Las Vegas Sands Casino emerged as majority owner among the site’s investors, known collectively as BethWorks Now.

As has been the case in other locations facing the prospect of gambling, the Sands faced considerable hostility to its plan to anchor the site, a situation only aggravated by suggestions that it intended to adopt the Venetian theme of its Las Vegas facility at the Bethlehem site.  Facing the need to secure a zoning variance to accommodate gambling, the Sands pressed its case in Bethlehem by abandoning this theme and instead signaling its intent to both preserve existing buildings and fashion a new facility consistent with the style and tenor of those buildings. Such design decisions, Taft contends, “referenced a once-stable past to help make risky investments palatable” (8). As a complimentary 2015 Urban Land Institute case study reports, the Sands wrote preservation  into its gaming application, and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, also impressed by the site’s strategic location roughly equidistant between New York City and Philadelphia, readily granted Bethlehem one of the state’s initial ten licenses.

SteelStacks Performing Arts Center, 2016. Photograph by Howard Gillette.

Central to its newfound commitment to preservation, the Sands donated a number of extant properties on the site for public use: the historic Stock House, given to the city to serve as a regional visitor center; an electrical machine shop, ceded to the National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH) to house Bethlehem Steel’s effort to tell its own story; and other buildings across from the shuttered blast furnaces, given for use as a cultural center anchored by the local PBS affiliate and ArtsQuest, the city’s premier arts organization. Claiming those buildings were insufficient for their needs, PBS39 and ArtsQuest cleared the area to erect their own industrially themed buildings.

Financing the site’s conversion was complicated. Under state law, the casino owed the city a $10 million payment annually, a substantial boost to the city’s $30 million budget. While these funds were initially designated for additional services to support the site, in fact they flowed into the general fund, and most improvements have come as a result of a preexisting tax increment financing (TIF) arrangement, which required any new tax revenue generated by the site be dedicated to the costs of its redevelopment. Taxes on Sands activity, which in addition to gambling include a 302-room hotel and a row of upscale outlet shops on the walkway between the hotel and the casino, have generated significant revenue, though still well short of the funds needed to complete restoration of the entire site.

Once it was clear a number of historic buildings would remain on the site, area heritage workers, with encouragement from casino officials, began discussing ways to tell the city’s industrial story. Historic Bethlehem Partnership (since renamed Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites) had already unified a group of sites focused on the city’s early Moravian history on the North Side. The Canal Museum in nearby Easton told the foundational transportation story for the region. The Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor extended that story to a number of related historical and cultural sites. Former Bethlehem Steel workers formed the Steelworkers’ Archives as a base for both collecting their history and communicating it to visitors to the site. A former steelworker’s daughter, Amey Senape, and her husband, Michael Kramer, advanced the cause of preserving the site by forming Save Our Steel and then using it to launch a campaign that resulted in the site’s inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2004 list of the ten most endangered places in the United States.

MARCH Enters the Discussion 

Already familiar with the site through a family member who had worked briefly for the nascent industrial museum, MARCH’s director of programs, Sharon Ann Holt, saw the opportunity to forge a formal alliance in the effort to assure that the preservation of steel facilities brought with them the fullest possible historical interpretation.[2] She organized a series of meetings among Bethlehem area stakeholders that resulted in several dozen organizations coming together to form the Lehigh Valley Industrial Heritage Coalition. The organization secured the blessing of John Callahan, Bethlehem’s mayor from 2004 to 2014, who early on had championed preserving the site, and the cooperation of the Sands Casino Bethlehem CEO, Robert DeSalvio. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the coalition sponsored two days of dialogue in June 2007 to harvest ideas for interpreting the site.

Julia Masurgan (l) of Lehigh University and Susan Vitez of the Steelworkers Archives engage with participants in MARCH’s June 14, 2007, public discussion on the future of the Bethlehem Steel site. Photograph by Howard Gillette.

The opening night public program drew an engaged audience of some two hundred people, and a smaller group of humanities advisors and  regional administrators participated in intense discussions about interpretive options the following day. Representatives of the city’s redevelopment office as well as the mayor took part, along with experts from other historic sites and a number of academic institutions. Rich as these conversations were, they were not without tension. NMIH director Stephen Donches, a former vice president for public affairs at Bethlehem Steel, remained protective of the privileged position the steel company had staked out years earlier to tell the story of the site itself, and though the Sands’s architect participated in discussions throughout, it was not entirely clear what the casino’s commitment was to the effort.

Former steel worker Bruce Ward leading a tour of the Bethlehem Steel site for MARCH ‘s 2007 planning initiative. Photograph by Howard Gillette.

The MARCH report that emerged from those meetings envisioned a broadly cooperative relationship among coalition members, drawing upon new as well as existing research to capture the complex stories associated with industrial production as manifested over generations throughout the Lehigh Valley. The buildings at the site’s core would be critical to evoking a lost past that nonetheless remained fresh in recent memory. That potential was immediately obvious to the group of outside consultants commissioned through the NEH grant as they explored the site, then closed to the public, with a handful of former steelworkers as guides.

One product of the discussions was a schematic drawing for the site conceived by museum designer and MARCH consultant Tom Hennes. He envisioned an overhead pathway that would allow casino visitors to pass above the maze of surviving structures to the visitor center, which would provide information about possible destinations throughout the region. In line with that recommendation, the city redevelopment authority commissioned an elevated platform above the surviving Hoover-Mason Trestle that once ferried raw material from the ore yard and coke works to the blast furnaces. Designed by the Philadelphia-based planning firm Wallace Roberts & Todd to traverse the nine-acre cultural center (though not continue all the way to the casino), the new platform, rising thirty-six feet above the site, opened in 2015 as a linear park modeled after New York’s High Line. TIF paid the $15 million construction cost.

By 2007, however, Sands executives didn’t want to be told what to do on their property, and DeSalvio let me and Holt know as much in a blistering phone call shortly after we presented Hennes’s conceptual drawing to the heritage coalition. As Taft reports, the Sands, holding the purse strings as majority stakeholder in the property, “had no incentive to participate beyond what it saw as goodwill contributions” (160). Even as the Sands limited the scope of its cooperation at that point, planning for historical interpretation at and around the site continued, with a two-day meeting of public and industrial historians at Rutgers University–Camden the following year. Additionally, the industrial coalition commissioned an economic plan for sustaining the promotion and interpretation of the site in association with area historic institutions. Funds came from the state of Pennsylvania and were administered by the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

Even as casino management distanced itself from the historical community, it became clear that the company preferred to delegate historical interpretation to the National Museum of Industrial History. With an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution and in possession of a treasure trove from the Smithsonian’s collection of industrial artifacts originally exhibited at the Centennial Exhibit of 1876 in Philadelphia, NMIH was not an illogical partner, at least on the surface. Year after year, however, the museum advanced the projected date for its opening, hired no professional staff, and failed to complete the restoration of its building. Donches continued to receive a substantial $180,000 salary as president and CEO until 2014, when a grand jury investigating the lack of progress at the site called for him to resign and to return much of what he had earned. Shortly afterward, he did resign, having assured completion of the building, however, by securing an anonymous $3 million contribution.

With historical work at NMIH lagging, other developments took precedence, notably construction of ArtsQuest’s new SteelStacks Performing Arts Center and the casino-backed hotel, delayed but not prevented by the Great Recession. Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites initiated tours of the site, but its effort to use former steelworkers as guides faltered when they objected to Historic Bethlehem’s tightly scripted approach to explaining the site. Today each group offers its own tours. The industrial heritage coalition initiated by MARCH collapsed, riven by competing agendas and lacking the will to assess fees on its membership to assure program coherence and sustainability.

Collaboration did not disappear entirely, however. Hearing that the city intended to locate historical markers along the Hoover-Mason Trestle, Julia Maserjian, digital scholarship project manager at Lehigh University and an active member of the original industrial heritage coalition in her role as part of Lehigh’s South Side Initiative, convinced the city redevelopment authority to consult with a select group of Bethlehem historical organizations to assure the best possible interpretation. This effort proved critical in assuring the accuracy and scope of the materials generated. With the coalition’s active participation, the Philadelphia-based digital design company Bluecadet, working as contractors to the city, produced signage along the walk as well as a companion website. Bluecadet’s online tour, when accessed by phone, can help visitors visualize the past, but it is not a substitute for the full-scale Wi-Fi tour envisioned but abandoned for want of funds.

Interpretive signage along the Hoover-Mason Trestle, 2016. Photograph by Howard Gillette.

A New Start for the National Museum of Industrial History

Now it’s the National Museum of Industrial History’s turn to further deepen interpretation, in accordance with its stated intent to “forge a connection between America’s industrial past and the innovations of today by educating the public and inspiring the visionaries of tomorrow.” In June 2015, Amy Hollander, most recently director of the Red Mill Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, assumed the museum’s directorship. In March 2016, Andria Zaia, formerly a museum educator at Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, joined the staff as curator of collections. Opened on August 2, 2016, the museum is building its interpretation in four galleries created by a design-build team of Metcalfe Architecture and Design of Philadelphia and Art Guild of West Deptford, New Jersey, and located in eighteen thousand square feet of exhibit space in the building’s ground floor. Rosalind Remer, a veteran exhibits consultant, has been charged with creating the interpretive plan and producing the exhibit’s content in collaboration with Ms. Hollander and her staff.

The exhibit team has been working under enormous constraints, starting with the state’s insistence that the new museum open by December 31, 2016. Exhibits have to maneuver around the large and impressive machines that dominate the exhibit hall, and creating a flow for the visitor has proved especially problematic. One of the four galleries focuses on American industrial innovation as exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Another is dedicated to iron and steel production, with a neighboring gallery on the Lehigh Valley’s silk industry (which drew on the labor of the wives and children of steelworkers). A temporary gallery will open with an exhibit on the history of propane as an energy source, funded in large part by the Propane Education & Research Council. Future exhibits will feature other regional industries in rotation. Interpretation offered on printed graphic panels and reader rails is supplemented by interactive displays, including oral history excerpts drawn from the collections of area historical organizations and rerecorded by professional actors.

Although its immediate focus has been on preparing for opening day, the museum intends to add an education director in the near future and extend its interpretive reach through tours, though it is not clear how tours and other programs will connect with those already in place in Bethlehem. Relying for as much as a third of its revenue on ticket sales to an estimated fifty thousand annual visitors, including fifteen thousand students, the museum also hopes to secure corporate memberships as well as lease space for events. Like SteelStacks, which obtained corporate sponsorship for elements of its cultural campus (and asked for $250 for every steelworker’s name added to its Steel Tribute Wall), NMIH hopes to secure additional investments from area businesses.

Visiting the former steel site today is a distinctly mixed experience. A good portion of the visitor center is given over to bathrooms—clearly a plus given its proximity to concert space nearby—but historical interpretation is minimal at best. Some pictures of steelworkers decorate the walls, though artifacts donated by steelworkers themselves are located in a modest display cabinet tucked in a corner next to a low-cost video of their reminiscences. Touch screens, complemented by a rack of flyers that might appear in any rest stop, direct visitors to regional attractions, though no signage or program connects them to the steel site.

Display at the Bethlehem Steel site visitors’ center, with artifacts contributed by steel workers, 2016. Photograph by Howard Gillette.

The Hoover-Mason Trestle is a pleasant place for walking as well as observing the blast furnaces up close. The historical markers include some excellent photographs and information about what the visitor is seeing. But unless one arrives with one’s own link to the website tour, the overall effect can be a fragmented sense of history. In the meantime, everywhere one looks historically important buildings are falling into disrepair. Standing on the trestle, a person can’t help but notice a gaping hole in the roof of the engine blower house below, where compressors that once provided the “blast” of air for company furnaces remain ready to be preserved and interpreted, if only the will and the money were there. Although the city recently installed new lighting to illuminate the blast furnaces at night at a cost of $300,000, the furnaces have yet to be refurbished or even stabilized by any investment, public or private.

Gaping hole in the blower house roof, 2016, showing the structure’s deterioration and the ongoing need for preservation. Photography by Howard Gillette.
Gaping hole in the engine blower house roof, 2016, showing the structure’s deterioration and the ongoing need for preservation. Photography by Howard Gillette.

True to its promise, the Sands Casino pays tribute to The Steel through its architecture and interior design. “The historical and emotional importance of Bethlehem Steel argues against a Disney-esque interpretation,” Taft quotes an early company promotional brochure. “Coordinated dramatic lighting effects in the new building and existing ones . . . light the site with a glow that will recall the glowing furnaces of the plant circa-1942” (186). To evoke a further connection, brilliant contemporary photographs of the blast furnaces and associated sites line the walls in the passageway from the hotel to the casino. What appear to be original engineering drawings of the plant and equipment add potential historical interest, though they are not labeled and seem not to draw the attention of customers. The company has also provided the Steelworkers’ Archives with enclosed office space in the casino without cost. Soon the organization will move to a storefront location in the shopping concourse, also without charge, though also without funding to assure a regular steelworker presence there. What the Archives has to say for now will remain largely confined to the tours it has organized.

A massive open-die forging press that once compressed red-hot steel into ingots located in a now demolished building near the Sands hotel proved too big to move, so it remains the central feature of a traffic circle for those driving to the casino. A more evocative memorial to those who died working on the site remains isolated near the bridge that connects the north and south sides of the city. Jill Schennum, an active member of the Steelworkers’ Archives who is completing a book on the effects of Bethlehem Steel’s closure on the last cohort of workers, points out that the dangerous working conditions and the steelworkers’ long struggle to secure adequate wages go largely unacknowledged on the site. Any memory of the “golden days” of stability and assurance associated with the old economy, she suggests, were short-lived, as the company only recognized the union in 1941 after decades of struggle. Strikes took their toll, as did the company’s layoffs in the 1980s, actions that especially affected women workers. Ironically, even as promoters of the site touted the number of restrooms available to visitors, the story of how women workers had to fight for adequate bathroom facilities goes unacknowledged as well.

Taft speaks hopefully in her conclusion about the results when plans for revitalization are attuned to local history, claiming it then “becomes more difficult to treat citizens as generic consumers. Efforts to engage diverse communities will, by necessity, be more sensitive to the economic and social inequalities that inform daily, lived experiences.” Nonetheless, she concludes, the “postindustrial city could be another site of global capital extraction, or it could anchor dreams of a more equitable future” (257).

Certainly, the Bethlehem experience to date has followed a course of civic engagement, but the results have been uneven at best. A record of minimal investment in preservation, scattered efforts at historical interpretation, and a limited boost to city finances confirm there is much still to do to achieve a future that fully  aggregates the value of this site rich with possibility, let alone assures that its returns are equitably distributed.

Howard Gillette. Photograph taken by Wanda Ronner.

Howard Gillette is professor emeritus of History at Rutgers-Camden and the founding director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities. During his tenure as director, he administered planning grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation intended to generate and support historical interpretation at the Bethlehem Steel site.

  1. Chloe E. Taft, From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).
  2.  For Holt’s assessment of the interpretive challenges on the site, see her essay, “History Keeps Bethlehem Steel from Going off the Rails: Moving a Complex Community Process toward Success,” The Public Historian 28 (Spring 2006): 31–44.