Art Works Blog

Announcing MICD25!

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 

Artist rendering of the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks by Westlake Reed Leskosky

This morning Rocco's in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to announce our new MICD 25 grants, which will support 21 creative placemaking projects.  To paraphrase Rocco's remarks from this morning's press conference: "The arts change the physical and social character of a community, by animating spaces, changing the patterns of foot traffic, and generally creating experiences that people like being near."  These 21 grants will do exactly that with projects that range from the adaptive reuse of historic buildings into live and work spaces to the installation of public artworks that better connect isolated neighborhoods to the design of flexible buildings that will serve as cultural anchors for neighborhood revitaliztion.

ArtsQuest, a not-for-profit arts organization headquarted in Bethlehem, has received an MICD 25 grant to support continued development of SteelStacks, a new arts and culture campus on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel Plant. We spoke with ArtsQuests's Julie Benjamin about how the arts are transforming that community.

NEA: Will you please give us a brief description of your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of Bethlehem?

ARTSQUEST: Our project is a permanent Fire Sculpture installation on the Town Square, one of three outdoor public spaces at the SteelStacks Performing Arts Center on the historic Bethlehem Steel site. The sculpture will have deep meaning to the community as the majority of residents have been involved with Bethlehem Steel with either family members or friends working there at some point in time. Most of these steelworkers had worked their entire adult lives there, and the place is ingrained in their family history.

The land is an abandoned brown site that is an eyesore not only for the community but the many tourists and visitors who come to our area. It also has the negative aspect of symbolizing the downfall of a major corporation which, in its heyday, fueled the local economy and stood out as an industrial icon around the nation.

The beautification of the grounds with a permanent sculpture utilizing fire elements directly ties in to the steel site, which, when running at full capacity, emitted a blue flame. The sculpture will be a source of pride to the community and a testament to the vitality of what once was the lifeblood of the town. It is a tribute to the iconic industrial period in American history.

ArtsQuest Center at the SteelStacks Soundbreaking event held October 29, 2009. Photo by Diane Richter

NEA: Why do you think it's important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

ARTSQUEST: ArtsQuest has direct experience when it comes to the importance of arts and culture at the root of community revitalization projects. More than ten years ago the south side of Bethlehem was considered ?the other side of the tracks.? There was little or no traffic except of the illicit kind with crime and drugs running rampant.

ArtsQuest did a needs assessment and discovered that a cultural arts center was missing from the picture and that the arts were not accessible to the population in the area. The idea of a community arts center could prove to be a catalyst for change to the south side, restoring vitality to the neighborhood while infusing the area not only with art but also commerce. Now, twelve years after its inception, The Banana Factory has become an anchor for a thriving Southside arts and retail center of the Lehigh Valley.

There is ownership and a sense of pride from the predominantly Latino population who live on the south side and visit the center's gallery exhibitions and after school programming dedicated to the at-risk youth population in the area. The neighborhood grew exponentially when a First Friday celebration was [launched] at the Banana Factory. The surrounding neighborhood of the Lehigh Valley and visitors from the tri-state area now come on a regular basis to the Southside to enjoy the art, unique boutiques, and restaurants. The area is vibrant and growing and is a very safe place in which to enjoy yourself with friends and family. We feel confident that this turn around was due to the inclusion of a neighborhood arts center.

NEA: One of the elements of your project is a site-specific sculpture. How do you think this public art work will enhance the civic life?

The Fire Sculpture at SteelStacks will be positioned directly on the 21st Century Town Square. This area outside the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks is central to a major effort to include the community and guests in all aspects of events and festivals at the SteelStacks Campus. At any given time there will be area non-profits using the town square for their purposes as well as musical groups performing and outdoor art exhibitions.

This site specific sculpture will be a focal point in the square and through the use of art we will transform the nature of the brownfield into a cultural art environment for the community at large. The community will relate to the sculpture on a conscious and unconscious level making the transformation of the brownfield complete. The eyesore becomes something beautiful and the sculpture will also be a testimony to the transformation and act as a recognizable monument to further the conversion of the land . 

NEA: How important is MICD 25 funding for the success of your project?

ARTSQUEST: The financial support the MICD 25 provides is essential to the success of this project.  Not only will these funds support nearly half of the cost, but national recognition of this project brings a great deal of prominence and prestige to our efforts as well as aiding our ability to fund this and other arts initiatives.  Our relationship with the City of Bethlehem and Mayor Callahan have been instrumental in the collaborative efforts to use arts and culture as a tool for urban revitalization and neighborhood stabilization on the Southside of the City.  Mayor [John B.] Callahan?s involvement with the MICD has had a very favorable impact on the planning and design of the SteelStacks Campus and will continue to do so as we continue the development of the site.

NEA: Anything you'd like to add?

ARTSQUEST: The blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel burned blue in the height of the industrial age of this nation. Thousands of people worked at the site and settled and raised their families in Bethlehem. The land helped to fuel the war effort and build some of the nation?s largest skyscrapers and bridges.

After decades of abandonment and disrepair the burned out ruins of the steel were a painful reminder of the decline of one of the nation?s largest corporations. Along with that message you can add all the workers once employed at the Steel, having to pass their rusted out ruins.  The brownfield is an eyesore and has a negative impact to all who pass by.

By reviving the area with culture and the arts with performances and festivals throughout the year, the message of the land has changed. By adding the site specific sculpture using basic elements that were once integral to the Bethlehem Steel (steel and fire) we are accomplishing a huge task. I think of a phoenix rising up from the flames. An area so toxic and painful to the history of the area has now become a place to enhance the community through music, through the arts and through a thorough transformation of the site.

Learn more about the Mayors' Institue on City Design here.

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