Bethlehem, PA: The Bridge
How can a public artwork create a symbol of both a community’s past and its future, while helping to activate a new public plaza?
When the nation’s second largest steel producer closed its doors in 1995, the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was already facing the economic challenges of many formerly industrial cities. To spur urban revitalization efforts and help draw the community together, the SteelStacks project of ArtsQuest (a local non-profit arts organization) was created to transform the Bethlehem Steel plant campus into a center for arts and culture. In 2010, ArtsQuest turned their attention to the redevelopment of a plaza area called the Town Square. Knowing they needed an iconic piece of artwork that could help activate the new space, they hired Scranton, Pennsylvania, artist Elena Colombo to create "The Bridge," a site specific sculpture located at the base of the iconic industrial blast furnaces that represented the history and spirit of the community.
The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is a small, post- industrial city located adjacent to Allentown. Early in the city’s history, the Bethlehem Iron Company established itself along the banks of the Lehigh River to make the first iron rails for the area. It later became known as Bethlehem Steel and grew into the second largest steel manufacturer in the nation, producing materials for structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building. In 1995, the steel plant closed, creating what became one of the largest brownfield sites in the United States. Seeing the challenges that lay in front of them, city leaders advanced the concept of having the arts lead the revitalization of the SouthSide area where the steel plant sat and approached ArtsQuest, a local arts organization, with the idea of acquiring and activating some of the former steel plant campus. With the land donated by the Sands Casino, ArtsQuest now oversees SteelStacks, a project focused on the ten-acre campus and dedicated to the arts, culture, and community celebrations, which offers more than a thousand performances and seven different festivals annually. In the center of this campus sits the Town Square, one of three outdoor spaces at SteelStacks, that sits just across the street from the new Levitt Pavilion where more than fifty outdoor concerts can be heard and seen.
Over the last fifty years, Bethlehem’s SouthSide has experienced considerable change. Once home to generations of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Central America who came to work at Bethlehem Steel, the neighborhoods surrounding the plant collapsed in the 1960’s when many steelworker families moved to suburban communities. Today, SouthSide residents are primarily Latino and low-income; 82% of the primary school and 86% of the middle school students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Since the former steel plant had been abandoned for 15 years and literally fenced off to the adjacent neighborhoods, area residents were barred from the site where family members once worked and that was an integral part of their daily lives. Now reopened, the SteelStacks campus is hosting thousands of annual visitors who come for the art, performances, and community events presented by ArtsQuest.
As part of supporting the redevelopment of the abandoned factory, project leaders knew that a central challenge was to change perceptions about the overall site so that the Town Square area could function as a vital community gathering space. As project manager Julie Benjamin said, “The site itself was a physical manifestation of failure, so it was really important for our community to transform it into a community asset and a community destination.” While the project did not specifically address issues of neighborhood revitalization, project leaders knew it was important to include members of the adjacent neighborhoods in the project planning. Leaders wanted to ensure that neighborhood residents were fully invested in the site’s redevelopment and that the project integrated their ideas for future programming.
To address these challenges, the project focused on the idea of creating a site-specific sculpture for the Town Square area of the SteelStacks campus and to activate the plaza with a year round schedule of special events and festivals. By creating a signature piece of public art, project managers envisioned that it could help honor the history of the area and draw many people to the former steel site. Most importantly, the piece could help to create a lasting symbol for the community. “This project presented an incredible opportunity to create a signature public art piece that would not only draw hundreds of thousands of people to the former steel site, but also create a lasting image for the future of our community,” said Benjamin. The piece would also help to showcase the ability of the arts to drive urban revitalization and serve to activate the new plaza area. “The Town Square will be the place where the community gathers to celebrate, recreate, and contemplate. With programs that are designed to appeal to diverse members of the community, it will truly be the center of the city.”
WE WANTED TO CREATE A PUBLIC ART PIECE THAT WOULD STAND AS A SYMBOL OF OUR COMMUNITY'S PAST AND ABILITY TO ADAPT AND EMBRACE A NEW FUTURE ON THE FORMER INDUSTRIAL SITE. - Julie Benjamin, VP of Community Partnerships, ArtsQuest
To ensure that a broad range of perspectives were integrated into the overall project vision, ArtsQuest took the lead on creating a six-person artist selection committee that was composed of regional arts administrators and the Mayor. This committee was responsible for the selection of a qualified artist who could both design and produce artwork that could signify the creative re-use and transformation the site. When Elena Colombo was selected as the project artist, ArtsQuest worked directly with her on every aspect of development, compliance, fabrication, and installation of the piece. They also served as a liaison with the campus architects and city for zoning, compliance, and the placement of public utilities. The City of Bethlehem’s Redevelopment Authority funded and oversaw the development of the Town Square where the sculpture would be sited. To design the site, architects Wallace, Roberts & Todd were brought in with funding from the Tax Incremental Financing District. ArtsQuest also wanted to make sure that members of the adjacent neighborhoods were closely involved with the project, so they worked with Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to help them form the Latino Community Committee. This committee has grown into the Sabor Cultural Committee, which continues to meet and provide feedback and ideas about the development of the site and the ways in which it can be programmed.
ArtsQuest and the larger project team worked methodically through a typical series of public art selection steps. They first developed the criteria for the piece (which included a blue flame) and created a national level call for artists. Once finalists were chosen, the committee conducted personal interviews and conducted a site tour. The panel unanimously chose Elena Colombo, an artist from nearby Scranton, Pennsylvania whose work with fire and metal embodied the spirit of the local community. Colombo then began work on her specific design and the specified the site improvements that would be needed to support the installation of the final piece. A final opening event was then held to unveil the artwork to the community and recognize the work of the artist. Like many public art projects, the issue of maintenance became a challenge, as the gas burner element in the art piece is vulnerable to weather with its outdoor location. To address this concern, ArtsQuest has been able to identify capital funds that will be used to help with ongoing maintenance.
The commissioning and installation of “The Bridge” fire sculpture has aided ArtsQuest in its goal to infuse visual arts into the public domain and to become more incorporated into its festival and event programming. The grant also helped to highlight the organization, both locally and beyond, as an innovator and implementer of arts and culture programming in the region. By creating a vibrant plaza and contributing to the overall revitalization of the SteelStacks campus, the artwork assisted with the creation of 142 full time equivalent jobs and created an economic impact of over $29 million the first year of operation. As Julie Benjamin from ArtsQuest said, “’The Bridge’ art piece has been the physical symbol of the transformation of the site, positioning the SouthSide as a vibrant, creative community that values arts and culture.”
Momentum from this project has helped to spur further public space, retail, and housing redevelopment projects in the SteelStacks project area. Currently in development under the direction of the Redevelopment Authority, the elevated former railway that was used by Bethlehem Steel is being converted into an elevated historical interpretative walkway that will link the nearby Sands Hotel to the SteelStacks campus. The agency is also exploring the redevelopment of a portion of the former steel building--which dates back to the mid-1800’s--to create the Iron Foundry Plaza. The
open-air, park-like setting would include green space, a modest performance stage, and seating.
NEA Arts Magazine (2012 No. 3)
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“The Town Square is the American piazza, with the quintessential American structures - the 80 foot blast furnaces that poured the steel that supports the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and much of the famous New York City skyline.” - Julie Benjamin, VP of Community Partnerships, ArtsQuest
To help redevelopment occur in SouthSide Bethlehem, a Tax Incremental Financing District (TIF) was created in 2000, which uses new tax dollars generated from development on the former steel site for improvements to that site. In 2004, casino gambling was legalized in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Sands Resort Bethlehem opened in 2009. The Sands $800 million investment coupled with the tax revenues generated for the TIF fund greatly influenced the development of the former steel site and elements in the neighboring community.
- Convening of artist selection committee and resulting concept to include blue flame (or fire) in final work.
- Issue of request for proposals from qualified American artists.
- Selection of artist.
- Presentation of chosen artist and work to community.
- Refinement and adjustment of initial design to meet site and safety standards.
- Off-site fabrication of artwork.
- Installation of artwork on site.
- Official presentation of installed work to the community.
A native of Scranton, PA, Elena Colombo now lives and works in New York City. She is a classically trained sculptor and architectural designer, owner of Colombo Construction Corporation. Her business specializes in site-specific large scale works, which she designs from bronze, steel, stone, and concrete, incorporating elements of fire, earth, water and air.
For Colombo the arc steel span of the new sculpture represents a bridge between art and industry, and between the past and future because the campus on which it sits--a center for arts and culture--is a revitalization of an industrial site. Up close, visitors can see that the large arc is subtly embellished with dozens of small rectangular steel panels. As a tribute to the place and its historic significance, each panel is engraved with the name of a major building or bridge constructed with Bethlehem Steel. Among them are the Chrysler Building in New York City and the San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.