Tuesday, March 04, 2008

PBS 39 documentary visits Allentown's past, present and future

Without Allentown, there would be no Liberty Bell and man may never have walked on the moon. Plays would have flopped on Broadway and Billy Joel would be short a hit single. Who knew that the Valley housed such a crown jewel?

Amy Burkett, executive producer for PBS 39's ''Communities'' documentary series, was sure of that when she started production on ''Communities: Allentown,'' the third documentary in the station's ''Communities'' series that also includes New Hope and Bethlehem.

''It's one of the largest, most important cities in the region with many exciting things to both look back upon and look ahead to,'' she says. It's no wonder that filming took more than 11 months.
From Sodexho Vice President Bob Wood recalling his days at ''Ritz Barbecue'' to former Allentown High School (now William Allen) principal Jack McHugh declaring that ''you got dressed up!'' to go to the ''Great Allentown Fair,'' PBS staff interviewed 69 people to weave together the stories that are Allentown.

''It's a city rich in a sense of community; it's the people that make it great,'' says Burkett.

The project, which began filming in March 2007, highlights the birth of Allentown in 1762 and follows its transformation from a small summer get-away to a thriving metropolis.

''Folks in Allentown call it the Golden Age,'' booms narrator Grover Silcox, calling us back to the early 20th century, when people flocked to Hess's Department Store to shop for the latest fashions and mingle with stars like Rock Hudson and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Broadway stars like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope stopped in Allentown to try out their shows. Iron, silk and cement industries employed the masses and Solomon Dorney opened an amusement park to keep them entertained.

Allentown's Western Electric birthed the transistor, ultimately used in the equipment that helped man land on the moon.

And as the city grew, so did tradition. Allentown families became entrenched in their livelihoods and businesses.

Yocco's, ''The Hot Dog King,'' opened in Allentown in 1929, when Theodore Iacocca (a relative of Lee Iacocca, better known for his Chrysler Corp. revival) replaced cigars with hot dogs in his shop on Liberty Street.

Today at Ninth and Hamilton streets, Alvin H. Butz Inc. stands as a testament to the hard work of five generations of builders dating back to the 1920s.

But tradition isn't always tied to profession. Allentown resident Catharine Michael talks about putting ''your whole heart and soul'' into something, much like she and her daughter-in-law do with the Allentown Garden Club. It's those same sentiments that drive the members of the Allentown Pioneer Band, who have been keeping up the beat of Allentown since 1889.

The film features Symphony Hall, Civic Theatre and the Allentown Art Museum as sites where residents can continue to both partake in and add to the city's colorful cultural heritage. And that's the goal of PBS 39, says Burkett -- ''to preserve the rich heritage of our entire region because there isn't any other outlet to do so.''

Burkett says she and her staff ''picked the brains'' of city residents to make Allentown's ''hidden treasure stories'' come alive. They boiled 100 hours of footage down to one hour, but she feels the result is a portrayal of Allentown as ''a city of promise and work in progress.''

Burkett, whose resume includes three Emmy Award-winning documentaries in PBS 39's ''Living History'' series -- ''Hollywood on Hamilton: Remembering Hess's,'' ''Bethlehem Steel: The People Who Built America'' and ''Make a Joyful Noise: The Bach Choir of Bethlehem'' -- believes she can help further that progress through the story of tradition, pride and potential.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and State Rep. Jennifer Mann, both featured in the documentary, are equally optimistic. Pawlowski says the city's revival is far from ''impossible'' and tells viewers that ''Allentown is going to come back. It's going to be a city people are proud of. It's going to be the queen city again.'' Mann agrees, asserting that people have a reason to ''keep fighting'' to make Allentown better.

From a new ballpark to a $175 million development on the Lehigh waterfront, they're sure Allentown's future looks rosy, as citizens keep making history.

Preserving land may depend on local leaders

If there's one broad trend some Lehigh Valley conservationists can agree on about the future of their work, it's that the initiative rests with local government.

''What we've found is there's a lot of interest in these smaller communities,'' said Scott Everett, trail manager for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

''With growth in the Valley, we're seeing rising interest in preserving what's left,'' he said.

Everett was one of several people at a meeting Saturday of ecologists and concerned citizens of all stripes that congregates yearly at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center north of Slatington. The group has no set agenda beyond sharing information.

Everett's organization maintains a trail that follows the Lehigh River along the Lehigh County border, and soon plans to surface the section of its trail that runs along the Lehigh Canal towpath from Bethlehem to Freemansburg. It gets most of its funding from the federal government, which usually involves a substantial amount of bureaucracy, Everett said.

''The lower the level [of government], the easier it is to get funding and the quicker we can make things happen,'' Everett said.

But although local governments are often willing to participate, just reaching them all is a mighty task, said Jennifer Heisey, a recreation planner for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC is working to conserve areas within a region called the Pennsylvania Highlands, which is north of Philadelphia and stretches from the borders with western New Jersey and northwestern Maryland. It includes much of Lehigh and Northampton counties.

''It's becoming [environmentally] fragmented, because it's a heavily populated area,'' Heisey said. ''If you have fragmented forest, that will decrease the water quality. A lot of people don't get that. That's the big kicker for preserving the land.''

Heisey said although many local governments understand the need to conserve forested land in this region, getting the large number of governments in the area to work on a coherent strategy is difficult. But as development progresses westward from New Jersey, she's seeing changing attitudes among Pennsylvanians.

''They're starting to see the changes happen where they live, and they're starting to take action,'' she said.

New street lights for Hellertown?

Hellertown Borough Council agreed Monday night to study the possibility of purchasing the hundreds of streetlights in the borough.

''If we decide to participate in this streetlight purchase program we'll get a lower rate on the electric that we use,'' said Borough Manager Charlie Luthar. ''Over the long haul, it will be less expensive.''

Luthar reported that the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton all participate in the program and that he has received positive feedback concerning their participation in the program.

''We initially received a proposal concerning this a few years back and were recently contacted again,'' Luthar told council. ''At the time, we didn't think it was viable but the concept of municipal-owned utility equipment has become more popular.''

Councilwoman Jennie McKenna said that Hellertown owning the streetlights and supplementary equipment such as the poles the equipment is mounted on offers the borough a lot of potential. ''Owning the streetlights and utility poles would allow us to possibly offer wireless Internet throughout Hellertown.''

Luthar said that the proposal the borough received indicated a purchase price of approximately $550,000 for the more than 500 units. He added that these proposals are growing in popularity with smaller towns such as Hellertown.

''They're making some inroads in the smaller communities. Luthar said. ''Let's take a look at it and see if it makes sense.''

Council directed solicitor William Corriere to review the proposal and report his findings at a future meeting.

Allentown's Council and Mayor working together after a bumpy start

Allentown's new City Council president hopes a meeting with the mayor last week will improve communications between the two branches of government and end frustrations that arose only two months into his term.

''I'm feeling more enthusiastic about where we're headed,'' President Michael D'Amore said Friday in a joint interview with Mayor Ed Pawlowski, in the mayor's office.

Earlier in the week, D'Amore and council Vice President Tony Phillips had publicly complained about Pawlowski and his staff being unwilling to answer questions.

'It's been increasingly difficult to get information from the administration,'' D'Amore had said at a council committee meeting, which no city administrators attended. ''Our right to get information has been limited lately.''

D'Amore, who was elected president in January, a day later used stronger language.

''It just seems obviously clear to me that the mayor does not want to share power with City Council,'' he said. ''This isn't about power. This is what checks and balances are all about.''

He said he'd been stonewalled when asking for phone numbers and for information about programs and contracts, such as one that will expire for a private company to run the city garage.

As a result, he said, in an effort to fight back, he had delayed some council action and budget transfers until the administration answered his questions.

Pawlowski rebutted D'Amore's claims. He said his administration has provided more information to council than previous ones, held an orientation session for new council members and created a monthly report to council on city activities and finances.

''I don't think that's ever been done in the history of the city,'' said Pawlowski, who called the meeting with D'Amore on Friday after learning of his concerns.

The other five council members said they have had no problems getting information from the mayor and his staff. As council president, D'Amore has more frequent contact with them.

After meeting with Pawlowski, D'Amore said he was ''more hopeful'' about the relationship between the city's legislative and executive branches. He said perhaps he felt ''more disconnected'' than he really was.

Pawlowski said he and D'Amore just need time to ''figure out how to work together.''

D'Amore and Pawlowski, both Democrats who worked on each other's 2005 campaigns, describe themselves as friends. They said they intend to meet weekly and communicate by e-mail more often.

Pawlowski said he has monthly meetings with interested council members, but Phillips has refused to meet.

Before the meeting with the mayor, D'Amore said he believed the mayor was having trouble adjusting to a new council that is more active and more aggressive at challenging his administration.

''I think that he had a council the first two years, for various reasons, that were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,'' D'Amore said.

In just two months, the new council has criticized a plan to charge fees to reserve wedding and photo times at the Rose Garden at Cedar Creek Park, and has formed a committee to review a new law requiring pre-sale inspections of residential properties. The outgoing council approved the law late last year, at Pawlowski's request.

Phillips, council's vice president, questioned how council can make tough decisions without knowing details. For example, he said he is waiting for information about the policy on which city employees have the authority to read other employee's e-mail.

Pawlowski and D'Amore said, while they never will agree on everything, they will work harder to communicate because that's what residents deserve.

''If there was a bump in the road here, it's up to us to work through it and get the will of the people done,'' Pawlowski said.