One-tank trips: ‘Steely’ resolve at Bethlehem, Pa.

Photo by Jeff Bahr/ Sands Casino sign mounted on former Bethlehem Steel crane.


By Jeff Bahr

Forged from steel

In the 1982 song, “Allentown,” singer Billy Joel laments the passing of America’s great industrial era by spotlighting Allentown, Pa., and the neighboring city of Bethlehem. At the time, both cities were well on their way to becoming “rust-belt” refugees – once vibrant towns that, due to major changes in world markets, were fast losing their economic Mojo. Bethlehem, famous for its Bethlehem Steel Works, the second largest producer of steel in the world (behind U.S. Steel) reported a loss of $1.5 billion that year – a precipitous drop in revenue that forced the company to shut down many of its U.S. operations. In 1995, steel making at the Bethlehem plant ceased for good. The company that had supplied steel for such iconic projects as the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building was in its death throes. In 2003, Bethlehem Steel closed all six of its plants. Left in the company’s wake was economic devastation so complete, it left portions of the city of Bethlehem looking like something from a war zone. Closed stores, abandoned buildings and rising crime were indicative of this economic devastation, and it appeared as if the city’s final epitaph had been written.

A ‘lucky’ rebirth

For many years the south end of Bethlehem stood idle. The giant blast furnaces that had once forged a nation and provided thousands of locals with jobs had become nothing more than rusting, rotting hulks looming over a fast-decaying city. Attempts at revitalization fell mostly fl at, due in large part to a lack of interest and funding. In 2007, however, Lady Luck found Bethlehem when the Sands Casino Resort obtained the Bethlehem Steel property. The $600-million “Bethworks” project called for a new casino, hotel, performing arts center and music facility. Since the day that the casino opened in May 2009, the area has grown by leaps and bounds. Gone are the desolate streets and hopelessness that once prevailed. People now come in droves to gamble, dine, listen to music and go walking in and around this unique area.

Gambling and Gobbling

The Sands Casino Resort Casino in Bethlehem has retained much of the steel plant’s original flavor. Instead of demolishing the buildings used to make, “Iron, coke, chromium steel,” (to use Billy Joel’s lyrics) planners had the good sense to allow the new enterprise to coexist in harmony with these famous remnants and buildings that once represented the town’s lifeblood. The result is an enjoyable and respectful hybrid of the old and the new. The casino is cavernous, as one might expect. It features 3,000 slot machines, 30 poker tables and table games including blackjack, craps, roulette, Baccarat, Texas Hold’em and more. Losing/winning money at the casino requires energy and that requires food. This is another area that planners didn’t overlook. The casino contains Emeril’s Chop House (yes, that Emeril), Emeril’s Italian Table, Emeril’s Burgers and more, St. James Gate Irish Pub and Carvery, Carnegie Deli, the Cobalt Café and The Market Gourmet Express. If one’s gastric desires can’t be satisfi ed here, there are a number of restaurants scattered within walking distance of the

Photo by Jeff Bahr/ Remnants of old Bethlehem Steel plant.


Steel Stacks and Musikfest

Steel Stacks, the arts and entertainment district located beside the casino has become a top-notch draw in itself. Five enormous blast furnaces provide a backdrop for the campus that includes Artsquest, a contemporary performing arts center; and the hugely popular Musikfest event, a yearly happening that’s described as the nation’s largest non-gated music festival. Beginning on the fi rst Friday of each August, the 10-day event offers hundreds of free shows and daily premium concerts (tickets required) at Steel Stage, the festival’s grandest venue. Past headliners have included Carrie Underwood, The Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Earth, Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper, Ray Charles, Martina Mc- Bride, Adam Lambert, Jethro Tull, B.B King, and a host of other acts. This year, Sheryl Crow, Joe Cocker, Goo Goo Dolls, Daughtry, Jane’s Addiction, Huey Lewis and the News, Boston and many others are scheduled to perform.

Historic Bethlehem and the Moravians

Originally founded by Moravians (an evangelical Protestant denomination), the city of Bethlehem was formed in 1741. Its historic district – located just north of the Sands casino in the downtown area – features an intact Moravian village with buildings that date as far back as 1750. Quaint shops including the Moravian Book Store and Gift Gallery are located beside this tranquil area, as is the Hotel Bethlehem, a circa 1922 gem that was recently restored to its former glory. The Hotel’s interior features seven large murals (painted by George Gray in 1937) that depict the history of Bethlehem, including one work that zeroes in on the naming of the city in 1741 – an act that occurred on the site where the hotel is now situated. During the Christmas season, hordes of visitors fl ock to this part of Bethlehem not only to see the historic district dressed up in festive fi nery, but also to deposit their Christmas cards in town mailboxes and, thereby, get their Christmas greetings stamped with the postmark “Bethlehem.” What’s not to love about this place?

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