by Diane Husic
Recently, I took refuge from work to visit the former site of Bethlehem Steel. This may seem like a strange place for a retreat, but when your work involves ecological restoration of contaminated sites and adaptation to environmental threats like climate change, places like this can be a surprising source of inspiration. This brownfield, 1600 acres of Industrial Revolution history and degraded landscape, represents an environmental and cultural legacy of days gone by. Strolling along the Hoover Mason Trestle that runs alongside the defunct stacks, one can glimpse human ingenuity, the shades of patina on the massive coal-blackened stacks, and intricate pipes, gears and other fittings. Long gone are the tens of thousands of laborers who toiled and baked in the Mordor-like surroundings. Rail cars once ran along the original trestle carrying coke, iron ore and limestone. These were the ingredients that, when dumped into the blast furnaces that reached inconceivably high temperatures, turned into the alloy that still supports famous skyscrapers and bridges.
Along the elevated walkway sits a relic—a rail car on an old stretch of track. Scattered on the ground next to the rusted rails are tiny ore pellets—taconite pellets—exactly like the ones that, as a kid, I used to find behind my house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I thought of the 19th-century Cornish immigrants who came to work in the iron mines of the “U.P.” Whether it was the coal or mineral mines, steel mills, smelters, or auto companies, the revolutions that built this country were done so on the sweat, blood and backs of immigrants from across Europe, Mexico and other places. I recently read that in 1915, Bethlehem Steel was one of the first U.S. employers to provide free English language instruction to its immigrant workforce. Given the trying times we are now experiencing, it behooves us to remember the vital contributions that people of different places, colors and belief systems made all across this country.
Over the past year, we have been celebrating the 275th anniversaries of the city of Bethlehem and of Moravian College where I work — both founded by Moravian families who came to this area after fleeing religious persecution in Europe. These people created the first boarding school for girls in the New World and taught Native Americans in their own language. They buried the dead in God’s Acre: Moravians, the indigenous and the indigent — all with similar modest markers that lie flush to the ground. The location of the burial was determined in sequence by the next available space, not by wealth or status that the individual held in the community. There is much to admire about the Moravians and the way they believe in treating all people with tolerance and respect.
I moved to the Lehigh Valley area in the mid-1980s just as Bethlehem Steel was winding down its operations. The zinc-smelting in nearby Palmerton had already ceased. The moonscape along the Kittatinny Ridge was astounding; I soon learned that about 3000 acres around the mountain was on the “Superfund” list—certainly not a list one aspires to be on. Climate change was known to scientists at the time, but wasn’t yet making headline news. People I met said that Bethlehem would go the way of other rust-belt cities. I seriously wondered why I had left Michigan to come east.
Despite the dire predictions, Bethlehem today is a vibrant community. The city still boasts a Main Street that isn’t boarded up or in shambles. There is an active arts scene, and music of all types infuses the community with beauty, and, at times, is served up with quite a bit of beer. The degraded landscape along that blue mountain to the north is green again, not yet with forest, but with a grassland that is supporting a host of wildlife diversity. Such stories of resilience and recovery give me hope as we turn to tackle the more complicated global challenges of the day, including climate disruption and denial.
Things are far from perfect. The pollution from those steel stacks may no longer discolor houses, lungs, or laundry, but the air quality in the Lehigh Valley is rated poor and asthma rates are consequently unacceptably high. A massive sprawl of housing developments, roads, box stores, strip malls, and distribution centers have long replaced the Moravian pleasure gardens and much of the fertile farmland of the region. A divided, fearful mindset threatens the acceptance and safety of more recent immigrants. Going forward, I hope we reflect upon our unique history, remembering the importance of diversity, tolerance, the arts, green spaces, and a respect for place. It is upon these foundations that we will find both the collective will to endure political turmoil and the resourcefulness to address the grave challenges that confront us.
by Diane White Husic
Diane is Dean of the School of Natural and Health Sciences and Professor of Biology at Moravian College. Each year since 2009, Diane has led a delegation from Moravian College to the annual Conference of the Parties in the U.N. climate process.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)