Many residents of and visitors to SouthSide Bethlehem have come to take the Maze Garden for granted. Following is a fascinating history of this unique space, prepared by John Pettegrew of Lehigh University.
The Maze Garden (1996 – 2013)
November 18, 2013
by John Pettegrew
November 19, 2013, marks the seventeenth anniversary of the Maze Garden in Bethlehem’s south side. It also happens to be the day that the City Council will vote on an agreement of sale of the garden to developer Dennis Benner for a project that includes a thirteen-story housing and retail complex, a parking structure, and a seven-story office and retail complex. With the City’s announcement of the $45 million project earlier this month, community members have started to question the development’s scale and the inevitable increase in automobile traffic in the already congested south side. Mandates of urban infill and economic revitalization have been set in tension with values of historic preservation, low-pollution transportation, and a sustainable environment. The City’s working relationships with Benner and other developers have prompted calls for transparency, democratic process, and consultation with stakeholders and residents who want to contribute to decisions about the content and quality of their community’s growth. These are large and important issues, matters that go to the heart of urban life in early-21st century post-industrial America. Today they also go to the fate of the 85 by 95 foot lot on West Third Street (at New), the site of the Maze Garden. What follows here is a brief history of that garden that details its collaborative founding and the rich community that it has engendered.
The conception, design, and construction of the Maze Garden in autumn 1996 demonstrate the extraordinary power of creative collaboration between the institutions and people in Bethlehem’s south side. By the mid-1990s, the lot at 6 W. Third Street housed only the concrete and brick rubble of the demolished Mexican-American Azteca Society. With the idea of a community park and garden in the air, a partnership formed between a group of Lehigh University students and Bethlehem middle-school students working with architect and educator Diane LaBelle at the SMART Discovery Center. In the Center’s summer 1996 Archi-Kids program, LaBelle had her students brainstorm garden designs around the theme of a maze. “Throughout history,” as the Maze Garden’s ribbon-cutting program explains, mazes “have symbolized spiritual experiences, the link between the inner, personal life of mortals and the Earth.” With the beginning of the new academic year, LaBelle’s students started to meet with Lehigh undergraduates in Tony Viscardi’s Architecture Design III course to fit the maze patterns to the dimensions of the Third Street lot. Despite the age difference, the two student groups worked well together. “They have a lot of ideas that we haven’t thought about,” Lehigh’s Meredith Pedersen said about the Archi-Kids. On September 16, 1996 the students presented four different maze designs to City of Bethlehem officials who then picked the garden’s final plan.
The collaborative spirit of the Maze Garden’s design continued in its construction. Lehigh Valley Industrial Park donated the garden’s topsoil, which the City of Bethlehem’s parks and Public Property Department transported to the Third Street site. AD Computers donated an ornamental street lamp for the garden park, with Albarell Electric providing the large light’s wiring. Bethlehem Musikest Association, the South Bethlehem Historical Society, Creative Landscape Inc., the Council for Spanish-Speaking Organizations, Fromm Electric, Glen –Gery Corporation, Just Born Corporation, Laufers Hardware, Plantique, and Tilemaster all contributed to the $4000 project. Children from the Boys and Girls Club of Bethlehem helped build the raised-bed garden. The Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation (BEDCO) helped to fund and coordinate the operation. As Bethlehem Downtown Coordinator Chris Ortwein said, “A project like this involves so many elements of the community and is able to get them involved with it, that it just takes off from there.”
On November 19, 1996, a large group gathered at 6 W. Third Street to dedicate “The Garden, the Myth, the Maze.” The ceremony’s pamphlet emphasizes that the “maze concept comes from the Greek myth in which the hero, Theseus, must overcome fear to slay the Minotaur, a beast that lives at the center of the labyrinth.” It continues: “The making of this community garden maze is an event that has provided a way for all of us in the Southside community to make our paths, no matter which way they diverge, come together as one. This expression of unity will help us slay whatever beasts might be in our path and allow us to progress towards a new rebirth, a new renaissance.” The ceremony itself included a short speech by Bethlehem Mayor Kenneth Smith and a formal ribbon cutting by the Mayor, Chris Ortwein, Diane LaBelle, Tony Viscardi, and Charlie Brown—the long-serving Director of Bethlehem’s Department of Parks and Public Property, and to whom the garden was dedicated. Of all the statements made that day, perhaps Viscardi put it best: “The essence of this community garden lies in the collaborative effort and commitment to an idea that people working together can accomplish great things.”
Since its founding, the Maze Garden has drawn in many different groups and individuals. It’s grown in fits and starts. It’s yielded great and various produce. It’s become a small cornerstone of the south side. One flourishing of community and activity in the garden came in 2008. As the great recession loomed, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country turned to urban gardening and farming as a source of inexpensive fresh food as well as for economic innovation, social networking, and local community building. So too with the Maze Garden. It had never been more alive. “A community formed around the gardens’ growing to fill the raised beds with vegetables,” as described by Annie Hasz, a leader of the 2008 effort. “The space” also filled, she continued, “with conversation, laughter, parties, and music.” The 2008 growing season at the Maze Garden meant another collaborative effort. With the vegetable seeds having been started in a local farmer’s greenhouse, the baby plants then incubated in Lehigh’s greenhouse before being moved to the Third Street garden. That year the Maze Garden produced sungold cherry tomatoes and Cherokee purple tomatoes; greens including red Russian kale, orach, spinach, collards, chard, bok choi and lettuces; hot and sweet peppers; eggplant; okra; beans; peas; corn; radishes; onions; and garlic. The Maze Garden’s herb wheel held mint, echinacea, thyme, sage, parsley, nasturtium, hyssop, calendula, elecampane, and oregano. Work parties gathered every Thursday afternoon from March until mid-November. “Every Friday morning,” as Hasz described, “we took our harvest from the previous evening to the New Bethany Ministries Soup kitchen.” She continued: “Every first Friday we hosted a garden party that featured potluck food, the tunes of neighborhood old-school DJ, presentations by community groups like the Lehigh Valley Food Co-Op, hula hoopers, and break dancers.”
In fall 2009 Lehigh’s South Side Initiative (SSI) started to help organize work at the Maze Garden. The garden continued to grow as a source for community building, neighborhood cleanups, and education about planting and producing nutritious food. As part of SSI’s community garden’s program, in spring 2010 the Maze Garden hosted plant sharing events, master gardener classes, and potluck dinners. Since 2010, SSI has rostered Lehigh summer courses on urban farming and local community organization with classes meeting at the Maze Garden. “During the last few years,” as Lehigh political scientist and SSI’s head of community gardens Breena Holland has said, “we’ve made a great deal of progress in using the garden to address problems of food insecurity in south Bethlehem.” The produce from the work by Lehigh students and others in the Maze Garden continues to be given to the New Bethany food bank.
Another “important contribution of the garden has been in the area of outreach and programing for children in under-resourced communities,” as Holland explains: “Broughal Middle School students have grown seedlings for the Maze, and every year they help with maintaining the garden, prepping the beds in the spring, providing plants, and helping to care for the plants.” In keeping with the Maze Garden’s founding, SSI has also programmed work and education sessions with the Bethlehem Boys and Girls Club. Substantive engagement between Lehigh students and other community members continues at the Maze Garden. “This is really what a community garden is all about,” says Lehigh senior and Maze Garden worker Emily Gibbs: “It’s not a place where you have your own plot and grow your own plants. It’s more communal. All kinds of people go there. I’ve met adults I never would have met as a Lehigh student if it weren’t for this garden. It’s a fantastic location.” Gibbs and her fellow Lehigh students just received a $2500 grant to continue their work at the Maze Garden.
Those currently working at the Maze Garden, like those who founded it close to a generation ago, want to see it develop in service to and engagement with the south side. Lehigh University—an institutional giant on the south side that, over its past 150 years, has a very mixed record of accord in the community—has played and will continue to have a central role in the garden’s life. Planting, growing, harvesting, preparing, and eating fresh healthy food are at the heart of a vibrant and healthy community. And the Maze Garden should remain standing at the south side’s center. Nancy Tate of the south side’s LEPOCO Peace Center makes the point succinctly:
I have witnessed some of the young people who have been involved with the Maze Garden and have been aware of Lehigh student involvement, and I believe any consideration of what is to happen to the Garden needs to first take into account the energy, time, and creativity that have gone into the building and maintenance of the Garden, the community connections that have come about because of the work at the Garden, the importance of that green space to those who walk or drive past regularly. It all adds up to a spiritual value to this place, this Garden, that is difficult to measure, but certainly has not been acknowledged in the plans presented to date.
Communities must grow. The question is in what manner and at what cost. The imminent decision to sell the Maze Garden must take into account what the garden has meant to the south side over the past seventeen years and all that it would continue to do in the years to come.
John teaches History at Lehigh University & is the Director of Lehigh’s South Side Initiative.