It all fell into place at the grocery store tonight. Have you ever wondered why people who just aren’t very nice through much of the normal course of the day are so polite, patient, deferential and even friendly when they encounter you in the grocery store?

I think it’s because there is such anonymity when we’re driving or on the phone with a stranger.  In a grocery store, on the other hand, it’s too uncomfortable when you can’t help but look them in the eye and even run into them in aisle after aisle.  That closeness makes a difference.

So, maybe there’s a lesson in there for those of us with such strong opinions regarding the unfortunate controversy over the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that we have grown so apart over these past few decades.  To be sure, most of us in Allentown look different than our suburban neighbors.   We don’t have similar incomes (Allentown’s poverty is something like eight times higher than the rest of the county; a child is as much as 25 times more likely to be poor depending on which municipality is their place of birth).  Our cultures are different, we worship in different churches, and, like any urban residents, we are more likely to experience a crime.

And, so, y’all don’t come by much anymore.  You’re probably not employed in the city, unlikely to shop here, might not want to come to our restaurants or shows, maybe too scared.

Perhaps that’s why some of you don’t want to have anything to do with supporting the NIZ. 

Now, there’s probably not a municipality in the region that completely funded its own economic development or the infrastructure that made it possible.  Obviously, the Bethlehem Township supervisors who are working so hard to squash Allentown’s hopes didn’t take up a collection or hold a bake sale to pay for the Route 33 connection between Route 22 and I-78.  In fact, that short but very expensive highway instantly turned the township into an economic machine, dramatically increasing the value of land and, therefore, folks’ equity and wealth.  And I helped pay for it, you helped pay for it, we all paid for it.

So, I thought I might offer my neighbors a brief introduction of the good people who live here in the city.  Well, like you, we are proud of our families, we need jobs that pay the bills and maybe enable us to afford a little fun, we certainly want to have safe neighborhoods and nice homes, and we’d rather not need anybody’s help.

Without a doubt, the development that the NIZ was bringing us would have helped much of that happen.  Hopefully, then, maybe our neighbors would be gung-ho not to be burdened by the cost of loading up the county jail (located here), contributing to the food banks, or helping to pay for our big police department, but instead invest in our jobs, new business development and even help us grow our tax base.  That would pay for more of the services that might actually make you want to come back downtown, or even move back in.

We get it that you don’t want to fund this stuff with even a small part of your Earned Income Tax revenue.  Indeed, we offered to give it back, no offense intended on our part.  But now we are told that the money wasn’t the point.  Just the fact that the law says we can now has to change.  Some are insisting the size of the special district be reduced.  So, if we do that, will the line be moved yet again?

I hear many reasonable people say that you don’t even really object to a little money coming from the suburbs but that you have a problem with “the way it was done,” meaning the back-room politics.  For those of us who watch this “back-room politics” stuff benefitting folks with money and folks in power all the time can’t help but shake our heads when, for once, it actually was intended to benefit us.  Alas.

Friends, neighbors, please.  This has turned into the ugliest episode I have witnessed in the more than 30 years that I have been doing this work.

Can’t we move on?  Can’t you let us get up, brush ourselves off, and get back to the business of making Allentown the city it can be?


  1. Mary Cassidy

    Powerful, and moving, post!

  2. John

    Here’s my thoughts on what would help heal the rifts caused by the NIZ:

    1. Mayor Pawlowski, Senator Browne, Representative Mann, JB Reilly, and Joe Topper stand up and apologize for not communicating at all regarding the NIZ, sneaking legislation into effect under the cover of darkness, and then trying to cram it through anyway when faced with opposition.

    Yes you offered to give the EIT back, but only after you were caught. That doesn’t put you on the moral high ground.

    2. Senator Browne immediately return the $300,000/year kickback he’s receiving from Reilly and Topper and immediately introduce legislation that would ban abhorrent behavior like this from ever happening again.

    3. Senator Browne immediately announce his opposition to the payday lending legislation currently out in Harrisburg. This NIZ is not worth destroying more poor families with 400+% interest rates and fees. The fact that you haven’t come out publicly on this point is frankly disappointing.

    4. The City and ACIDA conduct a series of conferences on how the NIZ works, since the only people who know aren’t talking and keep canceling meetings that were to get this information out. What are the pro-NIZ people hiding that they won’t talk?

    It’s disappointing that this fiasco has set back efforts toward regionalism in the Lehigh Valley by a long time. People who used to trust each other now don’t, all because certain people couldn’t tell the truth.

    The only hope we have now is to limit the damage.

  3. Doug_B

    I’m an ex-Allentonian. Left in 1972, after graduating from Penn State. My parents remained there, and I would visit infrequently.

    It was/is shocking to see Allentown disintegrate socially and economically. To an outsider it’s obvious that economics (jobs) is the number one factor in your demise. The second major factor are the residents of Allentown – they certainly are not the same stock as the Dutch and the other European peoples.

    I don’t think any government can make jobs or prosperity, nor can they dramatically change the behavior of the residents. Doesn’t it sound preposterous to think that a hockey arena will somehow significantly enhance Allentown’s socio-economic situation?

    I think the better solution is to tear down large numbers of those tiny, sad, outdated, no garage, row homes, on narrow streets, and build homes for the 21st century. This will attract the kind of citizen that will contribute to the revitalization of Allentown.

  4. Publius

    Wow, I don’t even know where to begin with how wrong you are Doug. Your suggestions are like 19th century urban planning and racial stereo-typing at their worst. Maybe you should come into the 21st century instead of trying to tear down homes that have some actual character. Another Penn State education down the drains.

    It may not be evident to you, but, your attitude is what killed Allentown and what needs to be changed before it can have a renaissance.

  5. Doug_B

    Pull your head out of your butt. What killed Allentown is the tremendous loss of jobs, and an invasion of low educated, low income (or no income other than section 8), immigrants.

    All those row homes are patheticly small. Hardly any closets, small rooms, maybe 1,100 sq/ft, many with no garages, narrow streets with insufficient parking. No middle class person is going to buy one of those row homes. They will not appreciate in value (as a home in the burbs), and they are worn out. So I say center city A-town from Front St to 19th st, from Union to Tilgman (sp) is going to be one big ghetto.

    So what have you got? An all Democrat gubment just knawing at spending a lot of OPM (other peoples money) to build a hockey arena. How does hockey relate to the people who live in center city Allentown? You’re out of gas. But wait – you can be proud of Allentown and the diversity!

    In many ways Allentown is a mini Detroit. My attitude killed Allentown? I don’t think so – I left 40 yrs ago and wound up in Mpls as a consultant at $250k a year. Gee, I really miss A-town.

  6. Doug_B

    I wish this was the Prosperity’s Edge. Telling the world how Allentown was making great strides.

    But the truth of the matter is that Allentown was ‘on the edge’ for a very long time. I sensed it all the while I was growing up. I realized my peers in Dieruff HS were low class. This was apparent to me in 1965!

    Once I got out of the Lehigh Valley ( in 1970, when the Beth Steel and Mack Trucks was still in A-town) and lived in other cities / states – it became obvious that Allentown was destined to fail.

    Allentown is worn out. It’s past date. It’s inhabitated by welfare recipitants. It’s going nowhere – except bankrupt – just like Harrisburg and Scranton. One big ‘service center’ for Hispanics.

    Now that’s where the Democrats come in. Vote them in, and you will get the ‘benefits.’ However since all the Anglo’s left – we’re going to tax the surrounding counties to support the welfare system,

    How about the citizens of Allentown get their act together and support themselves? Or perhaps move back to Puerto Rico and revitalize their own country?

    Yes, I’m a racist for even thinking like this!

  7. Publius

    Yeah, Doug, maybe you are. You should consider moving downtown like me and bringing some of your 250K tax dollars with you. I’d much rather see that kind of organic support than having to tax wealthy suburbs to try to provide sub-standard services in poor cities. But, some people who shall remain nameless prefer to sit out in the ‘burbs holding all the advantages and blaming poor people for not being able to get ahead. Allentown failed because people lost the belief that they should live there and contribute to the place. You seem like the spokesman for that kind of social dysfunction. But, whatever. Good riddance. (P.S. I’m a successful upper middle class person too who enjoys living in the city–another of your stereotypes blown).

  8. Doug_B

    Good riddance? Why in the hell would any ‘singular’ person move to Allentown? It’s gone to sh*t!.

    Let the low class, low edumcated, low IQ, immigrant, criminal class, and low what ever, inhabit Allentown and turn it around.

    If ‘these’ people are so nobel – let them fix it. Note that this hasn’t worked in any other cities.

    However there’s a lot of money and power to be made addressing the culture of poverty.

  9. Publius

    Once again, the reason it failed is because people like you–the people with the money and possible leisure time to engage in civic minded activities–left for the suburbs. I’m not claiming anyone is more “noble” than anyone else–though your sly illusion to “noble savages” is F’d up. I am saying that the suburbs work because they get all the breaks and have all the power. Whereas the cities have few people and even fewer dollars to maintain institution that would promote stability.

    Back at the turn of the 20th century, when all sort of eastern European and Southern European immigrants flooded into Allentown, the old German’s didn’t have anywhere to go. They stayed with their money, and power, and schools and the new immigrants melded into the Allentown-German culture and became a largely homogeneous population. What happened in the 1980s is that the old-timers with money (i.e. the white middle class) left. And now, there are few opportunities for the immigrant and old-time population to integrate. That is bad for everyone and not how America is supposed to work.

  10. Publius

    Also, it’s only gone to “sh*t” because you believe it’s gone to sh*t. That is your narrative of the place, not mine. And change, even large scale social change happens one person at a time. That’s why a “singular” move is important.

  11. Doug_B

    Publius: “What happened in the 1980s is that the old-timers with money (i.e. the white middle class) left.”

    No, they died. And there was no opportunity for middle class employment or housing for their children.

    Publius: “Once again, the reason it failed is because people like you–the people with the money and possible leisure time to engage in civic minded activities–left for the suburbs”

    I don’t know what a ‘civic minded activity’ is, but pursuing a career, raising a family, paying taxes, has consumed most of my time.

    Publius: “having to tax wealthy suburbs to try to provide sub-standard services in poor cities.”

    Forget the term suburbs, just say ‘other towns’ These towns aren’t wealthy, they simply have people who work, take care of themselves, and pay taxes. There is no benefit in living near Allentown. Hell, they just tore down half the downtown. There is no logical reason why people in adjacent towns should pay to support Allentown.

    Publius: “I am saying that the suburbs work because they get all the breaks and have all the power.”

    Breaks? Power? Please explain.

    Publius: “Whereas the cities have few people and even fewer dollars to maintain institution that would promote stability.”

    The people voted with their feet. The people who are productive, who have manners, who don’t engage in crime, who don’t indiscriminately breed, who work, who pay taxes have decided that they don’t want to live in Allentown.

    Publius: “Back at the turn of the 20th century, when all sort of eastern European and Southern European immigrants flooded into Allentown …. “

    The housing stock was built in 1900. It may have worked for 1900 – but it doesn’t work in 2012. Everything has a finite life including homes . Allentown housing was built for lower middle class 1900 living. I’d also venture a guess that all of Allentown’s infrastructure: water mains, sewer, storm sewer, gas mains, and power grid are all rotted out and are in need of replacement. A HUGE cost.

    Publius: “Allentown failed because people lost the belief that they should live there and contribute to the place.”

    I can remember the late 50’s to mid 60’s. Strike after strike. Strike Mack Trucks, Strike Bethlehem Steel. They managed to drive Mack south, and they managed to bankrupt Beth Steel. Allentown subsequently failed because of no jobs. Center city was becoming a slum in the mid 60’s.

  12. Doug_B

    Harrisburg is officialy broke. Scranton is on the verge of going bust. Looks like A-town is working on it. Everytime I read ‘Pa’s 3rd largest city’ I could puke. So what?

    The real insult about your Allentown situation is that we’re not talking about helping the generations of people who settled / made Allentown what it was (cause they left).

    Rather you are speaking of a ton of indigents who just moved in and now occupy the area. And people from the surrounding communities are just supposed to give you the tax dollars, and risk their fortunes / lives to move back to Allentown? Are you sane?

    I’ve told you why the middle class people left, and what they want. Your attempt to romanticize those tiny, worn out, obsolete row homes, and infrastructure isn’t going to persuade anyone.

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