After steel's fall, Christmas puts food on tables in America’s Bethlehem

Local opinion divided on the end of a production-driven economy

Video by Saila Huusko

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The 100-year-old carcass of the Bethlehem Steel plant is now a requiem for the bygone days of a more production-driven U.S. economy. At its base is a large tree, topped with the town’s signature Bethlehem glass star, a symbol of the Moravian settlers who christened this place Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1741 — and the town’s more recent shift to a service-led economy.

The Christmas kitsch beneath the plant’s austere, rusting blast furnaces draws a growing number of tourists to an annual holiday extravaganza that aims to inject outside cash into the sleepy Pennsylvania town, a decade after the plant went under — taking with it a main source of income and way of life.

Locals have yet to determine what a new source of income means for Bethlehem. Some say the majority of residents and employees who are wistful for the days of a robust American steel industry forget dangerous working conditions and palpable social stratification. 

About half the size of a New York skyscraper, the Bethlehem plant's furnaces once forged the world-famous steel used for 80 percent of the New York City skyline and for the Golden Gate Bridge. For more than a half-century, the plant employed tens of thousands in a town of what is now 75,000. Everyone in Bethlehem, locals say, is related to or knew someone employed by the plant before it filed for bankruptcy in 2001, officially shuttering two years later.

For those who lost their jobs, Christmas tourism is a “long, ongoing Christmas miracle every year,” said Lynn Cunningham Collins, senior vice president of Bethlehem Initiatives at the local Great Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. In many other steel towns, like Gary, Indiana, the end of steel meant a flight of young workers to nearby metropolises where they could find work. Thanks to the resurgence of the Christmas industry and other service sector jobs — in particular at the nearby Sands Casino, a major driver of the local economy and sponsor of Christmas tourism — Bethlehem has only recently recovered its tax base after its post-steel bout with flight and employment. Bethlehem’s population fell by nearly 2,000 people around the factory’s closure at the turn of the millennium but has rebounded in recent years, thanks to jobs in service industry positions and in lower-scale manufacture at, for example, the town’s Just Born factory, which produces Peeps, the iconic marshmallow treats.

The town’s Christmas festivities include two bazaars, one in two large tents at the base of the plant’s blast furnaces, that house local artisans and performing artists. Christmas tourism draws 100,000 people annually and growing, bouncing back in the past few years since the Great Recession. Some of Bethlehem’s businesspeople — selling everything from their signature star ornaments to smoked meats — say they make close to a third of their annual income at the town’s Christmas events.

There’s no room at the inn on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem – local hoteliers say they are booked. But what may come as bad news for weary travelers is heralded as a sign of good tidings by business authorities like Cunningham Collins. 

It’s not just a tenuous link to Christmas that Bethlehem is selling, Cunningham Collins insists, although Bethlehem’s Middle Eastern counterpart, where Jesus was born, is 5,756 miles away. According to local lore, Moravian settlers conceived of the name at a Christmas celebration after singing a verse of the hymn “Jesus, Call Thou Me”: “Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem/ ’Twas that gave us Christ to save us/ Not Jerusalem, favored Bethlehem! Honored is that name.”

When locals sing carols like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Cunningham Collins says, “We know it’s not about our Bethlehem, but we still feel that it’s our Bethlehem.”

And the town has a history of cashing in on Christmas in times of trouble.

“In the 1930s, during the height of the Depression, the local Chamber of Commerce wanted to take advantage of this whole concept of being Christmas City USA, sending letters to chambers of commerce throughout the USA,” dubbing Bethlehem a destination for families looking for a festive destination to visit, said Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites.

There were traffic jams, locals say, with people coming from near and far to frequent local businesses and see what were considered outlandish decorations.

The pastor at Central Moravian Church, which dates to the arrival of the Moravian settlers in 1741, said that Bethlehem’s isn’t a tradition of capitalizing on Christmas but rather sustenance through what he sees as the message of Christmas: providing for those in need.

“It makes perfect sense that Bethlehem … would embrace the idea of Christmas and base all or the majority of its community on the message of Christmas … tending to the issues of the less fortunate in our midst,” said the Rev. Hopeton Clennon.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the Christmas industry and other service industry jobs. Frank Behum Sr., 68, spent three decades “under the beam” at Bethlehem Steel until 1995. Although they often involved arduous, sometimes dangerous labor, jobs there were better paid than current service industry positions, he said, largely because of today’s lack of unionization.

“When I worked here, there was actually a middle class,” he said at a museum near the blast furnaces that commemorates an era of his life. “Now you either have it or you don’t … They may talk about lots of jobs. They pay $8 to $10 an hour. But that’s not enough for a family. And God bless you if you try to eke something from the government.”

On his salary during his work at Bethlehem Steel, “you could … raise a family, your wife didn’t have to work, you could have a place at the shore, a place in the city. Well, there are no jobs like that anymore.” Now retired, Behum has authored a book featuring voices of former plant workers, “30 Years Under the Beam: Bethlehem Steel Exposed.” Many of the workers in his book expressed longing for the days of Bethlehem’s prime.

“As you can see, I’m a little bitter,” he said, but he acknowledged that at least thanks to redevelopment authorities, people working at the casino or Christmas markets “can rub two nickels together.” That’s not the case in other former manufacturing towns in the area, he said. At a bus stop in nearby Allentown, men discussed unemployment there, where until the late 1980s a rich textile industry put food on the table.

But others aren’t as wistful for the days of Bethlehem Steel, when membership at three of the town’s country clubs correlated with the company’s management roster. Steelworkers went to a public park.

Cunningham Collins’ husband, former Mayor Don Cunningham, presided over the town during the plant’s closure and poured tremendous energy into replacing the steel industry. Cunningham described himself as “a fourth-generation Bethlehem resident from a working-class family that had deep ties to steel.” His great-grandfather and father were steelworkers, and his grandfather was an electrician who did work on the plant.

“When I talked to my grandfather — a tradesman — about first running for office, it was an anathema to him that I would do that.”

Nowadays, “it’s better … It’s less class driven. White collar, blue collar — it’s much more mixed.” And he said there is no longer the smell of “rotten eggs” that greeted Bethlehem residents downwind from the plant in the morning.

Cunningham said his wife is more nostalgic for the days of Bethlehem Steel; her father put himself through college in 12 years, working a semester at the plant and studying for a semester. 

“About five or six years ago, somebody shot a movie here,” she said, referring to blockbuster hit “Transformers,” which transformed the plant into an old Chinese factory. “All of a sudden there were lights on again, and there was noise. I drove by and got verklempt [Yiddish for ‘overcome with emotion’]. There was life there again. I didn’t realize I was emotional about it until I saw the lights on.”

These days, Christmas lights liven the furnaces at night, welcoming visitors in a tradition revived from the Great Depression. 

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