Month: January 2010

New Jerusalem

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The old Allentown Good Will

It seems that Allentown (our three years younger neighbor to the north of Emmaus and my temporary place of residence) has hired someone to come up with a new slogan: “City without limits.” I know that the purpose of this slogan is essentially for marketing for development, but I can think of few worse slogans for any town.

Allentown, it should be noted, is no longer the city that Billy Joel sang about. The grittiness and rust-beltishness largely passed years ago. It really is a new sort of town, compared with that time, and perhaps this is the sort of thing the sloganeers had in mind. But the irony is to be found in their comparisons with other city nicknames, namely, New York’s “The Big Apple”, Chicago’s “The Windy City,” Philadelphia’s “City of Brotherly Love,” or even neighboring Bethlehem’s “Christmas City.”

None of those cities came up with their nicknames as part of a marketing campaign. They were simply nicknames that arose from the experience of those living there, for various kinds of reasons. Both Bethlehem and Philadelphia’s nicknames are derived from their actual names. Chicago is, quite literally, windy, and New York, curiously enough, shares its sobriquet with another great city, Constantinople, which was also thought of as an apple. Whatever the case, these towns drew their nicknames from experience. They also drew their nicknames from limits.

The limits which define those other cities are their particular character. Chicago can’t be anything other than windy, and Denver can’t be anything other than a mile high. What makes those nicknames work is that they are peculiar, precisely that they are, indeed, limitations on the character of their geographic reference points. But in the Allentown sloganeers’ desire to market what is, really, not a bad town at all, they chose something that is, in itself, devoid of real meaning.

Ah, yes—what was that town that had no limits to it? Yes, Allentown. Does that mean they’re going to annex poor Northampton now? (Actually, Allentown’s first incorporated name was, indeed, Northampton.) Will fair Emmaus be next or that upstart Macungie? Being “without limits” is precisely a characterless anonymity which simply suggests that here there is undifferentiated ground ready for development. We are SimCity. Paint some arbitrary zoning on us with your mouse. Something tells me that they will try this name on for a few years, until they realize that no one but marketeers and sloganeers (and maybe some Mouseketeers, but surely not musketeers) is using it. Then, they’ll replace it with something else, like “Allentown: Open for business.” Or (and this really is a snappy original) “Allentown: Please build something.”

Limits are precisely what make a place what it is. It’s this, not something else. It’s here, not there. It has limits. If it has no limits, it’s really just screaming out to be an undifferentiated morass of Wal-marts, Starbucks and publicly funded pieces of bad sculpture made from castaway steel girders and doctored up by a group perhaps best known as “Welders Without Borders”, a bland sprawl without grounding, without face, without identity. (Okay, I made up the “Welders Without Borders” bit, but not the art. Our poor valley is littered with it.)

Local tradition has it that Allentown was originally supposed to be named Jerusalem (which is not surprising, given other local names in the Lehigh Valley, e.g., Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Emmaus). That’s right—Jerusalem.

Now, there’s a city with limits.

Dancing the Ruins

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Lock Ridge Furnace, Alburtis, Pennsylvania

Blessing the Waters

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Members of the Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, gather at Furnace Dam Park on S. 10th Street in Emmaus to bless the waters during the 2010 Theophany season. (The building in the background is one of the main sites of the Rodale Institute.)