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Bethlehem Southsiders show ‘striking’ love of community, optimism about future, forum report says

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Bethlehem Southsiders show ‘striking’ love of community, optimism about future, forum report says

Picture of Sara Satullo
Stickers representing money from federal pandemic relief funding are placed alongside community needs by participants in a commu
Stickers representing money from federal pandemic relief funding are placed alongside community needs by participants in a community meeting Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, held at the Northampton Community College’s Fowler Southside Center in Bethlehem and hosted by Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley and to build on the website's Edged Out journalism project focused on the city's changing Southside neighborhood.
Kurt Bresswein | For
Lehigh Valley Live
Thursday, March 10, 2022

South Bethlehem faces a complex list of challenges like housing affordability, but overall residents remain optimistic that they can help their city leaders solve these problems if they get a seat at the table.

That’s one of the major takeaways from a Feb. 23 Southside community meeting hosted by and Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley at Northampton Community College’s Fowler Family Southside Center, according to the the report produced by the event’s moderators from the PA Project for Civic Engagement.

It was a standing-room only crowd at the event designed to give local residents an audience with new Mayor J. William Reynolds and the seven-member Bethlehem City Council, which includes four newly-sworn in members. More than 130 residents, business owners, nonprofit representatives and city officials participated in the two-hour community discussion.

The idea for the meeting sprung out of interviews with residents throughout the reporting of Edged Out, a series by The Express-Times and, examining affordable housing. Over eight months of reporting, neighborhood canvassing and focus sessions, Southsiders expressed frustration over their existing relationship with their elected leaders. They longed to see local politicians outside of Bethlehem’s Town Hall in a format where their words held an equal amount of weight.

Much of the Feb. 23 event occurred in professionally-moderated small breakout groups, where participants got to share their hopes and fears for the Southside, the one thing they wanted elected leaders to tackle and to weigh in on how the city should spend $10 million of federal coronavirus relief.

Residents expressed an overwhelming appetite for more events like the Feb. 23 community meeting. Southsiders want more opportunities for active engagement, listening and co-production of solutions with the community, according to the report.

Many wanted future sessions to dig into the details of topics raised at the forum, like defining just what affordable housing means in Bethlehem and how to achieve it. Some expressed concern that the Feb. 23 dialogue would reap no tangible results. Participants shared a thirst for real solutions.

Attendees universally touted South Bethlehem’s diversity, its eclectic residents, arts community, hillside views and the Greenway as the community’s top attributes. The primary criticisms centered on the city’s fumbling of public-private partnerships, a weak attention to practical quality-of-life concerns, like trash and traffic, and for being too tepid in supporting affordable housing, the report notes.

“The depth of affection Southsiders have for their neighborhood – and the similar ways of expressing that love of place that occurred across breakout groups – was quite striking,” the report states. “Diversity was seen as a key strength for the Southside, not a flaw or a challenge – which is not always the case in other places. Every group mentioned the neighborhood’s tradition of welcome to newcomers, alongside the sense that neighbors in the Southside look out for one another.”

Some noted the irony that a prime source of tension in the community surrounds the reluctance to welcome the latest wave of more affluent newcomers, “because they are seen as unlikely to respect or fit into the neighborhood’s fabric,” the meeting report notes. Overall views on new development remained mix in a crowd that included developers, landlords, business owners and longtime residents, many of whom emphasized they aren’t anti-development. They believe that new housing, retail and restaurants should meet the needs of current residents, not just transplants.

In words that distilled one of the central tensions of the evening’s discussions, a participant said: “The city must find a way to accommodate people who want to live here without destroying what it is that’s attracting them in the first place.” In other words, the traditions, the sense of welcome and neighborliness, the diversity, the walkability, and affordability of the place, the report states.

Participants expressed some optimism that the city’s new leadership paired with a new president at Lehigh University could usher in a new more collaborative era.

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Sara K. Satullo reported this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 National Fellowship, which provided training, mentoring, and funding to support this project. She may be reached at