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Cunningham: Going Back in Time to a 1970s Bethlehem

By Colin McEvoy on August 23, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 24, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I took a walk last week in my northeast Bethlehem neighborhood that transported me back to my boyhood in the 1970s.

It’s odd what returns a memory.

I was walking south on West Boulevard between Butztown Road and North Boulevard when the 1974 hit “Rock Me Gently” by one-hit-wonder Andy Kim shuffled up on my iPod playlist. (Yes, I still use an iPod, an iPod Mini to be exact.)

“Rock me gently, rock me slowly, take it easy, don’t you know …”

Funny, I’d always thought that song was by Neil Diamond until I downloaded a bunch of AM radio hits of the 1970s a few weeks ago.

I was hitting full stride, singing along. The chorus was approaching — “ain’t it good, ain’t it right, that you are with me here tonight” — when I looked up to check if anyone was in hearing distance before I launched in with Andy. That’s when I noticed the houses in the 2500 block.

They are tiny, very small. One is pink, which made me wonder if John Mellencamp had once walked here?

Single-family homes of 850 square feet — one floor, two bedrooms and one bathroom. The kind shaped like those plastic Monopoly houses.

Boom! I’d entered an iPod Mini time machine.

I wasn’t wearing high-striped tube socks and cut-off jeans shorts but I was back in 1974.

I grew up on the avenues of west Bethlehem and in the Miller Heights section of Bethlehem Township among other steelworker families. Most of the neighbors were blue collar. Not many of the moms worked, but everyone owned their home: row homes, ranches, small bilevels and those of the Monopoly style. My great-grandmother on Seventh Avenue had a house identical to those on West Boulevard.

The houses were built for workers and their incomes, much of it during the height of America’s industrial dominance and Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s peak production and employment in Bethlehem.

Industry needed workers. Workers needed somewhere affordable to live.

The houses were small but often came with a nice-sized yard and a driveway. Much of it was built during the 1950s, following World War II but before the suburban boom of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the shift to bigger houses on large lots.

The federal government was a willing partner with its G.I. Bill and policies aimed at returning families and workers to normalcy after the war’s disruption.

A lot of this housing stock remains in Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton and the Lehigh Valley’s urban boroughs and old townships. After 70 years, however, additions have been added and homes demolished and replaced, which is true on West Boulevard.

Even the small houses aren’t as affordable today and don’t become available very often. Since the housing crash and recession of 2008-09, many homeowners have stayed put through a combination of fear, increased prices and lack of inventory.

Housing inventory in the Lehigh Valley right now is low and prices are high. Median sale prices increased 5.7% last quarter to a record high of $222,000, the highest since the Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors started keeping records. Inventory shrank 17.8% during the same period,

In a market determined by supply and demand, no new working-family neighborhoods and houses are being built. There are, however, a lot of new industrial, manufacturing and service workers in need of affordable houses.

The Lehigh Valley is in the midst of an economic boom. The region’s Gross Domestic Product has surpassed $40 billion. Unemployment is at record lows. Employers have difficulty filling jobs that pay less than $15 per hour and even skilled jobs that pay more.

Most housing being built is either expensive single-family homes in suburban townships, multifamily apartments or downtown apartments with one-bedroom rents averaging $1,300 a month. While the new generation appears to prefer renting, it’s hard to determine if that’s by choice, necessity or fear caused by the recession of 10 years ago.

No one should blame developers for maximizing the return on their cost to build. Why build and sell a house for $100,000 if you get $250,000 or rent apartments for $900 a month when market rate is higher? Land, labor, material and permitting costs are fixed regardless of size.

Market forces aren’t likely soon to drive construction of new working-class neighborhoods with affordable houses. It would take intervention, a public-private initiative with incentives and subsidies.

Let’s be clear. There are trade-offs to living with a family in a 1,000-square-foot house. The good old days weren’t always good, but something’s been lost in our eternal quest for bigger, better and more comfortable.

Our family used to pack 60 relatives into my great-grandmother’s Monopoly house for Christmas. The memories are faded — and no doubt improved since the sweat is long dried and the noise subsided — but they put a smile on my face as I bounded down West Boulevard smiling at that little pink house.

“Rock me gently, rock me slowly, take it easy, don’t you know that I have never been loved like this before … ”

You sing it, Neil Diamond. I mean Andy Kim.

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