Don Cunningham: Boroughs are the New Frontier in the New Lehigh Valley
By Colin McEvoy on August 14, 2018
This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on August 14, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)
Monday morning, the office is full of chatter about the weekend.
If I’m lucky, I have nothing to say. A great weekend for me is one where my sofa and I get well-acquainted. That doesn’t happen enough. When it does, however, I happily have nothing to report.
It’s quite different for the posse of young professionals who make up two-thirds of the staff. I’d call them millennials, but I’m really confused about what ages that includes. I also don’t think millennials like being called millennials by people over 50 whose generation doesn’t have a proper name.
No label is needed. The point is that they are at the age when people have weekends — the real kind — like they did back in the old Coors Light commercials.
“Hey, boss, you ever been to Lost River Tavern?” my older ears heard one recent Monday.
“The cave? Sure, not since I was a kid,” I said, thinking it odd they took up weekend spelunking.
After laughing that laugh reserved for when teachers trip or parents make a mistake, they chortled, “No, not Lost River Caverns, the Lost Tavern!”
“No, where’s that?”
“That’s where the cave is. They must have named it after the cave.”
“It’s just Lost Tavern. No river in the name.”
Come to think of it, there’s no river inside the cave either. Interesting. My ear was hearing a word because of the familiarity of a place where the word has no business being in the name.
Upon reflection, it was more interesting that the crew was spending nights out in Hellertown, since none of them live there.
Turns out, they are not alone.
Hellertown is flush with new restaurants and businesses, has a growing downtown district and hosts live music in Dimmick Park on the weekend. During the last two years, more than 20 businesses and a half-dozen new restaurants and pubs opened in the borough, according to the Hellertown Zoning Office. The restaurants are not just old school meat and potatoes. You can pretty much go around the world on Main Street, Hungarian, Turkish, Scottish, Italian, specialty Chinese and beyond.
The boys from Generation M took me to the Lost Tavern, a beautiful converted old building where they drank milkshake IPAs and beers called Slip’ n’ Slides and Fireflies. I searched to no avail for a beer I’d heard of.
Food is served outside the place from a food truck, which changes every day. The crowd was large, seated both inside and outside.
And, Hellertown is not alone. The boroughs are the new frontier in the new Lehigh Valley.
Downtown life is back. We hear often of Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton. But let the word go forth that the boroughs are burgeoning as the Lehigh Valley continues to transform. Emmaus. Bangor. Nazareth. Catasauqua. Hellertown. Macungie.
In the old Lehigh Valley – the one I grew up in – you went to the commercial district of a borough if you lived there. If you didn’t, you drove through on the way to somewhere else, or not at all.
Hellertown was the exception, of course, because it had Matey’s Crossroads Hotel. People from Bethlehem inched over the border on Route 412 for a Crossroads pizza, then hightailed it home, never venturing past the northern end of Main Street.
The new generations are changing that – and the boroughs are reinventing themselves.
Craft beer, brewpubs, coffee shops and the desire for affordable rents and cool new places to meet and mingle have cross-pollinated people beyond the old parochial borders. GPS and Uber are kind of like 21st Century welcome mats leading the way for urban borough explorers.
I found my way recently to Bangor for a beer with some of the office crew.
Once sideswiped by the decline of slate quarries and garment mills, Bangor and the Slate Belt region are clawing their way back. Bangor’s downtown is small but alive, a mix of old and new.
The visit began with a familiar office refrain.
“Hey, boss, ever been to Bangor Trust Brewing?”
For a moment I thought, wow, they’re making beer at a bank, but after the Hellertown bar-cave mix up I kept it simple.
“No, let’s go.”
Bangor Trust Brewing makes its own beer and artisan bread from all local ingredients in the former Bangor Trust building. It also serves meals, has a nice seating area and a game room that includes indoor quoits.
It turns out Generation M likes to play games in barrooms other than pool and darts while drinking beers with names like Pig Earth and Slip’ n’ Slides.
The co-owners of Bangor Trust Brewing are Leo Bongiorno and Traci McGinty, who both learned their trade at the Bethlehem and Allentown Brewworks. They opened their place in Bangor about one year ago because the rent was right and the water was great. The location also provides good access to the farm-to-table ingredients for their food, breads and beer.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle,” said Ms. McGinty, “but if there’s ever been a town that you could call itself the little engine that could, it’s Bangor.”
Broadway is lined with welcoming banners, large murals, multiple coffee shops and another bar restaurant. In 2016, a merchant association was started that now has 26 members. With their experience in city downtowns, Bongiorno and McGinty started and coordinate numerous festivals and special events where Broadway is closed to traffic so people can gather and mingle.
The same is happening in boroughs across the Lehigh Valley like Emmaus, where the brewpubs, Funk and Yergey, draw large crowds of young professionals and others.
It was during the Bangor visit that I realized how much life and the Lehigh Valley has changed. On Broadway, there’s an old-school store called Bray’s New Agency. It’s jammed in among the coffee shops and brewpubs looking like a time capsule to the 1940s or a dusty museum to the death of the print industry. It mostly sells magazines and newspapers on old racks.
While whizzing past it tweeting, texting and checking their news feeds, one my young colleagues said in amazement, “Hey, check this out, a place that sells actual printed publications.”
As much as I love the resurgence and discovery of these borough downtowns, I found myself rooting for Bray’s, maybe because I still like to read my news on actual paper or because I figured the guys in there also can’t find a beer they’ve heard of inside a craft brewpub.
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