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Don Cunningham: Lehigh Valley Should Bring the Trolleys Back

By Colin McEvoy on December 26, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on Jan. 8 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

The best ideas are often found buried in the pages of history.

Many of today’s hottest trends are not new at all. In fact, they’re often quite old.

If the great-great-grandparents of today’s millennial generation could return to the Lehigh Valley of the 21st century they’d find it familiar.

Craft beer, farmers markets, free range chicken, locally distilled spirits, Edison light bulbs, farm-to-table restaurants, offices with exposed wrought iron and stone, barbershops that give shaves, steroid- and antibiotic-free beef, corner stores and people hiking on footpaths through cities all existed in the 1800s.

Somewhere in the pursuit of progress, it all disappeared. In a search for the real and authentic, it has returned.

We can thank the millennials for that. While not responsible for the original ideas, they’ve embraced them, and created a market for the old becoming new. Today’s focus on quality, healthy living and buying local has its roots in a pre-mass production, 19th-century lifestyle.

The Lehigh Valley is better for it. Authenticity is the region’s strength, and much of it comes from preserving or rediscovering the past.

It’s seen from the new brew pubs, distilleries and wineries to the public markets and farmer markets in our cities and across both counties. It’s found in today’s farm-to-table restaurants reminiscent of a time when all meat and produce on restaurant and market tables came from a farm in the Lehigh Valley or nearby.

At my Slovenian great-grandmother’s house in south Bethlehem, the produce on the table came from her backyard garden, the meat from a butcher on the corner. It was backyard- or neighborhood-to-table. She lived to be 98.

It served those generations well. I’m glad it’s back.

Toward that end, I’d like to see the return of the Lehigh Valley trolleys. There was a time the neighborhoods of Allentown and Bethlehem were connected by the trolley cars of the Lehigh Valley Transit Co. A ride cost 5 cents.

Trolley tracks connected the cities, running east-to-west on Broad Street in Bethlehem to Hanover Avenue to Hamilton Street in Allentown.

My Irish grandfather spoke fondly of riding the trolley from the avenues of west Bethlehem to Central Park and the shopping district of downtown Allentown.

Central Park was south of Broad Street-Hanover Avenue near Club Avenue on the Allentown-Bethlehem border in a village once known as Rittersville. The empty lot that was the recently razed Bennett Toyota and south was once the park.

Central Park was the nexus of the trolley line. Families and kids from Allentown and Bethlehem rode the trolley to the park. It was an ingenious business model, while it lasted. The trolley operator ? a forerunner to today’s LANTA ? was part owner of the park.

The park was a mini-Disney World and Epcot Center of its day. It boasted a 2,500-seat Magnificent Air Dome Theater, its own opera company that performed twice a day. It had a Japanese temple, bowling and billiard parlors, a dancing pavilion, a family reunion pavilion, a restaurant, penny arcade, a miniature railway, a Children’s Happy Land, a shooting gallery, a Land of Forest and Flowers and a range of amusement rides from the Thrilling Circus Swing to the Derby Racer to the Human Roulette Wheel.

Attendance in 1911 exceeded 650,000. The park closed in 1950 as trolley riding gave way to the automobile and amusement was delivered by television, movies and other parks. The trolley tracks were removed later in the decade.

They should be returned.

Parochialism is disappearing in the Lehigh Valley. When I was a boy, people stayed where they lived. Today’s growing population, enlightened millennials and new residents are anchored not to one city or town but the entire region.

Before dreaming about connecting by rail the small percentage of people who live here and work in New York or Philadelphia, let’s connect the nearly 800,000 people of the Lehigh Valley to each other, spreading their size and buying power across the region.

Imagine an afternoon at the Allentown Art Museum, riding the trolley to dinner in Bethlehem then meeting friends for drinks in Easton and returning safely.

Other cities and regions have done it. Memphis, Denver, Salt Lake City and New Orleans are just a few with tram lines that connect vital cultural centers. Milwaukee has a new trolley streetcar system, the Milwaukee Hop, doing the same.

Public transit is tough in the Lehigh Valley because there’s not one central city or job center. LANTA buses do a great job with the difficult challenge of spiderwebbing the region.

A trolley line would connect the cultural centers and downtowns and cross-pollinate the Lehigh Valley. There’s something about a trolley that beats a bus.

The cost would be big, but projects start with an idea. It would be even more expensive, complicated and unlikely to happen to build a line that makes the Lehigh Valley the last stop on another region’s inbound commuter rail.

We are a suburb of nowhere and need not be. Let the young continue to help guide the future by reconnecting to the past.

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