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Don Cunningham: Preserving History While Building for the Future

By Colin McEvoy on August 12, 2022

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on August 12, 2022. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

My kids learned early that vacations with dad are often anything but that.

It typically involves visiting somewhere with historic sites or buildings that translate to long walks and tours for all involved.

My daughter’s first day trip as an infant was to Lancaster to visit the home of Pennsylvania’s first president, James Buchanan.

She remembers it about as well as history remembers the Buchanan Administration.

The other visitors on that guided tour back in the fall of 1990 most likely remember it well. For that, I offer a belated apology.

Bridget’s mom won’t forget it.

After withstanding about 20-minutes of top of the lungs crying, Laura turned to me and said, “She’s a bit too young for this, maybe we can come back when she’s at least 3.”

I didn’t seem to get the message.

Eight years later, our then 2-year-old third child, Brendan, uttered his first complete sentence at the end of a long day’s walking tour of Colonial Philadelphia.

With both a plaintive and defiant look, he gazed at me and, in mangled syntax, uttered a line that’s become famous in our family, “Are you see my legs are getting tired?!”

A toddler’s way of saying, “Dude, I’ve had enough, I’m tired, and don’t care about this stuff. What’s wrong with you, I’m only 2? ”

But, hey, it got him to talk.

A few decades later — the kids in high school and college, and me on a new marriage — I took some of them on a week’s vacation up the East Coast with the destination of Bar Harbor, Maine. We stopped in Lexington and Concord for Revolutionary Battlefield and Museum tours and a Walden Pond visit.

On the return trip, we stopped in Boston for two days, where I covertly planned to slip in the Freedom Trail walking tour of historic sites.

We walked out of the hotel room on a steamy August morning, and I guided the crew toward the subway stop for the Old State House. With the sun blazing and the humidity already sucking the sweat from our pours, my wife, Lynn, threw out her arm, stopped the brigade and declared, “It’s too (expletive deleted) hot for history. We’ve had enough.”

There are moments when stepmoms become accepted. This one was nearly biblical.

The tribe had united against its leader.

What’s come before has always fascinated and intrigued me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand its allure more clearly. Nothing lasts forever. Life keeps moving, very quickly. It’s the mystery and majesty of lineage. The streets I once walked with my grandfather I now stroll with my granddaughter.

As James Joyce wrote, “As you are now, we once were.”

Places last longer than people. We come and go.

There’s a connection to where we came from — and how we got here — in the earth, and bricks and the mortar of building and place.

Bethlehem, like the rest of the Lehigh Valley, is blessed with a rich history. Many of its earliest buildings still stand, and its history is preserved and learned because of the Moravians, a Protestant sect of missionaries that left what is now the Czech Republic, to settle in the New World and throughout Europe. One group settled at the confluence of the Monocacy Creek and Lehigh River in 1741 and called it Bethlehem. Other groups settled elsewhere in North America and in Northern Ireland, Germany, and Denmark and, ultimately, in many other countries.

Today, Bethlehem is part of a multi-national effort to have that Moravian legacy of communities declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The U.S. Department of the Interior has authorized a 14.7-acre settlement preserved in the heart of Bethlehem as one of only 19 locations on the U.S. tentative list.

There are only 24 declared World Heritage Sites in the entire U.S., including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Monticello. There are about 1,100 sites in the world.

UNESCO designation translates to significant international recognition, visitation and increased economic activity through tourism and awareness of a place. The international awareness of Bethlehem and, hence, the Lehigh Valley will grow if the designation is conferred.

There were many significant elements of engineering, commerce, and education that developed in that Moravian settlement, but little recognized is its status as of the largest final resting places of American Revolutionary War soldiers in the U.S.

Pacifist by teaching, and relative newcomers to the Colonies, the Moravians supported the Revolution through financial support and care for the wounded. The Brethren’s House, now home to Moravian University’s School of Music, was one of the Continental Army’s first hospitals.

At least 300 patriot soldiers died of their wounds or disease at the corner of Main and Church streets. They’re buried in unmarked graves on the hillside aside the creek in west Bethlehem. There is one small marker to them on First Avenue.

Not all that is old, however, is historic.

Bethlehem City Council recognized that recently in granting ArtsQuest a demolition permit to remove five disparate factory buildings of no historic significance on Third Street to construct a new Banana Factory Arts Center for the community.

An advisory historic commission had earlier said ArtsQuest needed to retain those buildings. Thankfully, council’s voice prevailed.

Critical thinking must be applied to the balance between preserving significant history and building a future. We must make way for the next generation. The kids and grandkids don’t really want all the stuff in grandma’s attic just because it once meant something to her. Our treasure may be their junk. That’s just the way it is.

The key is to understand what it is that we can’t lose because it’s critical to who we are, a physical remembrance of family, community, and place to remind us that we’re only passing through.

And, yes, sometimes it’s just too bleeping hot for history.

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