ALIVE! ALIVE!: Allentown, Pennsylvania
Grease is what I notice when I step through the chain-link fence into the huge parking lot shared by the Allentown Farmers’ Market and Agri-Plex. It’s not the grease of skin slicked with sunscreen or the grease of the tractors parked in rows just beyond the animal exhibits. It’s the grease that glistens on corndogs, battered; that shines on funnel cakes, fried. It’s the grease that drips from hamburgers grilled over fires hopping from large barrel grills. It’s the grease of the Great Allentown Fair, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a city halfway between Philadelphia and New York.
The Fair is a complex mix of class and crass, of phonies, phenomenon, and stars. For six days each year stunt dogs share the limelight with performers whose songs are normally blasted from the stereos of low-riding cars in the streets of the city. A Ferris wheel pricks the sky, while The World’s Tallest Horse looms in the back of a maze of tents, to be seen for the price of two dollars. Next door is The Cow with Two Heads and The Most Beautiful Mermaid, advertised with a recording of a man’s voice played over and over again: “See the wonders of this world! Real and living! You can tell by the smell that these wonders are ALIVE! ALIVE!”
Across the aisle are booths with games, where teenagers idly toss basketballs into hoops for monstrously large stuffed animals, and nearby are booths of greasy fair food, an elephant show, and pigs lying lazily on their sides, snorting in the heat of the beginning of September, blue ribbons hanging from their pens.
But don’t think for a minute that Allentown is all glitz and glamour. The tractor-pull competition at the Fair is often more popular with the locals than the big-name performers (this year featuring Bruno Mars and Journey). I am not a local of Allentown but go to college there, so I cannot claim to know the entire city, but I do have three years of experience and can say that Allentown is a complex place. Many people know its name from Billy Joel’s song “Allentown” with famous first lines, “Well, we’re living here in Allentown/And they’re closing all the factories down.”
While the majority of residents now work in white collar industries, en route to the Lehigh Valley Mall I see remnants of the industry era: abandoned brick buildings, holes punched through their windows. Older men in feed caps and jeans speak of Bethlehem Steel, the steel industry that thrived one town over. Among the coal and steel men are farmers from just outside the city who bring their tractors to the Fair, whose rabbits and roosters win ribbons.
Allentown is yet more eclectic. It is home to Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest Colleges with others just a short drive away. This means Allentown has a fluid, college-age population. Students fill the bars and theaters in the city, like Maingate Nightclub and the Civic Theatre, where I saw an Israeli movie. But college students also spend their time volunteering for organizations like the Sixth Street Shelter, which provides programs that teach life skills to underprivileged adults and care and activities for their children. The presence of organizations like this attests to the fact that Allentown is no stranger to poverty. According to City-Data.com, in 2009 29% of residents in Allentown were below the poverty level; however, the presence of volunteers at these organizations also attests to the fact that Allentown does not see poverty as an unsolvable problem.
A walk down Chew Street reveals much about the city. At one end are enormous, stately houses of stone and brick with winding front walks, stained glass, new cars parked out front. Soon appear red and grey banners hanging from the lampposts, harbingers of Muhlenberg College. It is small but impressive, its stone bell tower sitting at the back of a green lawn, the foreground for a row of old stone academic buildings. After the library and chapel College housing thins to a community cemetery. The cemetery spans both sides of the street, and a walk through it reveals mausoleums and gravestones dating back to the 1800s.
Turning one’s gaze from the ground to the sky reveals a view of the Farmers’ Market. Every few weekends I wander the aisles, purchasing pineapple, gazing at the wine, baked goods, Greek food, and dollar store items in the long building. I always purchase a mango-guava turnover from a Mexican vendor. The pastry is about two times the size of what I need, but filled with a gooey sweetness that puts a satisfied smile on my face. According to americantowns.com, 43,351 people in Allentown are Hispanic, while 69,346 are White and 9,038 Black. Allentown is adapting to the growing Hispanic influence. Many of the shops beyond the Farmers’ Market advertise in Spanish, and the language is heard almost as frequently as English in the streets.
Further down Chew Street, apartment buildings and row homes appear; rows and rows of brick and stoops. While the city center hosts a mix of mom-and-pop and hip, new stores and restaurants, patrons are not far from row homes with boarded windows and graffiti on their walls, a sharp reminder that the people at the bottom of Chew Street, do not live the life of those in the large, luxurious homes at the top.
To me, Allentown is the feel of both the city and the small town. It’s a tractor driving slowly by the cemetery, passed on the left by a car blasting rap from its tinted windows. It’s drumbeats from marching band competitions in J. Birney Crum stadium drifting up the hill on a rainy night, so common in Allentown. It is men gathered for a train expo at the Agri-Plex. It’s a bride, beaming, being photographed in the rose garden while nearby the community gathers to swim in a large pool, joyful shouts and splashes floating over the creeks and willow trees, the pavement, the people.