Bethlehem: American Utopia, American Tragedy

Members of the Dewey Seminar in the School of Social Science are working on a range of issues, but all of our inquiries have led back in one way or another to the problem of democracy and education. I am interested specifically in the question of what truly democratic research universities might look like in the twenty-first century. My own work in this area is based on an experiment in university-community collaboration that I codirect at Lehigh University, a midsized private research university located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Bethlehem was founded in 1741 as a utopian religious community by the Moravians, a pietist, central European Protestant sect. The Moravians created a communal economy, in which everyone worked for the community and received on equal terms not only food, shelter, and clothing, but also access to free education, childcare, healthcare, and care for the elderly. There was an exceptional level of gender symmetry and racial integration in Moravian Bethlehem. Women had been freed from the burden of privatized childcare and domestic labor so that they could assume spiritual and social leadership roles. Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans speaking at least sixteen languages lived, worked, worshipped, and learned together. Everyone was taught to read. In contrast to the usual story of failed utopias, the community was economically successful and technologically advanced.

The egalitarianism of this community was, however, compromised in emblematically American ways from the outset. Most of the Africans, living in conditions of material equality with their European co-religionists, were also held as chattel by the church. The town was built on land that had been stolen from the native people, the Lenape, in an especially cynical manner. And despite its prosperity, the communal economy was dismantled after one generation by church leaders in Germany. The ensuing privatization of social and economic life led swiftly to the collapse of both economic and gender equality.

A hundred years later, in the late nineteenth century, Bethlehem became one of the iconic steel towns of industrial America. It was home to Bethlehem Steel, one of the world’s largest steel companies and one of the wealthiest corporations in American history. Bethlehem Steel played an important role in the development of structural steel, most famously the I-beam, which made possible the skyscrapers, suspension bridges, and battleships of the twentieth century.

For a century, every aspect of life in the city revolved around the massive Bethlehem Steel plant. Virtually every family in the city owed its livelihood, directly or indirectly, to “the Steel.” It created extraordinary wealth for its owners and for its large managerial class: at midcentury, many of the wealthiest Americans were Bethlehem Steel executives—and they built their mansions on the north side of the city. The Steel also created livelihoods for thousands of working-class immigrants from many nations, who poured into South Bethlehem to work in the plant. These immigrants built tight-knit, intergenerationally sustained ethnic neighborhoods. Some people today are still living in the houses they were born in eighty or ninety years ago.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was intense economic exploitation in Bethlehem. Many steel workers were maimed or killed on the job, and they worked long hours for low wages. There was, in response, a long history of labor organizing at the Steel—and of fierce anti-union violence. The Steel was finally unionized in 1941, on the eve of America’s entrance into World War II, in the wake of an especially violent strike and the subsequent intervention of the Roosevelt administration. As a result of workers’ successful organization, there were, for fifty years, good union jobs at the Steel, which brought higher wages, improved safety, paid vacations, good healthcare plans, and pensions. The union transformed Bethlehem into a model of postwar working-class prosperity.

Starting in the late 1970s, the U.S. steel industry underwent an intensifying crisis, as a result of rising competition from international steel producers and from non-union domestic “mini-mills.” This crisis resulted in the gradual scaling back and ultimate closure of the steel plant in Bethlehem in 1995. In 2001, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation went bankrupt. It pursued a bankruptcy strategy that has become the norm for major American corporations: the company’s lawyers persuaded the courts to allow them to sell off assets to other companies while “shedding” pension and health plans for retirees. As a result, thousands of former Bethlehem Steel employees lost the retirement and medical security for which they had given lifetimes of work.

Today, more than a quarter of South Side residents live in poverty. South Bethlehem suffers from many related social problems, including failing public schools and serious public health challenges. The former Bethlehem Steel site is the largest urban brownfield in the United States. Its massive ruins and tainted soil cover more than a hundred acres at the heart of the city.

Lehigh University is located in the middle of South Bethlehem. Founded in the 1860s, Lehigh’s early development was closely tied to Bethlehem Steel. It produced both the engineers and technical knowledge that made Bethlehem Steel one of the most profitable steel producers in the world. In turn, the company gave the university large sums of money, from its founding gift onward. Steel executives played a dominant role on the Board of Trustees from the university’s founding until late in the twentieth century. The building of an elite, private research university also played an important symbolic role for the Steel’s managerial class, as a way of accumulating and displaying cultural capital. Yet Lehigh largely closed its doors to the working people of South Bethlehem, who rarely had the financial or educational resources to gain admission. These dynamics led to entrenched patterns of town—gown class segregation that are common in university towns and cities across the country.

An important episode in university–community relations began in the 1960s, as Lehigh expanded its campus. Like many other private, urban universities (the University of Chicago is a parallel case, as Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science, has shown), Lehigh worked closely with the city government to employ eminent domain powers in the name of “urban renewal.” The city declared portions of an adjacent working-class neighborhood “blighted,” seized whole blocks of houses, and sold them to the university, which razed the homes and built new sections of its campus where its neighbors had been living.

Over the last twenty years, Lehigh has taken steps to develop more positive relations with its urban neighbors, pursuing strategies similar to those employed by other private universities. These well-intentioned efforts have produced some positive results, but they have been haunted by the histories of segregation they have sought to address, and they have been weakened by inadequate attention to persistent, underlying power relations. Like other wealthy universities, Lehigh has tended to oscillate between viewing its poorer neighbors as a potential danger to be policed or as beneficiaries of charity. Rarely has it been able to recognize its neighbors as partners in education and democracy.

This was the state of affairs in 2004, when the city of Bethlehem arrived at a momentous turning point. After a decade of abandonment, the Steel site was purchased in 2004 by a New York–based real-estate conglomerate. The major stakeholder proved to be the Las Vegas Sands corporation, which successfully acquired a license to open a casino in the middle of the brownfield. (The state of Pennsylvania had just legalized casino gambling as a strategy for postindustrial urban and regional redevelopment.) Competing positive and negative claims about the project circulated. City officials and Sands executives asserted that the casino would generate tax revenue, would create jobs, had the resources to develop the site, and would foster urban redevelopment. Critics asserted that the casino would bring crime and prostitution; that the city would be overrun by traffic; that it would create urban blight and the collapse of retail districts and neighborhoods, including those a few blocks from Lehigh’s campus. Bethlehem residents had mixed responses: some were hopeful, others terrified. But there was, at least in my experience, a virtually universal sense of powerlessness: people felt that they would have no role in making decisions about the future of the Steel site, around which their lives had revolved for generations, or about the future of the city more generally.

It was in this context, three years ago, that we launched the South Side Initiative (SSI). A group of Lehigh faculty (mostly in the humanities and social sciences, but some from the natural sciences, business, education, and engineering) began to meet with community leaders and residents in order to understand what role the university might play at this moment of extraordinary change in the city. In response to what we learned, SSI developed a range of activities and programs. These were, in many respects, familiar to the usual functioning of a university. We brought in visiting speakers, held public events (forums, conferences, film series, public art projects), organized classes, and set up ongoing working groups. All of these activities, though, focused on topics of pressing concern in the city, and each was organized to foster opportunities for faculty and students to come together with community members to exchange different forms of knowledge and to deliberate on local challenges.

We brought in leading scholars, for example, who could share the results of their research about the actual effects of casino development in towns and cities elsewhere in the United States. At these well-attended public events, community members as well as faculty and students exchanged questions and concerns with public officials and visiting experts. Local journalists reported on the dialogue and on pressing policy issues such as real-estate speculation, protection of local business, and hiring practices at the casino. This last issue became especially salient when African American and Latino community members emphasized their experience with racialized hiring practices that have resulted in casinos in other cities hiring mainly white and often nonlocal staff, especially in better-paid casino floor positions. In response, SSI collaborated with a local economic development group to sponsor a series of public information sessions about jobs at the casino. We wanted these sessions to demystify the security screening process, which research has shown to be the main mechanism for reducing minority job applications. The sessions were conducted bilingually to accommodate Bethlehem’s large Spanish-speaking immigrant population, and they were attended by hundreds of South Side residents. Through the sharing of scholarly expertise and local knowledge, SSI was thus able to collaborate with a local nonprofit to maximize opportunities for local employment.

Over the last three years, SSI has offered dozens of courses across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences focused on the city of Bethlehem—some of them team-taught by Lehigh faculty and community partners. Thousands of people at Lehigh and across the city have participated in our public forums, conferences, classes, and other events. Lehigh faculty and students are collaborating with community members to produce research on issues from economic development to environmental justice to public history. Cultivating processes of intellectual desegregation, we seek to expand the public sphere in the city, enabling people of all kinds to share knowledge and to invent democratic practices to meet our common needs.

Universities in our time can function as engines of democracy. This is not a casual observation. Even as democracy remains a foundational value in our society, we live at a moment of widespread pessimism about its effective, meaningful practice in the United States. As low voter turnout suggests, faith in the electoral process is disturbingly low. And even as ordinary people doubt their ability to influence Congress or state legislatures or city councils, most Americans have little experience actively deliberating and participating in collective decision-making about issues that immediately affect them, where they live or work or learn. A generation ago, the cultural critic and political thinker Raymond Williams described democracy as a “long revolution” in Western societies. He insisted that even in the second half of the twentieth century, we were still at an early stage in learning the practices of democracy—and that one of the most urgent tasks of our societies was to invent and cultivate such practices. That task is more urgent today than ever. My own experience in Bethlehem over the last three years has convinced me that universities can—if they choose—play an important role in this ongoing process. They can foster the production, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge about the most urgent problems we face, locally as well as globally. They can bring people together— not merely students and teachers, but people throughout their wider communities—to deliberate. They have the resources, stature, and influence to bring government officials together with the people who have elected them—or to bring corporate developers together with the people whose community is in the process of transformation. They can disseminate knowledge more widely, more variously—and, oddly enough, more locally—than they currently do. They can, in short, help us become more answerable to one another.

Seth Moglen, Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of the South Side Initiative at Lehigh University, was the 2009–10 Friends of the Institute for Advanced Study Member in the School of Social Science. This article is based on a Friends Forum talk given on April 28. A video of the full talk is available online at