If you were into civics as a kid, “gerrymandering” is one of the words you learned in 10th grade and still remember. You probably even remember the practice’s namesake, Elbridge Gerry, and that he endorsed the creation of oddly-shaped voting districts that favored his political party in the early days of the Republic. The practice produced a cartographic chimera of sorts, the so-called Gerry-mander, and the practical side American political science began in earnest. For all the time they must have spent outside, you’d think that early 19-century Americans would have known that salamanders don’t have wings but do have arms.
Today, I came across a map of Allentown that Damien Brown edited to show the city’s different sections (East Side, Center City, Downtown, South Side/South Allentown, and West End):
Now, if you live in Allentown, you know that a small pocket of South Whitehall Township (those white polygons) cuts into the West End on the east side of Cedar Crest Boulevard from Washington Street to Parkway. A closer look:
What’s the story here? What political machinations are afoot??? Just the long-term visioneering of Allentown industrialist Gen. Harry C. Trexler, patron of the Allentown Parks System, the Golf Course, the Trexler Nature Preserve and lots of other things we take granted. The space that is now Trexler Park was, before his death, a family summer estate in South Whitehall Township. This land and the land immediately around it (including the Golf Course) only became part of the city because of Trexler’s work and generosity.
Longtime Lehigh Valley residents know most of this already. What I didn’t know: Trexler is probably also responsible for preserving the Lehigh Valley’s home-rule culture. His mistrust of Philadelphian power (antagonistic as it was to the Lehigh Valley’s Pennsylvania Germans) led him to champion the development of a regionally-based economy. It makes me stop and think: even as we recall Allentown’s decline from unique, mid-sized, industrial and commercial base of economic power to a city searching for a new identity and a sustainable economy of the future, if not for Trexler, the plus side of the Lehigh Valley’s history might not have happened at all.
In pioneers like Trexler and, later, the Rodale family, the Lehigh Valley has fine models for conservation and sustainable business. Even though the national economy is groaning, it is also greening. 100 years ago, Trexler and others converted a vacant, run-down city lot into what we know today as West Park. Leaders from all aspects of Allentown’s public life need to keep taking these cues and continue embracing the opportunities financial trouble brings. If we need to build, we must (and can) build sustainably. If we need to tear down, we can do it beautifully. I imagine a city that is increasingly walkable in all quarters, and one where junked lots and vacant parking lots become a patchwork of parks and public spaces.
No one knows how long the current economic crisis will continue. What we do know is this: the days of retail excess are over, and rising generations want walkable, bikable, beautiful urban spaces in which to live and work and spend. We want sustainable, hyper-local options, we want good news for the city and we want to be part of that transition.
On a long enough timeline, chronically closed spaces will green themselves, but cities across the country are starting from scratch with new sustainable ethics and visions. Thankfully, we don’t have to start from square one. If stakeholders are committed, our region, led by our cities, can be a national example of the new economy even it was once a beacon of the old. And unlike silk or steel or cement or retail, sustainability is a business for all times and all seasons.