Allentown at 250 and 251: New Years Reflections On Our Work Together This Year and Beyond

New Years Eve marks the beginning of Allentown’s 250th birthday celebration, a year-long observance for which I’m very excited.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the progress we’re all hoping to make in 2012 and the work being put in motion now that will make the Allentown of 2013 a healthier, more generative community.

At First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, we’ll spend much time, talent, and treasure in 2012 working with the Sixth Street Shelter to expand occupancy in that facility by 25% by 2013. Alan Jennings put it to me this way: “if an unwed mother, her infant child, and her scruffy male companion came to the shelter on Christmas Eve this year, they’d be turned away. There’s no room at the inn.”  Our Local Care team is taking the lead role in organizing the entire congregation for this important work.

At St. Paul’s Lutheran church, Pastor Richard Baumann helps lead the Safe Haven homeless shelter, an overflow facility that’s quickly exposing how very dire the occupancy issues are at other local shelters. In 2012, First Pres will partner with St. Paul’s in new, exciting ways around these and other issues.  St. Paul’s also provides free Sunday morning breakfast before services each week and has established on the southeast corner of 8th and Walnut a unique community where the homeless have been invited into leadership roles in the larger life of the church.  St. Paul’s also hosts the Lehigh County Conference of Churches Soup Kitchen and is providentially positioned in the vicinity of the new, multi-million dollar office and retail complex planned for 2013, One City Center.

Led by Pastor Bob Stevens, Zion’s Reformed UCC (The Liberty Bell Church) celebrates its own 250th Anniversary in 2012, as does St. Paul’s. These historic Allentown communities of faith began in the same log cabin as two of six local congregations in 1762.  Both continue to serve and lead the community in 2012, and both are poised to make huge impacts in 2013 and beyond.  Zion’s graciously hosted the Lehigh County Conference of Churches’ fall gathering concerning the  growing economic divide in the context of the global financial crisis. This event, sponsored in part by FPCA’s Peace, Justice, and Missionary Team, was a huge success despite the unexpected Halloween storm. With a 400-seat sanctuary and a place on the National Register of Historic Sites for its role during the American Revolution, Zion’s and its famous Liberty Bell Museum (which celebrates its 50th birthday this year) are the logical terminus of the Allentown Arts Walk and are natural partners for anyone considering the expansion of the arts initiatives already bustling on Sixth Street.  One of Pastor Bob’s visions for 2012 is to open this beautiful venue to the budding community of Christian artists and musicians as a platform for support, encouragement, and spiritual engagement.  “Shalom in the city” takes many forms at Zion’s and blossoms in many ways.

Beautifully framed by the newly-renovated and expanded Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley (which incorporates FPCA’s original building) on the east, the Baum School and Da Vinci Horse on the north and Symphony Hall on the west is the Arts Walk’s point of origin: the Allentown Arts Park.  By 2013, I hope to see the west side of the Sovereign Building, the last leg of the Walk connecting 6th Street to Zion’s, as a fully realized outdoor art space with murals, sculptures, improved landscape maintenance and a thriving sense of public commons.  Click here for a Google Photos gallery of pictures from this part of the City taken in July including Zion’s, Symphony Hall, the Arts Walk, the Baum School, The Musselman Arts Development Center and more.

2012 will see the construction of the new Allentown Arena, and, as we learned recently, the creation of One City Center, a stone’s throw from St. Paul’s. By the Fall of 2013, the Arena and One City Center projects will be completed.  Alvin H. Butz will be doubling down their physical presence on Hamilton Street with an expansion of their corporate headquarters in the old retail district once anchored by the world-famous Hess Bros. department store at 9th and Hamilton.  Ground will break this summer, with an expected completion of 2013.  Although they are not without controversy, the Arena project and the special tax zone created to foster it are also drawing the first serious waterfront development ideas in a decade.

Led by our Local Care team, FPCA continues to partner with Roosevelt Community School, the Allentown School District’s first COMPASS school, joining our friends at Zion’s EC Church on Susquehanna St and other community partners like Air Products, Good Shepherd, and Allentown Symphony Hall. The success of the COMPASS model is palpable at Roosevelt, and in the eight years since Roosevelt’s COMPASS designation, teachers report a “180 degree change” in the school’s academic culture.   At Roosevelt, supplemental education doesn’t stop with children.  Adult classes on parenting, financial basics, and English as a second language provide school parents with the kinds of resources and access that foster better environments for success at home, work, and school.  Since the Roosevelt pilot, Central Elementary, South Mountain Middle School, and McKinley Elementary school have become COMPASS community schools. Our call in 2012 is to continue our work with Roosevelt, even as we partner with community stakeholders to explore the ways we can lift up the COMPASS model across the district, and even as we consider establishing a low-cost or free pre-k school in the City for under-served populations.

FPCA’s partnerships with the Lehigh County Conference of Churches and its programs and committees (LCCC Daybreak, LCCC Soup Kitchen at St. Paul’s, and LCCC’s Peace and Advocacy Committee and Ecumenical Committee) remain strong thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers and mission team leaders. On January 29,  FPCA will host an ecumenical service organized by the Conference’s Ecumenical Committee to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Members and friends of FPCA are also taking a lead role in the planning of the Third Annual Martin Luther King Dinner and Program at St. John’s UCC at 15th and Walnut on January 16.

In 2012, Tony Sundermeier and I will co-convene the regular Beerituality gatherings at the BrewWorks at 812 W. Hamilton Street. Musician, friend, and creator of the broken liturgy worship experience John Hardt will join us for an evening of song and conversation at 7 PM on January 19.  We’re blessed to have John as our first guest of the New Year.

Happy as I am to join with City residents and leaders in the celebration of Allentown’s 250th anniversary beginning tonight, I’m even more excited for the work we’ll all do together this year toward a better 2013 and beyond. I’m blessed to be charged with much of this work as part of my vocation at First Presbyterian, but the development of generative relationships and cultures in the City is something diverse groups of religious, civic, business, and community volunteers believe in and continue to work toward.  May this be the year that changes everything.  As we might say in church, may this be the year of the Lord’s favor!  Amen.

Allentown Holding Public Meetings on Arena Plan

From The Morning Call:

Allentown to hold three public meetings on arena project,
Question-and-answer sessions with planners are set for Nov. 29, 30 and Dec. 1.

November 12, 2011|By Devon Lash and Matt Assad, Of The Morning Call

After months during which Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and city officials have been criticized for planning perhaps the largest public project in the city’s history behind closed doors, the city has announced three open houses, beginning at the end of the month.

English: The AHL Philadelphia Phantoms during ...
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The format is purposely intimate. Rather than a pulse-less PowerPoint presentation during a public meeting attended by hundreds of people, aspects of the arena project will be divided into stations, where people can question arena planners face to face.

Read the rest here.  A few people made their way to The Daily Cocca today searching for info on these meetings. Sorry I didn’t have it up sooner (and thanks to my Dad for the tip).

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Phantoms

The future home of your Allentown Phantoms.

The Daily Cocca is proud to welcome Eric Sylvester back to our guest-blogger chair.  Because all signs point to a proposed minor league hockey arena in downtown Allentown becoming the new home of the former Philadelphia Phantoms, I asked for Eric’s take on the team.  Eric’s my go-to hockey guy, and with good reason.

Eric asked if he could write a piece about the 2004-2005 season, a time when big league hockey was locked out and a talented, neglected AHL team took the professional sport, and its near-professional fans across the country, on a wild, redemptive ride.  Why is any of this important to me or to Allentown hockey in 2013?  On a personal level, Eric’s a peach and I wanted him to a little bit about his beloved fandom.  (He really did meet his girlfriend on WordPress, by the way, so you are beholding the power of blogging on two levels, here).  But I’m also interested in the way sports narratives can galvanize communities.  We’ve heard so much in the past few weeks about the kind of identify formation that happens at places like Penn State, but Eric was isolated hockey fan in Iowa who connected to a minor league team in South Philly.  I don’t mean to overplay the sports-as-life narrative, because we’ve seen how devastating that can be.  But in the right times and right conditions, fandom can bring communities together in positive ways, even across state lines and team loyalties.

Eric, thanks for the piece.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Phantoms
by Eric Sylvester, Special (Like a Pretenders song) to The Daily Cocca

One of the best things about blogging is getting to hear the stories of a multitude of different types of people.  I’ve made friends in the hockey community, the political ring, and some genuinely hilarious people through blogging.  I even met my girlfriend, Emily, via this blog (that’s two shameless plugs for your blog already, babe).  Editor’s Note: she smiled and DIDN’T hit me.  I’m surprised, too.  Editor’s Note #2: Upon reading this, she called me a “jerk” and hit me.  THAT’S the Emily I know.

Chris Cocca is one of these great people I’ve had the pleasure of befriending since I started the blog.  It’s always awesome when we get a chance to randomly talk, primarily because we share many of the same weird interests.  From our mutual love for comics to our shared affinity for vintage baseball facial hair, we tend to have some interesting conversations.

I guest-posted last year during the NHL Playoffs for Cocca and have an undying love for hockey.  So, naturally, when he started talking about the possibility of the Philadelphia Adirondack Phanotms AHL hockey team moving to Allentown (Chris’ hometown), I had a story to tell.

You see, the (then) Philadelphia Phantoms were the story of the 2005 hockey world.  Why?  Because the 2004-2005 NHL season was lost to a lockout.  As the only hockey fan in my small hometown in Iowa, I was mercilessly teased by my friends.  They knew how much hockey meant to me and reveled in the fact that they got to watch their beloved NBA while I was deprived of my favorite thing in the world.  I look forward to hockey season more than Christmas, and that year Christmas wasn’t going to come.

But there was hockey in 2004-2005, just not the hockey I was used to following.  The American Hockey League, America’s highest level of minor league hockey, would still play their season.  With minor league hockey as my only option, I thought  I was going to be subjected to a subpar league for a full season.  Still, I said, bad puck is better than no puck at all.   Mediocre players playing mediocre  hockey in empty arenas is still hockey.  I soldiered on and said my prayers to the hockey gods every night, begging for the return of the NHL.

I kept tabs on the affiliate of my Colorado Avalanche, the Hershey Bears, who never seemed destined for a playoff berth (they missed a postseason spot by ten points).  My Colorado Avalanche didn’t exist and their affiliate franchise was done for the season .  The most depressing year of my fifteen-year life lingered on.  Even though there would be no proxy-Avalanche to lift my spirits in the playoffs, something else happened; something I wasn’t expecting.

I fell in love with the Philadelphia Phantoms.  This wasn’t some throw-away hockey team playing in the minors.  They had some SERIOUS firepower, and featured a bevy of future NHL superstars.  Led by goaltender Antero Niittymaki (now with the San Jose Sharks), the Phantoms featured future NHL All-Star Jeff Carter, eventual Flyers’ captain Mike Richards, and future Stanley Cup winners Patrick Sharp and Ben Eager.  The Phantoms grinded their way to the Calder Cup Finals with a style of play reminiscent of their big-brother Philadelphia Flyers of the mid 70’s: tight checking, strong defense, phenomenal goaltending, and (most of all) local fan support.  When the Phantoms completed the surprising four game sweep of the Chicago Wolves to win the Calder Cup, 20,103 fans filled the Wachovia Center to witness the glory.

Yes, the Wachovia Center.  The home of the Philadelphia Flyers.  While my friends were busy mocking me for watching a league that “nobody” cared about, the Philadelphia Phantoms sold out an NHL arena.

Before the AHL playoffs, my frustration with a league that was shut down by greed (and at hockey-ignorant friends for taking so much pleasure in my misery) was hard.  But I realized I wasn’t alone.  The Phantoms became my retreat from a rural Iowa community that will never understand the connection hockey fans feel with each other, that hockey is as much of a culture as it is a sport.  There’s a communal imperative, a bond among hockey fans that’s unique in sports.  No matter who our teams are, we actively seek out each other’s company.  As die-hard acolytes of a sport less mainstream, these days, than NASCAR or golf, we’re a rare breed in fandom.  As much as we love the game, and we LOVE it, it’s simply one aspect of being a fan.

The Phantoms celebrating their Calder Cup championship in front of a sold out crowd.

Deprived of an NHL to relate to, the lockout season started as especially difficult time in my life.  While I was the only hockey fan in my school, I still could talk a little hockey with some of my sports-loving friends.  One might catch the occasional game on ESPN (or at least see a highlight), and might seek me out with questions or for my brand of expert analysis. Hockey was, and is, so much a part of who I am that my classmates would rush to talk to me on a Monday simply because they had attended their first hockey game over the weekend.  When the NHL season was lost I thought I’d  lost my identity.  I was no longer “the hockey guy”; I was the “guy who lost hockey.”  As an angst-y fifteen-year-old, this was incredibly hard. And but for the Philadephia Adironack Allentown Phantoms, it would have stayed so.

In a year filled with pain and suffering for hockey fans across the world, I joined Philadelphia in embracing the Phantoms.  I identified with them.  The Philadelphia Phantoms were the minor league team in a city with an NHL team.  The little brother.  Mostly forgotten.  They were the angst-y kid overlooked by the cute girls.  Then, with the lockout, everyone knew me as the person most directly effected by the loss of a season and of a sport no one else cared much about  in the small radius of our high school and town.  In a strange way, the lockout didn’t take my identity at all; it bolstered my connection with something I thought I alone understood, and my reputation as someone with something at stake.  That’s powerful esoteric sauce for kids figuring out who they are.  (See: Cocca, Christopher; his love of Oasis).  At the same time my identity formation was rising, the Phantoms went from Philadelphia’s forgotten team to the biggest story in hockey; among my friends and peers, I was the biggest story in hockey.   The Phantoms were the greatest hockey team in the world, and I was the world’s biggest fan.

 

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The Daily Cocca is happy to report that Eric is a well-adjusted college student preparing to lead our children into the 21st century as a teacher and weekly screener of Happy Gilmore.   When the Phantoms come the Allentown, the local support Eric talked about will be crucial.  So many of us have been rooting (and working) for downtown revitalization for so long, rooting for the Phantoms will require no adjustment.  To the doubters or people less connected with the history of the city, we’ll need your help, too.  Great things are already happening downtown.  This could be a rallying and tipping point that helps foster a new stage of smart growth.