Implosion of Bethlehem Steel HQ highlights changing face of Lehigh Valley

Feature for WHYY’s Keystone Crossroads, May 17 2019

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Even today, nearly twenty years after Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy, and decades after it began its slow decline, there’s no consensus why exactly the iconic company tanked.

Some point to ballooning labor costs, others to the growing competition from cheap, foreign steel that bankrupted dozens of other American companies. But Bethlehem Steel, once the second largest steel manufacturer in the country, was hit harder than most, and some say mismanagement played a large role in the company’s demise.

That reading of history is embodied for Bethlehem residents in Martin Tower, a swank corporate headquarters built in 1972, just 10 years before the company began massive layoffs that forever changed the region.

The company went bankrupt in 2001, and Martin Tower has been vacant for a decade. But it still looms over Bethlehem, a dark, sleek monolith that — for a few more days — remains the tallest building in the Lehigh Valley.

On Sunday, after years of uncertainty about the building’s future, the tower will be imploded to make way for new development.

This change is yet one more reminder that the steel era is long gone — but also a reminder Bethlehem has been able to adapt in the industry’s absence.

Unlike many other parts of Pennsylvania that faced declines in the wake of deindustrialization, Bethlehem has been able to preserve its history and legacy while reinventing itself as a hub for education, the arts and tourism.

Still, the demolition feels freighted with meaning for many residents of Bethlehem — both for those who want the tower to stay, and for those who are happy to bid farewell.

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Photography by Matt Smith