Kathryn Bohri is an undergraduate student at the American University in Washington, D.C. We crossed paths last year on Twitter, thanks to our mutual interest in the future of cities. Kathryn is on a quest to make her mark on Allentown, PA, the city where she was raised and to which she hopes to return after college.

Kathryn Bohri

“My god, I have missed the Valley. I love these people. I love this place.” This was Kathryn’s May 11th Tweet after she returned home for a visit.

The place she is referring to is Lehigh Valley, which encompasses the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. It is the third most populous region in Pennsylvania, behind the metro areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the 52nd most populous in the U.S. This area has the distinction of being cataloged as a part of the Rust Belt — a term that refers to a swath of old industrial cities around the Great Lakes, such as Gary, IN, Detroit, MI and Buffalo, NY. These cities are characterized by barren shells of once-robust manufacturing sites, dilapidated structures, crime, and job loss, and where the vestiges of this plight still remain.

Billy Joel’s infamous song has given Allentown a recognizable name, to the dismay of its sister communities Bethlehem and Easton. But there is a growing realization that espirit de corp between all three is critical to rebuilding the region. A town of 109,000, Allentown registers in as Pennsylvania’s most populous city. Among its attributes, it boasts a highly regarded farmers market and world class parks system. Bethlehem, still licking its wounds from the demise of the Bethlehem Steel factory in 2003, is known as the birthplace of Musikfest, the largest free music festival in the nation. And Easton, the smallest of the three cities, is the hometown of former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, otherwise known as the Easton Assassin. Despite long-held vestiges of Rust Belt decline, population growth in the Leigh Valley has been brisk, attributed to the area’s distinction as a bedroom community to the larger urban centers of Philadelphia and New York.

But let’s get back to Kathryn. A sociology major, Kathryn is intrigued by the intersection between urban centers and people, particularly in her native Allentown. “Growing up, I lived in a suburban community on the fringe of Allentown. And being there made me realize how car-dependent we had become as a community. Sadly, if I had walked for an hour, the only place I would have eventually stumbled upon is a local fast food restaurant.”

Bohri said this led to her fascination with the role of “Third Places” in fostering civic connection. “In the more urbanized section of the city, I found a wonderful coffeehouse that seemed to serve as the gathering place for local residents. It was here that I began to ask myself, ‘Why are there so many people hanging out here?’ The conclusion I drew was that places like this represent key locales for conversation and social connection, with coffee itself being secondary.”

She has now become a big proponent of the New Urbanism movement, a concept that advocates the development of compact, walkable, mixed-use cities and towns. Attending school in Washington D.C. has further opened her eyes to what an urban environment can develop into. “I’m still very much a small-city girl, so I operate in a space between loving and hating D.C. On the one hand, I enjoy having alternative forms of transportation at my disposal — the wonderful metro train system, buses, and a bike route. However, the extreme variations of culture have been difficult to adjust to, particularly having been raised in an area where the very conservative Pennsylvania Dutch values predominate.”

Like many long-term residents, Kathryn Bohri is committed to the reinvention of the Leigh Valley. But many challenges exist along the path to shedding its history as a Rust Belt bellwether: a tepid job market, housing market downturn and other economic factors. Another thorn in the area’s side is the lack of commuter rail services for workers who trek into Philadelphia, New York, or New Jersey on a daily basis. This is notable because the Lehigh Valley is the largest East Coast metropolitan area, by population, without passenger rail service.

Matthew Turk is Assistant Director of the Allentown Economic Development Corporation. Before moving to Allentown, Turk had similar positions in Boulder, CO, Bellingham, WA, Philadelphia, PA, and Columbia, SC. “Historically, the Lehigh Valley has been a place where the 62 municipalities have taken an ‘every man for himself’ approach to community and economic development, but our organization has been steadily working to combat this mentality, and some cities are finally starting to get the message.” And, he adds, there are a number of trends currently surfacing for Allentown and the greater Lehigh Valley landscape. “When I look to the future for the City of Allentown, the two major influences are regional cooperation and a renewed focus on manufacturing.”

Turk notes that the current approach involves growing existing manufacturing businesses, with a goal of reestablishing Allentown as the manufacturing center of Lehigh Valley. “We are watching as manufacturers employ a different profile of worker, more attuned to urban living and creative class needs. We have also seen consumer tastes trend toward local production. Companies that offshored production in the 1990s are re-shoring production in this decade. There’s a renewed interest on the part of real estate developers and construction professionals in rehabilitating existing industrial buildings rather than building new in sprawling suburbs. Manufacturers are interested in developing a community of fabricators, and all of it coupled with a national policy of green/clean job development. This points toward a new era of manufacturing, and we believe that Allentown can be at the forefront of that trend.”

What would stand in the city’s way? Public perception. Turk says the local opinion is that Allentown is unsafe, has unsuitable building stock, doesn’t make things any easier. “Trying to stay in front of local word of mouth spreading around the world is a major challenge.”

Despite the obstacles, major progress is being achieved through collaboration between community partners and stakeholders. Working through the regional economic development corporation, these parties are jointly contributing to regional development strategy and marketing the city as a part of the greater Lehigh Valley.

Some believe that the biggest hurdle to reinventing the Lehigh Valley is its conservative nature. The ingrained Pennsylvania Dutch mindset encourages people to approach change very cautiously. This attitude is helpful when things are stable and going well, Turk says, but doesn’t work as well in a crisis.

That being said, American University student and Allentown native Kathryn Bohri remains optimistic. “Allentown is a city that has changed me and saved me in so many ways. There is nothing like being in a small town and having close community ties. Where it takes you two hours to leave the grocery store because of all of the people you know. This is where I want to make a difference; this is where I want to be.”

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com