Bethlehem Steel. Although the name has changed several times since the company was first founded in 1857, Bethlehem Steel was once the second largest steel producer and the largest shipbuilding company in the United States. Mostly abandoned, the factory sat empty for many years until a large scale revitalization effort was underway. Today, the mill is in various stages of decay and renovation and rebirth.
The demise of Bethlehem Steel was mostly the result of cheap foreign steel, changes in building styles from skyscrapers to lower height structures, and an aging retired workforce in the face of reduced profits. The decline began in the 1970s. The shutdowns began in earnest in the early 1980s and continued until the company closed steel-making operations in 1995 after it made steel for about 140 years. They finally declared bankruptcy in 2003.
Bethlehem Steel tried to buffer the impact of the closing of local operations on the surrounding area by creating the Bethlehem Works, a 163-acre site used for cultural, educational, recreational, entertainment and retail space. Bethlehem is home to Musikfest, a 10-day music festival hosted each year in August since 1984. Originally, Musikfest was held mostly in the downtown area. Since then, through this revitalization effort, the music festival has spread to the SteelStacks. The Sands Casino was also constructed on the site and includes a casino, hotel, shopping, and food while the arts complex features the ArtsQuest Center and several outdoor concert venues, all with the blast furnaces serving as the super awesome backdrop to this complex. The Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opening sequence was filmed here in an artistic representation of Shanghai several years ago.
The area continues to be refurbished and revitalized, but my interest was in the abandoned buildings. I love abandoned spaces. Mills, houses – it doesn’t matter – I love them all! This mill is the largest scale mill I’ve explored. Generally, my explorations are in old grain or cotton mills or old abandoned houses in North or South Carolina. I haven’t visited Bethlehem Steel in years so on a recent visit home, with camera in hand, I went exploring.
What first struck me was how badly the buildings are rundown.The decay is saddening. When you think of how long the factory was open (140 years) and how many people worked here, the empty, rusty buildings are a stark reminder of what is no longer. The years have worn and rusted this once great factory and plants are now growing in places they shouldn’t be growing.
What I was most excited about in all this wandering about is my discovery of the newly constructed sky walk, complete with historical markers and an eye level view of some of the the mill. This pristine steel platform is a striking contrast to the colorful, rusty remnants of the old factory. I wandered for a couple hours snapping photos. There is real beauty in these ruins. Vibrant colors, beautiful shapes, and the history is amazing. The sky walk is a beautiful homage to Bethlehem Steel and the important role it played to the economy, our military, and the steel used to build many sky scrapers.
In this rebirth I hope we can appreciate, preserve, and reuse most of the remains of Bethlehem Steel. There are lessons to learn economically and politically, such as the importance of making things in the United States and employing skilled workers. It highlights how even a 140-year old company can be on a shaky financial foundation and the impact on the surrounding community when it fails. If anything, it makes me appreciate that I have a mostly stable job. It also gives me hope that other abandoned places will also be transformed into something enjoyed by all to keep memories of these unique places alive. It’s a good thought anyway….