Years ago, when a cousin became engaged to a doctor with a practice in Pennsylvania steel country, the whole family was anxious. Could their urbane New York girl find happiness in the rolling green landscape of the Lehigh Valley? And would she be the only Jew?
Forty years later, the pair lives happily in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem. With more than a dozen synagogues from Reconstructionist to Young Israel, there are events every weekend — like this Sunday’s concert of Jewish music, organized by Temple Shirat Shalom of Allentown. The once-scarce kosher label now pops up at bagel shops and ice cream parlors; there’s even a kosher eatery at Allentown’s Muhlenberg College dining commons (check out shalomlehighvalley.org).
And as more urbanites like my cousin have settled in these pastoral parts, a burgeoning arts scene has come to the Lehigh Valley, transforming a region once focused on golf and the Steelers. With a major expansion of the region’s top museum and the opening of a multifaceted arts complex in a converted steel factory, Bethlehem, Easton and the surrounding towns have quietly become a weekend cultural destination — a kind of low-key alternative to the Berkshires.
At the moment, these erstwhile manufacturing towns can’t compete with Soho or Tanglewood. What they do offer is something more grassroots: cheap space for artists to create in, festivals shaped to local aesthetics, and plenty of culture that’s easy on the recession-strapped wallet. Best of all, you can get there in an hour and half from New York City on I-78.
Just a year ago, the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, a Depression-era institution, unveiled a 10,000-square-foot addition. A shiny new lobby leads to a series of spacious galleries; the museum’s American art acquisitions are steadily gaining on its European Renaissance and Baroque paintings, which form the heart of this collection. This is also, naturally, the best place to see works by eastern Pennsylvania artists.
But it’s the special exhibitions, and the fresh perspective they give to familiar genres, that really distinguish the Allentown Art Museum. A current show focuses on the evolution of the Gothic aesthetic, from its origins in mourning and melancholy to its contemporary incarnations, in “Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side.” Next up is “At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic,” among the first large-scale shows to look broadly at fantasy themes, from ancient gods and monsters to today’s grotesquerie.
Nearby, Bethlehem is celebrating the first anniversary of the opening of ArtsQuest at SteelStacks, a vast cultural campus that cements the town’s status as the local arts nexus.
The core of ArtsQuest was originally Musikfest, an annual festival skewed toward pop and blues, now in its 29th year; every August, Musikfest presents more than 500 concerts, and this year’s highlights include Sheryl Crow and Joe Cocker.
With the opening of SteelStacks on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel factory, however, ArtsQuest has bigger ambitions for the Valley. Erstwhile blast furnaces and grind shops are creatively transformed into a post-industrial landscape of cool; vacant lots are reborn as plazas and pavilions for outdoor performances. The idea is not only to reinvent steel country, but also to fill the cultural void between seasonal festivals — so ArtsQuest has presents performances and film screenings 365 days a year.
At the Fowler Blast Furnace Room, for instance, multistory glass walls offer a view of the vintage furnaces, illuminated with spotlights. The Musikfest Café, SteelStack’s main indoor venue, was deliberately conceived to be an intimate, modern-day contrast to traditional auditoriums: patrons watch the artists come out on an elevated catwalk, and then perform only feet away from them.
Over at Alehouse Cinemas, another reappropriated industrial space, you can sip local microbrews or Pennsylvania pinot while sampling indie and foreign films every day of the year. On a recent weekend, offerings ranged from Israel’s “Footnote” to the original “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Where will tomorrow’s great masters come from? Possibly the Banana Factory, the most hands-on aspect of ArtsQuest. A 63,000-square-foot art space in the SteelStacks campus, this renovated banana warehouse is home to 27 resident artist studios, where local sculptors, potters, glassblowers and muralists ply their trades. They include photographers like Olaf Starorypinski, who does fashion and portrait work in addition to his Helmut Newtonesque nudes, and painters like Kim Hogan, whose watercolors and murals color local surfaces from banks to restored chapels.
In downtown Easton, budding illustrators can get their fingers dirty with one of the region’s original art destinations — the Crayola Factory, an interactive space aimed at kids. The “Crayola Experience” is a joyous riot of melted wax, walls to scribble on, a color garden, and more to keep little ones inspired. (The building once also housed the region’s venerable Canal Museum, which re-opens in a new location this season; check the Internet for details.)
Just outside the Crayola Factory is a bounty for the grown-ups. The Easton Farmers Market, founded in 1752, offers a weekly smorgasbord of local apples, lettuce and honey, and bills itself as “America’s Longest Continuous Open Air Market.” On summer weekends, it’s the perfect place to stock up for a picnic, one of the more popular ways to savor Lehigh’s hilly green scenery.
You can picnic to live music from mid-May to mid-June, when Bethlehem hosts its “Tunes at Twilight” concert series. The musical fare is varied, and so is the food and drink: several Bethlehem bistros and wine bars set up shop, offering locals and visitors a taste of this up-and-coming region.