Exit 67 off of Interstate 78 curves in a gentle parabola toward the looming, tree-coated mountain beyond. A stoplight twinkles yellow, red and green in rhythmic succession at the road’s intersection with Route 412, accompanied by a bright blue sign beckoning cars straight toward both the mountain and Lehigh’s sloping campus.
The ensuing, winding route over the hill features a stretching panorama of the university’s manicured football stadium and driving range. Fraternity houses with towering columns and majestic stone façades. A sweeping vista of the Lehigh Valley, relished from the campus’s lookout point. The road takes its final bow only at the university’s soaring, ivy-cloaked admissions building.
Absent, however, is any notion of Bethlehem itself.
This dramatic back route to Lehigh’s campus neatly skirts the town and offers little impression of anything aside from the university, save for the Wendy’s and Turkey Hill that flank its path to South Mountain. Sure, during campus tours and admissions information sessions, university personnel may acknowledge the town and its blended history with Lehigh. But the focus remains solely upon Lehigh itself.
Of course, the point of visiting any institution before applying or enrolling is to get a sense of what life there is like. In light of their potential quarter-million-dollar college education, prospective Lehigh students tend to focus upon where they’ll sleep, eat, attend classes, study and party. What happens beyond the boundaries of campus naturally develops a muted volume.
The resulting issue lies in the fact that Bethlehem is indisputably linked with campus life, and the aloof, condescending or fearful sentiments that students tend to adopt toward the city permeates their time at the university.
Bethlehem is rich with history, and many of its neighborhoods, especially on the city’s North Side, reflect a quaint, polished charm. But many of the areas nearest to campus are graffitied, freckled with litter, or home to buildings with cracked walls and windows or peeling paint. It’s not exactly the sort of fodder that Lehigh students, many of whom hail from affluent families and regions, are apt to be drawn toward.
Student concerns about Bethlehem extend beyond pure aesthetics. Based on census data aggregated from 2008 to 2012, the city has a 19.13 percent poverty rate. The odds of being a victim of a violent crime in Bethlehem, furthermore, are one in 317, according to data collected by both the U.S. Census Bureau and FBI Uniform Crime Reports. The latter number may seem paltry, but translate the proportion to an undergraduate population of roughly 5,000, and about 16 students are likely to become victims of violent crime. It doesn’t help that some of the criminal cases that have resonated most with students over the past year have involved an attempted rape and murder and a break-in featuring a Teletubby — or that we often refer to the surrounding area as “Sketchlehem” or “Deathlehem.”
Small wonder, then, that The Princeton Review ranked Lehigh as second in the nation in its “town-gown relations are strained” category in 2013 — “town-gown,” that is, referring to the relationship an academic institution has with its host community. According to Bethlehem Patch, former Mayor John Callahan “was critical of (our) tax-exempt university’s refusal to contribute financially to the city’s bottom line through a ‘payment in lieu of taxes’” during his term.
Yes, we annually contribute more than $1 million worth of community service through about 50,000 volunteer hours among the Lehigh community, according to the university’s website. Recurring events such as Spooktacular or Livin’ la Vida Lehigh, as well as organizations such as the newly minted LehighxSouthside program, also place emphasis upon joining Lehigh and the surrounding area.
But student attitudes toward the community at large remain predominantly negative.
Safety will be an issue almost wherever we may go, and we must stop placing full blame for crime on the Bethlehem community alone. We claim that Bethlehem residents see us as snobby, stuck-up and selfish, and even if that claim holds true to some degree, how can we argue when so many of us treat our two communities with little respect? How many violent crimes — or crimes, period — are committed by Lehigh students ourselves each day? How many times have we littered, broken windows, graffitied others’ residences?
If we continue to refer to Bethlehem residents as “townies,” to treat them as lesser or violent, to trash their yards with the scraps of our own festivities, we’ll only perpetuate our inter-community discord.
Our 50,000 community service hours can have only so much impact if, despite them, we still refuse to reshape our perception of the surrounding community. If we venture into the South Side only to find the nearest bar. If we don’t take pride in where we spend our four undergraduate years.
If, at exit 67, we only ever head straight for the mountain.