Zoellner Arts Center opened in 1997 and was gifted to Lehigh by Robert and Victoria Zoellner. Zoellner is a popular spot for members of the Bethlehem community to see performances and events. (Alexis McGowan/B&W Staff)

Tackling the ‘town-gown’ problem through Zoellner Arts Center

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The Zoellner Arts Center has been an important part of both the Lehigh and Bethlehem communities for 20 years.

Built in 1997, Zoellner is home to Lehigh’s music department and department of theatre and contains three theaters — Baker Hall, the Diamond Theatre and the Black Box Theatre — all of which are open venues for Lehigh students and community members to come together and experience the arts.

“It’s a vital part of the community,” said Katie Dyer, a resident of Lower Macungie and frequent performer at the Zoellner Arts Center.

Dyer sees the arts center as a positive force that draws people into the arts and into the community.

A variety of performers, from illusionists and jazz musicians to Chinese drummers and comedians, come to Zoellner throughout the academic year. Mariel Petrini, a Zoellner Arts Center volunteer of 11 years and resident of Lower Macungie, said Zoellner brings a lot of talent the community might not otherwise be accustomed to.

Petrini said Lehigh is lucky to have different types of performances, especially the Karen Huffstodt faculty recital titled The Women of Kurt Weill: In and Out of Love that took place April 9. The performance drew in members of the Bethlehem community.

“I think it’s fabulous to have a performing arts center on campus,” Petrini said.

She sees Zoellner as an asset to the development and education of Lehigh students who attend the events. Though Zoellner acts as common ground for both Lehigh students and Bethlehem residents, the relationship between the two communities is strained.

Dyer said there is still a large “town-gown” problem in Bethlehem. “Town-gown” refers to the relationship between the two separate communities that make up a university town, “town” being the non-academic population and “gown” being the university community.

The nature of college life and party culture often cause tensions to run high between academic communities and their host towns. Lehigh is no different. Reggie Lahens, ’20, said he feels bad for Bethlehem residents because they have to deal with off-campus parties.

“It’s not the best relationship,” Lahens said. “There’s definitely some animosity there.”

Natalie Foster, a Bethlehem resident and professor emeritus of the chemistry department, said to better relations between Lehigh students and residents of Bethlehem, it is a matter of making members of the community feel more welcome. Zoellner can serve as a liaison between the two groups.

“I think there is a tremendous tendency to send people out into the community but not necessarily to welcome the community back here,” Foster said. “There are lots of people who live on the South Side that have never been on Lehigh’s campus.”

Foster said it is important to establish a two-way street dynamic between both communities.

Lahens said places like Zoellner allow students and residents to bridge the gap between the academic and non-academic communities in Bethlehem.

“It gives those who don’t go here a chance to come and enjoy the entertainment while getting to know more people,” Lahens said. 

Lahens said it is the places around Bethlehem like SteelStacks and Zoellner that provide the stepping stones for town-gown relationships to be improved in the future.

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Davenport on

    Don’t forget the value of sports. There is a relationship between locals and teams with growing participation by athletes beyond the events. Bless the boosters who back Lehigh first and Penn State next. The Arts don’t have that collegiate competition.

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