“Cheap.” “Sketchy.” “Unsafe.” “Sketchlehem.”
These words were some of the most common answers provided by Lehigh students in response to a survey put out by LehighxSouthside asking what five words they first associate with Bethlehem.
LehighxSouthside is a new program aimed at mending the relationship between Lehigh University and South Bethlehem. Michael DeCrosta, ’15G, the student behind the creation of LehighxSouthside, started the program in Fall 2014 with a clear objective in mind.
“We hope that by leveraging the strength of the students at Lehigh and the assets in the South Side community, we can take part in the revitalization of the South Side in a sustainable way that strengthens the community,” DeCrosta said.
In addition to the survey put out by DeCrosta, the Princeton Review ranked Lehigh second in the worst town-gown relationship category in 2013. This category refers to the relationship between a college and the community surrounding it.
With these facts in mind, DeCrosta is looking to use a collaborative research opportunity grant he obtained from Lehigh to better the relationship between Bethlehem and Lehigh students.
According to the Lehigh University website, CORE grants, which can provide up to $60,000, are awarded every year to support faculty teams for “conduct of reattach with the goal of establishing and growing productive and competitive multi-faculty research programs.”
One of DeCrosta’s main goals is to allow students to feel safer while walking the streets of Bethlehem.
“What’s really bad are the connecting streets,” DeCrosta said. He also said that there are already strong gears being turned for work on Adam St., one of these connecting streets.
DeCrosta said that simple changes and maintenance of the streets can help students have a more positive attitude toward South Bethlehem. Specifically, he pointed to more lights brightening the roads at night and improved signs on the corners of intersections.
He also said he wants to strengthen ties with organizations like Campus Hill Apartments, the Lehigh administration and Bethlehem City Council. He believes now is a key time to start making changes because there are fresh faces in these organizations and there aren’t grudges or petty issues to get in the way of real work.
DeCrosta mentioned that if Lehigh and the rest of the community invest in these small improvements, the long-term benefits can include a higher income in South Bethlehem, happy residents and a less pervasive stigma of South Bethlehem.
DeCrosta’s progress so far has not been without the aid of key members of the Bethlehem community. He has talked to Bethlehem City Council member Cathy Reuscher, as well as Dale Kochard, the assistant vice president of Community & Regional Affairs at Lehigh, and Karen Pooley, an adjunct professor at Lehigh University and Muhlenberg College.
“For me, as a professional planner that works full time on neighborhood-based issues (developing strategies for rejuvenating distressed neighborhoods or strategically investing in area housing for cities across the country), this was a great way to get students involved in doing the work that I do right here in Bethlehem,” Pooley said in an email.
Pooley also teaches a workshop course every spring for the South Side Initiative, another program aimed at fostering better relationships with the Bethlehem community.
“It’s our hope that students each year will implement projects of various kinds in the neighborhood – advancing the work of prior years’ student groups and workshop courses—and help increase student involvement (among Lehigh students generally) in the neighborhood,” Pooley said.
DeCrosta’s organization also recently captured the attention of Courtney Thier, ’15.
“I originally got involved because I believe Lehigh and the Southside should be more of a community and not so much of a divide,” Thier said. “I think many people have such a negative opinion of the Southside just from word of mouth. I think there is a lot the South Side has to offer and students are not taking advantage of it. “