The relationship between the Lehigh and Bethlehem communities is sometimes strained.
This statement does not really seem to surprise anyone, even though there are people within both communiti
es who try so hard to improve the way we interact.
Part of the problem is that Lehigh students in general have a narrow conception of Bethlehem and limited communication with its residents.
Contrary to popular student belief, Bethlehem extends beyond the South Side, and even the South Side is not the thoroughly “sketchy” place that students depict in their conversations. To be honest, I think that some of the worst streets on the South Side are the ones populated by Lehigh students, with broken beer bottles frequently serving as obstacles for anyone trying to safely follow the sidewalk.
As a native Bethlehem resident, as well as a Lehigh student, I think that I, along with the many other Lehigh students who are from the area, naturally have a more holistic outlook on Bethlehem.
At least 25 percent of Lehigh undergraduate students do not have cars on campus since first-year students are not allowed to, and some other students either cannot afford or choose not to bring their cars to campus. So, a significant portion of students relies on friends or Lehigh-organized transportation to get off campus.
One way to address this issue is to create a bike-sharing program for Lehigh students. As Forbes Magazine discusses in its article, “What’s Big with the College Kids? Bike Sharing,” other colleges have successfully invested in bikes that students could rent for little or no cost as an eco-friendly form of transportation. I think that implementing a similar program at Lehigh would be one way to encourage students to explore Bethlehem in a manner that is healthy for them and the environment.
Another way to help Lehigh students have a better understanding of Bethlehem is if Lehigh created a bus schedule with regularly stops at locations within Bethlehem that are not within easy walking distance.
On the weekend, Lehigh provides students with transportation to the Lehigh Valley Mall and the Promenade Shops. As convenient as this is, most of the stores and restaurants available at these locations are not unique to Bethlehem. Many of them are, in fact, chains that are established all over the U.S.
While I do not think that we should discontinue this service, I do think that we should add bus stops for places like ArtsQuest, Main Street on the North Side, the Monocacy Park and Wegmans. Side note: I know that Wegmans is also a chain, but it is one that I feel incorporates local communities into its business structure.
ArtsQuest is very much a Bethlehem creation, and one of the cool parts about it is that it’s a relatively new one. By going there, students can see how Bethlehem is embracing its historic past in new ways and fostering community through the entertainment it provides.
For instance, they routinely premier foreign and independent films, as well as live music and comedy shows.
Lehigh rents ArtsQuest space for events throughout the year, such as during first-year orientation and the QUEST concert, but I think Lehigh should also encourage students to go there continually for non-Lehigh experiences.
Most students are familiar with the North Side, but reserve trips across the bridge for Parents’ Weekend. Maybe that would change if more students could easily gain transportation to the area. So many of the shops, cafes, and restaurants are small businesses that students cannot find anywhere else.
Additionally, this area is right near Moravian College, which offers a lot of public events that Lehigh students can attend. We’re so lucky to have another college so close to us, yet we rarely acknowledge all the possibilities this proximity presents.
The Monocacy Park is one of the prettiest, most peaceful spots in the Bethlehem area. During warm weather, it’s a place where people fish, families enjoy picnics, and runners inhale fresh air along the Monocacy Creek and hiking trails. During the winter, the gorgeous municipal ice-skating rink opens, which boasts of being “the only outdoor Ice Rink in the Lehigh Valley.”
Finally, Wegmans is like a watering hole. Though it’s more expensive, it’s one of the few grocery stores that feels more like a neighborhood market than an impersonal, commercial venture.
I know that some of these spots are slightly more walkable, such as ArtsQuest and Main Street, but during the winter months, that pleasant stroll quickly turns into a frigid expedition that most students without cars are not willing to take.
I think that staying on campus without too much of a change in scenery can make students feel isolated or trapped in what may feel to them like the middle of nowhere. A factor that impacts students’ overall college experience is the environment surrounding their college.
The Lehigh Valley Mall isn’t exactly a fulfilling experience, especially if students are hoping to find new interactions and adventures. By going to the small stores, restaurants and community gathering places all over Bethlehem, including many on the South Side that are already close to campus, students can expand their image of Bethlehem to include all that it embodies.
Then, maybe, students will appreciate the South Side more, once they can recognize its own variation and beauty within the full Bethlehem context.
If Lehigh helped students see the different sides of Bethlehem, I think it would enhance the lives of Lehigh students and Bethlehem residents alike.