Lehigh graduate Courtney Thier, ’15, ended her senior year on a high note with the completion of the “Welcome to the South Side” mural that now encompasses 40 feet of the 162-foot brick wall in front of the Comfort Suites on West Third Street.
The idea for the mural came out of an urban policy class last semester when Karen Pooley, a professor in the department of political science, asked students to come up with ideas to expose Lehigh students to the streets of South Side.
One of the things the class centered around was the divide between the South Side and Lehigh students due to student perceptions of the community. The goal at hand for the class was figuring out a way to get students back on the streets of the South Side and feel safer and more comfortable doing so.
The students in the class organized focus groups and conducted surveys. They found that people who had a chance to experience the community more via off-campus housing or by working within the community had a completely different perception compared to those living on the Hill, Pooley said. The student surveys showed that the perceptions of the South Side are a lot worse than what South Bethlehem actually is.
“The South Side has a negative reputation that’s not an entirely accurate reputation,” Thier said. “Students are just nervous to go out there because of what they hear.”
Thier referred to the South Bethlehem Greenway as an excellent way to get students to explore the community and integrate both South Side community members and Lehigh students. She also said the class thought having a piece of artwork there would give a sense of comfort, along with being a beauty point and something to look at.
In the policy class, the students learned that in order for a finishing to be satisfactory to the viewing pedestrian, there cannot be more than 30-feet of blank wall space or else it becomes boring. The class couldn’t think of a better wall for a piece of artwork than the blank canvas in front of the Comfort Suites, which also was the ideal spot as a welcoming point when crossing over the bridge that separates North Bethlehem and South Bethlehem.
“It is representative in that fact that there is now a piece of artwork that is now welcoming you into the city,” Thier said. “It’s not just a stone plaque, it’s nice graffiti that shows little elements of the community.”
After the decision to create a mural, Thier continued the approval process by Bethlehem to begin their work. After completing many forms and attending meetings, Thier said, the Historic District loved the idea, but suggested to put it a couple of inches off the wall on thick aluminum plates as opposed to painting directly onto it to preserve the history of the wall and the artwork itself.
The wall is considered a historic landmark because of a former lumber company that used to be on site, Thier said. The wall is the only thing that still remains.
The design for the mural came from a local graffiti artist, Max Meano, who Thier met in a hip-hop theater class when he was giving a demonstration. After sitting in with the policy class, Meano went home and drew up a sketch of what the mural would look like.
“It was an honor to be a part of a project that represents the South Side in a positive light and everything that it stands for,” Meano said.
Within the block letters of the mural are iconic elements of the South Side’s offerings. Thier said when brainstorming with the class it was important for the mural to represent the eclectic and artistic values of the community. Some of the recognizable images include the Bethlehem Star, the Sands Casino Resort and the former Bethlehem Steel Corporation site.
“(The mural) represents the pride the university takes in being a part of the South Bethlehem community,” said Dale Kochard, the assistant vice president of community and regional affairs. “Lehigh is committed to its partnership with the City of Bethlehem to impact the community in positive ways.”
Pooley said other projects are currently being implemented to improve the relationship between Lehigh and the South Bethlehem community. One initiative known as the Adams Street Project, is led by Michael DeCrosta, a Lehigh graduate student, which focuses on improving the connecting streets between the Lehigh campus and South Side with smaller murals and better lighting.