At Bethlehem’s Friendship Park, the swing sets and basketball hoop backboards are accumulating rust, the blacktop is worn and uneven and there isn’t a single bench in sight.
For more than 50 years, the park has existed on the North Side, in the 2027 neighborhood south of Liberty High School. It used to contain a massive 19th century-era water reservoir tank, before being given its designation in 1965.
But now, with the intercession of local and state funding, it looks like Friendship Park will be getting a makeover.
In October 2018, Mayor Robert Donchez announced that the city government, in conjunction with Northampton County, will invest $100,000 to improve the park, located at 231 E. North Street. The initiative is part of a general effort to revitalize the 2027 neighborhood, which has seen a drop in home ownership and a decline in quality housing stock over time.
Donchez made the announcement during a community meeting held at Liberty High School to discuss the city’s North Side 2027 Initiative, which is designed to improve economic conditions in the mostly middle-class, residential area. The neighborhood has seen higher unemployment than the rest of the city and an increase in students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, according to a Morning Call article.
However, the city and county funds aren’t the only support going to Friendship Park. Since last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf approved nearly $30 million in new funding for 43 community projects around the state through the Keystone Communities program. Among those funds was an additional $30,000 for Friendship Park.
Michael Gerber, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, described the selection process.
“There’s only so much funding that can go around, so what we’re tasked with is going through those, and finding the ones that are going to have the most positive impact for the local community,” Gerber said.
That impact could have some noteworthy benefits for park visitors. Allyson Lehr, housing and community development planner for Bethlehem, described the amenities that would be newly funded.
“The city’s money is going to go toward tearing up some of the blacktop,” Lehr said. “If you’ve been over there, it’s kind of a nightmare. So, (the construction is) going to tear up the blacktop, install a safety surface and add a new play system, which is completely (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant. The (Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem) grant is going to augment that by purchasing some additional seating.”
Lehr paid particular attention to the matter of park seating, which she highlighted as a problem for visitors.
“There’s no seating over there,” she said. “When I began working here, I went on a tour of all the parks, and I thought, ‘Well, where do you sit?’ If your kid’s playing on the swings, then there’s no place for a parent to sit. It kind of blew my mind.”
Local officials have expressed positive feelings about the help coming from Harrisburg. Kurt Derr, district chief of staff for State Sen. Lisa Boscola, who represents much of Bethlehem, noted the value of the Friendship Park improvements.
“It means that more can be done in an area where we’re trying to improve the quality of life, and where we’re trying to bring better things to certain areas of the community,” Derr said.
Other park improvements include new trees, tables and a spongy ground surface.
Lehr said improvements will start in May.