A Department of Labor report from February 2019 stated that unemployment rates in both Pennsylvania and the United States are universally on the decline. Simultaneously, the unemployment rate in the Bethlehem community has remained both stagnant and high.
As South Bethlehem faces rapid and rampant gentrification, it is justifiable to question why the unemployment statistics have not improved despite the wide array of restaurants and businesses that have come into the local landscape over the past few years.
Lehigh has made it clear that it prioritizes its relationship with the South Bethlehem community.
In order to mutually thrive in a seemingly unavoidable gentrification, both the university and the community at large must work to ensure symbiotic success. If Lehigh continues on a self-serving path of student improvement, they risk increasing the already extreme disconnect with the surrounding community members.
South Bethlehem, which is a verified food desert, has continuously struggled with a lack of affordable, healthy food options. The lack of a “college town” atmosphere serves as a detriment to current students and deters potential students who are looking for a college community to immerse themselves in.
As Lehigh grows, it is in the best interest of the university and its future students to improve the options that exist locally. Amid this change, Lehigh possesses a responsibility not to alter the landscape of the community to a point in which its current residents cannot comfortably sustain the lifestyle that they have grown accustomed to.
If Lehigh’s intentions are true in creating a positive and sustainable relationship with the South Side, then it must put forth a tangible effort to ensure that the community around us does not suffer at the expense of the school’s progress.
Lehigh objectively benefits significantly more from gentrifying than South Side residents do. This is evident through the physical location of the community “improvements” being made. While the few streets surrounding Lehigh have seen chains such as Starbucks, Playa Bowls and El Jefe Taqueria, in the past year alone, if one were to travel just two streets farther, one would see that these improvements come to a standstill.
While it is sensible to make the most dramatic changes where a concentrated viable market, such as the Lehigh student body, resides, the lack of restaurants and changes that span away from the campus exist to benefit Lehigh and not the Bethlehem community at large.
If Lehigh wants to make a legitimate effort towards unification with the community, then it needs to acknowledge the power that it holds to alter it in its entirety. With that power comes the responsibility to uphold the integrity of the community while also making tangible change in the aspects that are suffering.
As both a private university and corporation, Lehigh holds the responsibility to ensure that the surrounding area improves as a result of its growth. If we continue to solely serve students, then no changes will be made and, the preexisting issues will just continue to bolster out of sight.
Unemployment rates signify many things about the strength of a city, and they represent many of the troubles as well, such as socioeconomic status, mental and physical health and more. The dramatic increases of local restaurants and businesses create a multitude of employment opportunities for the widely unemployed community, therefore providing opportunities for the city as a whole to improve.
The employment rate serves as just one of the many tangible opportunities for growth that exists. Through increased university transparency, improved community communication and acknowledging the social responsibility we hold to our neighbors, Lehigh and South Bethlehem possess the opportunity for massive symbiotic improvement that can allow for unified growth, as opposed to divisive struggling.