Jeff Vaclavik grew up in a “single-traffic-light town” about 45 miles north of Bethlehem, near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. The area is scenic and quiet with a history of coal, comparable to Bethlehem’s steel-driven past.
Vaclavik, a 24-year resident of South Bethlehem, lives above Deja Brew Coffeehouse & Deli, a restaurant he owns, with his wife and 14-year-old son. He said some people refer to the area as a “sketchy part of town,” a term he disagreed with over the years.
Not once has he worried about his son playing basketball out behind the restaurant. He hasn’t noticed any major crimes, or anything out of the ordinary considering the family lives in an urban area.
“I have not experienced the South Side as being a high-crime area,” Vaclavik said.
He said there have been minor break-ins over the years, recalling a time when a couple of businesses were broken into over vacation periods while students were away and places were closed.
These occurrences, Vaclavik said, could have been prevented with more communication.
Vaclavik said he has noticed improvements in the last few years, with the implementation of South Side Ambassadors, who help keep streets clean, and additional trash cans.
He said when Deja Brew first opened, there were almost no trash cans to be found. Now, thanks to these implementations, the city is much cleaner.
Vaclavik recalled the poor positioning of lampposts in South Bethlehem, which sat above the treetops. When there were leaves on the trees, light was unable to reach the sidewalk, casting a dark ambiance. New lampposts over the years fixed this issue.
“People worry about being out at night. I think with any kind of urban area, you just have to be smart about it,” Vaclavik said. “You shouldn’t walk home alone at night.”
Vaclavik said he enjoys the vibe of the South Bethlehem streets. He likes the atmosphere and he likes the diversity of the community. He always tries to encourage people to be out and moving around the city.
Residing just steps from Lehigh University’s campus, Vaclavik said some people complain about students being disruptive, especially at night, though he has never actually had a problem with it.
As the university continues to expand, bringing in more students, Bethlehem Police Capt. Michelle Kott said the increase of people in South Bethlehem could potentially bring more crime, though not necessarily violent in nature.
She said vehicle break-ins are significant, and when they occur, there are multiple in one area. A person that’s looking to break-in for spare change is going to hit every car on the street, she said.
But she believes the statistics may be misleading.
“In that particular day, crime-reporting wise, you’re gonna have 20-25 cars that were broken into,” Kott said. “And it may look like, to someone who’s not familiar with the details, ‘wow that’s a horrible area, there’s like 20 thefts in one day,’ but it is just one day. And it’s not representative of the whole picture of that community, of that neighborhood.”
Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio used to run the detective division for years before he became chief. When he investigated burglaries around Lehigh, he found that people often walked right in, through open entrances without having to break-in.
DiLuzio said he thinks an increase in population may lead to more burglaries.
“A lot of them are preventable because they leave doors and windows standing open,” he said.
But as Lehigh’s expansion plan continues to roll out, the effects of the increased population and gentrification may not be known for years.