I remember walking through the empty steel plant in south Bethlehem.
I’d never seen anything like it. Cavernous warehouses. Bricks caked with decades of soot. The smell of smoked iron lingered in the air. Outside, the Lehigh River drifted quietly eastward. You could almost imagine the blast furnaces still running, but everyone was gone.
People called this place “The Steel.”
Back in 2000, I was a rookie reporter for The Express-Times in Bethlehem, covering city hall, politics, the steel industry and whatever else came up. Downtown Bethlehem — i.e. the north side — was thriving economically thanks largely to its “Christmas city” tourist status.
The South Side was different. Once you crossed the Lehigh River, you found the heart of the city. Limestone ran through its veins, and its bones were made of iron.
Bethelehem was a steel town, known throughout the world for its famed industrial giant, Bethlehem Steel. Hungarians, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Puerto Ricans and others came to Bethlehem looking for a better life and found it thanks to the living wage they got at the steel plant. It was a rough, sometimes fatal job, but it raised their families and crafted the steel that built the cities, industry, and tanks that made the United States a world power.
Back then, it seemed I had another Bethlehem Steel story to write every week. One day, it was the company’s bankruptcy or default on workers’ pensions. The next was the ambitious but ultimately failed plans to redevelop the vacant plant. After I wrote a series about steelworkers and their families struggling with the loss of jobs and identity, I began to understand life in a different way.
The wounds were raw back then. Everyone in town knew someone who worked at the plant.
Ex-steelworkers were still out of work. Rich Sterner was sweeping floors at the steelworkers union hall. Mike Dwonczyk, age 58, had five part-time jobs. They were better off than many.
Some guys transferred to plants near Buffalo, Baltimore or Harrisburg to keep a paycheck and pension. Al Rodriguez lost his seniority and got stuck shoveling coal and coke that fell off rail cars at the Lackawanna, N.Y. plant. Jeff Hoffert left his family behind for the Sparrows Point, Md. plant. There were hundreds of others just like them.
The Steel wasn’t just a job or company here. It was an identity. Generations of men worked at the plant, and daughters found jobs there too. From Rich Check’s back porch on Selridge Street, I looked down and saw the four remaining blast furnaces once worked by Rich and his eight brothers, John, Bart, Steve, Andy, George, Mike, Emil and Frank.
Meanwhile, Bethlehem’s economy limped along as local government and business leaders tried to transform the city from an old industrial hub into a new economy center.
If the story sounds familiar, it should. It didn’t just happen in Bethlehem. It was practically every city in Pennsylvania and south Jersey.
Allentown. Scranton. Easton. Reading. Millville. Bridgeton. Camden. Chester.
Coal, iron ore and limestone ran down the Schuykill, Lehigh and Delaware rivers and railways to fire the industrial revolution in Pennsylvania’s cities, while sand and glass came up the Delaware from south Jersey.
Then the economy changed, and they collapsed. Today we see the aftermath.
A few towns successfully reinvented themselves. After south Jersey’s glass industry went under, Millville remade itself as an arts town. After Bethlehem Steel’s plant closed, a casino eventually took its place.
Most towns never recovered.
Camden became one of the nation’s most dangerous cities after it lost over 40,000 jobs with the closure of New York Shipbuilding Corp.’s shipyard and the Campbell’s Soup factory.
After the Owens-Illinois glass plant shuttered in Bridgeton in the mid-1980s, the city went down a hill and never climbed up again.
Reading’s rail and manufacturing died out after World War II. When my little girl works in her grandparents’ pretzel bakery in Reading, she knows just how unsafe the surrounding neighborhoods are.
Allentown’s last silk mill closed in 1989. I drove by one of the mills near downtown last week. It’s still vacant.
Then there’s Chester. Its shipyard and car manufacturing plants closed decades ago. Today, Chester is known most for hosting Philadelphia Union’s stadium and lacking a single supermarket.
The story of Bethlehem and Bethlehem Steel is the story of nearly every city within 100 miles of Philadelphia. It’s a story of hard work, hard times, and hard people. They came from around the world to work in the mills, plants and shipyards. They built lives, and they built America.
And some brought with them a game. They played soccer.
Relatively few know of Bethlehem Steel’s soccer greatness in the early 20th century. These weren’t the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers. They were blue-collar immigrants who came to Bethlehem Steel for dirty, grinding jobs in the mills, not sport.
Cynics say that, by designing a throwback uniform honoring Bethlehem Steel’s soccer club, Philadelphia Union and Major League Soccer are trying to appropriate someone else’s history in a town 60-odd miles from Philadelphia. They’re missing the point.
You see, the Union don’t play in Philadelphia.
They play in Chester, just another small, battered Pennsylvania city struggling to thrive again.
With something as simple and elegant as a throwback jersey, the Union have aligned themselves with and paid homage to a local legacy of resilience, hard work, diversity and blue-collar honor that goes back more than 150 years.
This is one of those times where sport can be about more than just sport. Instead, it’s about who you are and where you came from.