Historical Markers
Allentown [Peopling of Pa] Historical Marker
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Allentown [Peopling of Pa]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
U.S. 309 north at Allentown

Dedication Date:
September 3, 1947

Behind the Marker

Map and birdseye view
Allentown, PA, 1900.
After prospering during World War II, Allentown, the "Queen City of the Lehigh Valley," faced an uncertain future as lucrative wartime contracts came to an end, and Lehigh Structural Steel laid off workers. The beginning of the great post-war economic boom, however, soon fueled new growth. Pennsylvania Power and Light successfully tapped the surging demand for electricity, in part from the new domestic appliances. Televisions listed in its service area jumped from none in 1946 to 35,415 by 1950. Western Electric Company began operations in Allentown in 1946, after which Bell Telephone and Bell Labs, for whom they made equipment, chose Allentown for its first branch. General Electric also opened a branch, in the American Armament building, to make toasters and other small appliances. During the Korean War, Allentown-basedmarker Mack Trucks again profited from military contracts and afterwards from the growth in trucking, fueled by national highway construction.
Busy street scene
The "Miracle Mile," Hamilton Street, Allentown, PA., circa 1958.

By the late 1950s, however, the city's industrial and commercial sectors were struggling. Cutbacks in heavy industry fed rising unemployment. Competing for the female labor force, Western Electric's expansion hastened the decline of the remaining silk and tobacco industries. And suburbanization complicated the struggle for a viable downtown. After the Liberty Bell trolley stopped in 1951, the city attempted to transform Hamilton Street into a "Miracle Mile." Refusing to open branch stores, Hess's Department Store tried to attract customers with fashion shows, flower shows, and celebrities, including Lassie, Superman, Rock Hudson, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The Miracle Mile, however, proved unable to compete with new suburban malls, led by construction of the Parkway and Lehigh shopping centers in 1963, soon followed by the Mountainville Shopping Center, and in 1967 by the Whitehall Mall, the region's first enclosed mall. Construction of the "Hamilton Mall" in 1969, with Plexiglass canopies and street landscaping, failed to stop the retail exodus. Instead, downtown became home to financial institutions, offices, and a hotel/conference center.
Soviet officials inspect the assembly of Mack Trucks at the company plant
Soviet officials inspect the assembly of Mack trucks at the company plant in...

In the post-war era, Allentown did little to provide much needed public housing, which was strongly opposed by the city's private sector. From 1947 to 1952, the city offered temporary housing in former army barracks at Fair Acres. Faced with an aging population and infusion of federal funds, the Allentown Housing Authority between 1965 and 1975 added five projects for seniors and two for lower-income families. The 1960s and 1970s also brought urban renewal schemes, inspired by Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle and Philadelphia's Penn Center downtown development projects. New construction included apartments, a motor inn, a movie theater on Fourth Street, a new City Hall and Public Safety Building Complex, courthouse, and Chamber of Commerce building.

Unfortunately, urban renewal projects displaced many residents. The Fourth Street Urban Renewal Area, for example, cleared twenty acres, relocating more than 250 families. Approved in 1967, the Little Lehigh Renewal Area removed more than 600 houses along with factory buildings. Although some townhouses and senior apartments were built, President Nixon's 1973 moratorium on subsidized housing halted redevelopment, and left Allentown with acres of empty space.

Between 1970 and 2000, Allentown was devastated by deindustrialization as the Lehigh Valley lost 44 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Mack Trucks closed its Allentown plant in 1987, and nearby Bethlehem Steel closed in 1995. Although the city's retail and service sectors added jobs, downtown businesses continued to suffer from surging suburban competition. In 1976, the large Lehigh Valley Mall opened, and in 1979, Crown America bought Hess's, then placed branches in fourteen malls. Acquired by Bon-Ton in 1994, Hess's Hamilton Street store closed in 1996.

As businesses and white residents had left the city for the suburbs, Allentown's downtown became home to the elderly, the poor, and a growing Hispanic population. Before the war, local employers had recruited Puerto Rican workers for their steel and textile plants. In the post-war era farmers continued to attract them for agricultural field work. In the 1960s and 1970s, declining blue-collar employment dampened Puerto Rican immigration, but the 1980s brought another immigration wave, fuelled in part by an exodus of earlier immigrants from New York City and northern New Jersey who were attracted by low home prices in Allentown, Lancaster, and Reading.

Between 1980 and 1990, Allentown's Puerto Rican population rose by 126 percent to 9,670, Lancaster's by 73 percent to 10,305, and Reading's by 67 percent to 11,612. By 2008, Hispanics represented 36 percent of Allentown's population of 111,025, 33 percent of Lancaster's population of 56,116, and 52 percent of Reading's population of 80,880.

Puerto Rican communities in Pennsylvania were highly and increasingly segregated. Many Puerto Ricans faced difficulties adjusting to Allentown, a city with a conservative Pennsylvania-German heritage. Many Lehigh Valley residents began to view the downtown as tainted by drugs and crime, often blaming this on Puerto Rican residents, rather than the on-going flight of industries and economic restructuring. As the Puerto Rican community swelled in the 1980s and 1990s, cultural conflicts intensified, especially around older residents' objections to Puerto Ricans who congregated on the streets and went shirtless. Despite recommendations from the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs for more bilingual services in Allentown, city council passed an English-Only Ordinance in 1994 and urged that government documents be printed only in English. Rising social tensions also fueled white residents' movement to the suburbs.

By 2007, more than half of the students in Allentown's schools were Hispanic. Supporting the "Day Without an Immigrant," several hundred residents marched on city hall; 2,000 marched in Reading; and in Philadelphia, about a thousand gathered around the Liberty Bell. In 2007, the Census Bureau estimated that close to 35 percent of Allentown's 108,900 residents were Hispanic and another 10.5 percent African American.
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