If one geographic area could broadly represent the distinctive, productive partnership between Lehigh and South Bethlehem community, it might be a block between Taylor and Webster streets, where a new Greenway undulates past a recently constructed Chinese Pavilion and swath of meadow carved out of the stubborn soil.
Each of the projects represents years of cooperative planning and effort between Lehigh faculty and staff and members of the local community who share an interest in working toward a hopeful vision for a city deeply impacted by the demise of Bethlehem Steel.
In September 2011, the Greenway was dedicated. This past spring, the Lehigh-Bethlehem Harmony Pavilion was completed and officially welcomed as a “place of rest and regeneration.”
This summer, a Native Planting Project led by LTS senior instructional technologist Jason Slipp has taken root.
The Native Planting Project represents a logical next step for Slipp’s involvement with the South Side Initiative (SSI), the group that brings together Lehigh faculty, students and staff with the people of Bethlehem in order to share knowledge, foster democracy and improve quality of life.
Seth Moglen, cofounder and director of SSI, said the group seeks to seize opportunities or tackle challenges facing the community, particularly where it can combine the deep local knowledge of the community members with the specialized expertise of a research university.
“We work on a wide range of issues–from air pollution and asthma on the South Side to preserving the rich working-class, immigrant history of our community,” he says. “In this particular case, SSI felt that we could help the city develop our wonderful new urban park, the Greenway, by restoring native plants and a healthy ecosystem to one small portion of what had been an abandoned railroad bed.”
Seeding progress on South Side
Three years ago, Slipp worked with John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and an SSI co-founder, on the creation of Lehigh’s Community Garden on the Goodman Campus. The one-acre area is now home to nearly 40 gardens maintained by members of the Lehigh community, and builds on an approach that has been successful at many colleges and universities to produce nutritious foods and strengthen community ties.
His latest engagement is the Native Planting Project, which brought together members of the university, city, and local community to transform a portion of a former railroad bed between the Taylor and Webster blocks into a scenic meadow along the paved South Side Greenway.
“It really worked out well since I was finishing up my Master’s in environmental policy design, and my thesis was on urban food systems,” said Slipp, who also served on the SSI’s Community Gardens Working Group. “I envisioned a place where there would ultimately be raised beds for gardening, some perennial edibles like berry bushes, and then a native meadow to attract pollinators.”
His proposal, accompanied by a preliminary rendering, was submitted to the city through Southside Vision 2014 and approved. The grant provided Slipp with $3,000 to create what he hoped would be the nucleus of an expanding space. The budget would cover all the materials needed, including the native plants identified by local expert Ilse Stoll.
“Ilse and I met at the space to assess it and sort of define the area, and we met a few more times at her house, where she has many of the native plants we would be using,” Slipp said. “She’s really the person who is recognized for her expertise in this area, and she did a great job in helping us identify the plants that would thrive in that space.”
Long recognized as a regional expert in this area, Stoll’s extensive experience also benefited the Native Plant Preserve along the railroad trail off nearby Sand Island. The two-acre preserve is now the showcase for nearly 5,000 native perennials. Her goal for the South Side garden project was to procure and plant nearly 1,500 sun-loving native flowers and grasses that will provide color and textural interest from April to October.
Before planting waves of blue indigo, coreopsis, digitalis, phlox, columbine, evening primrose, brown-eyed Susans, asters and prarie grass, the pair were challenged by the soil–an unwelcoming layer of hardened clay that lay fallow under railroad ties for more than a century. They hauled in layers of rich compost, but Stoll is convinced that the plants will “find their way,” and that “a former railroad bed is actually ideal for a native meadow.”
Because they are native and accustomed to trying conditions, the grasses and other plants actually thrive, Slipp says. “In a really brief period of time, the garden has already matured to the point where it looks really good. And I’m sure it will continue to evolve.”
The patch is guarded by a pair of blue herons in the form of a sculpture created solely from recycled materials by Bethlehem sculptor Virginia Abbot. The first of what planners hope will be several sculptures along the Greenway was created from found objects with the assistance of eight budding artists from Broughal Middle School.
Stoll says the garden can be of additional educational value to illustrate the diversity of plants that are native to this area and their role in supporting urban wildlife such as butterflies and birds.
But perhaps just as importantly to organizers, the Native Garden provides one more opportunity for connection between the Lehigh and local community.
Photos by Christa Neu