The Steel's hometown couldn't care less

Acceptance: For the people of Bethlehem, Pa., the bankrupt steel company died a long time ago.

October 21, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Every breath of life in this city is still drawn in the shadows of The Steel.

Not just on the south side, where streets dead-end at the giant blackened carcass of a once-great steel mill. But everywhere. In the parks, the country clubs, the office tower, the university, the hotel, the hospital, city hall - The Steel built them all.

And so two remarkable things happened in Bethlehem last week.

The Steel went bankrupt.

And no one cared.

This city, built by the fortunes of the manufacturing-age giant that shares its name, has learned to live without Bethlehem Steel.

Its residents go to work in office buildings and industrial parks, not steel mills and blast furnaces. The merchants plan around holidays and tourist seasons, not labor strikes and shift changes.

The pride remains - for all the thousands of ships, cars, bombs and skyscrapers whose innards were born on the banks of the Lehigh River.

But Bethlehem doesn't need The Steel any more.

"It's not what's important here now," said Joe D'Ambrosio, who has been cutting hair outside the old mill's gates since 1963. "It's shut down; everyone's lost their jobs. They've gotten on with their lives."

"Think about it," he added. "The Steel is bankrupt and I didn't hear a word. People come in here all day long, talking about everything. Nobody said a word about The Steel."

Bethlehem Steel Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early last week, announcing plans to further trim its work-force - now just 13,000 people.

The American steel industry is under siege by foreign competitors, the company said. It plans to reorganize and endure.

The news was a blow to thousands of steel-working families in Baltimore and Indiana, where Bethlehem Steel makes steel today. One of the kings of 20th century industry was dying.

And in Bethlehem? The steel-making town that gave the corporation its name? The city of 72,000 people that once enjoyed 20,000 high-paying jobs courtesy of The Steel?

"It really wasn't much of an event to people," said Nicholas E. Englesson, a local attorney. "It's been in a coma since the 1980s. People have gotten used to it."

Englesson used to work at his parent's restaurant and grocery store outside the mill's gates, serving the white-collar crowd at lunchtime, the blue-collar types in the afternoon. He didn't work at the plant, but he still lived off The Steel.

And the same was true for most everyone in Bethlehem. Before the final cast of the blast furnace in November 1995, life along the Lehigh Valley was lived in perpetual awareness that steel was being made nearby.

The coke mill used to stink when the wind blew off the river. The Bessemer plants glowed at night like a sunrise.

The afternoon shift change flooded the city the way a tide fills a harbor - thousands of workers ebbing and flowing through the streets of South Bethlehem.

A strike was like a throw of the switch to the entire city's power supply. Nothing worked, no one moved.

Growing up in Bethlehem, every aspect of life was affected by The Steel, said Vaughn Terrinoni, as he sat in D'Ambrosio's barber chair.

You learned to live with the steel dust on your car.

Children jumped under their desks during air-raid drills, assured that Bethlehem was at the top of Russia's bombing list.

"We were proud of it," said Terrinoni, a tax attorney. "No one built any bomb shelters, we were going to stand up and make steel."

"My mother used to take us down into the basement during the air-raid drills, and we'd stay down there in the dark, without one ray of light," D'Ambrosio said. "That was what it was like in Bethlehem. In Kutztown, they left the lights on."

The Steel started leaving Bethlehem in the late 1970s, gradually, not at once. A thousand jobs gone. Then two thousand. Then more.

The plant wasn't just one steel-making operation, but a collection of shops with distinct products to make. The 12- and 18-inch mill made small angles and channels. The 48-inch mill made large beams. They closed one at a time.

Hector Nemes worked at Bethlehem Steel for 30 years, skipping from shop to shop as they closed down. He used to negotiate labor contracts on behalf of the union.

Bankruptcy barely ranks among the indignities suffered by the steel workers of Bethlehem, he said. But he doesn't think much about Bethlehem Steel anymore. And if he doesn't, who does?

"I think Bethlehem Steel still lives in the people," said Nemes, 56, now an assistant to the mayor of Bethlehem.

"But it can't be your life any more. We all thought we'd never live long enough to see the steel industry die, but we have."

In the late 1950s, when one of the longest strikes in the history of Bethlehem Steel froze commerce throughout the city for nearly four months, some businessmen got worried. The city was too dependant on The Steel.

The men formed a cooperative and purchased land on the north edge of town, then persuaded the city government to build roads and infrastructure there speculatively.

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