The Bethlehem Steel Stacks is a phenomenal place to visit and see just how well a place that has outlived its original purpose can become something completely different and equally important to the surrounding community.
According to their website: “Steel Stacks is a 1-acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun. Once the home of Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel manufacturer in the nation, the site has been reborn through music and art…”
While you can find comedy acts, art exhibits, concerts and all kinds of other events here, in the summer of 2018 you could also get an up close look at the industrial complex that was Bethlehem Steel as well as take in some horticulture.
The Hoover-Mason Trestle (HMT) began its life as a narrow-gauge railroad to carry materials needed to make iron from the yards to the blast furnaces.
Signage along the 2,000 feet of elevated walkway takes you through the history and the process of making steel in Bethlehem from the foundry’s opening in the early 1900s and making it’s last steel in 1995. In addition it walks you through the types of plants you would find naturally in an area like this – where nature is taking over what man controlled for a relatively short amount of time. The interpretive signage also explores colonizing plants known as ruderal species – those that thrive in disturbed soil locations; native plants that would have been here prior to the building of this factory, and non-native and naturalized plants. Interestingly, I did not find anything referring to plants as invasive, though many of those ruderal plants have proven ecologically problematic.
There may be an inclination to compare this elevated walkway with plants to the Highline in New York City. Both being free, urban green spaces making use of abandoned industrial facilities, the interesting aspect of this place that sets it part for me from the Highline in New York City, is that the Highline is very intentionally planted and meticulously maintained, squeaky clean and entirely accessible. There are certainly nods to the garden’s beginnings as an elevated railway, but they are akin to museum works – beautiful but often lacking context of their original home.
The HMT blurs the boundaries of garden and industry. Strolling this elevated walkway you hear the wind causing gentle squeaks, chirps and groans, tiny sounds like the end of the echo of a scream. What once was loud made quiet, less harsh, but still there. You can still feel the industry, you can still very much imagine what used to happen here. When you look around there are some places you know have been planted and can even see the labels on the plants, but other places you look – into the dormant nooks and crannies of a once bustling factory – you see similar plants as those in the beds and wonder if they were planted there deliberately by people or haphazardly by birds and mammals and time. The plant palette echos the colors of the quiet facility.
You notice how the deep reds and rusty oranges of the two-tone berries of the Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) (I’m sure planted by birds) vine twining up where men once tread echo the colors of the empty tanks and still pipes.
The tawny flower buds of Paulownia tomentosa (Princess Tree) – another planted by wind and rain and time – echo the corroded metal of a towering stack.
The rusty red fruits of a planted Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) echoed in the oxididation of the Blast Furnace components behind while those fruits of another volunteer Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) reflect the brick of the compressor building wall.
It is tempting to stay inside on cold days, to postpone garden visits until the days warm up and rainbows of flowers emerge from soft green buds. But winter wanders among the plants can show you beauty you may miss when tender leaves and colors flowers obscure the bones and structure of a place.