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Student Research Spotlight: Re-envisioning South Bethlehem as an Arts District

Danielle Bettermann and Jenna Casciano

Too often, popular conceptions of research activity can become mired in the abstract -- researchers toil in labs, collect and crunch data, and read and write long, dense papers comprehensible only to scholars within their field.

As an institution heavily invested in facilitating and supporting student research, Lehigh certainly has a great number of students involved in those aforementioned activities, but there are also a significant number of Lehigh students working on translating their research into practice. LTS Student Research Spotlights highlight student work that transcends the classroom and has some impact in a community outside Lehigh.

At the beginning of the Fall semester, I spoke with two students in Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences, Danielle Bettermann, ‘18, and Jenna Casciano, ‘17G, about their work researching, planning, and proposing a grant project involving furthering Bethlehem’s arts community through the creation of an artist’s residency home in Southside Bethlehem. Danielle, a junior in the Journalism and Environmental Studies programs, and Jenna, a 2nd year English graduate student, came to find the scope of their research through a Mountaintop project focused on intersections of art, community, and civic engagement. Their initial paths into the project came from their respective disciplinary lenses. “As an Environmental Studies major, we talk a lot about social justice and civic engagement in regards to nature, and as a journalism major, I had already been looking at those kinds of questions,” Danielle said. Starting her graduate career with an interest in Romanticism, Jenna’s path changed trajectory after she completed a course in Digital Humanities, fostering an interest in how technology can expand the reach of scholarship in the humanities and potentially reshape the place of the humanities in the public sphere, particularly as concerns activist work.

Though the Mountaintop project’s aims were broad, the diversity of backgrounds Jenna and Danielle brought to their work helped shape their approach to the project. They started with asking questions such as, What do arts communities look like?”, “How do they become arts districts in the first place?”, and, more pointedly “How can arts programs positively benefit a community?”. With direction from their faculty advisors Sarah Stanlick, Stephanie Watts, and Andy Cassano, Danielle and Jenna spent the first two weeks of their Mountaintop experience delving into newspaper articles and scholarly research on the impact of art on a community, how arts districts function within a city economically and legally, and on how arts districts can enable and give voice to social justice activism.

It was in those weeks of research that the Mountaintop group came across two nearby examples of successful arts districts -- Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. “The research was foundational,” Jenna said. “We didn’t know how it was going to play into things until we came up with the foundation for our proposal. We definitely needed it to build up the confidence to get us to Pittsburgh.”

It was the trip to Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum project that really sparked the group’s imaginations. A European organization founded to provide a safe and supportive space for displaced and/or exiled writers, City of Asylum granted Pittsburgh a chapter, which, in 2004, officially opened its doors to house an exiled Chinese poet, Huang Xiang. Now over ten years later, City of Asylum Pittsburgh is a fixture in the neighborhood, having established more long term and short term artist residencies, and instituted an online literary journal, annual jazz concert, and regular artist performances and readings, all of which are free and open to the community.

“That inspired us a lot. The neighborhood even looked like Southside,” Danielle told me. Both former steel towns that have struggled with urban revitalization and forming and sustaining a post-industrial economy, Pittsburgh’s and Bethlehem’s shared socio-economic context made the Pittsburgh City of Asylum organization an exemplary model to work from for a Bethlehem project. The larger research question to answer then became, “Can we replicate this in Bethlehem?”

Since then, Danielle and Jenna have done fieldwork to turn the answer to that research question into an operable, sustainable program. After speaking with the the City of Asylum administrators, along with sharing their ideas and getting input from existing Southside arts organizations and important community stakeholders such as ArtsQuest and Touchstone Theater, they’ve developed and submitted a grant proposal for Lehigh funding of a Southside artist’s residency space.

While the particularities of the project are still in the planning stages, taking a cue from their City of Asylum experience, Danielle and Jenna locate the project’s center in shifting the focus from a Lehigh-centered community program to a community-centered program that is largely run by members of the Bethlehem arts community. As Jenna stated, “In thinking about the transition of Southside into an arts district, we ended up focusing not just on how Lehigh can play a role in it, but really more in how Lehigh can add to it and help make it something even better.”

Thank you to Danielle and Jenna for their time and sharing their experience with me! If you know of (or are) a student who may be interested in being interviewed for a future Student Research Spotlight, please email Jasmine Woodson at jasmine@lehigh.edu.