[ skip to navigation ]

Robin Friedman : author and journalist


Bright lights, small city

Muhlenberg College students venture off campus in a 116-page guide to fun.

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | April 7, 2006

It took 21 college kids, a professor named Jeff Pooley and a paperback book called LIVING HERE IN ALLENTOWN: BEYOND THE RED DOORS.

But the “Muhlenberg Bubble” has officially burst.

It was in the fall of 2004 when Pooley, an assistant professor of media and communication, introduced a class at Muhlenberg College called Print Production, with the stated goal of totally transforming a longstanding and troubling trend at the college.

“I was struck when I first came here by how few students ever go downtown or even step off campus,”

Pooley, who lives downtown, explains. “And when I asked them if they left campus, they answered somewhat depressingly that they went to TGIF or Outback Steakhouse.”

Pooley — who earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard University and a doctorate at Columbia University before arriving two and a half years ago at Muhlenberg — greatly enjoyed the city guides of Boston and New York City authored by and for college students.

And it took no time for Pooley to decide to pursue a similar passion in Allentown.

“It’s the responsibility of a college to be connected to its host city,” he says. “There’s a climate of fear here.”

Thanks to Pooley’s student authors, that could soon change.

“It’s embarrassing and a shame that the bubble actually exists,” says Benjy Shaw, 22, a junior majoring in theater. “It’s interesting when you live somewhere else for four years to take in a different scene, a different demographic. It’s your responsibility to get to know a place, you should get out, it’s educational.”

The impressive result of Pooley and his student authors’ beliefs is a 116-page, irreverent, informative guidebook that proudly proclaims these sorts of sentiments:

“Well, we’re living here in Allentown, at least for the next four years. And for all the battering cities have taken, they’re still refuges from the market-tested banality of their surroundings. Ours, Allentown, is certainly not the product of any focus group research.”

It goes on:

“Allentown-bashing is the stuff of countless private conversations, passed along from real estate agent to plumber to professor. New residents are marinated in this kind of talk. A city’s fate, in large part, hinges on perception. Today’s talk — however distorted now — is tomorrow’s reality. ‘Don’t go downtown; it’s unsafe’ enough and no one will go downtown. And then it will be unsafe.”

Pooley and his students fervently made this mantra their mission.

“Whenever there’s a crime committed in Allentown, we get a notice about it in our mailboxes. The college has to do that legally,” Shaw says. “But this makes it seem like it’s all around us. It’s totally disproportionate and it skews people’s perceptions.”

Unfortunately, however, this lock-your-doors mentality can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It’s a dangerous distortion, but it can come true over time,” Pooley says. “People don’t come downtown because they hear it’s unsafe. It’s a self-perpetuating culture of exaggerated fear, but a tragically self-fulfilling one that ends up being reality over time. The truth is that downtown is vibrant and safe. It’s not rich, but it’s a vital community.”

Pooley’s students met in a computer room once a week for one semester. Using computer software called Microsoft Publisher, they divided themselves into committees, chose fonts and symbols and headed out.

“I really liked getting out there and seeing new things,” says Kate Hullfish, 21, a junior majoring in communication and anthropology, and the student who shot the book’s cover photograph. “There’s a fear instilled in us not to go below 17th Street, but I met some really nice people! I’m really proud of this book.”

Each student, no matter what committee he or she had chosen, was required to write reviews. The book’s candid, comprehensive reviews cover dining, nightlife, shopping, and various outdoor excursions, as well as community resources, history and even thoughtful reflection.

Consider this rumination on the book’s title, which was selected by group vote:

“Outside of Pennsylvania, say ‘Allentown’ and you’ll get Billy Joel’s 1983 hit crooned back to you. Not exactly a theme song for the city, with its all-the-factories-closed-down gloominess. But the anthem for the betrayed blue-collar worker does praise the city’s hardscrabble citizenry, and has, too, put the city on the musical map. Allentown leaders, on this logic, gave Joel a key to the city. Thanks to Joel, we’re all a little prouder, living here in Allentown.”

The book also includes fun “best of” categories such as makeout spots, empty your wallet, insomnia and adrenaline rush, among others. And they deliberately relegate chain stores and restaurants, and the suburbs, to single-page listings, choosing to concentrate on the urban and unique instead.

“Our city has a lot of potential that’s untapped greatly,” says Melanie Zachariades, 22, a senior majoring in communication. “It has some great assets. This was something that was really lacking. Students will listen to other students. They’ll trust the source, because it’s peer-reviewed. This won’t single-handedly change downtown Allentown, but it will definitely have a positive effect in combination with all the other efforts being made. It could eventually be a thriving downtown that’s used more by students and people in the area.”

The red doors in the book’s subtitle refer to Muhlenberg’s Lutheran tradition of painting all its buildings’ doors red. And Red Door Publications is a new college organization formed to update the book every year.

“When I came in as a freshman, there was nothing to do here,” says Shannon Solheim, 23, who graduated in 2005 with majors in communication and political science, and now works in the sales department at CNN. “I’m happy to give back to Muhlenberg, so incoming freshmen can experience Allentown from the start.”

Since its publication at the beginning of March, the college has given a free copy to every student and every admitted student.

“People now have insight into Allentown, and that’s important because the city has a lot to offer,” says Lacie Smith, 21, a senior who’s majoring in communication and political science. “It was one of the only classes where I was excited about going to class. We were always working on the book, not getting lectured at.”

Working on the book helped Pooley’s student authors unearth real city treasures.

“There’s a general feeling that there’s nothing to do in Allentown, but small cities can be really fun,” Hullfish says. “People here are always going to Friendly’s and TGIF, but we discovered so many great restaurants — Turkish, Cuban, Mexican, Thai.”

And constant comparisons to Allentown’s geographic cousins — that are actually miles apart in reality — are not helpful.

“Those are unfair comparisons to New York and Philly,” Shaw says. “They’re not logical. They’re two different scales. Allentown is not a metropolitan city in that way.”

Zachariades thinks the barrier between students and city hurts both.

“It doesn’t prepare us for living independently, living on our own,” she says. “If we knew more about Allentown, we might live off campus or get jobs downtown.”

Shaw hopes the new book spawns many more student-city connections.

“There’s never a time, when youre a student at Muhlenberg, that you get a tour of the city,” he says. “There are efforts that can be made to entice students, like discounts, tours and things that are unique, that are Allentown-specific.”

In the end, Pooley’s student authors see a lot of beauty in their adopted hometown — warts and all.

“I like us to focus on what we have, not what we don’t have, Hullfish says.