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From Thursday October 16 to Saturday October 18, Lehigh University hosted the 75th annual Pennsylvania Historical Association conference at the Hotel Bethlehem. The conference opened Thursday night with a lecture by noted Abraham Lincoln scholar Gabor Boritt and concluded Saturday afternoon with a luncheon address by Nicole Eustace, a scholar of emotion and love in American history. In between, historians presented their work on a wide variety of topics in Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic history. Talks ranged from urban renewal in twentieth-century Allentown to new perspectives on Native Americans.
On Friday afternoon, the D&L sponsored a talk by Dr. Howard Gillette, a professor of modern American history at Rutgers University and Director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities. Dr. Gillette’s research interests are urban and regional development, and the University of Pennsylvania Press recently published his book Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City.
Dr. Gillette has been deeply involved with discussions of redevelopment in Bethlehem, especially regarding the Sands BethWorks casino complex on the former Bethlehem Steel property. On Friday, Dr. Gillette offered a summary of the campaign to protect the historical resources of the steel site and issued a dire warning that preservation efforts face a rapidly closing timeline. Bethlehem is the site of the most extensive historic steel making infrastructure in the United States, yet there is no plan in place to stabilize or protect the blast furnaces or other iconic buildings. Fortunately, Dr. Gillette, local organizations, like Save Our Steel, and a devoted contingent of community members are working to make sure preservation of the Steel remains an important element of the south side’s revitalization effort.
Gillette’s work and the prevalence of public history panels at this year’s conference are evidence of a recent trend in the American historical profession. Historians are now more than ever eager to advocate on behalf of unique relics of our past and are more likely to frame their arguments in the pragmatic language of economic impact and development. At the same time, public historians are interpreting the past in ways that are accessible to a larger community, helping others understand the importance of history and allowing them to have a hand in creating and protecting their own history.