The Road Warrior
8:12 PM PST, November 25, 2012
Q: Most of us do a lot of driving around an area commonly known as the Lehigh Valley. But what exactly is the Lehigh Valley? What would be the definition of that term?
— Don Stravino, Whitehall Township
Q: How did Allentown acquire the moniker, Queen City?
— Ken Poppe, Simsbury, Ct.
A: The view through different windshields seems to affect motorists' views of this question, Don.
For employees of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, the answer is a simple one. The commission, formerly known as the Joint Planning Commission of Lehigh and Northampton Counties, was created by the two counties to conduct and administer planning studies and advise municipalities within the two counties on planning, zoning, transportation, environmental and related issues.
It's a pretty straight road for those folks, according to Chief Transportation Planner Joe Gurinko: "For us, the Lehigh Valley consists of Lehigh and Northampton counties," he said. The original name — a tractor-trailer load, to be sure — was consolidated in 1997 after 36 years to reflect regional unity, or at least the hope for it.
For others, Lehigh Valley is less precisely defined, and not necessarily, or not wholly, established by precise geographic boundaries.
"That's a fascinating question," said Allentown Symphony Association Executive Director Sheila Evans, a native of Lincoln, Neb. who arrived here four years ago. "I don't think it's a geographic boundary" that chiefly defines the Valley, she said, while allowing that mapping a course to a precise answer is not easy.
The association board recently changed the name of the former Allentown Symphony Hall to Miller Symphony Hall in tribute to the Miller family, which once owned this newspaper and has contributed generously to the association through the years. The board earlier had approved Lehigh Valley Performing Arts Center, but had second thoughts for several reasons, Evans said. Among them was that retaining no part of the original name might be confusing, but there was also concern that other institutions gained little by switching to Lehigh Valley.
Association board member Percy Dougherty, a retired Kutztown University geography professor, was among the skeptics. Though he generally supports the concept of regionalism for consolidating redundant government agencies and services, he felt it wouldn't be a good fit for renaming Symphony Hall. "You get to a point where you start to diminish the value of the core cities by going with Lehigh Valley," Dougherty said.
It's also relatively ineffective, he said. Despite more than 25 years' worth of efforts to sell the Lehigh Valley name, few people outside the region would recognize it, he said, pointing out that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is known as the Wyoming Valley — something I didn't know, or had forgotten. Few residents traveling outside the region describe their home as Lehigh Valley; Allentown is more widely known by far.
It's certainly true that many other organizations and businesses use Lehigh Valley as a first-gear branding or marketing moniker. Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Airport became Lehigh Valley International in 1994, amid considerable controversy. The airline industry, and not a few older-model residents, continue to call it A-B-E to this day. Considering the disagreement that surrounded the change, which passed by a 7-5 tally, it's unclear how much or how little the switch has affected the airport's fortunes. The ebbs and flows of the national economy, and market forces within the airline industry, seem to do most of the flight planning in that regard.
The Allentown-Lehigh County Chamber of Commerce became the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce in 2001, mostly as an inducement for the various chambers in the region to consolidate after years of discussion about the benefits of joining forces. Today the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber boasts members in the Phillipsburg area, suggesting that parts of Jersey might be considered Lehigh Valley territory — or greater Lehigh Valley, whatever that really means. Lehigh Valley in this sense seems far more a marketing term than a place or location.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawloski initially wanted the city's minor-league sports franchises to be dubbed Allentown IronPigs and Allentown Phantoms, respectively. That's understandable; he's the mayor. But he quickly signed on as a cheerleader for Lehigh Valley in both cases. As with music lovers attending concerts at Symphony Hall, sports fans come from all parts of the — well, the Lehigh Valley, however it's defined.
The name for the Lehigh River derives from a Lenni Lenape Indian word, but Dougherty said he doesn't consider today's Lehigh Valley as being defined by the valley of the river. However Lehigh Valley first was described, it's tricky to define today.
I happened to see Mike Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley, the region's tourism promotion agency, at the Allentown Farmer's Market, and asked him for a quick definition. "Depends who you ask," he said with a laugh.
The federal government defines our region in expansive fashion, as the Census Bureau's Metropolitan Statistical Area comprises Lehigh, Northampton and Carbon counties, as well as Phillipsburg and the rest of Warren County, N.J. But the feds don't call it Lehigh Valley; like the airlines, it's still A-B-E, or, officially, "Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ Metropolitan Statistical Area."
I think we'll have to settle on the view that Lehigh Valley can be different things to different people, Don. As Evans of the Symphony Association observed, "It's an area perhaps in search of a definition."
What's the view through your windshield, fellow warriors? Let me know, and I'll return to this twisting road in the future.
It's a short-cut route by comparison to the answer to your question, Ken, though the origin is not entirely clear. Morning Call archives indicate that in 1905, 1906 or 1907 — all three years are cited in different accounts — the Allentown Chamber of Commerce held a contest to create a nickname for the city. Queen City won the crown, and amazingly, it has stuck, at least to some degree.
Writing about the Queen City moniker some years ago, Lehigh Valley historian Frank Whelan observed that back in the early 1900s, "It probably sounded like a catchy name." Today, not so much.
Anybody want to chat about Allentown's designation as an "All-America City"?
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