Other Voices: Standing Up For Allentown
My friend, the great and talented Jesse Richman is an Allentown native and he’s got some strong feelings about Billy Joel’s Allentown that I’m proud to share with you here.
Living Here In “Allentown”
If you are an Allentonian, Billy Joel is part of your life, whether you like it or not.
I moved to Allentown, PA when I was nine months old. My father, fresh from business school at Columbia, had taken a job in the purchasing department at Air Products, a chemical manufacturer and one of the city’s largest employers. Allentown had a lot going for it from where he stood: it was affordable, safe, was home to a large Jewish community, and was an easy four hours travel to Connecticut where both his and my mother’s parents lived, along with much of our extended family.
From infancy until college*, Allentown was home for me. My parents still live there today. It was a great place to grow up. I’ve spent my adult years moving all over the country, the last five in New York City, but my Allentown roots have always remained a core chunk of my identity. In some sense, you can take the boy out of Allentown, but you can’t take the Allentown out of the boy.
In 1982, Billy Joel released “Allentown”, the first track on his album The Nylon Curtain. It quickly went into the Top 20 on radio, and became a staple of early-days MTV. I get this info from Wikipedia; I was three at the time, so it’s not like I remember. The song doesn’t feel like something I heard or saw one day; I didn’t learn of its existence, any more that I learned of the existence of the radio or television that the song came out of. They were just all always there, the stereo, the TV, and the song. As far as I’m concerned, there has always been “Allentown”.
And it seems that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, there will always be “Allentown”. It certainly wasn’t Joel’s biggest hit, and yet 30 years later, it hasn’t been forgotten, even by the most casual of fans. I’d venture to say that, upon mentioning to a stranger that I grew up in Allentown, at least 75% of the time their response makes reference to the song.** Not only has “Allentown” become central to peoples’ perception of Allentown, but for a large number of folks it is the entirety of their knowledge of the city, their only perception of it. Which is to say, in many (most?) peoples’ heads, I grew up inside that really depressing Billy Joel song.
The problem is, the city in that song didn’t exist. The Allentown of “Allentown” is a city in its death throes hosting a citizenry fated to a life worse than that of their parents, a land of fruitless hopes and unfulfilled dreams. It’s not exactly the kind of promotional anthem a Chamber Of Commerce latches on to, but beyond making for poor advertising, it just isn’t real.
While Allentown may have been a place of industry a hundred years prior, by the time “Allentown” was written it was the region’s financial center, the place where the business of business was done, one of that era’s few success stories. Not far from Philadelphia and New York City, Allentown was home to a large commuter population who moved there seeking bigger backyards and better schools and occasionally even the proverbial white picket fence. That was the Allentown I knew growing up, fence and all. The Allentown of shopping malls and street hockey with the neighborhood kids, of bowling and laser tag and Taco Bell on Friday nights with my friends, a late-20th century remake of “Leave It To Beaver.” “Allentown” made Allentown famous, but it made it famous for its failings, failings that were completely alien to the actual experience of living there.
Adding insult to injury, those failings weren’t really even Allentown’s at all. “Allentown” is not actually about Allentown***. It is about (or at least inspired by) neighboring Bethlehem, home of the one-time industrial giant Bethlehem Steel, which in 1982 began a slow shuttering process that culminated a decade or two later in the closure of the 140 year old steel plant and, finally, the company’s sale in bankruptcy. And while the song’s depiction of Bethlehem could have accurately applied to hundreds of other small Pennsylvania towns weathering Americas’ rocky transition from a manufacturing economy to an information economy, the one city it really didn’t apply to was Allentown.****
Further complicating the matter, Allentown is home to a lot of Billy Joel boosters. Joel frequently toured through the Lehigh Valley as he travelled the northeast in his early days, and there are many Allentonians who can claim fandom from as far back as the late 60s or early 70s. Additionally, much of Allentown is populated by transplants from Long Island and the areas surrounding New York. In many ways, Allentonians are his people. And to them, “Allentown” felt like being slandered by not just some rockstar, but someone who owed the people of Allentown a debt of gratitude (real or imagined). It was personal.
So the mixed feelings over “Allentown” are pretty easily understandable. As a matter of civic pride, it’s awesome that a musician of Billy Joel’s renown, a musician whom many of the city’s residents genuinely like or even love, chose our little burg to write a song about. Until you realize that the entire rest of the world, which until 1982 had probably never heard of your city, now assumes you live in a sad, sad shithole thanks to this guy. Your life story forever comes with this odd, inaccurate preconception attached. You can choose to think of “Allentown” as a mark of fame or a mark of shame, but either way, it’s going to be the first thing people think of when they talk to you. Love it or lump it, “Allentown” is the song we’re stuck with.
By writing the city of Allentown into a song, Billy Joel inadvertently changed what it means to be an Allentonian. Joel wrote a song that claimed to pin down a particular city’s identity. It did not. And yet, the song itself has become an inextricable part of that identity. This thing I’m doing here now, writing this, explaining all of this to you? This is the act of me being Allentonian. Doing this has become part of what we are. Forever explaining a Billy Joel song to people, even if we couldn’t care less about Billy Joel and you couldn’t care less about our explanation. Explaining “Allentown” is part of what binds us Allentonians together, just as much as eating Yocco’s Hot Dogs and strolling in Trexler Park and riding the rollercoasters at Dorney. “Allentown” is supposed to be a song about a city, but by writing it, Billy Joel inadvertently made Allentown a city about a song.
* minus a short interlude in CT
** Often involving some off-key warbling of the introductory “well we’re living here in Allentown” and then slowly petering off as they realize that’s the only line they really remember. Trust me: everyone remembers the song’s themes, the general gist of its content, but pretty much nobody seems to know the actual words. Honestly, I’d have a hard time with them myself.
*** as any Allentonian will tell you, often unprompted. Believe me, we have a more-than-minor complex over all this.
**** In an ironic turn of events, Bethlehem in 2012 is currently in the midst of a massive cultural and economic revival, fueled by 1) a rapidly expanding arts and food scene centered around the city’s universities and 2) a newly built casino that has brought an influx of cash and led to massive redevelopment in the surrounding area. Meanwhile, Allentown is slowly dying, as drugs — and the attendant violence that comes with the drug trade — mar the increasingly desolate center city, its businesses having moved on to sunnier pastures years ago and its citizens of economic means having moved largely to the west end suburbs or else to other parts of PA entirely, including Bethlehem. It is finally, truly, getting very hard to stay-ay-ay-ay-ay.
And this is what I had to say on the matter.
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