The center didn’t hold. Things fell apart. For the second time in its history, a faith was betrayed and the gates of Eden were soldered shut.

By Ed Simon 

The following is an excerpt from Shimon Attie’s Starstruck: An American Tale released by Black Dog Press.


“And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem.”

Luke, 2:15

“Go down… there’s nothin’ you can say / It’s just ol’ Luke and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day.”

The Band, “The Weight”

For seven years I slept in the former offices of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company headquarters in Bethlehem, a red-brick Victorian building that appeared as if a cross between a factory and a school house. The corner of the structure, near where the concrete and steel Hill to Hill Bridge met Brighton Street, was framed with a copper-patina bay window three stories tall and the color of the Statue of Liberty. From the apartment window just next door, I could look out at the entire fallen history of the United States. Asa Packer, the rugged, bearded self-made Connecticut Yankee who founded the company and first got rich building canal boats transporting anthracite coal—as well as being the founder of Lehigh University, where I was studying for my doctorate in English—had already been dead for six years when the building’s cornerstone was laid in 1885. Sadly, I never slept in the office of that sometimes judge, sometimes congressional representative, all times millionaire, and at least one time failed Democratic presidential candidate, although it’s possible that I slumbered in a meeting room of his corporate successor Charles Hartshorne. His successor, however, didn’t have a bronze statue of himself displayed prominently on the university’s campus; nor did Hartshorne quite inspire the same sorts of valedictory encomiums as did Packer, who, lawyer and Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, 1907–09, J. Davis Brodhead enthused in 1885, was a man who had come to northeastern Pennsylvania and “moved these inert masses, and… made this singular gorge, where Nature has defended her solitudes and her hidden treasures by such elaborate defenses … and conquered her very rocks and rivers as his slaves.”  Stuart’s language is, inadvertently I’m sure, the language of the gothic novel, perhaps the erotic gothic novel for that matter, with its gorges and hidden treasures, but it’s a wholly appropriate vernacular in this haunted country, this haunted city.

The railroad headquarters was my favorite apartment building that I ever lived in; its red-brick edifice and copper rain spouts, its black mansard roof and side turret looming above the Lehigh River directly below. It was vaguely spooky, slightly gothic, clearly haunted, at the very least by the same ghosts that dwell everywhere in the United States, and here in this most American of cities. At night, I’d listen to the decoupling of the train cars only a few hundred yards down, still making their monstrous sojourn across the pockmarked landscape of Pennsylvania as they did in Packer’s years, their sound a triumphant and terrifying bestial blast with echoes that reverberated through the building in the darkest hours of night. In their time, Packer’s rails transported tonnages of steel, forged in the kilns and Bessemer convertors of the dark Satanic mill that still sits there today like a rusting golem about a mile downriver. The steel that built the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building made its first journeys past my window, where decades later I’d listen to those nocturnal grunts and exertions of the locomotives still somehow running. If gothic literature is marked by shrieks in the night, the punctuating screams of poltergeists and specters, then I suppose those decoupling trains were haunting enough, the cries of some ghost named “America.”

Bethlehem isn’t as famous as New York or Boston, Chicago or Washington—all cities it helped to build—but it’s still a totem of this country, a microcosm of the gothic tale that is the history of this nation. An almost absurdly gorgeous town, though the locals sometimes seem to forget this and outsiders often fail to notice it, Bethlehem calls to mind the great native daughter H.D.’s 1925 poem, in which she cries: “Give me all mountains … / Give me the stream’s cold path, / the grove of pine, / for garden terrace / the unclaimed / bleak / wild stretches / of the mountain side.” After decades spent in Paris, London, Zurich, she was buried in Nisky Hill Cemetery on the north side of Bethlehem, overlooking the cool meander of the river as it flows past the high wall of South Mountain. For those seven years I lived there, I worked at a desk perpendicular to my line of windows, facing east, and, as one who becomes familiar with a place where they’ve spent so much time—intimate with all of the details, conversant with all of the specificities, until you’ve become a scholar of the cracked concrete on your back porch or a bard of each fleck of the chipped paint in your office—so, too, did I spend hundreds of hours in contemplation of the Bethlehem skyline. Beautiful, of course, this preposterous and dramatic place, because from my window I could see the entire history of the United States in a single glance. To the left there was the early 19th-century federal-style cupola of the Central Moravian Church, and, across the shallow depths of the Lehigh River, the triumphant but broken forges of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s largest mill. Slightly behind that decaying monument are the towers of the then newly constructed Sands Casino, which are today named the Wind Creek Casino. Like a Thomas Cole painting of the Hudson River School depicting the rise and decline of a great civilization, the tableaux I stared at every day enacted the narrative thrust of the United States as a gothic novel.

Aptly described, though not intentionally, by H.D. in her 1944 book The Walls Do Not Fall, where she implores: “Be indigestible, hard, ungiving. / so that, living within, / you beget, self-out-of-self, / selfless, / that pearl-of-great-price,” Bethlehem is a hardscrabble and tough town, though not without its own gnostic wisdoms for those willing to examine it. H.D. had been a Moravian, that once esoterically inclined and still for many mysterious religion (though in today’s form scarcely more exotic than Lutherans), and arguably from them she derived much of her occult language. It is important to remember that Bethlehem was—before it became a bedroom community of New York City where gamblers are bussed in to play the slots at the casino, and before it was one of the nation’s great steel towns—a utopia. That was the intent of this settlement, of course, the reason for its biblical name pregnant with typological possibility, and also why the Lehigh Valley is filled with places designated Emmaus, Jordan, Egypt, Nazareth. All of that was due to the enigmatic Dresden-born Pietist Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who arrived with his flock of Moravians in the Pennsylvania wilderness in 1741, attracted by the tolerance of the Quakers who benevolently ruled this colony. The Moravians, as the story goes, founded their settlement on Christmas Eve, so that this place would be named Bethlehem in honor of where God incarnated, and here, too, would that other deity, America, be made flesh (or steel, as it were). “The world is the field and the field is the world,” Zinzendorf tautologically declared, “and henceforth that country shall be my home where I can be most used in winning souls.”

Zinzendorf, among the most successful of Protestant missionaries in the 18th century, established colonies from Greenland to the West Indies, all of which were governed by this bishop of Herrnhut, Saxony, where Zinzendorf had originally given refuge to the Moravians. Their gospel was an enigmatic one—emancipatory, liberatory, millennial. Derived from a remnant of schismatics known as the Hussites who promulgated a proto-Protestant theology a century before the Reformation, the Moravians who came to Bethlehem in the mid-1700s were molded by the singular spiritual genius of both Zinzendorf and his son, Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf. As they evolved under the guidance of both Zinzendorf the elder and the younger, Moravians during the 18th century were in some ways engaged in a radical Reformation from the Reformation. They lived communally, and some would claim that they loved communally as well. Bethlehem was a city on a hill (literally), but there were scant Puritans in the Moravian settlement, where hymns celebrated the femininity of Christ and artists depicted the side wound of the Lord upon the cross as if it was a mystical vagina, the womb of creation. Much of the liberty and libertinage that became associated with the Moravians, named for the Czech region where the Hussites originally dwelled, was due to the Count’s son, who was the leader of the Single Brethren’s Choir of the Moravian Church in Europe for a period, and who briefly had a profound impact on the religion’s doctrines on both sides of the Atlantic. The younger Zinzendorf, often described by contemporary sources as sleight, effeminate, and beautiful, preached that all souls were female and that to be a Christian was to be wed to the Messiah in both spiritual and sensual union. Theirs was a creed of demolishing separation between classes and genders, praying for an egalitarian millennium that would reorganize society, culture, gender, economics, faith, and family.

When it comes to colonial founders, there is little of Boston’s John Winthrop in the Zinzendorf family, or even of Philadelphia’s William Penn, both of whom seem conservative by contrast. Scholar Paul M. Peucker writes in the Journal of the History of Sexuality that, “Zinzendorf [the younger] held that sex between a man and a woman both symbolized and reenacted the unification of Christ and his bride, the church, making sex into such an important act that Moravians referred to it as a ‘sacrament.’ Sexual intercourse between husband and wife was seen as a liturgical act that was to be enjoyed as such.” The Moravians inherited much of the Teutonic medieval mysticism that had permeated folk belief in Saxony for centuries, but, even by the standards of the land that gestated the bloody scenes of Calgary by painters including Lucas Cranach the Younger and Matthias Grünewald, there is something shocking in the both erotic and macabre Moravian hymn of 1748 that believers would sing to the crucified Christ, “O Husband with a hole! O what an incomparable ray! Kiss us, you cold little mouth! O corpse! … Kiss us, you cold little mouth!” Moravian utopianism promised a union of both spirit and matter, the conversion of the sacred and the profane into one another, a shockingly un-Protestant desire. Incredible to think of the strange sexual and economic utopianism of the Moravians, sitting there in my apartment and looking across the Lehigh River to the green-tinted cupola atop the steeple of the Central Moravian Church, and it’s jarring to imagine those colonial counter-culturalists here in the little town of Bethlehem. “Bethlehem needed the paradoxical imagery of the wounded Savior-God in order to deal with the contradictions of living in heaven on earth,” writes Moravian theologian Craig D. Atwood in Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem. “Blood-and-wounds theology, with all of its graphic depictions of the torture and abuse of Jesus and its eroticizing … served to help the residents of Bethlehem to sublimate community-destroying impulses.”

The north side of the town, the historic heart of Moravian Bethlehem, retains among the best examples of colonial architecture throughout the entire United States. Almost preposterously charming, the cobblestone streets rising aloft to heaven, perpendicular to Main Street; the surviving Moravian dormitories where brothers and sisters in Christ lived communally; the ruins of the various business ventures run by the church along the Monocacy Creek, including waterworks and tanneries. Among the settlements of the 18th-century past that remain today, Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts exudes dour Puritanism and Colonial Williamsburg concocts Southern kitsch. Both of those places exude an artificiality. But the north side of Bethlehem feels like a remnant of a lost world, a brief glimpse into an alternative America as it might have been. Precisely because it isn’t recreated; it is merely what remains. I spent many sun-dappled autumn afternoons wandering among the flat headstones of the Moravian Cemetery, where women and men, Europeans, African Americans, and indigenous Americans, were all given the same simple marker, in commemoration of our equality before God, all underneath the tower of the central church. If it’s hard to imagine such radicals here in this colonial place, it’s because the revolutionary possibilities of their faith were brief. Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf died of tuberculosis in London, England, in 1752, eight years before his father, but there were already doubts as to him being successor. Because so many were scandalized by the theology promulgated by Christian, his father forced him into a more orthodox line. Following his death, many of the son’s male followers emigrated from Herrnhaarg to what became known as Christiansbrunn, near Bethlehem. His brief campaign of influence was spoken of quietly as a “Sifting Time,” for echoing Luke 22:31, while the church elders maintained that the years 1741 to 1748 were such that “Satan has desired you to have you that he may sift you as wheat,” and even the father would denounce his son’s “unbridled freedom of the flesh.” Disastrously, many of the church documents, treatises, hymns, and other writings by Christian were destroyed.

Over time, not only would the Moravians abandon their sexual libertinism in the process of becoming more conventionally Protestant, but so, too, would much of their birthright of economic justice be traded for the pottage of capitalist success. They were initially of that beautiful and cracked American tradition of envisioning different ways of organizing society, like their fellow Pennsylvania utopians such as the Ephrata Community or the Harmonists, but the Moravians would follow a course similar to that of the Oneida Community of upstate New York; rather than dying out, they simply mutated into something more palatable to the gods of the market. As Oneida had once been dedicated to sexual and economic radicalism, then rather incongruously transitioned into being a corporation that specialized in the manufacture of silverware, so, too, would the Moravian’s town of Bethlehem through the years vest less of its concern in the Kingdom of Heaven than in the Kingdom of Steel. Comparing the Bethlehem Moravians to the wild and ecstatic Romantic poet William Blake, Seth Moglen in the journal History of the Present describes the town as adhering to “practices of spiritual and libidinal excess that led them, in turn, to create one of the most egalitarian communities in European North America.” By the 19th century, however, the rivers of milk and honey had run dry, the flowers of Canaan had all wilted. Moglen writes that even though the “city of Bethlehem was founded on practices of spiritual excess that liberated libidinal and material energies and brought into being a community characterized by kinds of equality that most Americans today believe to be impossible,” it was also “frightened by its own excess and frightened, too, by its own egalitarian intensities.” Conventionality followed, but even more damning was the arrival of inequity, of Moloch, Mulciber, and Mammon.

Utopian Bethlehem’s creed was that of the elder Zinzendorf, whom speaking of the divinity within the breast of every person could say “I live no more; he lives in me. I speak no more; he speaks in me.” The creed of industrial Bethlehem is best expressed by the text of blue Commonwealth of Pennsylvania historical markers, such as the one for Henry Noll near the Greenway alongside East Third Street not far from where locomotives once thundered, but now littered with broken bottles and cigarettes. It reads: “The productivity of this Bethlehem Steel worker, referred to as ‘Schmidt,’ was key to Frederick W. Taylor’s landmark book, Principles of Scientific Management … Noll was credited with loading 45 tons of pig iron a day in 1899, to increase his day’s pay to $1.85.” What a perfect distillation of that classic thesis of the German sociologist Max Weber who, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published only six years after Taylor’s “Schmidt” was loading 45 tons of pig iron a day, argued that the entrepreneurial Protestant ethos regarding salvation inevitably degenerated into the cage-like constrictions of industrial capitalism, spiritually debasing owner and worker alike. Rationality, positivism, utilitarianism, efficiency—all of these became the primary values of capitalist parsimony, the new god a steel deity forged within the Bessemer convertors of places such as the Bethlehem Steel plant. Weber describes how the new religion of this world is “bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism,” writing that now we are all imprisoned within “an iron cage,” or perhaps a steel one. With unnerving prescience, he mournfully predicts that such industry shall be the god of this world “until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt,” a heady prophecy of our own Anthropocene and its warming days and climate, to which Bethlehem did more than a bit to contribute.

Ironically, Bethlehem’s conversion from sanctuary and sacristy to forge and kiln, from Eden to Pandemonium, was facilitated by an outsider to the settlement and a German Catholic to boot. The financier and industrialist Charles M. Schwab—whose name is synonymous with wealth—would begin his life far to the west of Bethlehem, in the small town of Loretto, Pennsylvania, and, as an engineer, he would ascend from the position of lowly stake driver in the Edgar Thompson Steel Works and Furnaces in the nearby city of Braddock to President of the United States Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh. Schwab was privy to that position because it was he who negotiated the secret purchase of his boss and mentor’s Carnegie Steel to the speculator J.P. Morgan. As a result, Andrew Carnegie would become the richest man on earth, and a far richer Morgan would reward Schwab with the presidency of U.S. Steel, the company formed from that merger in 1901. Nine years before, the notorious Henry Clay Frick—when he and Andrew Carnegie were still on speaking terms—had said at a board meeting of the company, regarding their Bethlehem competitors, that “they are in a position to make very cheap pig iron, and could likely be made a formidable competitor if their company was well managed. If they had a man like Mr. Schwab, they would make things tough for us.” Of course, Bethlehem Steel wouldn’t just have a man like Mr. Schwab, they’d have the man himself. He would be the Midas of U.S. Steel for only two years, because by 1903 Morgan had tired of Schwab and conspired to have him deposed from his perch, and so he lost the largest corporation on earth, and certainly the largest steel company. Out of pride and spite, as such things must be, the exiled Schwab cast out of heaven would go east to Bethlehem and perfect the operations of the second largest steel company in the world, fulfilling Frick’s prophecy.

Now God’s former grove on earth became Charles M. Schwab’s company town, a city given over entirely to the production of steel, where engineers perfected the H-beam, integral to the construction of those skyscrapers just then starting to ascend in New York City, less than a hundred miles east. Far more specialized in their manufacturing than the brute output of their competitors in western Pennsylvania, Bethlehem Steel would literally construct the appearance and shape of modernity through Manhattan. The hot metal bridge at the steel mill might as well have been rolling out golden glowing ingots of molten iron to the first quivering clarinet note of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Kenneth Warren writes in Bethlehem Steel: Builder and Arsenal of America that Schwab “reckoned the Bethlehem plant could make 500 tons of rails and 1,000 tons of structures a day,” and that the company’s reputation would be built upon the “growing vogue of skyscraper construction, above all in mid-Atlantic cities, [which] presented an opportunity for production of heavy structures on a much larger scale than then undertaken.” Today, examining the decaying ruins of the Bethlehem Steel plant alongside the river—hideous and animalistic and glorious—it should be apparent that you’re staring upon a memorial every bit as representative of the faith of our immediate ancestors as St. Peter’s Basilica or the Parthenon are a material manifestation of the religions of our more distant forebears. Just as the Olympian gods or the Christian Lord once held dominion in the hearts of man, so now do the lords of Capital demand our genuflections, though today faith in them is faltering, too. Bethlehem Steel’s main mill is, if anything, a cathedral, or maybe rather a baptistry, the conceit of the raw materials of the Empire State Building rolling out of the factory too obvious to ignore. And, it should be said, there is a beauty to it, along with the ugliness. Now the mill appears as if some alien structure on a distant planet; the massive rusting blast furnace, the proud smoke stacks and convertors, all framed by the dramatic sweep of the valley in which it sits, sleeping.

Incidentally, Schwab the self-made man would become Schwab the unself-made man; the bell-curve contour of his life mimicking the fortunes of the company that he led, or for that matter those of the workers who saw their pensions disappear after Bethlehem Steel was sold by stockholders for scrap metal when the Bethlehem plant closed in 1995, as the steel industry collapsed. At the height of his personal wealth, Schwab was worth some $40 million, virtually all of which he lost in the stock market crash of 1929. A decade later, when he died in his Park Avenue apartment, sumptuous but not much bigger than the one that I rented, he was some $300,000 dollars in debt. A funeral mass was held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where among others, John D. Rockefeller and perennial presidential nominee Al Smith were in attendance. Outside of the service, holding vigil, were Madison Square Garden (built by Bethlehem Steel), the Waldorf Astoria (built by Bethlehem Steel), Rockefeller Center (built by Bethlehem Steel). Eighteen days before a massive coronary would fell Schwab, the German army crossed into Poland. The Nazi invasion that began the Second World War proved to rebound the wealth of Bethlehem Steel, as munitions and armaments now rolled off the assembly line. Allied victory may have been facilitated by British bravery and Soviet blood, but it was purchased with American steel. Hitler’s defeat lay not just in Stalingrad and Leningrad, but in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Bethlehem. From the ashes of the war, American hegemony made a certain bargain with the workers who first won that global war and now returned to the assembly lines where they made their employers rich; the deal being that it would be possible to provide a decent life for themselves and their families, that they’d be afforded a certain dignity. Obviously, such a contract wasn’t born from the largesse of the owners of corporations like Bethlehem Steel, but rather through the tireless agitation, striking, and activism of labor unions, but the deal was the deal regardless, until it wasn’t.

The center didn’t hold. Things fell apart. For the second time in its history, a faith was betrayed and the gates of Eden were soldered shut. “The American working class, a fragmentary but untamed force before the Great Depression, empowered and contained by the New Deal collective bargaining system, ideologically assimilated to the middle class in the 50s… had always been a vulnerable and malleable thing in American history,” writes Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. This was particularly obvious during the social cataclysm of deindustrialization, when boardrooms decided that their bottom lines were better served by moving operations to the south of the Mason-Dixon Line or overseas. Part of the post-war consensus was the faith that it would be possible to make a decent and dignified living through working-class labor, and even for all of its failings, particularly in regards to race and gender, that agreement served people better than what would come after. Who was responsible for the collapse? Those who fetishize the market, worship the Invisible Hand, prostrate themselves before capital, have a tendency to blame the labor unions, but when I was a drinking man still in my bottles stumbling towards Bethlehem, I never met anybody in the Tally Ho, Your Welcome Inn, or J. P. MacGrady’s who blamed the United Steelworkers Union for the disappearance of their father’s pension.

That particular phenomenon has had an ironic inversion in south Bethlehem, where now the ruins of the old mill reflected the faux-luminescence of Las Vegas magnate and right-wing benefactor Sheldon Adelson’s Sand’s Casino, a kind of ersatz post-industrial Disney World that opened in Bethlehem in 2009, the final iteration of the city visible from my window. The arabesque lettering of the Sands—borrowed from the original establishment on the Las Vegas Strip, which had once housed revues by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin—men whom the mid-century workers at the mill no doubt listened to on the jukebox at the Tammany Democratic Club or St. Bernard’s Home of Good Samaritans—was now emblazoned in one-story-high red letters across Bethlehem Steel’s ore crane. Call it what you want—Reaganism, neo-liberalism, late capitalism, apocalypse—but rarely has an economic and political shift been so obscenely manifested. Where once workers punched time clocks, now senior citizens punched slot machines. Gambling having never been my particular vice, I have still spent hours wandering the windowless, neon-permeated halls of the Sands, an evocative sort of broken beauty apparent in everything from the smell of the disinfectant in the carpets to the desperation of those playing the games. Simulated environments like these always have their own creepy attraction for me. The absence of clocks, the absence of the sun, the absence of time itself, makes the Sands feel like a purgatory. The casino, by virtue of the well-understood reality that the house always wins, is the most brutally honest summarization of capitalism that there is; it is the market in its most pure form. And yet we keep on feeding nickels into the Indiana Jones and Sopranos-themed slot machines, because what other choice do we have? The Sands is just Weber’s cage with sparkling lights on the bars. At one point in its history, Bethlehem promised salvation, then at least a living wage, and now the possibility of winning at the slots, at blackjack, poker, or roulette. That final game is a good enough metaphor for the force that compels any epoch, fortune’s ever turning wheel; the fortunes of redemption, the fortunes of capital and labor, the fortunes of whatever age it is that we happen to find ourselves in now. Bethlehem’s fortune may be a litany of broken promises and betrayals of church and state, capital and casino, but that’s not actually the narrative of Bethlehem. Rather it’s as different as a biography is from a soul, for the story of this city is wholly more mysterious and ineffable, and all the more beautiful as a result.

There is a striking, stark, black-and-white photograph by the great chronicler of the Depression, Walker Evans, taken in November of 1935 and titled Graveyard, Houses and Steel Mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In the distance is the familiar silhouette of the Bethlehem Steel plant, a line of connected brick rowhouses slightly more visible than that in the middle of the picture, and then the almost glowing granite of a cross marker in St. Michael’s Cemetery on the city’s south side, dominating the lower portion of the photograph, not far from where the casino is today. From my apartment in the offices of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, whether working late at night on my dissertation or nursing a hangover early in the morning, I could look east and make out the studded dots upon the green hillside of St. Michael’s, so I’ve seen from a distance that grave in Evans’s photograph, but never up close. I have no idea who is buried there, what woman or man has such posthumous fame, a person who lived and worked in Bethlehem and then died. What I know is that whoever they are, for a time and space, at least, they made this place their home. There were everyday triumphs and tragedies, no doubt; loves and losses, beauties and ugliness. This is, after all the abstractions are burnt away, what finally remains—other minds, other souls, other people. If there is any utopia, it’s in those experiences of the mind in wonder at the world, in every blessed, sacred, and holy moment of existence. It’s in the individuality of being a person whose uniqueness is so often obscured by the systems of this fallen world. It’s in the sacred quietude of walking down the brick pathway behind the Central Moravian Church, of watching the sun melt into the horizon above the river while crossing over the New Street Bridge on a crisp fall day, of a slight breeze rustling the leaves of green, and yellow, and red, and brown by the gothic towers of the churches dotting the university. It is to realize that if there is any promise, if there is any heaven, whether in Babylon or Bethlehem, then it’s here right now.

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.