Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line
–Billy Joel, Allentown
Love it or hate it, “Allentown” by Billy Joel is memorable. The songs easy
melody and strong visual language help to insinuate it in the mind.
I heard it for the first time in years this morning as it piped through
invisible ceiling speakers at my local bodega in the East Village. Within
the first couple of notes, I recognized it. It made me think of how much
has–and hasn’t changed–in Allentown since Joel wrote the song during the
economic doldrums of the early 1980s.
Bethlehem Steel, essentially the birthplace of the US Industrial Revolution,
closed its doors in 1993–a demise that is often cited as an example of the
U.S. transition away from industrial manufacturing and its inability to
compete with cheap, foreign labor. The city, while known for excellent
colleges and hospitals, has not been able to successfully reinvent itself
after the steel and anthracite industries collapsed. Until now.
Pennsylvania’s long-running socioeconomic stress is starting to ease, partly
because of its status as the “bedroom community” of New York and
Philadelphia, but also because of the steady corporate growth of local
companies like Lutron, Olympus, Pennsylvania Power & Light, and Rodale
Press, and the expansion of distribution centers along the Interstate. In
fact, the Lehigh Valley (incorporating Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem) is
one of the fastest growing “regions” in the country.
Lutron was founded by Joel and Ruth Spira in 1961 in the Lehigh Valley, in
the small city of Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. It made a name for itself as the
manufacturer of the world’s first solid-state dimmer. In the decades since,
Lutron has become one of the world’s leading lighting control innovators;
its products are available in 80 countries, from specialty AV boutiques to
As it continues to evolve worldwide, and diversify its product mix, Lutron
has never moved corporate headquarters. Indeed, the Lutron presence in the
region continues to grow, as buildings are erected for R&D, sales, 24/7
customer support, and technical service.
Sales continue to be strong for the company in both its RadioRa and
HomeWorks line, but it is also experiencing increased demand for motorized
and controllable window treatments. This past October, Lutron opened the
doors to its Coopersburg Design Center, an elegant showcase of its
residential lighting portfolio.
When I met with company representatives for a tour through the impressive
new Design Center last week, it was apparent that Lutron walks the walk. As
I weaved in and out of the various company barracks, its “old school” ethos
was evident. Each employee was helpful and informative, and even more
surprising, they wore smart suits and ties–the wardrobe of yesteryear. It’s
a rarity in today’s corporate culture, especially for 20-somethings like me
who cut their teeth while wearing Converse at a dotcom.
For this successful company, which is remarkably still “private,” such
simple facts in the face of constant change reflect a rare commitment to an
ideal…an ethic of hard work, quality, and community.