Alisher Aminov

Lebanon, PA.— Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a cornerstone of the Keystone State, is placed within the center of cultural and urban development in virtually every direction; yet the city itself has begun to experience something of an identity crisis.

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Downtown Lebanon 1980s- Picture by Downtown Lebanon Facebook Page

Leading up to the 1980s, Lebanon City, Pennsylvania, was a booming steel town. With the Bethlehem Steel Factory located at the heart of the city, the area’s economy flourished, drawing blue-collar industrial workers from all around.

According to U.S. Census data, the population of Lebanon in the 1980s was approximately 25,700 people, and the ethnic/racial breakdown of the city skewed heavily white. At the time, less than 7% of the population identified as Hispanic.

Beth Carpenter, a Lebanon native, said that during that era, the city of Lebanon did not struggle to find its identity. Instead, it was a collective of working, middle-class families who enjoyed the city’s quaintness.

However, Carpenter said that coming into the 1990s, Lebanon City entered into an era of uncertainty as the steel mill closed its doors and ultimately filed bankruptcy.

Carpenter said almost overnight that Lebanon City’s dynamic began to change as many of the middle-class families that made up the area moved away due to the mass unemployment that accompanied the closing of the steel mill.

In the years that followed the closure of Bethlehem Steel and the Lebanon Steel Foundry, Carpenter said that the city’s demographics began changing rapidly, and the demographics that make up the city today have significantly shifted from what they once were 40 years ago.

According to 2020 Census data, Lebanon city now has a population of roughly 27,000 people, making it rank within the top 50% of cities in Pennsylvania for its population size. Additionally, according to the data, the city’s Hispanic population has expanded exponentially, representing 44% of the city’s total population today.

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Downtown Lebanon 2022- Picture by Alisher Aminov

As the dynamic of Lebanon City has gradually settled in the wake of the steel mill leaving, many of the residents of the city have now begun to enter into a debate over what the city should look like as we move forward into the future.

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Downtown Lebanon 2022- Picture by Alisher Aminov

Lebanon city native and local real-estate developer Noah Starry said that one of the most significant challenges he has experienced as a developer in the city is that the city is often inconsistent with what types of projects it grants building permits and zoning change authorization.

Starry said “Lebanon businesses, community, government, etc. do not know who we are.” He said that the city government often rebuffs the development of apartment buildings, making it very difficult for him to work in Lebanon.

Starry said that currently, Lebanon is facing a housing dilemma where the city is struggling to house all of its residents.

In addition, he said that it is challenging to develop more housing options because the city has an ordinance that restricts the heights of buildings to three stories.

Starry said, “when you don’t have any more room horizontally, you have to start building vertically, but that is not possible in Lebanon.”

Stary, however, said that he continues investing in the city because it has a unique potential to grow as a result of its location within the state.

What makes Lebanon City distinctly unique is its location. Unlike any other city in the state, Lebanon city is positioned directly in the middle of most of Pennsylvania’s largest cities and is a gateway to the New England states.

Starry said that according to traffic data, it is estimated that more than 20,000 vehicles pass through two of Lebanon’s roadways with combined traffic of more than 40,000 vehicles per day.

Demographically, Lebanon City is consistently broken up into two distinct parts, with the majority of the city’s Hispanic population living in the more urbanized sections of the city. In contrast, most white people live in houses that surround Lebanon’s more populated areas.

This demographical divide has created a dilemma where many of the city’s suburban residents want Lebanon to return to the quaint days of the steel mill. In contrast, new urban residents want Lebanon to embrace the characterization of a city and follow the housing, business, and economic model that other cities have followed around Lebanon.

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Lebanon Welcome Sign- Picture by Alisher Aminov

Rafael Torres, the Founder and Director of WEPA (Working to Empower People for Advancement) Workforce Empowerment Center, said that Lebanon needs to begin learning from the mistakes and successes of Lebanon’s surrounding cities if they hope to keep up with the times.

Torres said that in recent years, the political and social divide between the Hispanic and white population of the city has grown exponentially, making it extremely difficult for the city to move forward with a united identity or coordinated plan for development.

Torres said that he believes residents who have lived in Lebanon since the 1980s struggle to come to terms with the City’s new demographics. He said, “Lebanon residents often overlook the growing Hispanic population in the city and choose to complain about them instead of working with them.”

Torres said that people often argue that Lebanon should either follow the city models of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, or Lititz, Pennsylvania, with pro-urbanization advocates arguing that the city should follow the larger Lancaster model and anti-urbanization advocates arguing that the city should follow the smaller Lititz model.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a city with a population approximately double the size of Lebanon that has a demographical breakdown similar to Lebanon. According to U.S. 2020 Census data, Lancaster has a population where 38% of residents identify as Hispanic.

Alternatively, Lititz is a city with an approximately three times smaller population than Lebanon, following a suburban model. According to U.S. 2020 census data, Lititz has a population where 6% of residents identify as Hispanic.

Torres, a Lancaster native, said that when Lancaster experienced its economic uncertainty in the 1980s, the city began to follow an urbanization model as people/organizations within the city began taking ownership of the surrounding area and spearheaded new infrastructure programs.

Groups such as SACA (Spanish American Civic Association) began focusing on expanding opportunities in the city for workforce development training and made massive contributions to housing development through their affordable housing initiatives.

Torres said that Lititz, on the other hand, is a small borough (as opposed to a city) that maintains the aesthetic and community culture of the time before the collapse of the steel industry in Pennsylvania. He said that the community uses its quaint aesthetic to attract visitors from all around the state. 

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Farmers Trust Building in Lebanon- Picture by Alisher Aminov

Lebanon City Council Member Joe Morales said that he often thinks that Lebanon has the potential to grow into an urbanized city resembling a smaller version of Lancaster but ultimately believes that many of the residents who live here would not support the concept.

Morales said, “I was recently passing through Lancaster and was blown away by how much variety the city has. Part of me wishes Lebanon could almost become a smaller version of that.”

Morales said that it is difficult for local government to do much these days because of the negative perception national politics has given government as a whole. He said that, especially recently, people have become particularly skeptical of any new government initiatives and often fight against change of any type.

Morales said that people often overlook the fact that while Lebanon has not prospered in the way that cities like Lancaster have, Lebanon has also not experienced the declines other cities have as a result of trying to re-develop too quickly.

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