One may well ask why I chose Bethlehem
as a significant American place, and what about it is "American".
Bethlehem is a symbolic and extreme case of a small town which grew and
developed dependent on its supporting industry. Denver relied on
gold, Detroit on cars, and Bethlehem on steel. These and many other
cities doubled in size many times over due to their companies, and benefitted
from the money, services, and people they also brought. Yet, as America
left the Industrial Age for the Computing Age, all these manufacturing
companies, like Bethlehem Steel, slowly became obsolete. Many also
suffered at the hands of foreign competition, as Japan implemented improved
production methods and southern Asia made use of cheap labor.
Bethlehem, both company and city, showed the extreme level to which white- and blue- collar workers' lifestyles could be separated. On the job, management was selective and secluded from the rest of the plant. Who you knew was as important as what you could do. Executives remained just as aloof socially as at work, as was the case in many communities throughout America. White collar workers would patronize certain clubs and volunteer in certain agencies; blue collar workers were frequently excluded from these clubs, but were free to patronize and volunteer wherever they wished. Blue collar workers consisted of a wide variety of races and ethnicities, while executives were almost exclusively WASPs.
The labor union at Bethlehem also provides a case study of the evolution and problems facing American unions. Starting as a company-organized representative group, it became a national union during the anti-monopoly legislation of the 1930's. Like most other industries, the United Steelworkers frequently went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. This was carried to extremes in the seventies, giving union workers a higher standard of living than non-union workers. However, many experts claim, it also led to the red ink and downsizing experienced by many companies in the eighties.
Perhaps Bethlehem best shows the fear many American communities experienced in the eighties as so many companies, which had been steady employers for generations, began to downsize and lay off thousands. These backbone industries of the U.S. had steadily grown since the turn of the century, supporting the towns near them. When America lost its position of world economic dominance, these industries dwindled, leaving their towns with low revenue and high unemployment. These towns and cities then had to rebuild, creating new identities and sources of income. It is towns like Bethlehem that keep providing America with a new source of identity.