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The outsider’s guide to Northampton County, where the 2020 election could be decided

Let’s talk about Northampton County. You’ll be hearing about it in November.

This is a swing county in a swing state, which means the choices of the 217,000 registered voters here carry a little more weight than, say, the votes of our neighbors just across the river in New Jersey, which is almost certainly going to vote for Joe Biden.

Northampton, on the other hand, remains pure purple — in fact, it’s one of only three “pivot” counties in Pennsylvania, meaning ones that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016.

Election Day 2020 is still two months away. But given that Northampton County has predicted who gets Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in most presidential elections for the last 100 years, and that Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes make it one of the most valuable swing states, well, it’s little wonder that the national media has already dropped in to report on how the race is playing out here.

Yet this is a diverse area, not easily encapsulated in any single news report. And for those that don’t live and work here, there’s much that’s left out of the familiar narratives — information about our history, our geography and our politics that all informs how people here will vote in November.

Northampton County specifically, and the greater Lehigh Valley in general, has become a hub of arts, culture and entertainment, built on a history of steel, slate and concrete.

In general, the county is less racially diverse than Pennsylvania or the nation as a whole, census data show. But ethnically, a variety of cultures are represented, from Hispanic to German to Lebanese.

(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)

As a whole, the county also skews a bit richer with a median income of about $68,500, about 10% higher than the state and country, though that varies significantly between areas, from a median income of $50,000 or less in some cities and boroughs to $80,000 in the sprawling townships. About three-quarters of the county population owns a residence.

(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)

The statistics offer some insight into how voter sentiment fluctuates from one presidential election to another — in addition to supporting Obama and Trump, we also have backed Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Al Gore — but the sights of the community also give clues about how we tend to vote and those sights go well beyond yard signs.

Inside our cities one will find professional sports, concert venues where superstar musicians kick off major tours, a variety of gastropubs and dive bars, and the usual perks and problems that come with any urban center. These are solidly blue communities.

Drive a few miles in any direction, and you’ll find rolling farms, industrial parks and plants, scenic woods, trails and rivers, small communities with cozy nooks every bit as important to the local culture as the busiest city street-corner bodega. You’ll also find folks worried that every new warehouse and housing development will rob them just a little bit more of the quiet life they have known. Many of these communities went for Trump in 2016, but have previously backed Democrats.

Easton Centre Square, Virtual Tour Northampton County

A aerial view of Easton’s Centre Square, the hub of the Northampton County seat’s downtown.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

The county seat and second-largest city has played a role in American history since the very beginning. Residents here in July 1776 were among the first to hear the Declaration of Independence read aloud in the city’s Centre Square. There’s a re-enactment every July in an event that draws voters of all stripes around the common thread of patriotism.

There are inns, museums and walking trails that celebrate this colonial past. And more recently, Centre Square has been the site of numerous political protests.

Two hundred years ago, this was a canal town, sending and receiving industrial materials up and down the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. A mill here was one of the nation’s leaders in silk production around the early 20th Century.

Now, the canal is a trail. The silk mill is a complex of apartments, breweries and other businesses. The downtown is becoming a hip foodie destination. Lafayette College is the centerpiece of the College Hill neighborhood, where residents worry about continued campus expansion. These areas tend to lean Democrat.

(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)

Easton has long tried to revitalize its minority neighborhoods in the West Ward and South Side. The city has significant Black and Hispanic populations, and a vibrant Lebanese community that holds an annual public church festival celebrating its heritage.

Easton’s most famous resident recently became the subject of a presidential speech, sort of. Larry Holmes, the former heavyweight champion boxer, was known in the ring as “The Easton Assassin” (and simply as “Champ” to the locals).

In an August speech outside Scranton, President Donald Trump tried to name-drop the prize fighter but dropped the wrong name, calling him Ernie Holmes before the crowd corrected him. To be fair, Trump did correctly give Larry Holmes a shoutout in a May visit to the Lehigh Valley. But Holmes didn’t take kindly to the latest remarks, responding via tweet with the hashtags #WeArentFriends and #IAmLarryHolmes.

A steel town that started as a religious community, Bethlehem – Northampton County’s largest city – is now home to a vibrant arts and entertainment scene.

This is where a massive, violent steelworkers strike in 1941 helped shaped the modern-day U.S. labor force. The city itself underwent a massive reinvention when its central industry, Bethlehem Steel, folded decades ago.

The blast furnaces that forged materials used in battleships and the Golden Gate Bridge are now historic ruins, presenting a dramatic backdrop for Musikfest concerts and other large events, from Latin festivals to Oktoberfest and huge World Cup viewing parties. (You may have seen the stacks in Bon Jovi’s music video for “This House is Not For Sale,” filmed almost exclusively in Bethlehem and nearby Allentown.)

Despite being a hub of activity, though, the blast furnaces have been frequently (and incorrectly) portrayed as a symbol of industrial decline. National news organizations have used them to illustrate why working-class voters went for Trump in 2016 — even though the city overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton in the election.

Lehighvalleylive.com's 2019 photos of the year

Chris Fowler, of Bethlehem, was prepared for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. He was among the fans at SteelStacks in Bethlehem for SoccerFest, watching the U.S. Women’s National Team in their first match June 11. The USWNT defeated Thailand 13-0, setting a World Cup record for goals scored by one team in a game, en route to their second straight World Cup championship.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

Bethlehem Steel buildings have been turned into a casino, hotel, industrial history museum and, perhaps someday soon, a water park. On New Year’s Eve, a giant Peep is dropped here – the Easter sweet is made locally by Just Born.

The city’s South Side, including Lehigh University, was essentially built in support of the industry. It is a college community that is becoming a trendy destination in its own right. Bethlehem also has one of the county’s most robust Hispanic populations centered in this area — something that is rarely mentioned in media reports seeking to explain why the county is purple.

(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)

North of the river, Bethlehem’s Main Street has buildings that date back to colonial times, some that served as inns or were pressed into service as hospitals during the Revolutionary War. You’ll find the oldest bookstore in the country here, and the sixth oldest college.

When national protests are coordinated, Bethlehem is one of the most common areas for Lehigh Valley residents to congregate. The plaza next to city hall has hosted the March for Science, Women’s March and, more recently, rallies following the police-involved death of George Floyd.

The city has been important to presidential candidates in recent years. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were here within 24 hours of each other just days before the 2008 primary. Fox News last year held a town hall with former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Afterward, Trump himself claimed to have revitalized the city, though that process clearly began well before he was in office.

The borough of Nazareth is about 10 miles north of Bethlehem and preceded its Biblical brethren in founding by about one year in the mid-1700s. Both communities were established by Moravian missionaries, and Nazareth was an early experiment in communal living.

These days, Nazareth is overwhelmingly white – more than 90% – and known as more of a blue-collar working community, though with a culture all its own.

(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)

This was the home of Nazareth Speedway, a now-closed track that was used by NASCAR and IndyCar, not to mention the famous Andretti racing family.

Nazareth’s most famous business is C.F. Martin & Co., which has made guitars since 1833. The company hosts a yearly music festival in town and has a museum of more than 100 rare and antique instruments, like the one used by musicians from Hank Williams to Kurt Cobain. (Also interesting to note: The company stopped loaning its originals to moviemakers after an antique Martin guitar was infamously smashed in the 2015 Quentin Tarantino film “The Hateful Eight.”)

Nazareth Speedway

A driver practices at Nazareth Speedway in 2004, the year the track used by NASCAR and IndyCar closed for good.Ken White | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

But perhaps the Nazareth area’s most important industry was, and continues to be, cement. The handful of plants that still surround the borough contributed to the 3 million metric tons of cement produced in Pennsylvania in 2018, and the $1 billion the industry added to the state’s economy, according to the Portland Cement Association.

Additionally, Lehigh Valley cement has been used in construction of Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park and the Wells Fargo Center, homes of the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies and Flyers, and the wall around the World Trade Center foundation in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Though perhaps not a frequent stop for candidates, Nazareth was visited by The Washington Post in November to ask how residents felt about Trump’s pending impeachment. The Post described Nazareth as a battleground town that, like Northampton County as a whole, twice voted for Barack Obama before flipping for Trump, now a town “evenly split between Trump lovers and haters.”

Lehigh Hanson HeidelbergCement Group, Nazareth; Virtual Tour Northampton County

Lehigh Hanson HeidelbergCement Group’s cement plant and terminal in Nazareth. The cement industry has been crucial to the region for over a century.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

Another, more diffuse blue-collar area of Northampton County, the Slate Belt in the county’s north is named for the numerous slate quarries used here in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some are still active, many more are now long abandoned.

The industry shaped the communities here. The Slate Belt is dotted with boroughs like Pen Argyl and Bangor, two of the largest here, which are actually named for Welsh terms and towns related to slate.

Pen Argyl

The Slate Belt borough of Pen Argyl is nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountain ridgeline.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com | LightHawk

But the region is planning for growth, anticipating that people will want to relocate from the more urban population centers. This is a rural area of small towns, farms and wineries at the foot of the Blue Mountain ridge, where you’ll find the Appalachian Trail. And increasingly residents along the Route 33 corridor, which includes parts of the Slate Belt and Nazareth, worry about the ever-expanding demand for large warehouses that bring jobs but also eat up large tracts of open land.

Like Nazareth, these boroughs and townships are overwhelmingly white and proud of their local history. The Weona Park carousel in Pen Argyl, for example, is an antique from the 1920s whose stationary wooden animals make one of the few remaining of its kind and a prominent mention on the borough’s website.

Dueling demonstrations over Black Lives Matter come to Slate Belt

Black Lives Matter demonstrators rally Saturday, June 27, 2020, along Route 512 in Pen Argyl. Matt Smith | For NJ Advance Media

With the population spread out over a handful of small centers, the Slate Belt may not be a frequent stop for national politicians on the campaign trail. But those politics reach here, too. Just this summer, a pair of competing protests shut down a major Pen Argyl road with chants of “Black lives matter” on one side and “four more years” on the other.

The Slate Belt may often be quiet, but folks here have as much chance as any to sway Northampton County, and with it Pennsylvania and quite possibly the nation, one way or the other in November.

And like Bethlehem, Easton and Nazareth, the Slate Belt’s surrounding townships — most of which are solidly red — will have just as much, if not more, sway in the upcoming election. Historically red, the townships’ identities aren’t as easily defined and have changed over decades of growth. But they — along with Saucon Valley and Northampton Borough — are a big part of Northampton County’s story and will be a big part in the next chapter of that story.

This is one in a series of stories that are part of Swing County, Swing State, a collaborative project between lehighvalleylive.com and nj.com that explores Northampton County’s critical role in the upcoming presidential election. The project is being generously supported by a $25,000 grant from The John Farmer Memorial Journalism Fund. Read more about it here. And please consider supporting ambitious local news like this with a subscription to lehighvalleylive.com.

Steve Novak may be reached at [email protected].

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