New Jerusalem

The old Allentown Good Will

It seems that Allentown (our three years younger neighbor to the north of Emmaus and my temporary place of residence) has hired someone to come up with a new slogan: “City without limits.” I know that the purpose of this slogan is essentially for marketing for development, but I can think of few worse slogans for any town.

Allentown, it should be noted, is no longer the city that Billy Joel sang about. The grittiness and rust-beltishness largely passed years ago. It really is a new sort of town, compared with that time, and perhaps this is the sort of thing the sloganeers had in mind. But the irony is to be found in their comparisons with other city nicknames, namely, New York’s “The Big Apple”, Chicago’s “The Windy City,” Philadelphia’s “City of Brotherly Love,” or even neighboring Bethlehem’s “Christmas City.”

None of those cities came up with their nicknames as part of a marketing campaign. They were simply nicknames that arose from the experience of those living there, for various kinds of reasons. Both Bethlehem and Philadelphia’s nicknames are derived from their actual names. Chicago is, quite literally, windy, and New York, curiously enough, shares its sobriquet with another great city, Constantinople, which was also thought of as an apple. Whatever the case, these towns drew their nicknames from experience. They also drew their nicknames from limits.

The limits which define those other cities are their particular character. Chicago can’t be anything other than windy, and Denver can’t be anything other than a mile high. What makes those nicknames work is that they are peculiar, precisely that they are, indeed, limitations on the character of their geographic reference points. But in the Allentown sloganeers’ desire to market what is, really, not a bad town at all, they chose something that is, in itself, devoid of real meaning.

Ah, yes—what was that town that had no limits to it? Yes, Allentown. Does that mean they’re going to annex poor Northampton now? (Actually, Allentown’s first incorporated name was, indeed, Northampton.) Will fair Emmaus be next or that upstart Macungie? Being “without limits” is precisely a characterless anonymity which simply suggests that here there is undifferentiated ground ready for development. We are SimCity. Paint some arbitrary zoning on us with your mouse. Something tells me that they will try this name on for a few years, until they realize that no one but marketeers and sloganeers (and maybe some Mouseketeers, but surely not musketeers) is using it. Then, they’ll replace it with something else, like “Allentown: Open for business.” Or (and this really is a snappy original) “Allentown: Please build something.”

Limits are precisely what make a place what it is. It’s this, not something else. It’s here, not there. It has limits. If it has no limits, it’s really just screaming out to be an undifferentiated morass of Wal-marts, Starbucks and publicly funded pieces of bad sculpture made from castaway steel girders and doctored up by a group perhaps best known as “Welders Without Borders”, a bland sprawl without grounding, without face, without identity. (Okay, I made up the “Welders Without Borders” bit, but not the art. Our poor valley is littered with it.)

Local tradition has it that Allentown was originally supposed to be named Jerusalem (which is not surprising, given other local names in the Lehigh Valley, e.g., Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Emmaus). That’s right—Jerusalem.

Now, there’s a city with limits.


  1. Almost every day, we pass the “Sunshine Limitless Playground.” The sign is on part of the fence which surrounds the entire playground.

  2. Father, is it then to be assumed that God is the only …”entity”, incomprehensible as He is, that is in one way or another “without limits?” Do there exist other things which we can define in thought or word that are in some capacity, limitless?

    Thank you for this post.

    1. You’re right that only God is really limitless. “Uncircumscribable” is the fancy theological/liturgical term.

  3. Actually, “the windy city” was an insult leveled at Chicago by an East Coast journalist during the bid for the right to host the Columbian Exhibition at the end of the 19th Century. The implication being that the politicians were creating so much “hot air” and “bluster” with their big promises for the bid that they were making the whole city “windy”. It was so apt, both then and now, to describe that city’s politicians that it stuck. As it turns out, Boston Massachusetts is actually, geologically speaking, significantly more windy than Chicago. This doesn’t alter your point at all, this nickname still derives from experience and limits (namely, that Chicagoans are prone to boasting as a means of hiding their inferiority complex when being compared to coastal cities such as New York, LA and Washington DC), but simply to help slow the spread of misinformation about the nature of the nickname I pass this on to you. For confirmation, see the book “Devil in the White City”, which is a non-fiction narrative of the Columbian Exhibition.

  4. Sadly, though, this is what a lot of middle America has become: yet another place to build big box stores, an Olive Garden, a handful of drug stores, and strip malls. Even sadder: people clamor for this, it seems.

    Whenever Michelle and I go travelling on a road trip, we always try to make a point to get off the damn highway and go into towns, looking for places to eat and rest that are a bit more interesting than what you find on a service road off the Interstate. We are almost always happier having done that than chowed down at “Yet Another American-Themed Restaurant With Whimsical Memorabilia”.

    1. Fortunately for us, I don’t think this is going to stick. Allentown is old enough and limited(!) enough that there really is no place to overwhelm it with suburban sprawl. Of course, poor Macungie with its flat farmland…

  5. Sounds like something from The Great Divorce 😉 It also reminds me of the awful slogan they were using at Catholic U. when I was there–“Do It All.” It wasn’t long before they had a contest to come up with a new slogan.

      1. Sounds like what you get when the Vatican’s official shoe supplier is Nike. Can’t wait to see cassocks and habits with a swoosh.

  6. Great post! Very Funny. Yes, the Marketing group really pulled out a zinger… that has no real meaning other than “Build Something Here”. What might you call it if you could think of some word or phrase to describe it?

    It has been a few years since I have been in Allentown, although last April on the way to NJ we made a wrong turn ad found ourselves at the gateway to the City with No Limits… I did not however cross into it’s limitless borders.

    On another note, that building is beautiful. I am fortunate to look out the window and see buildings like that here in Lancaster. Buildings with character that speak volumes about their long lives. They are authentic… that slogan however, is not!


    1. I’m not sure I could think of an appropriate nickname for Allentown even if I tried really hard. Anyway, I haven’t lived here long enough to have any legitimacy for such a naming. Nicknames should be from people with actual knowledge.

  7. Father,

    Allentown used to be called “The All-American City.” At some point it was nicknamed “The Little Apple.”

    I looked at those interesting pieces of artwork. 🙂 The orange box with inserted screw at Muhlenburg Lake (or the duck pond as we used to call it), holds dear memories for me – walking our children around the lake, feeding bread to the geese and ducks for the umpteenth time. Some of the rusted junk they could disassemble and throw in the trash heap. Still, it ain’t all bad. 🙂 Btw, I met the man who sponsored much of that artwork – if I recall, I think his name was Buhrman.

    Actually, when I first came to Allentown in the 70’s, the well-known sect that I was a part of (Forever Family/Church of Bible Understanding), nicknamed Allentown “Rockyhill Seminary,” and sometimes “Rockyhill Cemetery.” The reasons had to do with peoples’ reactions toward our aggressive witnessing techniques.

    Anyway, after having lived in the Poconos for 13 yrs., my husband and I are finally talking about moving back to the Lehigh Valley. It is saturated with memories, and good ones at that. I once was able to say that I had applied for a job on nearly every square block within the city limits. Trexler Park is great for jogging and biking. The rose gardens draw all kinds of photographers and nature lovers as soon as spring begins.

    The downtown area has seen better days. Hess’s and Leh’s Department Stores drew big crowds on Thursday evenings, when all the shops were open. No one could beat a Brass Rail cheesesteak.

    Ok, enough of the walk down memory lane.

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