A Sense of Place, Part IV: “Reading” Main Street

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

On a quiet morning last fall, I sat on a bench on Main Street, acutely aware of the wind howling and blowing the leaves in the trees, as well as the nature around me.  

A fuzzy-tailed squirrel scurried along the sidewalk in an attempt to find refuge in the nearby trees, dropping an acorn (or some other nut) along its way. In addition to the squirrel, birds were cawing and chirping as they were flying amongst the trees and beyond towards the vast masonry bridge connecting the north and south Bethlehem discourse communities – or groups of people who share common ideologies, goals, values, and beliefs. 

From the squirrel and birds’ perspectives, all of the man-made buildings and architectural structures of Main Street that humans deem to be “places” are actually mere spaces with no meaning; nevertheless, the nature that interplays with these physical structures are “places” for the wildlife.  Humans are constantly attempting to create more “places” through the destruction of trees and the natural “places” that the animals inhabit, thereby creating a conflict in the environment. 

During the afternoon of that same day, I returned to my bench to be marveled by the hustle and bustle around me.  As I walked to the bench to assume my position, dry brown leaves crunched under my squeaky sneakers.  A brisk wind rustled my jacket as I took up a station on my wooden bench, now drier than it had been that morning.  

The leaves of the trees lining Main Street formed a canopy over my head.  The green and brown leaves, rustled by the breeze, periodically sprinkled cool drops of rainwater on me.  A young girl ran up the hill behind my bench, hair flying behind her as her parents rushed to keep up.  

Unlike during the morning, the dozen or so metered parking spots lining the street were packed with vehicles of all models, colors, and states of disrepair.  The states of the vehicles reflected the various socioeconomic discourse communities that had gathered on Main Street that afternoon, from someone wealthy enough to drive a white Tesla to someone possessing a beaten-up old Honda Civic.  

During a busy day such as this, the people were restrained to park in any open spot that could be found, as opposed to a convenient spot in front of their ultimate destination.  As the people who were fortunate enough to find a coveted parking spot on Main Street parked their cars within painted parking spots, many of the lined angular parking spots were temporarily viewed as a “place” by the owners of the vehicles.  However, the idea of “place” soon vanished to these visitors, as they pulled out of the parking spot and went on with their day.

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

Many people were hurriedly walking alone toward their final destination and trying to avoid physically running into other people on the sidewalk along the way.  Many of them were using their cellphones or AirPods and not paying attention to the sights and sounds around them. As most of the people who fell into this category were young adults and/or Moravian students (as gleaned from their donning Moravian paraphernalia or carrying a bookbag), it seems likely that they were familiar with the location and did not feel compelled to take the time to appreciate the sights or the history that the location affords.  

Others walked in small groups of what appeared to be friends, as the members of the group were of the same age. These people were interacting and conversing with each other in a jovial manner and seemed to be more interested in the conversation than the location.  To these people, the area in front of the Moravian Book Shop provided the perfect backdrop to affably communicate and cheerfully mingle with each other.  

While the area was designed primarily with commerce in mind, the collateral effect was to afford friends the opportunity to bond and connect in an entertaining and pleasing environment.  Indeed, these discourse communities of friends entered and exited shops along Main Street, laughing and talking with each other.  Similarly, families milled along the sidewalks with their children, many of them stopping to take a photograph with the Penn State Nittany Lion statue situated on a bench outside of the Hotel Bethlehem.  

Families were not the only ones who were interested in the Nittany Lion bench, however.  An older couple stopped and sat on the bench for a respite as they chatted.  These two small discourse communities utilized the bench in the manner for which it was designed – both as a photo opportunity to memorialize their time in Bethlehem and a place to rest and relax.   

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

In the evening, it was much cooler, and people were dressed for the weather.  As a result of the glow of the street lights that were located approximately every 100 feet from each other along both curb lines, the Main Street area assumed the air of a quaint town.  

The black aluminum street lamps were in the shape of carriage lamps, reminiscent of the Victorian era.  Standing approximately 12 feet tall, the light from the street lamp illuminated the area around me, throwing shadows from the tree branches onto the sidewalk below.  

The City of Bethlehem installed the street lights to brighten Main Street and make it accessible to visitors during both the day and at night.  The lighting also provides a measure of safety, as it deters crime and gives a sense of security to those visiting the area.  The crowds of people that I observed on Main Street after the sun went down demonstrate that the municipality’s intentions in lighting up the area were founded. 

A red and white metal “Snow Emergency Route” sign was securely bolted to the pole of the street light outside of the Moravian Book Shop, such that northbound traffic could clearly view the sign from the roadway.  As winter had yet to arrive and there was no snow in the forecast, this sign did not appear to have any immediate significance to drivers.  

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.
Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

However, while this winter sign went unnoticed by most, many small discourse communities utilized the back of this sign as a medium to express themselves to others (both small and large discourse communities).  

Specifically, I noticed a bright yellow bumper sticker meant for a vehicle that was plastered on the top right corner of the sign, which advertised “The Tastiest Voice Since Frank Sinatra – LUCAS LASAGNA.”  While such a name would appear comical to those passersby who actually noticed the sticker, this genre was attempting to advertise a new singer, as it even provided a link to visit his digital genre (i.e., his website).  

To my surprise, an abundance of stickers were affixed to this two-foot-long parking sign that acted as a medium to call attention to start-up bands, such as “Krime Slugs,” “Loyal Habits,” and “The Keystone Breakers.” The reverse of the sign was also donned with several small, brightly-colored stickers marketing other “places,” such as a coffee house named “The Joint” and the entirety of the “Outer Banks” in North Carolina.  

In addition to the self-promoting advertisements, one black and white sticker in “creepster font” located on the bottom right of the street sign was actually an outreach program sticker.  This sticker publicized the “Synergy Project,” which provides assistance for runaway and homeless youth run by the Valley Youth House.  

To the dismay of the various discourse communities that had placed the sticker/genre on the sign and to the satisfaction of a larger discourse community (the municipality, which deems such genres as graffiti), some of these stickers had been torn off or deteriorated from being exposed to the elements.  Although the “Snow Emergency Route” sign was intended to keep the street free of vehicles to allow for efficient snow removal, various discourse communities took advantage of the sign’s prominent location and flat metal surface to communicate with other discourse communities in a non-conforming way. 

To the right of my bench was a candy store whose sweet chocolate aroma wafted in the air toward my location.  One sniff of the sweet scent of the fresh chocolate made my mouth water, as it reminded me of my favorite delicious chocolate-covered pretzels.  

The sweet smell attracted many customers (a variety of small discourse communities) to that store, including families with young children in strollers and couples of all ages.  When an older married couple exited the candy store, they stopped and removed their tasty loot from the bag and began to share the box of chocolates that they had bought.  

In contrast, a young couple exited the candy store with the small bag of chocolate being carried by the woman, who maintained the goodies in her sole possession and control.  I quietly laughed to myself when I noted the difference in the behavior of these discourse communities, as the older couple appeared to be in tune with each other’s wants, while the younger couple appeared to look to their own individual desires.  

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

In addition, I observed the discourse community of tourists/outsiders who would point to different novel spots along Main Street and appeared to lack confidence and to be hesitant in their strides along their new “space” of Main Street.  These actions contrasted with the behavior of the locals who walked to their destinations/“places” with determination and direction.  The locals had already embedded themselves into the environment, thereby finding meaning in the place.  The tourists’ pause and delay allowed them time to absorb their surroundings and develop meaning and impart significance to their new environment. 

The area around me was filled with the din of both conversation and laughter.  However, as I was getting ready to call it an evening,

I observed a couple towards the entrance to the Hotel Bethlehem who appeared to be in the middle of a heated argument based on their gestures and stern facial expressions.  The man soon walked off, heading up Main Street, leaving the woman alone to find solace with the Nittany Lion statue as she sat down on the then-empty bench.  

After observing this scene, I felt that I had witnessed a rhetorical clash; the bench with the Nittany Lion is typically a “place” of curiosity, fun, and happiness, as families and couples sit on the bench to bond and further their relationship.  However, in this situation, the Nittany Lion bench was a “place” of sadness for the woman, providing her with temporary refuge as she collected her thoughts.  I felt sad having witnessed a divide in a small discourse community and knowing that the Nittany Lion bench would forever be a negative “place” for her. 

As  I rose from the bench on which I had sat for a long period of time throughout that day, I realized that the bench no longer felt cold and hard to me.  Instead, I looked upon the bench with a feeling of nostalgia, possessing the knowledge that I would never look at this bench the same way again.  

Photo courtesy of Conor Griffon.

I knew that the next time I encountered this bench, I would reminisce about the time I sat on it to observe the many different discourse communities around me, as well as to reflect on the discourse communities of the past.  I realized that I would wonder who used “my” bench after I left for the night; did it provide refuge to a homeless person or a spot for a Moravian student to lay his backpack down while he juggled his coffee and his cell phone?  To me, the bench is no longer just a “space,” as it now holds a special meaning unique to me and my experience.  The bench is now my “place” on Bethlehem’s Main Street.