Walking in Walker Evans’ Shoes

Hollywood has a preferred vantage of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In November 1935, nineteen years before my birth and eight months before his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men trip, Walker Evans photographed my town. His renowned shot from that series became this iconic portrait. It is the Bethlehem that the world knows, a “convergence in the keen historic spasm of the shutter,” to borrow James Agee’s words about the later Alabama sojourn. You can visit Evans’ picture at the Metropolitan or the MOMA, finding there a far more satisfying aesthetic experience than locating it on the Internet. Some of those who have done so, those joyless artsy types lugging the latest digital equipment and Manhattan attitude, make the pilgrimage to St. Michael’s Cemetery on Bethlehem’s south side.

Evans Bethlehem GraveyardEast Fourth Street is one block up from the vestigial silent blast furnaces of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s Bethlehem Plant. It is a wide residential avenue running east-west. The city wall is to the north, the downhill side, a composition of ancient row houses stacked in irregular steps. State Street, a thin bowed cross street that was unpaved through 1930, intersects East Fourth and shoots up South Mountain at a startling rise. You have to trudge seriously for sixty or so yards uphill to East Morton Street, between Fourth and Fifth. That’s the place you turn into St. Michael’s. No gate inhibits your entrance. Another few yards’ walking—there’s a flat spot in the nineteenth-century cobblestones—turn again. Now smile at the simplicity and obviousness of the location. You’re standing where Evans set up his tripod.

The Photograph shows the grim reverse of a cemetery cross filling the intersection of Fourth and State. The bleak row houses are dramatically set into the skyline. The Steel is predominant. There are gravestones, smaller crosses, and plot fences—flourishes popular in consecrated Roman Catholic ground a hundred years ago—all spread about in a disconcerting jumble. The whole of it is presided over by the Bethlehem Steel. The effect is so simple, stunning in its documentary elegance. The Steel (in Bethlehem it is always preceded by the definite article) is God-like in constancy, looming, more certain than death.

Walker Evans made Bethlehem striking and depressing when he created this lasting hyper-realistic moment of the Great Depression. His cemetery vignette is a brutal visual allegory for the power of industry over men at their mortal end. Frederick Francis, the most gifted British cinematographer of his age, shot the opening of Robert Mandel’s School Ties from this spot in 1991. Francis began the movie in the blue sky, swung down, and caught the smoke from the blast furnaces of the Bethlehem Plant still operating in their last years. He lingered on the Evans gravestones. Then he cut left—the natural movement of your eye here on this hillside—to a small church on a promontory across State Street. Its dark brown brick and imposing steeple present an architectural style that strikes you as vaguely European and certainly of another age.

I grew up in that church. Michael Pagats, one of the two grandfathers whose Christian names I bear, was among the men who laid those dark bricks. His children were baptized, confirmed, and married here. Then they brought their own children here, including me and my brother. That was a time when Bethlehem was still growing and on its way to becoming one of the finest places to live, learn, prosper, and thrive. All of it—the growth, the city, the sociology, the politics, the petit corruption, the family life, the music, the journalism, the superlative public schools, the colleges, the smaller businesses, and even the flight I took from here in the 1970s—was fueled by the great economic engine of the Bethlehem Steel.

My maternal grandparents knew the church as Bethlehemi Elsö Magyar Ágostai Hitvallásu Evangélikus Egyház. The written words and their diacriticals are still exotic to me, but I shall attempt a translation from the kernels of the Hungarian language that remain deep within me: Greater Bethlehem Hungarian Augsburg Confession Evangelical Church, of course following the central European convention of saying “Evangelical” when you mean “Lutheran.”

To my parents’ generation intent on shedding their parents’ old country past the congregation was called in English the First Hungarian Lutheran Church. Hundreds of congregants packed the place on January 9, 1955, when I was baptized there, sixteen days old. They were all from young families, almost every one of them headed by a father as loyal to the Steel as he was to the Faith. And make no mistake: Faith and Steel were at equity. For roughly three decades, Truman to Reagan, Bethlehem and the Bethlehem Steel were synonymous with contentment, prosperity, optimism, economic well-being, and a brand of patriotism undergirded by a bedrock commitment to American industrial might.

My Bethlehem—my Steel—were in so many ways exactly the opposite of the bleak social psychology that Walker Evans recognized and captured in 1935.

If you continue in Evans’ footsteps hiking farther up the hill at St. Michael’s, past the point where the cobblestone wagon path ends, you reach a place where thick grass and forested understory have overgrown the gravestones. Stop for a moment here and grieve—not for the souls of those steelworkers whose mortal remains are here—but for the destruction and disrepair of fine craftsmanship left to decades of ruin. I played here as a child half a century ago. The memorials in this remote part of St. Michael’s were carved with enduring grace by Italian immigrant stonecutters in the 1890s. Each was once a work of art and love. They are now tipped, chipped, or broken. The Madonnas, angels, lambs, and little Christs are all victims of vandalism. You have to turn your back.

Bethlehem from St Michaels (c) Michael Pocalyko 2001Before you now is the larger field of Walker Evans’ view. Almost all of Bethlehem is visible. You’re now higher than the roof line of the First Hungarian Lutheran Church. Above and beyond it is a different Bethlehem. There’s the original world headquarters building of the Bethlehem Steel on Third Street. From the top floor of that building, the regal Eugene Gifford Grace, who was either president or chairman of the Steel from 1916 to 1957, would hold court (imperial metaphors are most appropriate) in his executive dining room, able to survey his personal domain. The great Bethlehem Plant spread out for miles on the south side of the Lehigh River. In another Evans Bethlehem photograph of Model A Fords and the Easton Trolley tracks on Fourth Street, that building looms large, just as it does today. Only now it’s abandoned and supposed to become a “post-incubator workspace” that will never recapture the opulence it once contained. It is a painful physical metaphor for the American now that replaced the Steel.

From where you stand here in St. Michael’s, at about the height of the executive dining room, the stepped Fourth Street row houses and the Steel’s blast furnaces—ducting left intact years after these giants’ last cast on November 18, 1995—still fill your view. When I lived here, the furnaces, foundries, and mills of Bethlehem were alive and vital. Kids in town knew the difference among them. They were never mere industrial workplaces, but living systems of men with intense drive and deep resolution—“at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls,” in Walker Evans’ recollection of the time, if not precisely of this place.

The creative and expressive energies of Bethlehem and of the Steel were once, given over to making something—structural steel for the Golden Gate Bridge or Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, you would always hear with pride. Bethlehem Steel built Rockefeller Center and the Congress’s Rayburn Building in Washington. Bethlehem provided at least some of the steel for the new twin towers of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center. It was the biggest building in the world when I was in high school in 1970. Of course it is today’s most painful physical metaphor of our age.

Bethlehem was a place for men who were bold and profane, characteristics they shared with the Steel executives who lived so much better and so far removed from this place on the south side. These men were uncommonly ennobled in their common decency. They were my family in the narrow sense and in the broadest sense. They are my people and they spent whole lives in the shadow of the Steel. They lived in neighborhoods like this one on Fourth Street. They had houses with addresses like Mechanic Street, Carbon Street, or the Miller Heights Rural Station of my boyhood.

They were steelworkers of magnificent intellect and capability, all independent of the formal educations that most of them never received. Their great good ghosts abound in this place. There in the plant they lived and worked and sweated and endured. On break they might read together to learn English. Of course they would share the most obscene lies of personal sexual conquest. Sometimes, in the old country tradition, they would write poems.

Gray eyes follow

Overhead pendulums

Silent

In the foundry roar.

Over there—see that guy?  The skinny kid writing on a hard bench in the break room of the Ingot Mould Foundry. That’s me, the author of this memoir, writing that stanza in longhand. Let’s leave him alone for now because we don’t want to get ahead of our story. But you will meet him again.

Across the river and visible from St. Michael’s Cemetery is the Hotel Bethlehem (Evans’ journal tells us that he stayed there) and the spire of the Central Moravian Church. This is the icon that Bethlehem, not Hollywood, prefers. Way beyond the north side of the river, a few miles in the distance, is a striking monolithic building colored—what else?—steel-gray. This is Martin Towers, last headquarters of the bankrupt Bethlehem Steel, named for Grace’s successor in the mid-1960s.

The row houses in Evans’ picture are mostly the homes of Latino families today, not the Hungarian immigrants who were their first residents. This part of town remains a place, however, where one language is taught to children in the Bethlehem public schools and another is spoken colloquially in their households—a situation that has obtained on the south side for a hundred years, which, as it turns out, was just about the lifetime of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

These are small houses, and many have a walk-up above the street-level floor. When I was a boy, this neighborhood was graying but still very “Hunkie”—a nominative that, like its ugliest analog in the African American community, had better only be said by one of us referring to one of our own. Not much but the language has changed here in family economics or sociology in the seventy-seven years since the famous photograph. The fathers here, for the most part kind, uncompromising, hardworking men, are employed in service industries and a new casino rather than in the manufacturing jobs once abundantly available at the Steel. They no doubt hope, as did the fathers who lived in Walker Evans’ houses, for a future in which their children, beneficiaries of applied academics, will prosper to a greater measure than the one to which the impositions of Providence bound their generation. But unlike the Hungarians before them, the Latinos’ Bethlehem is not a city of certainty, no longer a community where the Steel would endure. These are practical men, then and now.

Bethlehem is wonderful today, prospering, extraordinary—its colonial beauty and entrepreneurial spirit re-emerging two decades after the Steel’s demise.

But there is no more Bethlehem as I knew it.

For that reason it is now time for memory to speak, for emotion to endow a personal story, and for a place and time to tell this powerful secondary truth of America’s industrial moment: Bethlehem was a wonderful place to be from. This is indeed not the story of Eugene Gifford Grace and the men he would take to lunch in his private dining room, a place with long, beautiful wood tables graced with linen and silver. It is a different and better story, of a family and a boy in the penumbra of a once-great company, formed by a vibrant small city, both bearing the name Bethlehem.

The economics of the place are stunning and relevant. In 1941 Fortune magazine reported that the combined steelmaking capacity of Bethlehem Steel’s plants equaled that of the entire United Kingdom. In October 2001, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, then a $4.1 billion international corporation, petitioned for bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. Facing mounting operating losses, huge legacy costs for 74,000 retirees, and a crippling cash flow to debt service ratio, the company judged that it had no other alternative. How Bethlehem went from the pinnacle of global industrial might to bankruptcy in sixty years could be a narrative case study of a long, slow, sloping decline. To those who recall the Bethlehem where and when I grew up, this story becomes a remembrance of great sadness and almost overbearing emotion. The Steel was our security, our way of life, our culture, our economic system and a powerful political force, and it was our family. You hear the sentiment expressed often with simple elegance: The best part of our life was spent there. Those who say so are only part right. The best part of America’s life was spent there.

Walker Evans framed such a bleak future with that photograph on the hill at St. Michael’s Cemetery. During the sixties and early seventies, this lens view was laughable. Evans’ documentary vision seemed like nothing more than a transitory moment of the Great Depression. It was no more relevant to us than Dust Bowl families headed west from Oklahoma that year, and it felt just about as far removed from the energetic Bethlehem that I knew as a young man. The people living in those row houses prospered.

I used to love visiting my Uncle Frank and Auntie Katie Horga in one of those places, a first floor flat improbably numbered 1113½ East Fourth Street. During my childhood they were a loving childless couple in their mid-sixties, immigrants from Hungary before the Great War. He was gaunt, tough, thin and athletic—in charge of his life as he had been for forty years as a machinist at the Steel. She was as large and soft as he was small and tight. You can still see their old flat across from St. Michael’s, although they are buried together at Hellertown Union with the Lutherans, not here in this Roman Catholic ground. But it would not have mattered if Frank Horga had been of the Mother Faith. He would never have been laid to rest where Walker Evans walked. At First Hungarian, his was the first funeral of a suicide that I ever attended.

This is my story. But because he stands in “for all the saints, who from their labors rest,” it becomes his story too. Remembrance works that way.

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Welcome to my Helga paintings. A memoir, in progress. In “Tsundoku” I promised a long-form post. There it is. A departure. A visit to Bethlehem. A piece of my own possibly immortal and literally sacred soul.

The stanza of verse is from my poem “Chain,” published in Arcade 29,1 (Fall 1974). “Graveyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 1935” is in the Evans WPA collection in the Library of Congress and the permanent photography collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The other image is mine, detail from a gelatin silver print of a photograph I took in 2001.