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The following historical summary of downtown Hazleton was written by Charles F. McElwee and prepared in cooperation with, and courtesy of, the Greater Hazleton Historical Society & Museum.
Hazleton always seemed larger in size, its perceived length and width incommensurate with its urban scale. Nothing could properly measure the selfcontained pride that swelled the hilly locale’s expanse. It is a pride that germinated in the wilderness, extended its roots in anthracite coal, formed its stem through industry and enterprise, and blossomed into a bouquet of many cultures that made Hazleton its familial garden. Over the course of two centuries, this pride evolved and prospered, scrambled and adapted. It’s a pride with many forms and interpretations, a state of mind that lingers in the city’s neighborhoods. Regardless of perspective, generations of Hazletonians associated the source of this pride with the city’s core—the downtown.
Downtown Hazleton was born on an impenetrable plateau, high on Spring Mountain and deep within what was labeled St. Anthony’s Wilderness. In the 18th century, Moravian missionaries navigated the rugged, swampy terrain, naming the mountaintop “Hasel Swamp” after the forest’s abundant hazel bushes. In spite of the topography and weather, settlers continued to pass through the swamp. They followed an ancient Indian path, which became part of the Lehigh & Susquehanna Turnpike. By 1809, a stagecoach stop and tavern opened along the path, and a village grid slowly spread. The turnpike became locally known as Broad Street, and the wooded road offered a quick respite for wearied travelers. It was also prime territory for lumbering. Nobody suspected the hidden carbon resource that would transform this remote settlement.
When anthracite coal was discovered in 1826, the United States remained in the embryonic stages of its industrial development. Early settlers invested in coal extraction, building operations that surrounded the downtown. Increased demand required a labor force, and operators found their answer in European of English, Welsh, and German immigrants to the immigrants escaping the Great Famine found work as mining laborers and settled in shanties along Mine Street. Germans also opened shops and built factories. Waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe made Hazleton their destination, arriving through the remainder of the 19th century and living within walking distance of the thriving downtown. Accepting lower wages, they slowly 1910, the majority of anthracite miners were Poles, Slovaks, Italians, Lithuanians, and Russians.
Hazleton's founding families profited from the world’s richest anthracite veins. The Pardees, Markles, Eckleys, and Coxes built grand mansions in or near the downtown. They endowed distinguished Northeastern universities, their names still adorning the academic buildings of these institutions. They built banks that resembled Greek and Roman temples—tributes to their wealth, ingenuity, and the permanence of their investment. Their coal mines fueled trains, heated homes, and played a critical role in the Civil War. Continued demand only made the Mountain City bigger. By the turn of the century, Hazleton was one of the country’s fastest growing cities.
Other industries emerged in the downtown, from shirt factories to bakeries. A French silk magnate, Jean L. Duplan, acquiesced to intense community lobbying and built the world’s largest silk mill off North Wyoming Street. But anthracite coal still dominated Hazleton’s economy. It also divided the city’s multiethnic labor force.
Mining operations engendered a culture of servility, Each immigrant group overcame its struggles and sense of inferiority by building beautiful churches, cultural monuments to homelands that still surround the downtown.
All ethnic groups, however divided they became, congregated downtown. Over 30 languages could be a commercial district that could blend in Philadelphia or New York. The downtown also united these roups through the labor movement. It was in the Grand Theatre that John Mitchell presided over the United Mine Workers’ vote on an industry-wide strike. The outcome resulted in one of the largest and most memorable strikes in U.S. history.
Downtown Hazleton was also defined by its many contrasts. Soot-covered miners walked alongside wealthy bankers; newspaper boys stood on street corners next to vagrants. Unfair labor practices abounded in a city known nationwide for its technological advancements and economic prosperity. It was the third city in the U.S. to enjoya city-wide electric grid. When Thomas Edison visited the downtown, he marveled at its modern streetscape, and envisioned an electric trolley system for its main streets. The rail service, built on Belgian cobble streets, became a model for New York City.
The downtown also grew in density and diversity. In 1910, the Markle Bank building became Hazleton’s a single piece of lumber. The Markle towered over booming department stores, boutiques, and retail shops operated by Jewish and Italian merchants.
Downtown Hazleton was also a regional center for entertainment. Over the course of several decades, eighth theatres operated within the downtown. The small city boasted a theatre scene unrivaled by other small Pennsylvania cities. Vaudeville acts from Broadway frequented the ornate stages. Standing before audiences of wide-ranging backgrounds, these acts could be made or broken in the Mountain City.
Theatres offered a source of distraction during World War I, when waves of second-generation European Americans fought overseas. The wartime demand for coal allowed Hazleton to enjoy unrivaled economic growth. As the Roaring Twenties dawned, Hazleton’s cityscape developed. Broad Street transformed in 1922, when a special election was held to address the future of Pardee Square.
The square was situated on the downtown block on Broad Street between Church and Laurel Streets. Primeval trees dotted the property, concealing founding father Ario Pardee’s mansion. City residents campaigned to turn Pardee Square into a park, with the mansion becoming either a community center or World War I memorial. Voters overwhelmingly voted against this proposal, and the square was leveled for commercial development.
Over the next decade, Parisian-trained architects constructed Hazleton’s modern downtown. The Hotel Altamont, Masonic Temple, Bell Telephone Company building, Genetti’s, Capitol Theatre, and Hazleton National Bank building replaced the built a new Art Deco building. The Traders Bank building was completed, awing passerby with its Gothic majesty. The Markle added a six-story addition to its fledging operation. An electric sign, the largest in the state, flased atop the building.
Downtown commerce endured the Great Depression and World War II. Matinees once again distracted the masses as fathers, sons, and brothers fought overseas. In the 1940s, the population approached 40,000, and the downtown bustled with energy. After the war, however, the demand for coal precipitously declined. When back-to-back hurricanes destroyed Hazleton’s mines in the mid-1950s, the city faced an unemployment crisis. The Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce responded to this crisis by establishing that attracted manufacturing jobs and saved the city from complete economic collapse.
As the sixties dawned, the city explored how the downtown could remain the region’s center of commercial activity. Hazleton embraced urban renewal projects and targeted the South Side, also known as the historic Irish neighborhood “Donegal Hill.” The Downtown South project demolished 16 city blocks of residential and commercial buildings. The project’s supporters believed that these designated “blighted” streets would transform into profitable development for the downtown. Among the landmarks lost were the Lehigh Valley Train Station, the Winfield Hotel, and the Liberty Band Hall. The project destroyed a main artery into Downtown Hazleton and displaced 184 families and 221 individuals.
Instead of preventing blight, urban renewal caused the downtown’s slow decline. Residences within walking distance of Broad and Wyoming were gone. The crowds that required police-enforced curfews faded away. Cars displaced pedestrians, and natives moved to new residential neighborhoods or found opportunities elsewhere. Downtown Hazleton followed the trend of many cities. Between the 1970s and 1990s, department stores closed, theatres dropped their curtains, and businesses ended leases.
In 1983, the Alliance to Revitalize Center City Hazleton (ARCH) was formed to restore what was lost. ARCH succeeded in improving the downtown streetscape. In addition, ARCH oversaw the conversion of the former Deisroth’s and Kresge’s department stores into the Broad Street Business Exchange. The project became a national model for other downtowns. But sadly, the shopping mall still
reigned. By 2000, Hazleton’s population was down of its lively past. Hazleton now seemed smaller than how it was remembered.
But Downtown Hazleton is now experiencing a renaissance. Construction signals progress, and the downtown is witnessing levels of building activity unseen in decades. The Broad Street Corridor Project, completed in 2014, modernized the city’s main thoroughfare by adding new sidewalks, trees, turning lanes, and ornamental street lights. Over the past decade, the Markle Building, now known as the Hayden Tower, was renovated by the Hayden family and Hazleton Development Company. The building has nearly full occupancy and people can now dine under the former banking room’s coffered ceiling. The Pines Eatery & Spirits is a resurrected version of a beloved local restaurant, an elegant café and bistro in the heart of downtown.
In 2013 the Hayden and DeAngelo families joined together to create the Downtown Hazleton Development (DHD) partnership, which is now jointly spearing the downtown renewal. Currently undergoing renovation, the Traders Bank building is becoming the international headquarters for DBi Services, a global infrastructure company. The landmark’s terracotta façade now shines like a new structure. The Hazleton National Bank building is also undergoing a restoration project and will result in new Class A commercial office space.
Each new business opening, preservation plan, and construction project is part of an alliance of local public-private stakeholders. In 2013, the Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress (DHAP) was formed to oversee the direction and success of the center city’s long-term revitalization. This plan is part of the cooperative effort to ensure a vibrant future for Downtown Hazleton.
From Second Fridays to historic walks, Hazletonian pride is resurfacing in the downtown. DHAP is embracing renewal with a façade improvement program and a plan to create a new arts and cultural center within the former Security Savings Bank. The downtown boasts unique foods and ethnic cuisine known statewide—whether it be cold pizza (pitz), pierogis, halupki, “Jimmy Dogs,” or Victoria’s chocolate sweets. Bakeries, cafes, and bodegas also line Broad and Wyoming Streets.
This plan testifies that there is a future for Downtown Hazleton. Its outcome will require the pride that shaped the city’s history. It’s the pride felt when 12,000 fans jammed Broad Street after Hazleton High School’s 1938 state basketball championship. It burst with excitement when Kennedy visited 1960 presidential campaign. It impressed Charles Lindbergh, who spent a night at the Hotel Altamont after his plane was sidelined by fog. Theatre screens exhibited the pride during a Jack Palance movie, and Richard Harris, Sean Connery, and other stars felt the special energy while filming the "Molly Maguires." The pride shines beneath Harman-Geist’s stadium lights during a football game. It’s also embodied by Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon, a proud native who has attested to “the Hazleton Way.”
Downtown Hazleton remains an air-conditioned crossroads for many cultures. Although the highest city in Pennsylvania, immigrant groups continue to reach the mountain and open businesses in the downtown. A Philadelphia newspaper once observed that the city has “out-of-the-ordinary characteristics.” It’s this designation that always made Hazleton special. This strategic plan will ensure that Downtown Hazleton remains a unique regional destination, one that embodies the pride, hard work, commitment to family and community, big city attitude, and ethnic diversity that shaped its history. and with a new attitude that embraces its culture, encourages entrepreneurship and innovation, and celebrates its rich heritage.