There are few places in the world that bring together every desire a college student could ever have, and fewer places still that do so in close proximity to colleges themselves. Realistically, what setting could ever squeeze live music, adorable families, dogs of every breed and streets full of delicious food into one contained area? The whole idea is almost too good to be true – almost, that is, because the West End World of Food Festival does indeed exist.
For nearly twelve hours of non-stop eating and entertainment on Sept. 16, downtown Allentown’s Nineteenth and Liberty Streets were transformed into a foodie’s mecca. Upon walking just past the farmer’s market, my friends and I were hit with a delectable-yet-unidentifiable scent, one that immediately invited us to hop off of the sidewalk and into what did indeed seem like a world of food. As Jenny Silber ’20 recalls, the endless array of options could have easily overwhelmed even the most experienced of eaters.
“There were a lot more options than I anticipated – which was great,” Silber said. “It was difficult to choose who to buy from, since I wanted to try everything.”
From Caribbean noodles to crabcake sandwiches by Sherri’s Crab Cakes to brightly colored trailers proudly displaying a wide range of sweets (including a Butterbeer-flavored cupcake from the Sweet Lush Cupcake Camper!), the scene at the festival’s entrance served as the perfect gateway to the idyllic scene ahead. A stage was set up in the middle of the street, complete with a dance floor and a full band. As the lead singer belted out hits like The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy,” a short trip down the street made me feel anything but lonely – each passer-by was willing to share a smile or laugh, and every dog was ready and willing to be pet.
Still, though, I could not help but dwell on the divide between Muhlenberg students and these unfamiliar faces. Though Muhlenberg is a part of Allentown (we are well within city limits), the outdated “Muhlenbubble” and the downtown area are portrayed as mutually exclusive realms of identity: one can either be a Muhlenberg student or…a resident of some other part of Allentown. This belief, which conflates the rich multiplicities of the city into a homogenous group of people and ignores those who live as both Muhlenberg students and full-time Allentonians, is what leads to the damaging reputation of the city – or, perhaps, just certain parts of it – as inaccessible and “sketchy.” Val Weisler ’20 believes that the festival provided a prime opportunity for students to cement the idea that this “othering” of Allentown is unfounded.
“Events like this really bring the community together. They get people to come out [to] support local businesses and see what our city has to offer,” said Weisler. “The stigma against Allentown is real on campus. Events like this are important to prove students wrong; it shows them the incredible people and places in our city.”
Several of these incredible people and places were showcased as my friends and I journeyed up Nineteenth Street. One friend spun a prize wheel that only gave out pig-shaped ice packs (guess what she won?), and we toyed with the idea of purchasing some allergy-repelling Heavens Honey. The ever-incredible Udder Bar was full of people clamoring for a cool treat on this unusually warm summer evening, and the enormous cookies and cream cone that I purchased was the perfect remedy.
As my friends and I finished up the last of our sweets, we traveled back down the street and decided to peek inside the Civic Theatre, also known as the Nineteenth Street Theater. Since none of us had ever been before, an employee took us on a mini-tour of the building, pointing out the authentic 1920s-era murals and the magnificent domed ceiling. In light of the hubbub outside, only four of the plush red seats were filled – still, the group of women who were spending their girl’s night at the movies invited us to enjoy it with them, an offer which we reluctantly declined as we opened the grand doors of the theater and began our slow descent back into the Muhlenbubble.
But was this really a return to the way things were? The World of Food Festival had certainly thinned the bubble’s walls, reminding us that the Muhlenbubble is not the end-all-be-all of the school’s relationship with the city it calls home. This idea is perfectly summed up by attendee Kayla Robinson ’20.
“[Events like the World of Food Festival] allow people from different backgrounds who might not otherwise meet to come together. This is an especially good way for Muhlenberg students to get involved with the Allentown community, as students can meet people from the area and discover the food and other things Allentown has available,” Robinson said. “The people we met were friendly and seemed excited to chat or say hi and that’s something that students won’t get to experience unless they travel off campus into Allentown. Events like the food festival give students an ‘excuse’ to go downtown, and something fun to do while there. Hopefully they return on their own and share the experience with other people!”
Though this does not mean that Muhlenberg students should traipse downtown with the intention to extend the school’s community overtop the communities that already exist there, it does mean that collaboration is possible – and, as long as we do so responsibly, it might just create something beautiful…and delicious.