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In Bethlehem, a group of entrepreneurs has transformed the remnants of a bankrupt industrial giant. The city’s ArtsQuest complex is a marketplace where culture is the new currency. An exhibit, “Oxidation & Interpretation: 10 Years After Bethlehem Steel,” now blooms where Bethlehem Steel withered, bringing together the work of eight renowned photographers from the region to present their vision of the Steel Stacks then and now.
Peter Treiber doesn’t quite remember how many of his camera lenses cracked under the heat of the steel mill’s blast furnaces. He was one of 26 staff photographers who traveled the country to take pictures of the Bethlehem Steel empire for catalogs, calendars and company newsletters.
Now a decade after the factory shut down, his photos are on display in an art center built at the foot of the old steelworks. Treiber says they tell stories only an insider would know.
"Most people have no idea of what goes on in a steel mill," Treiber said. "Even steel workers who worked in a small department their whole life didn’t know what was happening in other departments. And their families, when they come to the exhibit, say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I had no idea of what my father did!’"
From the grueling to the sublime
Alongside Treiber’s publicity shots, he took loads of other photos that did not conform to the corporate message. He was allowed to keep those negatives, and the images are now in the show and in his book “Inside Bethlehem Steel: The Last Quarter Century.”
Each photograph reveals both the intensity of the grueling work and the somewhat poetic quality hidden in the red rivers of molten iron. It was a dangerous place, and he had to learn the choreography of the work flow. He remembers an instance when he had only 20 seconds to take a picture — “even though what you were doing might have lasted for an hour, because shortly after they started letting iron out of the blast furnace, the whole room would fill with smoke.”
Theo Anderson, another photographer in the show, has a perhaps more intellectual approach.
"I use Bethlehem Steel almost as a muse, almost as a basis for a visual exploration, a spiritual exploration," said Anderson. "In doing that, it liberated me from trying to tell a story or a narrative."
In one of his best-known photos, Anderson captures the solemnity of a cathedral-sized empty building. Rays of light beam down from a broken ceiling to illuminate the abandoned space. Taking the photo is an experience he’ll never forget, he says.
"When there’s nothing around except for the creaking of the plant, you hear your own heart, your own breathing, and there’s a great sense of mindfulness, to use the Buddhist term," Anderson said. "And I know that the only thing I can bring back to you, outside of my memory, is a photograph. But the rest of it is often sublime."
Inventing the future
This exhibit is possible only because the entire area has become an arts campus, says gallery owner Santa Bannon, who curated “Oxidation and Interpretation.”
"What the Bethlehem Steel was when it was operational was a very dirty, gritty, hot, unpleasant place to be around," Bannon said, "and now it’s a venue for the visual and performing arts — with beautiful buildings and space for music and performance indoors and outdoors. It’s transformed completely."
The new Bethlehem is fueled by culture, an educated workforce and the Sands casino, built on the site of the steel plant. It’s all deliberately located around the Stacks area, says Jeff Parks, president of ArtsQuest and the mastermind behind the industrial area’s transformation. He wanted to capitalize on the power of education and culture to create the type of workforce attractive to the pharmaceutical and health technology industries and Fortune 500 companies. “And that’s pretty much filed the vacuum left by Bethlehem Steel,” he said.
Parks is a local. His mother came from a Pennsylvania Dutch Moravian family. His father came from Michigan to study at Lehigh University under the GI Bill. Jeff grew up in a city where higher education, faith, music, hard work and of course the Bethlehem Steel presence defined the town. He wanted to leave a mark in the city’s urban landscape and is a strong believer in communities that attract the power of what’s described as the creative class.
"They’re going to invent the future, and they want everything — from sidewalk cafes, music venues, access to recreational activities and places to hike and bike, and all those things," Parks said. "So the arts, in essence, are the crucible through which creativity is inspired and is welcomed into a society and a community."
So there are still red-hot furnaces near the stacks today, but they belong to the glassblowing workshop at the Banana Factory, a collection of art studios and exhibition spaces. The Bethlehem Steel pictures, at the former banana warehouse and distribution center, are witnesses to the industrial past and present through the lenses of eight photographers.
We absolutely love these photographs by Paris-based artists Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Rich textures, subtle pops of color and gorgeously soft lighting bring a sense of magic to these forgotten places.
"Forgotten places" brought back to life by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre via finelinemagazine. A few forgotten books were left there too…
In case of a nuclear disaster, what if we could send in radiation-immune robots instead of human relief workers?
That’s the thinking behind the DARPA Robotics Challenge, sponsored by the Pentagon’s research and development wing.
Teams from both Drexel and Penn are among six semi-finalists in the contest to build the baddest rescue robot. In December, their robots have to run an obstacle course in which they climb ladders, walk through rubble and even drive cars.
The finals aren’t until 2014, when the team with the best bot will win $2 million. But the competition is tough—two teams from NASA also are in the running.
Drexel’s entry, “Hubo,” is about the size of a 10-year-old boy. It’s a humanoid—with arms and legs like people.
Paul Oh, who runs Drexel’s autonomous systems lab, has been working on Hubo for years. But for this Robotics Challenge, a team of students from Drexel and nine other schools, including Swarthmore and the University of Delaware, are making Hubo bigger and stronger so it can tough it out in a nuclear disaster zone.
Hubo can already perform all of the tasks it will face on the obstacle course. The challenge now is getting it to do those things well.
The students have Hubo practice on a realistic set—complete with upended barrels, rusty walls and debris—that they commissioned a Broadway set designer to create.
'It doesn't really feel like work'
Drexel’s Daniel Lofaro, one of the lead researchers on the DARPA project, said they wanted to make it look realistic in order to train Hubo’s vision algorithms to work well in grimy, dimly lit environments.
Drexel grad student Robert Ellerberg said he spends a good chunk of his time fine-tuning Hubo. But, “when you’re working on a project like this, in a field like this,” he said, “often it doesn’t really feel like work. Sometimes, it’s almost like we’re getting paid to play.
Ellerberg specializes in humanoid robotics, and he said that the DARPA challenge could propel the field forward.
"This project, and from a larger perspective, this scenario—the disaster recovery scenario—will be a big step forward for humanoid robotics," he said.
DARPA doesn’t require the teams to build a humanoid, but it’s hard to get a robot on wheels to climb up a ladder. It makes sense to replace human relief workers with robots that are built to work like humans.
But while humanoids are a perfect fit in theory, programming them to work as well as humans is no easy feat.
The human brain is far more complex than any computer, and the human body is much more compliant. Our inner ears and the pads of our feet are far more powerful than any sensor you could attach to a robot.
"You can kind of walk like a robot if you put on ski boots"—and a blindfold, Lofaro said.
Hubo can walk on two feet, but in order to keep its balance on uneven ground, it sometimes walks all fours instead.
Robots still need a hand from humans
All the robots in the DARPA challenge are semi-autonomous, which means that they can do some things independently and others with human direction.
So while Hubo can depend on a student in a control room to tell it what a valve is, it will have to turn the valve by itself.
Getting any kind of robot to perform well in a disaster situation is quite a big step.
Professor Dan Lee, who leads Penn’s team, said that robots are best at performing specific tasks in a very controlled environment.
"Here we’re having a challenge where the robots have to go into a completely unknown environment," he said. "You have lots of debris, a lot of uncertainty in the environment. And these are places where humans have a difficult time."
Penn has partnered with Virginia Tech, and their robot is humanoid as well. It’s named after the Nordic god of thunder, Thor.
According to Lee, all the technology required to build a robo-rescuer exists. Researchers have gotten robots to walk, climb and lift. But bringing all of that research and knowledge together will be a big achievement.
"The level of difficulty they’re asking for in all the tasks is incredible," Lee said. "Each one of these tasks could be a cutting-edge Ph.D. thesis."
Encouraging creative thought
The previous DARPA-funded challenge was to build a driverless vehicle. Stanford University placed first and continued to work on the technology even after the competition concluded in 2005. Its collaboration with Google led to the development of Google’s driverless car, which completed 300,000 autonomous-driving miles, accident-free, last year.
More than anything, Lee said, these sorts of challenges encourage innovation. “These challenges spur creative thought,” he said. “They ask, ‘Can we make a big leap?’”
Regardless of who wins, Lee said, the research that all the competitors will generate during the competition will benefit the larger scientific community.
Both Penn and Drexel have made their work open source—anyone can access it online.
"This is, after all, science," Lee said. "We don’t see it as a purely monetary competition."
Jackson Patterson takes a fascinating approach to his personal photography. He combines photographs he’s taken himself with prints from his personal family archive.
When Eugene Allen entered the room, he strove to be invisible. Allen, an African-American, served eight presidents as a White House butler, from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush. According to the new film inspired by his life, during his tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he overheard Eisenhower tell Arkansas Gov. Faubus that integration was the law of the land, Johnson struggle to frame the Voting Rights Act, and Reagan refuse to impose sanctions on South Africa in the era of apartheid.
"Lee Daniels’ The Butler" is a fictionalized version of Allen’s life that casts Forest Whitaker in the title role as Cecil Gaines. The film powerfully makes visible this invisible man who wears one face on the job and another as the moderate father of a radical son during a politically polarized period of American history.
At the same time this story of conflict and reconciliation makes visible something that is mostly invisible in American films: The African-American nuclear family. This is far from the pathology of the black family in Daniels’ “Precious”. This is about the tensions and tenderness in a functional family. This is about how political beliefs can fracture a family and also bring it together.
"The Butler" electrifies with its generational struggle between Cecil, servant to power, and his son (David Oyelowo) fighting for black power. While watching Whitaker play the spousal scenes the domestic scenes with his wife (a fierce and funny Oprah Winfrey), and the paternal scenes with his son, David Oyelowo, it struck me that I hadn’t seen a film about a complex, functional black family in a while, maybe since 2007’s "This Christmas".
But with the recent release of “Fruitvale Station” and the forthcoming ”12 Years a Slave”, ”The Butler” won’t be the only 2013 film about relationships in black families.
"The Butler" is at once the story of its hero’s three families: The broken one of origin, the intact one he builds with his wife that is broken by the struggles of the 1960s, and the larger American family, broken by racism and factionalism. As Cecil, Whitaker struggles to mend those breaks as he reconciles his two faces.
The panoramic screenplay, by Danny Strong, is like Forrest Gump with substance. Daniels introduces us to Cecil as a child, working with his sharecropper father in the cotton fields and forced to witnesses the land owner’s brutal treatment of his parents.
Young Cecil is taken into the home of the land owner’s mother and taught to serve. She tells him, “The room should be empty when you are in it.”
And so he becomes a master at staying in the background; polishing silver, pouring libations, appearing with a beverage or meal in a way that never intrudes or interrupts.
Before eight chief executives, in a White House that has much in common with the plantation manor where he perfected his skills, Cecil pours champagne into flutes and tea into china cups without spilling a drop. Likewise, his emotions never spill over. Yet one point of Daniels’ movie — and of Whitaker’s elegantly contained performance — is that Cecil fills up every room he enters. He fills it the way a supporting player fills the stage and unintentionally draws attention away from the lead.
The quality that makes Cecil ideal for his job is less welcome at home. His demonstrative wife (Oprah Winfrey) thinks he’s shut down and feels alone. His son, Louis (Oyelowo) is as vociferous in his political protests as his father is soft-spoken and accomodationist on the job.
Their generation gap widens into a chasm when Daniels intercuts scenes of Cecil graciously serving dignitaries at a White House dinner with those of Louis ungraciously bloodied for sitting at the whites-only area of a lunch counter. Louis is enraged by what he thinks is Cecil’s subservience. But when the young man joins Martin Luther King’s circle and the Civil Rights leader talks about blacks in service as subversives on the front lines of integration, Louis listens.
Yes, James Marsden plays JFK, Liev Schreiber LBJ, John Cusack Nixon and Alan Rickman Reagan. Presidents come and go, but the focus is Cecil and Louis and the conflict of whether it is nobler to wait for change or to go out and make it.
Just when you think you’re watching the story about a witness to history you see how, in his own way and in his own sphere, Cecil is an agent of change. You know it because at movie’s end, he wears the same face at the White House as in his own home.
The film opens in theaters on Aug. 16.
"Kennywood’s rides of the past"
On May 10, 1991, Kennywood opened a new rollercoaster to the public. The Steel Phantom was its name. It began with a 160-foot lift along the land once occupied by another coaster, The Laser Loop. Writing for The Pittsburgh Press, Ed Blank said, “Life may have higher purposes, but this is where coaster loves live — climbing steadily toward an apex that seems to be blowing in the wind. And knowing all the best is still to come.”
And it was. After the first 157-foot descent came the real thriller: A second dip, 225 feet into the valley toward the Monongahela River.
But the Steel Phantom wasn’t just tall. It was also fast — in fact, a little too fast. Just days after it opened, it had to be closed for two weeks while park officials and the coaster’s manufacturer investigated why it was traveling faster than the intended top speed of 80 mph through its inversions.
The Phantom set records for speed for nearly a decade before Kennywood announced in March 2000 that it would be replaced after that season. A park spokesman was quoted in the Post-Gazette as saying, “In our quest for the best rides and the best use of our space, we have decided to pursue a new roller coaster.”
After receiving complaints about closing a rider favorite, the park decided instead to renovate the Steel Phantom rather than replace it. The modified coaster reopened in May 2001 as the Phantom’s Revenge, which is still at the park today, following in the Steel Phantom’s footsteps with speeds at just over 80 mph.
Over the years, several other rides have come and gone. A popular attraction in the summer of 1977 was the Cinesphere, a cloth dome filled with church pews that was…well, actually, not a ride at all. An article in the May 26, 1977 issue of The Pittsburgh Press explained: “It’s a nine-minute movie made up of 16 scenes culled from three travelogues, in which “first person” camerawork gives viewers the illusion of movement.”
Included in the experience were a roller coaster ride, a helicopter liftoff from New York City’s Pan-Am building, a trip around the Indianapolis 500 track, and more.
Another favorite was the Turnpike, which opened in 1966 and greeted visitors just inside the park’s entrance until it was decommissioned in 2010 and replaced with another roller coaster, the Sky Rocket. The antique car ride, where the price of gas was always “FUN,” will reportedly make a return to the park in the future.