I AM ALLENTOWN

“I Am Allentown”

A photo and video series capturing the heart and spirit of Allentown through its people. Allentown is so much more than buildings and venues, what makes it a great city are its people. We spent time this summer capturing the stories and portraits of a number of Allentown residents.

Jesenia Peralta

Administrative Professional, Allentown Resident

I was born and raised in New York City’s Upper West Side. I left the city when my daughter Chelsy was born. Although I enjoyed a quiet life in the suburbs I missed walking places, the melting pot of cultures, and that vibe that can only be felt in city living. My employer had been involved in a couple of the City Center projects and decided to move the local office to one of the City Center buildings. I started exploring the city of Allentown and fell in love with the beautiful homes in the area. It was very important for me to find a house that allowed me to walk to work. I found the perfect fixer upper brick townhouse, on Turner Street. My husband and I have become expert DYI’ers! We are having such a great time fixing up our little nest! We are in the middle of a kitchen renovation and the next room in line is the laundry room.

Being a member of the Old Allentown Preservation Society, I have met some amazing people, some have been here their entire lives and some are new comers just like me. We have bonded with immediate neighbors as well. Our neighbor Mike has been here for many years and has welcomed us to the block with open arms! He’s become family.

I love the transformation that is happening in this beautiful city! For a small city, Allentown has so much to offer! International Airport, Symphony Hall, Museum, terrific restaurants and bars along Hamilton Street. Not to mention how close it is to Philadelphia and New York! The homes, the amenities, the diversity, the restaurants, the walkability, I love it all. Being here is affording me the luxury of going back to school to finish my degree. This place is perfect for my family, the best of both worlds, small enough that it is not over whelming but it’s sidewalks are full of life. The city of Allentown is a Rising Phoenix and I absolutely l am rooting for its success.

Ryan Sabo

Allentown Resident

Raised, educated and employed, primarily for the past 40 years, I can proudly call Allentown my hometown. I played in the parks, explored the neighborhoods, swam in the pools, ran in the fields, and foraged through the surrounding wooded areas religiously and methodically in my youth. I attended St. Paul’s School on the Southside in the 80s, Central Catholic in the 90s, and developed a deep interest in the architecture and topography of the area. But, with the downtown area in a rapid decline around this time, my perception turned from optimism to sadness. It was a shame to see such a beautiful town in such disarray. In my teens, I was rebellious and unhinged, ready to leave at the drop of a hat. Allentown has seen some pretty dark times, and, frankly, I did bail a few times. But I always found my way back home.
I have been employed in the restaurant and hospitality industry in Allentown since 1991. There is a certain inexplicable vibrance and level of dynamics working in kitchens and bars. Interaction with the public and being on my feet has kept me in touch with the public. It keeps both the mind and body quite fit. Knowledge of classic and current culinary trends, paired with an undying penchant for experimentation has allowed me to stay interested in what I do.
On my off days, I was able to help form two bands as both a drummer and front man in the 90s and 2000s. We made several recordings, which I cherish. To this day I enjoy recording, and have one unfinished album on which I am still working.
Although I do have a Bachelor’s degree from Kutztown University and a Master’s degree from Temple University, both in Mass Media, employment in hospitality has always put food on the table. Teaching as an adjunct is quite fulfilling, however, in my chosen discipline, local teaching gigs are few and far between. I also was a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University twice in 2009 and 2013, but sadly was forced to withdraw due to financial considerations. Future candidacy and possible tenure at a university are not out of the question.
In 2014, I possibly made the best decision of my life: to move back home to be part of the renaissance of Allentown. In 2013, I found myself in Delaware County in a job that I hated, and in a broken relationship. So I decided to make a change. I sought out employment with one of the new restaurants in Allentown, and began working at ROAR Social House in August of 2014. I then found an opportunity with The Renaissance Hotel later that year, and have been employed with this company ever since. Currently the bar manager at CENTRO, I have been granted the latitude to create a quirky beverage program, including house made bitters, and am proud of the decisions I have made. These good decisions have allowed me to become a first time home owner right here in the Historic District. I have also become engaged to a wonderful woman. Our plans are to rehab homes that need attention here in the area. We also have plans to start a food co-op education center/farming project which would enable troubled youths to get themselves out of the city and in touch with where their food comes from.

Clary Peralta

Store Director, Buyer – assembly88

My name is Clary Peralta. My birthplace and early childhood was spent in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 12, my parents told me we were moving to Pennsylvania. My initial reaction was very lax as I justified that Philadelphia was another large city, and that my new environment wouldn’t take much effort to get accustomed to. As we drove in our 1993 minivan with our belongings in tow, little did I know I was in for the biggest surprise of my life when we arrived in Allentown, PA. I was registered to attend Raub Middle School and on the first school day, it became very obvious to my peers that I was not a local, and my Brooklyn accent overpowered every attempt I made to fit in. I then transitioned to William Allen High School and had the most memorable four years of my life. I was taught by the best teachers, and met some of the greatest people that are still present in my life. I am a product of Allentown! Allentown has helped me grow, succeed, interact and make connections that I would have never made anywhere else. Allentown’s melting pot has allowed me to develop both personally and professionally, and has fostered every dream I have hoped to achieve.

For the majority of my life, I lived on 12th Street around the corner from the Allentown Library. My home is a family day care that my mother has run for over 12 years. My father’s art studio is also down the street, where he holds exhibitions for his artwork, as well as holding events to bridge together the art community. I recently moved to 9th Street in Allentown to one of the Old Allentown preservation buildings. I love the culture and all the diverse people around me. I live amongst business owners, teachers, County employees, parents, and professionals from all walks of life! I earned my Associates degree from Northampton Community College and my Bachelors degree in Pre –Law from East Stroudsburg University. I am currently working on my Masters of Public Administration at East Stroudsburg University. Now at 24, my mission is to give back to my beautiful community, stand up for the vibrant Allentown we once knew, and the Allentown that is emerging now. I am involved in politics locally and nationally; my end goal is to have a position of power in my community where I can make a difference. I would like to see my city flourish to its maximum potential, and give back to the city what the city gave to me, opportunity! I currently work for Lehigh County in the Department of Community and Economic Development. We give back to the community and help individuals in need! I love my job and as time passes I would love to continue my work and expand both personally and professionally. I believe that the measure of a person’s life is the effect they have on others, and if I could affect anyone in my community in a positive way, every day, that’s exactly what I will strive for! Allentown is my home, and I am Allentown.

Ken Ek

Photographer & Allentown Resident

Allentown has always been my home, I grew up in South Whitehall and for the past 15 years have lived in the City. When I was 18 years old I started KeneK Photography, following in my father’s footsteps, I always knew I wanted to be a photographer and wanted to run my own business. I was lucky enough to assist Hub Willson for a bunch of years, his guidance really helped me understand the business while at the same time teaching me to be an even better photographer. Until I was 23 years old I mostly lived on the outskirts of Center City Allentown. But when I was 22, I met a man by the name of Karl Stirner who lived in Center City Easton and he quickly rubbed off on me, his beliefs of reviving the city got stuck in my bones, but I felt like he had Easton covered and it was already on its way. I could not turn my back on Allentown, one thing lead to another and I found myself renting a converted warehouse loft style studio space on 9th and Chew. I finally felt at home. City living is real life, we all walk at our own pace and it mostly jives… time has passed and life has taken its course. Now at 38 years old my wife Shelby and my 3 year old son Arlo and I own a 2 unit at 9th and Turner St. and a Commercial Studio space on N. Hall Street. Both places are over 100 years old and we have taken part in preserving history by working on restoring these beautiful buildings. Soon we will be looking to purchase another building to keep on expanding our lives and saving a beautiful city that is filled with beautiful people. My photography business is doing well, photographing artwork for over 60 artists and various art organizations, KeneK Photography will be expanding into the building at N. Hall Street once renovations are all finished and we have occupancy. We are working very hard and hopefully one day I will be able to open the doors to a dream I have of a small self learning environment for inner city kids to come and experiment with art, photography, painting, sculpture, music, etc. It will involve all my art clients and organizations that my business is working with. The world needs art and the children need to dream.

I AM ALLENTOWN

zack_2Zachary Matthews

Store Director, Buyer – assembly88

I’ve lived in Allentown nearly my whole life. I was born and raised on Walnut Street, just outside of center city. I attended Union Terrace, Raub Middle School, Allen High School, and Lehigh University. I currently live in a historic home on 8th Street. My block is a real mixture. We have several business owners, a few retirees, school teachers, food and beverage buyers… It’s a diverse bunch. I work at assembly88, so my commute is a 5-minute bike ride from my home. In a word, it’s “ace”.

I’m a massive techno/electronic music fan. I have an in-home music studio, where I write and record my own records. I also host a weekly radio show at Muhlenberg College’s WMUH 91.7fm.

I have roots here, and I think roots are important.

Tiffany Polek

Principal – Mosser Elementary School

I grew up in Allentown and truly love it here! I went to St. Francis for elementary school and Allen for high school. My second year of college I had a baby and moved home. It took me another 10 years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Cedar Crest in 2005. I taught at Central Elementary School, went back to school and completed my master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Lehigh University. I have been the principal at Mosser Elementary School for the past three years.

Allentown is where I grew up. It’s where I’m rooted. Being able to advocate for kids in a district that I also graduated from is big for me. I am my students. I am honored to be able to advocate for students. I am living my passion and education is where I am supposed to be.

I now have 2 daughters, 12 and 22. I am also a single mom and try to encourage others to achieve their goals in spite of their situation. It’s never too late and certainly feels good when you achieve them!

I want to be a role model for my girls and the children I work with every day. I attend Life Church in center city Allentown. I am so excited about them being a part of what’s going on in town. I live in the historic district in Allentown and am fortunate to have my mom right around the corner. Contrary to popular belief, my neighbors are awesome! The perception of living in center city is all wrong. They are what neighbors are supposed to be. From a smile and a wave, knowing each other’s dogs, a flower on the porch, pot luck dinners, to calling you when something doesn’t seem right with your home. It’s a warm neighborhood!

Sharon Yurkanin

Museum Store Manager – Allentown Art Museum

Born and raised in the Lehigh Valley and a homeowner in Old Allentown since 1981, my husband, Joe and I were drawn to the affordability, charm and craftsmanship of Allentown’s inner city row houses.

We raised a son in the city and now are enjoying empty nesting at home on Eighth Street, where I have made life long friends over the years. Our son, Joseph is now living and loving city life in Philadelphia. Allentown’s location along the northeast corridor makes visiting him a one-hour road trip.

For several years I worked for Hess’s as a gift buyer. That retail background combined with a love of art history was a perfect fit when the Museum Store manager’s job opened up at the Allentown Art Museum where I have worked now for over 30 years. I love my work at the Allentown Art Museum. Getting to know our customers and working with volunteers is a big reason why I love what I do. And museum retail is so creative and ever changing, never boring or stagnant. Every exhibition and season is a new opportunity.

Living and working where I do has been a perfect for me and has defined my lifestyle. Proximity to work has been important and Allentown’s location so near to New York and Philadelphia enables me to get away on some fantastic day trips; whether to attend trade shows for work, to visit museums, or to shop in the garment district, a particular passion of mine. Working about 8 blocks from where I live, I can easily walk when I need to. It’s hardly more than 20 minutes – sometimes longer if I take a detour for a latte downtown!

In my spare time I am passionate about needle arts especially quilt making and its history. I have been making quilts since 1985 when I was inspired by a quilt exhibition at AAM, entitled Homage to Amanda. I love traditional hand stitched quilts as well as the modern trends in quilt making.

Rebecca Ramos

Cake Artist – Sweet Becky Bakery

I have been living in Allentown since I was 7 years old. I moved here from New York with my family in 2000 because my parents wanted a better life style and bigger house for us.

I have been living here for 16 years and am 23 years old. I currently live in Old Fairgrounds in center city Allentown. My neighbors are fun and welcoming people.

I own a specialty cake business called Sweet Becky Bakery. I make and design custom delicious handmade cakes, cupcakes and treats per order. I specialize in events from birthdays to showers or weddings to corporate events.

I am passionate about becoming a better person within myself and with my skills.

Allentown is always changing and growing, we have that in common.

Charlie Versaggi

Retired, Air Products Information Technology Director

I moved to the Valley in 1976 to begin my 32-year career with Air Products. In Christmas of ’84, I was invited to a Christmas party at an Old Allentown home – I was very impressed with the architecture and design of the house – when I came back from my winter vacation in Jamaica I reached out to a real estate agent friend to look at some houses in Old Allentown. The one I’m living in now is the last one he showed me and it was perfect! Loads of wood and brick detail, a nice sized yard and garage. Decks off the master bedroom and off the dining room. I moved in to my house Memorial Day weekend 1985 and have never regretted it. Actually, since moving in I’ve bought two other houses on my block to fix up and rent.

I liked living in Philly during my undergrad days at Drexel and loved city life (originally from Wildwood NJ – so a real city was a new and welcomed experience). I would brag to all my suburban friends that I could walk to restaurants and shopping – for years I did all my holiday shopping on foot. Even now my car doesn’t leave the garage for days at a time.

When I moved in I was the new kid (literally) on the block. I looked to my new neighbors for all kinds of advice – now, I guess I’m one of the “old timers” and our new arrivals are showing up at my door for advice! Love it. As a neighborhood, we’re all close but we all respect each other’s privacy.

I’ve spent most of my volunteer time since I moved to the valley working with underprivileged kids and education. Our young people are our best source of adults – we’ll reap what we sow – so I’m doing all I can to sow a generation of productive citizens for our country.

I love food, wine, cooking, travel. I don’t watch TV (don’t even own one, or a microwave for that matter) but I have music going all the time: jazz, classical, reggae, R&B. . . there are very few genres I’m not into.

The city is the right blend of big and small: the attractions of a bigger city: restaurants, music, culture , progressive thinkers and of a smaller one: you’re not anonymous if you don’t want to be, friendly people and lots of walkable spaces.

I’m blessed with “young” neighbors – spanning 20-80 years in age. Every single one is energetic, thoughtful and supportive of each other. As a member of the LGBT community, I’ve especially felt the presence of a welcoming community here from all walks of life.

An Old Allentown party is never boring – there’s a conversation for everyone.. If you’re a new-comer, you’ll have to hide if you don’t want to be sought-out and welcomed. Everyone is welcomed.

joniel_3Joniel Colon

Age 10

We moved from Puerto Rico to Allentown when I was 2 months old. I took classes at the Baum School of Art, was part of the school band playing the trumpet, and for the past two years I’ve been playing viola with the El Sistema Program.

I love a lot of things. One of my interests is coding, its fun. I’m passionate about music, arts and kick boxing. I could go on forever about how great playing music is!

Allentown is a great city.

Joseph Marte

Age 19

My name is Joseph F. Marte and this is my story. I was born in Manhattan, New York to two Dominican-raised parents, Fermina and Juan. I lived in New York for approximately two years then moved to Paterson, New Jersey. I loved living in Paterson. Most of my family was there. I remember just being little kids running around in our backyards. I remember one day my parents telling us that we were moving to Allentown, Pennsylvania. My sister and I were both upset. It was the summer of 2005. I was 7 at the time and my sister was 12. Everything seemed so different.

The first school I attended was McKinley Elementary School. I began 2nd grade with the best teacher ever, Mrs. Foster. We had the closest bond. She taught me the learning skills I needed to excel in reading, writing, and math. As the years went by I loved going to school. My father, Juan, also instilled in me that school was very important. He told my sister and I that he never wanted us to suffer. He told us to become someone in life because without an education you will not go far. That’s one of the reasons I value education so much.

At 9 years of age I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I was young and I didn’t know anything. At the same time my father was incarcerated. My life just flipped upside down. My mother suffered both financially and emotionally. She was a single parent and worked at a factory as a lead worker. I thought we were going to be homeless. From that point forward, I had to step up and be the “man” of the house. In middle school, I wasn’t very confident in the person I was. I still got good grades and always tried my best.

Around my 15th birthday, I had to have surgery because of Crohn’s. This was my first surgery ever. It was so severe. I couldn’t walk and worst of all I couldn’t play the sport I loved, baseball. I became lonely. Throughout high school I had a lot of surgeries. My 10th grade year, I was introduced to the Boys and Girls Club of Allentown in Cumberland Gardens. I wanted to begin my graduation project early so I started to volunteer. I was very timid at first. I didn’t know anyone. I felt like no one would accept me for who I was; I was wrong. The Club has helped me persevere through my difficult times. The Club is there for you. I love my Boys & Girls Club. I began to inspire others and show them that anything is possible. As high school went on I became more confident. Even though my father was not around, I knew that I had a strong, loving mother to support me. Through all the surgeries I endured my mother has always been there. She is my rock.

In November 2015, I was elected to be in the Youth of the Year program through the Boys & Girls Club. I won my local competition and then won at the state level. This competition has opened so many opportunities for me. I’ve been given opportunities to speak to crowds of important people. I thank my local Boys and Girls Club for the opportunities I have received. Recently in August I had another regional competition in New York, unfortunately I didn’t win but I did win an amazing experience and new group of friends that are leaders as well. I graduated William Allen High School proudly with a 4.0 GPA and will be attending LCCC majoring in Communications. I aspire to be the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club and help give back to my community. I always believed in God. God always gives my family the strength we need to overcome any obstacle. No matter the adversity you are going through, keep fighting. I am a living testament that pain is temporary.

Mardochee Dade

William Allen High School Class of 2016
Freshman at Vanderbilt University

“I began playing the cello in 3rd grade at Lehigh Parkway Elementary. I talked to my parents and they said I should go for it. At first I wanted to play the violin but when I spoke to Mr. Wagner my music teacher he said there were none left, but there were cellos. So I went with the cello. Ever since then I realized it was destiny that the cello found me. In 7th grade I applied and received the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. I was shocked and humbled when I received the letter in the mail because it was a big application and only 50 out of 1,000 students are selected. After that, my cello playing went to the next level as I was able to get private lessons and go to many different academies and camps.

I didn’t pay attention to the negativity and the rumors surrounding Allen High School. There are problems everywhere. It’s about you, it’s what you do with your education. I wanted to define myself and help change that perception and leave a legacy to inspire others. If you pursue your passion and goals, you will see success regardless of your surroundings.

I applied to a lot of schools, 12 actually, I had a lot of help through the process. I had to audition musically and apply academically through each school but it was all worth it. I wanted to go to a hands on campus and that is why my heart led me to Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt I will be majoring in Cello Performance studying under Felix Wong and be pre-Med as well.

I want to go to medical school and become a doctor. Dr. Stephens from St. Lukes has been a great role model and mentor to me. He has a lot of empathy for his patients, something I feel like the medical field has lost.

Allentown is so beautiful now. I will definitely be coming back, even if it is to play for the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. Diane Wittry, Sheila Evans, David Moulton my current cello teacher and the entire organization has been so good to me.”

Nathaniel Stuart

Allen High Graduate-Class of 2016
Freshman at Stanford University

If you have that dream, if you have that goal pursue it, go back to school if you have to. A lot of the reason the Allentown School District isn’t sending kids continually to top tier schools is that the kids don’t realize that they can. Once kids start to realize the truth of what is going on at Allen High, that it not only turns out smart kids but kids with resources to connect them to where they need to go, the kids will start to coalesce around that goal and start to chase their dreams. When you start to focus on where you really want to go, there are the connections, the people and the partnerships in the community to help you get there. As students in the Allentown School District we have to realize that there is nothing holding us back. Yes we may be a lower rank in the area or the state but there is nothing holding us back, there is nothing telling you that you can’t do what you dream about doing, there is no law against it and that should be enough to love what we love and to pursue it. When we start saying that “I can” rather than “I can’t” a lot more can get done and a lot of our dreams can be fulfilled. There is a tremendous need for community in this city. As people in Allentown start to form this community that I see growing every day we will start to see more and more success stories and the chains of bondage that are really just mental chains will start to fade away.

Rebeca Torres

Attorney at Law

When I arrived in Allentown in 1982 as a young professional looking for an affordable lifestyle, I had no thoughts about settling in any one place.

Over three decades later, I live and practice law in side-by-side restored townhouses on 7th Street.  On a personal level it enables me to read the newspaper leisurely, and to enjoy home cooked meals.  At times between clients, I do my wash – clearing my weekend for pleasurable activities instead – or start dinner – priceless!  On a business level, I get easy access to work on those hours or days I need to go in, but don’t feel like getting out of my gym clothes.

In an age of specialization, I prefer the variety of practicing general law.  The clients become almost an extended family.

While my neighbors tend to keep to themselves, in times of need everyone comes together.

If I would ever have to move away, I would miss the convenience.  Like the Farmers Market, nearby countryside, the PPL Center, the ArtsWalk.

I no longer need to go to the big cities to experience quality multi-cultural activities, as I find them here in Allentown, and at a fraction of the price.