in Atown

Juan and Lauren Vargas

owners of Nowhere Coffee Co.

Juan: There’s only two places in the U.S. I feel like where you can go down the street and see Dominican restaurants: Washington Heights, New York, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. I feel like I’m at home. I’m American, but I’m Dominican and it feels like it’s just perfect. It was important, being Dominican and having a large Puerto Rican Dominican populace. It just felt right to open up here.

Lauren: There’s a full spectrum represented here. So that’s very, very interesting about Allentown. And that’s not always been the case.

Juan: I feel like the more diversity, the more people we bring into town, just the better, the richer life gets around here. I mean, just seeing all the different walks of life and all the different folks that come in and meet here. It’s just nice to see that.

Lauren: This is our home turf as well. We live less than five minutes from the shop. And what we loved about this location specifically is it is at the crossroads of so many different communities. So it becomes accessible to a lot of communities. Our whole thing is about being here for the community. So it was important to find ourselves a spot that we could be part of.

Juan: Opening up the shop kind of changed my perspective. I fully expected to open the shop and just face microaggressions. And just, I expected racism in my face. I haven’t experienced much of that.

Lauren:  I didn’t even know about how happy people were, for what we were doing and what it meant that we had taken things like putting pronouns on name tags with non binary bathrooms and all that kind of stuff, pride flags. People saying I really respect what this company has done.

Juan: It’s a safe space, you can totally come in here for yourself, do whatever you want, no one’s gonna judge you here. And if they do, they will find a way out the door very quickly.

Interview by Caiti Kinnear ’24​​

Ed Hanna

owner, Union & Finch

Interview by Leila Pervizpour '245

“The diversity of Allentown reminds me of New York. Having lived in New York City from ‘95 to 2011, moving back here, I felt that Allentown reminds me in similar ways of New York. It’s got a broad range of people across different ethnicities, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. I think that’s really neat and we should be proud of that diversity. I feel people that move from cities still want that kind of feel, and I think that’s definitely here, at a smaller scale, obviously.

I think Allentown can do a better job of marketing itself as a great place to live and raise a family. There are the obvious perceptions that come with cities such as crime but Allenttown is not alone and every city is obviously dealing with crime and safety at different scales. I also think Allentown has to do a better job of giving kids, in particular, a better opportunity to really thrive and grow so that it’s more attractive for families to live here too. And that’s a challenge right now.

These kids need the opportunity and hope to dream big, I think that’s my biggest concern. And the only way that they can do that is through better schools. I think we need to give them more hope that there’s a lot out there that they can achieve and do. The more successful our kids are, the more hope that they have, the better off Allentown will ultimately be.

As a business I think it’s important to be vocal and support youth in any way we can. We’ve done a decent job but we can always do better as a business. I also think this needs to be a collaborative and collective approach and encouraging other businesses to get involved will only help more. It takes a community, naturally.”

Serena Younes

manager, Aladdin Family Restaurant

“My family came here in the 70’s. They came here from Syria for a better life. They decided they wanted to open up a restaurant  where they can host family and friends, and it started off small with a very small menu, and it just grew from there. A lot of people say there’s not much to do in Allentown and it’s not really what there is to do. It’s the people.

There’s so many different walks of life. There’s a big Syrian community, a big Hispanic community, there’s a lot of history here. It’s a small world and I love that everyone’s intertwined.  All of our family is here, this is where a lot of people immigrated to from Syria in the 70’s. So that’s why I personally love Allentown and think that our business is doing well because of that.

Allentown was unrecognizable 10, even 15 years ago. I think that the revitalization of downtown Allentown is a great example of all the changes. All the new residents that are going and living downtown all these new buildings and apartment complexes, and now the waterfront is being built. From the 50’s to the 70’s, Allentown was the hotspot. There’s so many ways that people are trying to get back to where we were back then.

We have a lot more people as the population is growing, and I feel that over the years with social media and all that, it allows restaurants, especially like ours, that are very small and family owned that not a lot of people know about. I think that gets our name out there a lot more. We’re not a chain restaurant. There’s a lot of support, people love to support small businesses. It’s a great support system, not just within your own steering committee, but with everybody. It’s all a melting pot.”

Interview by Jordan Sheris ’23

Shannon Fugate

Executive Director, Baum School of Art

Interview by Abigail Scheidel '24​

“Allentown is an exciting city with so much to offer. What I love most about Allentown, is that we have such a wonderfully rich and diverse arts community, and so many opportunities to experience the arts.

The Baum School of Art, a community visual arts school since its original founding in 1926, is my favorite spot in Allentown and it is ideally placed across the street from the art museum. Having an arts-rich district in the center of the city was a concept that developed over many decades and I love the neighborhood we are in.

Even though our city is exciting, our community faces a lot of challenges that need to be solved. There is a lot of poverty, food insecurity, housing challenges, and safety issues. I would love to see the quality of life improve for our most vulnerable community members.

Part of our mission is to help with this. Dr. Emerson Walter Baum, the original founder, believed that no child should be deprived of the opportunity to study art because of limited financial resources. He taught paint classes to a group of teachers so that in turn, they would teach their students how to paint. Dr. Baum had a strong vision that we now follow today.

In the 2021-2022 school year, 180 of our students were served off site through community outreach partnerships.

We are a school dedicated to providing instruction, guidance, and encouragement for children and adults who wish to reach their full potential through the study of visual arts. The school celebrates diversity and welcomes all community members, regardless of gender, social status, race, or belief.”

Lyell C. Scherline

owner of Jay’s Local

“I was born and raised in Allentown and then COVID just brought me back to the area. I have strong roots and I really enjoy the Lehigh Valley so I really wanted to do something good for the community. We have a little bit of everything in Allentown. I feel like it has a small town feel. There is a fairly large population in Allentown, but it’s easy to make a name for yourself in the area.

I just felt like Allentown was a good place to start a business. Our space is very eclectic and creative, it’s very customizable.  When restaurants started having to close and we couldn’t have customers inside anymore, we started working with other small businesses in the area to team up. It seems like a lot of businesses throughout the country were doing that. We were bringing in local small businesses into our restaurant for them to showcase their items. We saw the effects that COVID had on the community. Businesses were closing and people that got laid off had to find a new way to make an income and it actually gave people a chance to start their own businesses.

Back in the day, Hess’s drew a lot of people to the Lehigh Valley and to Allentown in particular. When they closed, other businesses started to close and less people were coming in to Allentown from other cities. In the last few years with the help of the development in downtown Allentown, the West End and different parts of Allentown, businesses are growing and it’s becoming a place that it used to be. I just hope it keeps going in that direction.”

Interview by Gabi Hirshfield ’24

LeeAnn Bower

owner, A Little Bit of Local

“I have always wanted to one day own my own store where I would be able to sell my handcrafted items. Growing up, my parents owned a small antique shop at our house and I would frequently help out on the weekends. It really brought our family together and I was able to see how a small local business impacted the community, as well as the family that ran it.

Last November I did a pop up event in The Downtown Allentown Market with my own items with Stitched Simply Sweet and really enjoyed it. I had done some research over the next few months about different options, costs, and started coming with the idea of being able to easily shop for a variety of handcrafted local items all in one place year round. I knew I wanted it to be more of a boutique gift shop style without individual vendor booths so that it really had that gift shop feel.

I have also seen how transportation can be a challenge in some of the communities throughout Allentown for those that don’t drive and have to walk to take the bus. It can certainly make getting to places that offer various workshops like I have or the handcrafted goods hard to access. I also know that for those working it can be difficult to get to stores that offer local items while they are open as they often have limited hours, even more so now. The Downtown Allentown area along the ArtsWalk where my store is located is close to other businesses that are involved in the arts and all within walking distance.

Several of the vendors that have products in my store are also from Allentown, so I’m hoping to be able to contribute to the support of the small businesses as well. I’m also hoping to be able to collaborate with other established businesses to provide some unique experiences in regard to our workshops and help support each other to bring more people into the community to shop, dine, etc. As I become more established, I want to be able to offer at least one free workshop per month (sponsored by our vendors) to children in the Allentown communities so they can experience different arts and crafting workshops.”

Interview by Noel Rios ’25

Christian Filipos

owner, Youell’s Oyster House

Interview by Rocco Corradini '246

“I grew up in the Lehigh Valley and got a college degree in graphic arts but I got into the restaurant business and I’ve been doing that for like 35 years now.

We had a fire in 2013 and the restaurant burned to the ground. At that point, I was faced with a decision–do I rebuild on this spot which is quirky, there’s only street parking and it’s not on a visible thoroughfare. Do I move to a better spot downtown? Ultimately I decided to stay where I was because all the businesses that went downtown initially have seen a tremendous amount of turnover.

We do what we can to help charitable organizations, we support nonprofit and faith groups. I provide good wages and a good working environment to allow people to live their dream, provide for their family. I contribute considerably to the tax base.  I feel that’s a contribution to my community here.

I would say there are a lot of things in Allentown to do. Allentown doesn’t get recognized as a big urban area. We’ve always been overlooked because we’re between markets. So you have major affiliated news stations in Philadelphia. You have them in Scranton, and we’re in between so we’re always the last to get something, at least historically. We have fun, entertainment, arts, culture, dining, things that make the quality of life we have seen over the past couple of years. It is a short jump anywhere you want to go. You turn a corner and there’s something new that you haven’t seen before. So that’s what I appreciate about Allentown.”

Emily Vaughan

CEO, Vaughan Lawn

Interview by Jenna Stockfeder '24​

“I grew up in Allentown. My eldest brother started our company several years ago when he started pulling a lawn mower behind our family’s bike around our neighborhood. Since then, we have been operating from the garage of our home. With the start of the business in 2010, Vaughan Lawn has not only developed as a business but has become a brand as well. I am now a student at Muhlenberg College, so this town has always been a source of pride and joy for me. It is a special place to me.

Here at Vaughan Lawn we have grown into a company that is capable of doing much more than just mowing lawns. We started a hashtag #Howsitmowing a play on the words ‘How’s it going,’ and created a community by asking our customers to post pictures of them wearing our merchandise on social media using the #Howsitmowing to show support for our business.

I have been given so many opportunities by Vaughan Lawn. Several positive things have been done for the city by forming partnerships with other Allentown businesses and promoting their products. There was also the added bonus of spending quality time with our siblings as a result of these experiences.

It has been such a pleasure to learn so much from my brothers and to own a company that has been built from the ground up by them. The lessons they taught me have led to our success, so I am confident that I learned well from them.”

Emely Minaya

Demely Deli Grocery

“Allentown offers a good medium between city and a comfortable quiet lifestyle. New York is very fast paced, which is also the reason why my parents wanted to move out here. I remember getting here and the streets were so quiet if you would drive around late at like, 9 pm. On a weekday, it’d be deserted, it was actually scary. But now, there’s more things, there’s music, there’s people on the street.

Anyone who owns their own business, finding a family life balance between your business and your family is super difficult, especially when you have young kids, or bigger family. And in Allentown since the businesses are small, it’s necessary to have a one-on-one connection with your customers. So you kind of have to put an extra more effort into what you do.

When we moved here, it was very, very different. There wasn’t as much diversity as there is now. It was more quiet. There’s so much culture now, and that’s a really good thing to be surrounded by. So you get a little bit of everything here, you know, you can get like the nice community, kinda like make good relationships with other people, but also have a calm kind of lifestyle where you’re not like, go go go constantly.

Allentown is going to continue to grow. And it’s a nice thing. Just to see how much it has evolved over the years, I never would have thought that Allentown would look the way it does today.”

Interview by Kenny Konigsberg ’25

Nicos Elias

owner, Elias Funeral Home

“My mom took me to a funeral at a young age, which is a story I hear from a lot of us in the funeral business. We like the atmosphere and the way the director helps people, it’s a helping, caring business. As a kid I liked the big cars and the funeral homes and stuff like that too. I was looking for a funeral home to purchase for years and the realtor said, ‘You gotta see this property downtown here,’ and I thought, well, I don’t want to be with all of the other funeral homes, they’re all down the street here. But we looked at it and it suited my needs.

The funeral business is kind of hard as a new startup because there are so many established ones. And it’s like, I call it incestual. They just stay in the family and nobody else has a chance. With the funeral home, it helps to know people. I have relationships through all these years growing up here, and I still get amazed that people from 20, 30 years ago remember me. If they have a death in the family they’ll call. Even high school friends call when their parents die. So it just made sense to be in Allentown. Although I was looking all over the country to find a business, in the end it made more sense to stay here.”

Interview by Shira Holtz ’24

Geovany Elias

local investor and owner of The Comb Over Barbershop

“I opened The Comb Over Barbershop back in November of 2020. That is when I started putting together the space with an official opening date of March 22 of 2021. We’re coming up on the one year anniversary really soon, we’re very excited.

I noticed there’s a lot of high-end apartments coming here, and a lot of colleges within 5-10 minute driving distance, but not a lot of higher-end places where men can go and get themselves taken care of. There’s a lot of guys out there that like to pamper themselves, there’s been a shift in the trend, where it’s not just women taking care of themselves. Now it’s men going in and getting full facial treatments. And I’ve gone to nail salons and seen men getting their nails done. I figured I’d follow along with the trend, and provide a more upscale, clean, nice location for men to come and get their haircuts on a regular basis, feel clean and feel good when they leave. Something a little different, that doesn’t really exist here in the area, but aligns with the development and the vision that the city of Allentown is trying to move forward to.

We build a lot of personal relationships. I have some barbers that have built personal relationships with realtors, radio hosts, police officers. We try to build a more personal relationship. It’s more of a ‘how was your day’ kind of thing, a place for men to come in and just unwind, sit down, relax. We’re a full service shop. It’s more than just a haircut, you come in, and you’re gonna get a full service.”

Interview by Johnny Veglia ’24

Jonathan Morrissey

owner, RichMar florist

“Allentown is my second home. We’ve always been here. My family has always been in the Lehigh Valley. It’s hard work that fulfills me and knowing that I want to keep going. I want to give our daughter every opportunity, plus what I had growing up. If she decides to join the company, I want to set her up better for success. That’s how I get through every day. I think it keeps a dream alive. To work beside my dad every day is extremely rewarding because this is what he has sacrificed for, this is what he missed games for and this is what he worked seven days for. So to be able to fight alongside him and keep this thing going and keep building on it is awesome. I think it keeps a dream alive.

So you know, when you work in a family business you grow up in, you either make one or two decisions: you either decide that you’re going to go into it or you decide that you don’t want to. But I wasn’t going to let this die with my dad. I was going to take the reins and do something, and you know I’ve just developed such a passion for success and it’s a thing that I want to keep going now.”

Interview by Sarah Wedeking ’24

Linda Merkel

executive director of America on Wheels Museum

“Museums are for lifelong learners. That was one of my reasons they asked me to come on board…we had to make sure that we had an educational piece within the museum. We successfully raised the money to add a learning center so kids of all ages can see how cars are stored. It’s awesome.

We’re here for children and adults. We do year round education, special events and entertainment and we rotate our exhibits every six months so it’s always something new. We host a lot of special events, weddings and birthday parties. Now we have the new kids garage. We’re doing a lot of 12 and under birthday parties. They can go and change the tires on a fabricated car, check the oil and all that.

I’ve been here [at the museum] since 2008. When we were under construction I was here for the entire building of the museum. That’s actually 17 years, because it was a year before working with construction teams.

I’m actually a Jersey girl. My husband is in the medical field, which brought us to Pennsylvania…I’m also a teacher. So with that, the tourism and the teaching go with the museum. And that’s how I started upon their request.

I have been blessed with five children…Sadly, my daughter recently passed away after having a baby. My husband and I are caring for the little baby now. That’s who’s with me here…All my kids come, they help me clean up, they serve. In fact, my Laura was actually one of my chefs for a lot of my catering events here. So, a lot of wonderful memories.

If you stop in, you’ll meet my engineer-to-be, the little one.

Our new neighbor across the street is called the RB Collection. And they actually include tours for us two days a week. You can go over to their facility across the street and see classic cars being restored. They’re our first partner and when they moved in, I actually had a cake made for them in the shape of a wheel…I said, ‘Welcome to the Waterfront.’ When properties have the Waterfront as the background, it’s a gem…In time, this is going to be an absolutely beautiful area.”

Interview by Alex Caban-Echevarria ’23

Jon Clark

design director of RE:find

“We see this potential, and that’s what kind of really keeps us going,” Jon Clark says as he explains his high-end furniture store and collection of art galleries, RE:find. Twenty years ago Clark’s store resided in the Southside of Bethlehem and later morphed into a store in Easton. Seven years ago, Clark and Ron Susser opened a store in Allentown and never looked back, and don’t plan to. “If we would have come 10 years ago, we would have been challenged, I wanted to open a business here a number of years ago, and at the time, it didn’t make sense.” With the rapid change to Allentown’s downtown, like the addition of the PPL center and other big businesses, Clark considers RE:find’s fit in the city. “We started out on Seventh Street, and moved around the corner to Hamilton Street about three years ago.” Now, RE:find sits in the heart of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ). “There are a lot of people who work in these big buildings down here who are increasingly out onto the street and looking for things.” Because of the nature of Clark’s niche store, this shift in Allentown’s Hamilton district adds clientele. Just as RE:find blends contemporary and antique designs, Allentown serves as a vibrant location for the store and galleries. “We live here, we work here, and we think [Allentown] is a big, diverse, and interesting city.”

Interview by Carly Giacoio ’22

Santo Napoli

owner, Assembly88

“The first store I opened up back in 1999 was the Archive, which was similar to Assembly88 but it was mostly shoes.

For whatever reason, there seems to be less people looking to work in person nowadays, even for part time. It’s hard to find part time employees. I used to have college kids work for me, but college kids have different opportunities nowadays so it’s no longer one option for work.

I’m one of the chairs for the Downtown Allentown Business Alliance, whose goal is to help the small businesses in downtown and encourage folks to come down and support the small businesses.We hear everyone always calling to support small businesses, but the average American consumer can find what they want online. The audience is there, but we are not the only option anymore.

Overall, the perception of Allentown is positive, but no place is perfect. Development is up and that is certainly helping attract business that would not have thought about coming to Allentown. There was not a Starbucks here until all of the new construction. Yet the development has a lot of older folks upset about how Allentown has changed. It’s no longer the days of Hess. The younger folks are fine with the new changes since they do not know what it used to be.

In time, the development will be good as more job opportunities will come about. Times change and hopefully, the new developments will increase the economic opportunity in Allentown.”

Interview by Jordan Fisch ’22

Mary Griffin

owner, The Caring Place

“How many events can you go to downtown that you can afford? How many things can you can actually do if you’re low income? There’s nothing. There needs to be more things to do, affordable things to do, like a movie theater. You would want something right in the heart of your town where you can bring your kids to. And I’m speaking about low income because that’s what’s around the [PPL Center] arena. So you really don’t have anything to cultivate family. Family equals community.

We have a food bank, an after school program, we have coats we give away. We don’t charge the kids at all and we never have. They’re able to come in and get the necessary help that they need. And we have computers and we give away the necessary needs for the schools such as notebook fans, book bags, things like that. And then, we have the mentoring program, which actually helps the younger teenagers.

We actually are in a good area because we’re downtown, near the schools and near they’re low income and that’s basically what we serve. And so, you know, we are definitely in need in the downtown area.”

Interview by Tom Hiller ’23

Alex Garcia

owner, Garcia Photography

“Where we are in Allentown there are a lot of little stores that are run by a mom-and-pop place. But as you move closer to the center then you have companies that have bigger budgets, bigger branding, and are run by bigger companies. People are shopping there because of the brand. There are so many photographers in Allentown. Everybody and their grandmother are photographers these days, and being able to separate yourself from the crowd a little bit more helps because it adds a level of seriousness to the situation. We’ve been doing this for a long time, so people know us. They come into our studio, they get a sense of our personality, they see the work that we’ve done so I think that that part of it is just kind of a level up from other photographers.

Stick to one thing. Don’t get distracted. Don’t try to be a jack of all trades as they say. Focus on one thing and do it over and over again and push it to the next level. There are so many levels to make your work more refined and you can continue to make the image look better and better. And so. we focus on photography. Focus and reiterate on the same idea and your core passion that you have. For us it’s photography. And even though you might feel like you’re getting bored, you just have to level up and do something new. Start learning and making mistakes and get to a new level.”

Interview by Vicki Zandier ’23

Lobynn Gallo

owner, Little Miss Korea

Lobynn Gallo is the owner of Little Miss Korea in the Allentown Fairgrounds Farmers Market. Little Miss Korea has been open for nearly four years. There was formerly a second location in the Downtown Allentown Market, which was open for two and a half years and just closed this past February. Gallo, originally from the Poconos, is currently living in Bethlehem and has lived in the Lehigh Valley for seven years. She shared initial struggles with kickstarting her business. 

“I waited about 10 months, and I called them back and I said, ‘Hey, I’m wondering if there’s anything else open. And the stand that I’m currently at was open and for sale. And honestly, it was a really smooth transition, I was open within one month.

“I wouldn’t change anything about it as it is right now. But perhaps… just a little bit more exposure about the market because I feel like a lot of young people and people who are under 35 don’t know about the farmers market, and they should. And it’s such a great place to shop, and it’s such a great place to eat.

“I love the community that the restaurant group has… anybody who operates or works in the hospitality industry, we all kind of know each other. And we all give each other some type of support and advice, which is really nice. Most of the time, it’s very genuine. And I really have grown a lot from the other advice that I’ve gotten over the years.

“I never got into the restaurant industry before I even opened up my stand. I was not well versed in the kitchen, I was not well versed in anything hospitality, and I just jumped into it. So to have this type of relative success that I’ve had, and to know that I have a good rapport with all these customers that I have is truly a blessing. And I definitely want to say thank you to all my repeating customers and people that are willing to give me another chance if something goes wrong or whatnot.”

Interview by Cydney Wilson ’23