Originally published by The Buffalo News; “A chilly crusade for a doomed landmark.” by Denise Jewell Gee, 2013 01 20.
An icy wind sliced through John Nowak’s blue nylon tent.
It was Day 3 and 22 degrees. A thin layer of snow covered the sidewalk outside the shuttered Bethlehem Steel administration building. Nowak’s lonely tent listed in the wind.
Nowak had been camping outside the building for three days, and he hoped to stick out the frigid nights as long as he could in one last push to save it from demolition. His protest involved a couple of sleeping bags, a few blankets and the occasional warm-up in his 1993 Cadillac Seville.
Nowak wanted to draw attention to the plight of the 111-year-old building. I wanted an answer to a question: What drives someone to camp out in bone-chilling temperatures for a boarded-up building that has sat empty for years?
It was easy to write off Nowak’s sidewalk camping campaign as a bit on the dotty side. The wind whipped by. He shoved his bare hands into his jeans pockets. The temperature overnight had dipped to 14 degrees.
Surely, there are easier avenues on which to wage a preservation fight. There are letters and petitions. Phone calls and email. But those had already been done by a group trying to save the building, and Nowak had struck on a tactic just odd enough for people zipping by on Route 5 to take notice.
“I’m just trying to bring attention to this beautiful building, the design. The copper craftsmanship on top is exquisite, the stonework above the windows,” said Nowak, dressed in heavy boots, three layers of sweaters under a Columbia jacket and a wool cap. “All of it is a work of art.”
Unfortunately, it’s a work of art headed for destruction after decades of neglect. Once the administrative center of the city’s steel giant, it’s slated for court-ordered demolition after Lackawanna determined it was unsafe.
This is not Nowak’s first crusade for the Bethlehem Steel site. Back in the early ’90s, he carried a placard to protest a proposal to build a tire-burning energy plant on the property.
What really burns Nowak is the city’s lack of waterfront. “It’s completely shut off,” Nowak said. “There’s been no public access for Lackawanna for 100 years.”
Nowak, 47, runs a lawn-care business in the summer. When he gave up snowplowing, it left his winter days free. It also left a lot of free time to dream about what the waterfront could be. He’s drawn up a sprawling vision to turn the hundreds of acres of former Bethlehem land into a waterfront park with a stadium, condos and more.
It’s a dream. The land is privately owned, and Nowak is just one citizen expressing his hopes.
Already, though, his small crusade outside the Beaux Arts-style building is drawing attention. Television crews came to interview him. A woman stopped to see what she could do.
Some people have campaign donations and political juice. But a guy like Nowak? He needs another tactic to get the attention of politicians.
Can his camp-out save the building? It’s not likely, but who knows?
“If it happens, it just happens,” Nowak said of the demolition. “All we can do is try our best. That’s why I’m out here. This is the last effort.”
He won’t be standing in the way of the demolition trucks. He conceded that high winds might force him to go home. But that won’t stop him from dreaming about what the waterfront could be.