Bel Air and phantom storefronts: hiding the vacancy with little gems.

First-time visitors to the town of Bel Air, Maryland aren’t likely to be surprised by what they see—at this point, a well-kept small-town main street isn’t exactly a rarity—but chances are it’ll still charm them.  After all, Bel Air is a distant suburb of Baltimore – Charm City.  It’s the seat of government for Harford County, immediately to the northeast of Baltimore County, which wraps like a horseshoe around Baltimore the city.  Twenty-two miles separate Bel Air from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which is a great enough distance that Bel Air isn’t intrinsically a suburb, but, like many county seats to the surrounding “collar counties” around a big city, the suburban growth has come out to meet Bel Air.  A sleepy town of 2,500 with little function outside of county government back in 1950, Bel Air now claims close to 11,000 people and a multi-block main street with at least a few early 19th century evocations typical of municipalities in one of the thirteen colonies.  

Like many resolutely middle class suburban communities with a strong civic structure, Bel Air’s tidy downtown features a variety of mom-and-pops: clothing boutiques, consulting firms, coffee shops, pet groomers, comic book stores, banks, nail salons, breweries, sports bars, tae kwon do studios….do I need to keep going?  Bel Air isn’t ritzy, probably not really all that touristy, but it boasts a fair-to-good magnetism amidst Harford County’s quarter-million inhabitants.  And visitors coming from outside Harford County, who aren’t likely to be that familiar with Bel Air (considering that Bel Air is a pretty unknown place outside of Maryland), will still find more than a few options for a good bite to eat.

But if they come with Lavalier in mind, they’re probably going to be a bit disappointed.

Bel Air MD phantom storefront

Yeah, I’m dissing Lavalier.  Not because I object to its turquoise lettering or the bulky cursive font, or the minimalist profile of a fashionable femme with a pearl necklace.  And I think those tiny deuce tables perched in a former clothing display area are attractive if impractical.  They evoke a romantic evening for two, with extra appeal for the agoraphobic.  The building itself is fine; it seems to offer the time-tested typology of a first-floor business and second-floor residential.  It’s squeezed right up next to neighboring businesses, and entirely lacks off-street parking.  A main street paradigm.  So why do I come down so hard on this independent eatery?

Because I’m not convinced Lavalier is the real deal.  At any rate, it’s certainly not an operating business these days.  Notice the entrance, with “HIRSCH” (probably the original store’s ownership family) on tiles in the ground…and all the debris and grime swept up toward the doorway.  Not a very appealing entrance.  And let’s peer through those windows.

Bel Air MD phantom storefront

It gets the right idea across, but why are both chairs positioned on one side of the table?  Shouldn’t the place settings on the table be a little more carefully arranged if this business wants to attract customers?  How about the other display window?

Bel Air MD phantom storefront

No effort with a table cloth, dirty and neglected.  If this is the presentation these owners thought was acceptable, it’s no wonder it folded.

Except that it’s not looking likely that Lavalier ever functioned as a restaurant.  I can find virtually no evidence of a vestigial menu on AllMenus or MenuPages.  But, despite the little two-seater in the display window (which at least has the potential for cuteness), Google Maps labeled it as a permanently closed “Jeweler”.  No reviews, but Google has a very low barrier to entry for documenting businesses; a person can create a business profile for a three-day rummage sale operating out of his/her front yard and it would likely show on Google Maps for years.  Meanwhile, the high-profile review site Yelp (which vets its entries a bit more carefully) archives and retains profiles on closed businesses.  While Yelp features one for Lavalier, it has no reviews.  It shows the right address, but it’s “unclaimed”.  This phantom storefront is starting to make a bit more sense.  Taking Google’s profile into consideration along with the business name, it represents a slight misspelling of lavaliere, a jeweled pendant attached to a chain necklace.  So Lavalier probably was a very short-lived jeweler and not a restaurant—but why make it look like a restaurant?  

A Baltimore Sun article from 2015 indicates that this is an initiative courtesy of Project Storefront, which attempts to keep shuttered businesses looking interesting while they wait for a new tenant.  Looking at the most recent of the above photos—the one with the dingy unadorned table—one espies a white decal on the windowpane that references this effort as part of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance initiative to keep the main street lively.  In the era of the Sun article, when Lavalier “closed earlier this year” (2015), those display windows featured student artwork.  The Project Storefront initiative reinforces downtown Bel Air’s effort to assert itself as an Arts and Entertainment District.

Bel Air MD arts and entertainment district

My critical eye to the Lavalier storefront isn’t entirely fair.  By most metrics, the effort to invigorate downtown Bel Air seems to be working: bolstered by its position as a confident, stable middle class outer suburb. the majority of storefronts look better than Lavalier.

Bel Air MD main street

And it may just take two or three volunteers, an additional place setting, and a broom; give it fifteen minutes and this phantom storefront can look friendly again.

Bel Air isn’t the only Maryland city participating in such an effort.  130 miles to the west, the larger city of Cumberland (which I’ve featured before), offered a similar effort to prevent its vacant downtown storefronts from looking too forlorn.

I’m not sure about the civic forces animating the phantom storefronts in Cumberland—these photos date from 2016—but they feature some eccentric finds: interesting sculptures, skeletons posing as mannequins, and, yes, a poster advertising an early Jim Jarmusch film, in German.  It’s also tricky to assess whether these efforts and inducing vibrancy are bearing much fruit: Bel Air generally looks good, but Lavalier has been vacant for years now.  Meanwhile, the much larger Cumberland (a full downtown and not just a main street), still struggles with higher-than-average vacancies amidst a much beefier (and in my opinion, better) architectural stock than Bel Air.  But the economic climate surrounding Cumberland is vastly different from comfy suburban Baltimore.

Potemkin Village be danged: regardless of the return on investment, these Project Storefront initiatives do create the appearance a lot better than windows taped over with butcher paper.  Provided, of course, that the caretakers sweep the debris at the front doorstep at least once a month.

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