It gets personal

As soon as I saw the news alert in my inbox, I shut down the office and ran out the door….

On my way to 3rd street, I remembered a situation in 2010 when I got a phone call first thing in the morning from a very concerned chocolate shop owner asking me what was going on in the business across the street.

“How could they just leave the windows covered in black? Don’t they know that looks like a death knell?”

He was describing the way one of the installation artists left the windows completely covered in black paper. As an artist, he could understand the desire to keep art under wraps until the installation is ready for the big reveal. But to a group of independent businesses, even the impression of one store closing could mean economic trouble for the rest of them… this was NOT cool. (I wrote about this then, too.)

This is what the installation looked like at the end. Imagine this entire window covered in black paper.
I quickly made signs to inform the public that the the store was hosting an art installation project along with other independent businesses along the South Bethlehem business district. What I learned from that little panic was a little bit more about the logistics of public art, and a whole lot about the people who run businesses on 3rd & 4th street. It’s not just about supporting the artists (and their cool visions for transforming space). One must give equal consideration to the hosting businesses who are willing to interrupt their regular operations to accommodate them.

These people work really hard to not only make a living, but to keep a community together through economic downturns, changes in local government, and through shared challenges of being the chief, the cook, and the bottle washer. This community supports a rich culture of art and creativity. Some of the businesses have galleries to showcase local artists.

A few years ago, First Friday’s were hopping! So many people wandered through the stores to see the new art exhibited at the Banana Factory, Shuze, Fox Optical, HomeBase, Cleo’s, Home & Planet, and Comfort & Joy. Local musicians added to the lively atmosphere. I would frequently stroll through the stores, sipping wine and buying items. Gossip and local political chatter was a way for me to get to know the community and the people. I learned each business owner by name – no name tags needed.

Every April, we gather our energy and put on the annual ChiliFest (Spring on 4th) to celebrate the spirit of South Bethlehem. I love these people. I consider them friends.

Today, one of our friends decided to close his business. He’s moving on to a new chapter in his life. I felt a familiar sadness when Randi and Inger left, and then Jennifer, and then Jon.

… on my way to Tallarico’s I passed Jenny from Jenny’s Kuali. She had a familiar paper bag in her hand. I knew she had run to the store to pay her last respects, as I was about to do.

The smell was still there, but the shelves were nearly empty.

Brian graciously filled a box of whatever he wanted to give me. I paid, but I couldn’t just leave. We chatted about this and that. He said it was a hard day. I fought my own sadness when I noticed the cigar box guitars no longer hung on the wall above the white leather couch where my kids would hang out while I chatted for “just one more minute.”

I had great talks with Brian and his dad and mom. Such a great family. Such a wonderful spirit. Brian was so generous with my students and my girl scouts. I understand why he needed to close. My sadness is selfish. I’m going to miss him more than his chocolates.

I’ll be thinking of him and Jon every time I see the Van Gogh painted fiberglass mule in Fair-Mart library. Between the three of us, we rescued that mule. Brian took it in first, then passed it along to Jon, then I took it to campus to wait for a creative opportunity to present itself. See – pieces of their spirit stay around, even if they leave.

I’m hoping the next chapter in Brian’s life includes more opportunities for him to return to his metal sculpting. He’s a great teacher, too. Such a warm and generous heart. I hope he stays true to his promise and comes back enough to drive Saraceno nuts.

Brian's last customer
Brian’s last customer
On my way to the car, I bumped into Christine who owns Couture Salon and Spa on East 3rd street. We shared our sadness for Brian. She walked with me to my next business visit; the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society. I had to pick up papers for a Lehigh event in a couple of weeks. I remembered last April, when I presented the prize to them for winning the chili competition, they invited me to become a member of the club.

“But I’m not Puerto Rican.”
“That doesn’t matter. Join us. Be our friend.”

So I did.

New Friends


2 thoughts on “It gets personal

  1. It is always sad to see a business close, but perhaps a new one will move in to the space soon. And I think it is great that the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society invited you to join; my daughter was the only non-Latino member of the Latino Leadership Club at William Allen High School during high school. Cultural diversity is part of what makes America great. Kudos to the PRBS for inviting you and to you for accepting. The exchange of ideas should help to make the South Side even more vibrant.

  2. This is my friend Silagh at her best and one of the many reasons I fell in love with her (I’m gay so calm down) – The decline of “Eclectic South Side Bethlehem” as they like to say on WDIY is troubling because it is a gateway into the city and makes a terrible first impression.

    I thought Artsquest and the Casino would actually help that part of the city but they have not. Though I hear from impeccable sources the leadership of both the Casino and Artsquest are committed to supporting the merchants in the area.

    Third Street has too much traffic – making walking around unpleasant

    First Friday ran out of steam and no one noticed until it was too late

    A lot of criticism has been leveled at the Chamber. Their job is to support their members but they can’t save a business district alone – it takes the merchants, the city’s elected leaders and the residents themselves – I often saw more people who did not live in Bethlehem at first Friday than I would residents – If the citizens of a city are unwilling to support an event/business district there is not much that can be done.

    Parking is terrible

    People followed Christkindlmarkt to Artsquest on the South side – could they have done more to encourage people to visit the Third and Fourth Street merchants? What did those merchants do to capture the traffic created by the move. You can’t just blame the buses not stopping there are hundreds of cars jamming the Artsquest parking lots. How many of them drove on Third Street to get to Chriskindlmarkt?

    Business districts have frequent peaks and valleys – I have seen many ups and downs on South Street and Manyayunk in Philadelphia. New Hope / Lambertville have gone from feast to famine and back again many times.

    I don’t have an answer or solution but I do know we all have to pitch in and do what ever we can to aid and support all of our neighborhoods and the merchants who set up shop in them. We have to be cheerleaders, we have to be tour guides, we have to be ambassadors for our city and we have to be patrons of those businesses.


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