When he was 21 years old, Joe D’Ambrosio opened his barber shop in the South Bethlehem Historic District. Now, at the age of 77, he stands at the screen door of his creative hair center each day and watches for pedestrians — potential customers, as he calls them — walking by.
Across the street, six stories of brick and polished glass tower over his small business. D’Ambrosio doesn’t mind the new buildings appearing around the city — in fact, he thinks they are beautiful — he said he just hasn’t felt their impact yet.
Ever since the New Street parking garage and Gateway at Greenway Park office building opened earlier this year, D’Ambrosio said he hasn’t seen a single customer come out of them.
“There are supposed to be feet on the street,” D’Ambrosio said. “(The Gateway building) was supposed to bring customers here. I like the idea of the building — I have nothing against it and I think it looks good. The buildings that were there were a mess. But did we need a building that big? That’s a question mark.”
Locals like Jay Sigafooz, a resident of Bethlehem Township, have gone to Joe’s Barber Shop for as long as they can remember.
“I’m all about the originals and the firsts — you can never forget and always have to respect the firsts,” Sigafooz said. “(D’Ambrosio is) the only one who gives out bubblegum to his customers.”
Like all home and business owners in one of Bethlehem’s historic districts, D’Ambrosio must follow specific standards for the appearance and makeup of his building’s facade.
According to Bethlehem Planning and Zoning, the Historical Architectural Review Board assesses exterior changes to businesses and residences to the north of the Lehigh River, whereas the Historic Commission reviews such changes in the South Side Historic District and Mount Airy Neighborhood District located in West Bethlehem.
Although home and business owners answer to different review boards, the boards are regulated by the same sentiment: keeping the history of properties alive through preservation.
Alongside his neighbors, Will Carpenter, a resident of the North Side historic district and president of the Bethlehem Historic District Association, works through the challenges or “modern realities” of owning a home in a neighborhood deeply rooted in its history.
Carpenter said everything from painting homes to refurbishing windows must be approved by the Historical Architectural Review Board and fit in with the historic character of the neighborhood.
“I’ve gotten handy with tools and different resources,” Carpenter said. “We have neighbors who find different historic websites and help us source things and find different (do-it-yourself) ways of preserving our home. It’s really a neighborhood effort.”
While people like D’Ambrosio and Carpenter take pride in upholding historic guidelines, Olga Negrón, a member of the Bethlehem city council since 2016, said not everyone who comes to Bethlehem has found a way to balance the past and present.
“So many things are done, or have been approved, catering to developers and not listening to the historic rules or the people,” Negrón said.
Negrón said the garage and office building on Third and New streets not only prioritize money over history but also set a double standard for small businesses in the historic districts.
“We have small businesses that don’t have the big pockets of big developers, and they abide by the guidelines,” Negrón said. “They complete remodeling or some work to their properties and do it to the ‘T’ using the guidelines — the size, the font, the colors — and they should be celebrated.”
D’Ambrosio said new developers are able to do as they please, while owners of older, pre-existing businesses who helped build the business district from the ground up are still required to play by the rules.
Despite what he feels are misaligned standards guiding the historic preservation of Bethlehem, D’Ambrosio still has a positive outlook on the future.
“I hope that we’re moving in the right direction,” D’Ambrosio said. “We have to maintain integrity. The question is becoming: ‘Where do we draw the line and how fair is it?’”