The closed New Ideal Diner along U.S. 40 in Aberdeen. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
ABERDEEN — The rise of this city in Harford County and its decline owed much to U.S. 40 and the car-centric culture of 20th century America.
From World War II to the 1960s, motels and gas stations sprouted along the main road from Baltimore to Philadelphia to accommodate road-weary travelers. Diners served up coffee and gossip to neighbors and road-trippers alike on what was also the main local drag.
But when Interstate 95 opened, running parallel to U.S. 40 just a few miles to the west, the flow of out-of-town cars slowed to a trickle.
Today, many of the motels that remain offer cut-rate rooms or are boarded up altogether. Eateries such as the iconic New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen have shut down.
Now the city is pinning its hopes for the future on an older mode of transportation.
See pictures of revitalization efforts along U.S. 40 in Aberdeen.
Aberdeen officials envision the city's century-old train station, which receives both Amtrak and MARC trains, as the anchor of a walkable new city center, with shopping, restaurants and apartments.
"Everything old becomes new," said former Mayor Ruth Elliott, now a city councilwoman. "Like so many things, you have these tremendous plans. It's going to take a lot of money, some people with vision, especially business people. If it could happen, it would be nice."
The hitch: Officials are waiting for a developer to come forward with a formal plan. Commercial activity at the corner of U.S. 40 and Bel Air Avenue currently consists of a gas station, a cemetery headstone maker and a few other small businesses.
Three years ago, the state gave the area a special designation that makes it eligible for funding assistance to spur interest.
Some hope it's only a matter of time.
The city wants a mix of residential and commercial development more visible from U.S. 40, with wide sidewalks and parking for bicycles.
Where most buildings in the area are currently squat, developers could build structures as high as eight stories close to the station.
Stephen Cockey, 58, of Bel Air, stood inside the waiting area at Aberdeen Station and said the building itself could use a face lift.
"It certainly needs some upgrading as far as appearance goes," Cockey said. "It looks pretty shabby — not just the building, but the whole surrounding area."
Daphane Braxton, 53, waiting for a train to Washington, spoke of the revitalization of Havre De Grace, where she lives. She said Aberdeen's city center should look more modern.
"It's a quaint little place," Braxton said.
The federal government threaded U.S. 40 through Harford County around 1930, and for decades it was the primary highway between Baltimore and Philadelphia.
In the 1960s, I-95 opened in northeastern Maryland as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway. Aberdeen went from a city that travelers once passed through to one they now pass by.
"Everything just started to wither away — the motels, the travelers," said 66-year-old Jim O'Neill, who has lived here since the 1950s. "People didn't drive as fast and as long distances in the '40s and '50s."
Harford County, hoping to spur private development along the road, revised its zoning code a decade ago to allow mixed-use development, cut some red tape and threw in tax incentives.
Regional officials, looking to play off the proximity to Aberdeen Proving Ground, dubbed the stretch from Cecil County into Baltimore the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor.
The nationwide military base realignment brought thousands of new jobs to the Army installation, but the expected flood of development has yet to materialize. Still, the train station, which connects Aberdeen to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, is expected to be a key transit link.
Since the county began tweaking its codes to encourage development, there has been one major achievement: the Water's Edge Corporate Campus along the Bush River in Belcamp, where the old Bata Shoe factory once stood, has tenants including management consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton.
The area also has retail space, though some suites remain vacant, and a newly built conference center.
"We've had some success," said C. Pete Gutwald, director of Harford County's planning and zoning department. But U.S. 40 "didn't get that way overnight," he said, "and it's not going to change overnight."
Some hope Aberdeen will become more of a destination.
"I don't think people understand that they don't have to take I-95," said Billy Bauer, 63. "Everybody's in a hurry. [U.S. 40 is] a bit slower, but it's a better experience."
Bauer, who grew up in the area, remembers when local residents and travelers packed the Bridge Diner in Havre de Grace, which shut down last year, and the New Ideal Diner, which closed in 2011 for repairs, never reopened and is now for sale.
Bauer said he thought some redevelopment was "inevitable and necessary," though he's not convinced he'll ever see it.