This economic development retrospective covering the years 1945 to 1984 will be serialized as eight parts, running on alternate days on Town Square Delaware. Today’s introductory piece starts with the post-war years.
One hundred years ago seventy percent of New Castle County’s population resided within the City of Wilmington. In that same year, 1912, the DuPont Company added a hotel to their new office building in downtown Wilmington at 10th and Market Street, creating a dominating presence as the largest complex in town.
One hundred years later, the DuPont Company is a fading influence on the City and Wilmington’s population is now only about fifteen percentof the total county. Once a manufacturing center, then the chemical capital, Wilmington has continually attempted to reinvent itself and become the center of life once more for northern Delaware. This retrospective will examine some of the reasons for Wilmington’s decline and the many diverse efforts made to breathe life into a struggling town.
The Downward Spiral
On V-J Day, 1945, an estimated 50,000 people crowded Rodney Square and the surrounding streets to celebrate the end of World War II. Wilmington was home to 112,000 people according to the most recent census, and a manufacturing center for the region. Shipbuilding along the Christina River peaked during this period driven by the demands of fighting a two-ocean war, and leather tanneries, textile mills and railroad-related manufacturing provided abundant job opportunities.
Shops and stores flourished along Market and King Streets, as people flocked to Woolworth’s, Kennards, Braunsteins, Mullins, Wilmington Dry Goods and the King Street farmers market. For entertainment you came downtown to the movies, where the Ritz, Loews, Warner, The Grand, The Towne, The Queen and The Rialto theatres provided the entertainment venues. Crowds downtown in these post war years spilled from the sidewalks onto the streets on a Friday night.
But all of this was about to change.
It would not be an overnight phenomenon. The tanneries and textile mills had been in decline for several years as the Great Depression and competition from foreign goods and manmade fibers reduced demand for their products. World War II proved to be a temporary fix for a shipbuilding business in decline. Du Pont and its spin-offs Atlas and Hercules, were making Wilmington a more white collar town but not one tied to living in city neighborhoods. Suburban developments such as Westover Hills, Alapocos, Richardson Park, Lindamere and Edgemoor Terrace had been developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, a preview of development to come. Now though, the effects of pent up demand for housing and cars coupled with the baby boom were unleashed on an unprepared city and county.
In the first five years after WWII, over 8,500 homes were built in the region and over 80% of these outside the city. At the time, New Castle County was run by a Levy Court with no zoning code, a situation not remedied until well into the 1950’s. Developers were pretty much free to build what they pleased where they pleased as long as the State Highway Department acquiesced. It was not long before jobs and shopping opportunities followed.
To keep up with the exploding national demand, car maker GM chose a manufacturing location on Boxwood Road southwest of Wilmington while Chrysler put its plant near Newark. The early 1950’s saw the first suburban shopping center open, The Merchandise Mart on Gov.Printz Blvd., with a new Strawbridges store and acres of free parking. Philadelphia department store giant Wanamakers looked south to Wilmington to expand, and initially wanted to come downtown to 9th and Shipley Streets. A push back from short-sighted local retailers afraid of competition and a lack of off-street parking made Wanamakers choose a site just over the city limits on Augustine Cutoff instead. By the mid 1950’s the Wilmington Parking Authority had been created to deal with the burgeoning need for off-street parking and chose the same 9th & Shipley site for the first parking structure, the very type of infrastructure solution that could have brought Wanamakers to downtown a few years earlier.
In 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, Wilmington public schools were segregated and about twenty percent black. Up to that point only the Oblates running Salesianum School had chosen to challenge convention and integrate its student body. By the end of the 1950’s the city’s public schools were 50% black as Wilmington lost another 5,000 white residents to the suburbs. The forces of destruction were about to really kick in.
Next Installment: Three Waves of Destruction.
Carol Hoffecker’s excellent book, Corporate Capital Wilmington in the Twentieth Century (1983) gave me a great source for the early post WWII years. I would also like to thank the following individuals who contributed their time, assistance and recollections: Peter Besecker, Joe DiPinto, Elliott Golinkoff, Brian Murphy, Dick Pryor, Fred Sears, Dave Singleton and Stan Soja.