Wilmington: How We Got Here and Where We're Going

Part II: Three Waves of Destruction
This economic development retrospective covering the years 1945 to 1984 will be serialized as eight parts, running on alternate days on Town Square Delaware. 

On June 27, 1957 the Republican-dominated Wilmington City Council, in its last act before being turned out for a Democratic majority council, voted 7-6 in favor of Route A, the proposed plan for I-95 through Wilmington. The State Highway Department had considered a route for the new interstate highway system that would have taken it east of the city, along the route now occupied by I-495. It then championed a route that would take it along Bancroft Parkway before switching to the route that would take it through the densely populated neighborhood between Adams and Jackson Streets. This last route was supported by the News Journal and the Homebuilders Association because they believed economic vitality would follow in its path. Perhaps they were right for other sections of I-95 through Delaware, but for Wilmington it meant the demolition of 369 homes between Lancaster Avenue and the Brandywine River. The West Center City neighborhood, now trapped between downtown and I-95, began a rapid decline.

Aerial view of downtown, looking east, circa 1970. Old Customs House at 6th & King is near the center, surrounded by vacant land for proposed regional mall.

Slum clearance came into vogue in the 1950’s with the misguided notion that developers would come in to old neighborhoods and build new housing once the slums were eliminated. Wilmington’s version was called the Poplar Street Project, and by the late 1950’s 600 structures containing 970 dwelling units were torn down on the City’s East Side. Twenty-two blocks of slums were cleared for the developers, who chose to build such suburban neighborhoods as Graylyn Crest in Brandywine Hundred instead. These blocks would remain desolate for decades.

It was not just the neighborhoods that saw destruction on a grand scale. Plans had been bandied about for years to create a more modern downtown. Governments on all levels needed to consolidate and improve their offices and others dreamed of a retail revival. Federal urban renewal programs provided the majority of the funds to purchase and demolish a 10 block section of downtown from 4th to 9th Streets, and Walnut to King Streets. Only the Old Customs House at 6th and King St. and a few colonial era houses were left untouched.

By the late 1960’s Wilmington was on its knees. Population dropped by the tens of thousands as the Wilmington Housing Authority became the city’s only developer of new housing. What was happening in Wilmington was being replicated all over the industrial Northeast and Midwest. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s the former centers of commerce, small and mid-sized cities and towns, were being abandoned for the modern, spacious suburbs. These cities were becoming the repository for the low income and poorly skilled, with a shrinking tax base left to support the ever-growing demand for services.

An Early Plan

Wilmington was not without its champions, even in the toughest of times. In 1967 Mayor John Babiarz and the Greater Wilmington Development Council commissioned a study that proposed a radical redesign of the downtown to spur new development. GWDC, headed by Henry Belin du Pont and board members such as Ed Goett, Tyler McConnell, Joe Carbonnell, Jr., and Art Carota, pushed a plan for $100 million in new private development in the coming dozen years, with 2,800 new housing units, 1.7 million square feet of Class A office space, more than double the existing space, a community college (perhaps a branch of the newly founded Delaware Tech) and a new medical center in the lower Market Street area. It called for a pedestrian-oriented shopping district along Market Street, with reduced traffic but not street closings.

The center-piece of the new downtown, though, was to be a regional shopping mall, 600,000 square feet in size, to be located between 4th and 8th Streets, King and Walnut Streets. Other recommendations included the construction of a parking garage to encourage the shopping mall development, the creation of an historic enclave around Old Town Hall on the 500 block of Market Street, the increased role of GWDC in development, and the creation of a city Development Director.

Two National Guardsmen in Downtown Wilmington, 1968

Before any concrete steps could be taken to implement the grand development plan, events intruded on Wilmington as it became part of a tragic national story. The riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the Spring of 1968 hit Wilmington’s West Center City the hardest, leaving buildings and homes smoldering. The downtown business district received a severe scare but little direct damage. The most damaging aspects were the psychological scars left in its wake and the dramatic overreaction of Delaware’s Governor, Charles Terry. A downstater and former judge, Terry believed an insurrection was underway and kept Delaware National Guard troops on patrol in downtown Wilmington for 9 months, long after the violence had subsided. This became the longest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War. Businesses joined the white flight to the suburbs in ever- greater numbers.

Next: A Change is Gonna Come

Author’s Acknowledgements:
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.


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About the Contributor

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Kevin McGonegal

Kevin McGonegal worked in the Maloney, McLaughlin and Frawley Administrations. Today he is vice president of Bellevue Realty Commercial Division in Wilmington.