Trolley Square: Transitioning

Shedding its raucous legacy, the area has become a friendly small town within a large city. And more changes are coming.

No one expects Trolley Square to easily surrender its cachet as a premier social and dining destination for Wilmington’s young professionals, but don’t be surprised if the neighborhood’s anthem flips from “Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to the more sedate “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

“For a long time Trolley was like a college town without a college: a lot of young professionals, a lot of bars and restaurants, and it was very vibrant,” says Jim Lee, president of the Delaware Avenue Community Association, whose turf stretches from Pennsylvania Avenue and I-95 north and west to the Brandywine and the B&O Railroad tracks, which takes in the core Trolley Square business district. “Now it’s more of a destination for people interested in healthy lifestyles.”

For that, Lee says, “you need three things: food, fitness and families.”

There’s no doubt that Trolley has plenty of the first two; the third, some might say, is on the way.

“It seems like a good place to raise a family,” says Wilmington attorney Wali Rushdan, who lived in an apartment building at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Clayton Street before he and his wife bought a house last year two blocks to the west, at the corner of Delaware and Scott Street. “Technically, I’m in Forty Acres,” Rushdan admits, demonstrating his knowledge of neighborhood boundaries, but the shops and eateries on what Lee drily refers to as “the other side of the tracks” have long contributed to Trolley’s energetic vibe.

Located in the heart of an area first settled in the Civil War era and largely developed in the early 20th century, Trolley Square is actually a name of relatively recent vintage. From 1864 until the 1970s, Wilmington’s horse-drawn trolleys, electric trolleys and buses were kept in a barn fronting on the north side of Delaware Avenue between Clayton and DuPont streets. After the buses were moved under I-95 in 1974, a three-story retail and office complex was built on the site. It opened in 1978 with Trolley Square as its name. In short order, “Trolley Square” became a convenient designation for the commercial and residential areas near the center.

The iconic Logan House is the oldest continuously family-owned Irish bar in the country.

The iconic Logan House is the oldest continuously family-owned Irish bar in the country.

“It’s a friendly, small town walking atmosphere, a small town within a large city,” says Lori Dorsz, property manager and co-owner of Trolley Investors LLC, operator of three apartment buildings on the southeast corner of Delaware Avenue and Clayton Street. Neighborhood residents, she says, are a mix of “caring people who have lived in this area for a long time and an influx of kids who come in for a couple of years to start their careers.” On top of that, she adds, “you have a solid, successful merchant base that is just feeding into what young professionals want, and a healthy lifestyle. We have tennis courts two blocks away, a yoga studio, a bike store and a local food market.”

Not only is that mix the key to Trolley’s success, it’s a formula that could thrive in other parts of Wilmington, says Leonard Sophrin, the city’s planning director.

Developing a City-Wide Plan

Sophrin and his staff are now starting work on a new comprehensive plan for the entire city, one that will take into account what already exists as well as community-based planning initiatives in various stages of implementation, like West Side Grows Together, Eastside Rising and the nascent Creative District downtown.

“As we develop a citywide plan, we would like to replicate Trolley Square’s pattern of mixed-use businesses in close proximity to a residential neighborhood,” Sophrin says.

While Trolley Square has its landmarks—starting with the iconic Logan House, originally a hotel and now touted as the oldest continuously family-owned Irish bar in the country—the area wasn’t transformed from a neighborhood to a destination until the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

Restaurateur Xavier Teixido came upon the Trolley scene in 1983, as minority partner with Davis Sezna at the then-new Kid Shelleen’s. “It was the heart of the Yuppie Boom. The apartments were being done, the banks were booming. There was nothing upscale in Trolley Square,” Teixido recalls.

But the nightlife was nonstop.

“When we opened, we aimed at the 21-to-35 demographic and we didn’t care about anybody else,” he says.

Teixido split with Sezna in 1993, so he could focus on his other restaurant ventures, and he bought Kid Shelleen’s in 2010. “When we came back, our goal was to reset it to 1983,” he says.

“Everyone From 8 to 80”

But something had changed. The raucous Thursday night dance parties were no longer a good fit with the neighborhood. “There was a lot of noise when the bar let out at 1 a.m.,” Teixido says, and rather than battle with residents, he shut down the dance parties. “We decided to focus more on food, hospitality and our relationship with the community,” he says. “Now we cater to everyone from 8 to 80. I’d say ‘everyone from 4 to 90,’ but you wouldn’t believe me.”

Just as Kid Shelleen’s has, in a sense, reached its maturity, so too has Trolley Square.
“Those hell-raisers in the neighborhood of a generation ago—I won’t name names—are now some of the community leaders,” Teixido says.

Chiropractor Matt Weik was too young to have been a hell-raiser—his parents moved the family out of Trolley Square when he was 5—but he came back two years ago, partnering with fellow Salesianum School graduate Carl Bakomenko to open the Delaware Sport and Spine Clinic at 1426 N. Clayton. Weik lives on North Union Street; Bakomenko regularly walks to work from his home in the nearby Triangle neighborhood.

“We like the young environment, the urban setting, the number of health-conscious people,” Bakomenko says.

Weik likes being able to walk everywhere he needs to go—from work to home and back, for meals, for shopping, for entertainment. “I don’t feel that there’s any other spot in Wilmington that can give you that,” he says.

Maybe, but with the rebirth of downtown Market Street and the development of new housing options on the Riverfront, it’s clear that Trolley is no longer the city’s only live-work-play hotspot.

All three areas, while sharing some similarities, have distinct personalities.

The Riverfront and Market Street, with still-developing residential components, remain primarily places where people work during the day and visit on evenings and weekends.

“The Riverfront is kind of its own area, separated by the railroad tracks and the river. It’s a destination. Market Street is a destination too,” says Teixido, who also owns Harry’s Seafood Grill on the Riverfront. In Trolley, he says, the well-established neighborhood means “there are always people dropping by.”

Jonas Miller, proprietor of Eeffoc’s Café, echoes that view. Miller opened the first Eeffoc’s in the Riverfront Market and added a location in Trolley Square after he discovered that many of his Riverfront patrons lived in Trolley Square. “At the Riverfront, we do primarily a lunch business. We do a really good morning business here, and the weekends are crazy,” says Miller.

Trolley resident Rushdan notes that the neighborhood’s multiple housing options make it more affordable for people of most income levels. “I’m all in favor of trying to make the city better,” he says, but developers at the Riverfront and on Market Street “seem to be pricing people out of some neighborhoods.”

“Young professionals who marry and have families are staying rather than moving to the suburbs,” says seven-year resident Erin Marshall. “They see the value of a nice community feeling, of being so close to downtown.”

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Jim Lee, president of the Delaware Avenue Community Association, at Trolley Square Brew Ha Ha! A Tom Burke birdhouse is in the background.

Looking to Get Edgier

Residents and business owners emphasize that Trolley cannot rest on its laurels. It has to continue to diversify its offerings and freshening up its appearance.

“In the face of what’s happening elsewhere in the city, it needs a little more edge,” says Alisa Morkides, owner of the Brew Ha Ha cafés. Morkides gave her Trolley Square presence a fresh look this spring by opening a new, larger coffee roastery and converting her former café into Sunna, a juice bar and whole foods eatery.

“If you look back 20 years, nothing much has changed,” she says, pointing to the appearance of both the shopping center and the Rockford Shoppes, where her businesses are located.

“It needs, and I’m not sure I’m saying this quite right, a little more beauty,” Morkides says. “Perhaps flowers on the light poles, more art, more gardens—to build on what’s already there.”

Chiropractors Weik and Bakomenko are both fans of street art, something they saw in abundance when they lived in Philadelphia. “If we could incorporate some esthetically pleasing artwork, like on the railroad overpass by the Logan House, that would really improve the area,” Bakomenko says.

Marcia Stephenson, membership and volunteer coordinator at the Delaware Center for Horticulture, whose headquarters is on Du Pont Street a block north of the shopping center, notes that the organization has been engaged in numerous beautification projects in the area over the years, with even more planned.

“We’re trying to work more with volunteer groups, to do more plantings in public landscapes,” she says. As one example, she mentions the bulb plantings in the lot behind the Logan House, at the corner of Gilpin Avenue and DuPont Street.

“We’re really engaging neighbors in the process. It’s crucial,” she says. “They will enjoy the beauty but to have them participate is even better. It’s one thing to take care of your front yard, but even more meaningful to do something to beautify the community.”

Spicing Up the Food Options

Brew Ha Ha owner Morkides also hopes to see “more interesting food” in Trolley, “maybe a cool noodle bar or a Peruvian restaurant…How may Irish pubs, how many pizza places can you have?”

Some of that change is already occurring. Two recent arrivals to the shopping center, El Diablo and Opa Opa, offer tempting Mexican and Greek options, respectively, at moderate prices.

Another fresh entrant to the shopping center is the Delaware Local Food Exchange, featuring organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Proprietor Karen Igou says she hadn’t planned to locate in Trolley Square but it turned out to be the best of her options when she outgrew space inside a health-food store in Elsmere.

Based on her first weeks in business—the shop opened in July—she feels she made a good choice. “Now that I’m here, I realize what a nice community this is,” she says. Her old customers, even those who live in the suburbs, like the new location, she says. As for the local residents who keep dropping in, “They’re a lot of vegans, very health-conscious. They like low-fat, gluten-free vegan food. That’s pretty cool.”

Healthy dining and organic foods aren’t the only indicators of the fitness/wellness vibe in Trolley.

Selling a Cycling Lifestyle

Chuck Hall opened a bicycle shop on Delaware Avenue nearly three years ago and rebranded it last winter as Trolley Bikes, selling only recreational bikes—no high-end road bikes. “We sell a lot of bikes for families who want to ride the greenways with their children, and a lot to commuters who want to bike to work,” he says.

Hall says he has attracted a strong following in the neighborhood, as well as from nearby communities the Highlands and more affluent areas on the western edge of the city.

Trolley Bikes also runs the Trolley Square Cycling Club, which organizes group rides for cyclists several nights a week. The rides start at the shop and conclude with beverages and eats at a nearby restaurant—Toscana, Anejo or the Trolley Taphouse.

Cycling is a great way to keep fit and enjoy the neighborhood’s attractions, Hall says. “There’s nothing better on a great evening than to get on your bike, ride down to Trolley Square, shop and enjoy the restaurants, and, when you’re done, bike home instead of driving.”

For those who prefer to walk or run, Trolley offers plenty of options.

Jason Hoover, who operates a website design business from his home and meets with clients at cafes like Brew Ha Ha and Eeffoc’s, enjoys running in Brandywine and Rockford parks or heading north onto the trails in Alapocas. Alan Emsley, former president of the Delaware Avenue Community Association, calls Trolley “the ultimate walking community, and it’s been that way for a long, long time.”

As idyllic as Trolley Square might be for many of its residents, it’s not without its problems.

Finding a parking spot on the street can be a challenge, especially on Friday nights.

“Sometimes you’ve got to park two or three blocks from your home,” Rushdan says.

But, says Jim Lee, “I’d rather be a neighborhood with a lot of traffic and parking issues than a neighborhood that’s empty because nobody wants to go there.”

A recent rash of burglaries and thefts has some neighbors concerned. “For the most part, it’s stealing packages off the porch,” Emsley says.

“We live in the city, in a nice part of the city, but we have to accept some things that come with the environment that we’re in,” says Marshall, who is vice president and safety chair of the Delaware Avenue Community Association. “The police officers we have working with us value the fact that residents care about the safety of their neighborhoods.”

Nightspot operators and some residents have their occasional dustups, like the one that prompted Kid Shelleen’s to drop its Thursday night dance parties a few years ago. That’s part and parcel of the neighborhood, Marshall says.

“A lot of people move to the area because of the nightlife. That’s what makes the community what it is, but you don’t want an out-of-control bar scene anywhere,” she says. “The bar owners want to be part of the community. They try as best they can.”

A sore spot for some residents is the dated appearance of some of the commercial buildings, especially the shopping center. “It could use a little TLC,” Marshall says. But Lee and Emsley noted that a complex condo-like ownership structure has made it difficult for proprietors to reach agreement on making upgrades and repairs.

And while the shopping center bears the community’s nameplate, it isn’t Trolley’s heart and soul.

“When I think of Trolley Square, I don’t focus on that building,” Marshall says. “I think of the restaurants and shops on the other side of the street.”

“What makes Trolley dynamic is its culture and its people,” Rushdan says, “and that more than makes up for the dated look of some of its buildings.”

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