West Side on the Grow

A coalition of residents, community groups and businesses spurs improvements in a diverse community that includes one-fifth of Wilmington’s population

Three years ago, a coalition of Wilmington residents, 27 community groups and businesses formed West Side Grows Together. Now this coalition is beginning to live up to its name.

In fact, WSGT is steadily sparking a revitalization of an ethnically mixed working-class community that is home to about 13,000 people—nearly one-fifth of the city’s population.

The group’s target area, bordered by Jackson Street on the east, Pennsylvania Avenue on the north, Lancaster Avenue on the south and the railroad tracks beyond Union Street on the west, is one of the most diverse in the city. While two of its census tracts have high concentrations of vacant properties and high poverty rates, the northern edge of the area is dominated by stately homes, medical offices and auto dealerships. The main thoroughfares on its western side, Lincoln and Union streets, run through the heart of Little Italy, where multi-generational small businesses stand shoulder to shoulder with an increasingly eclectic mix of restaurants and taverns.

“Neighborhood revitalization is a long-term race,” says Christian Willauer, director of community and economic development at the Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, an affiliate of the West End Neighborhood House, which is responsible for overseeing WSGT activities.

“Three years ago, we realized that there were a number of organizations on the East Side that were working to revitalize, but none of the efforts were coordinated; everybody was doing their own thing,” says Henry Smith, a state government manager who serves as president of the WSGT steering committee. “What has been accomplished in three years is absolutely phenomenal.”

The work started with securing a $100,000 planning grant from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation. The completed plan was unveiled in April 2013, when the foundation awarded a $750,000, five-year grant to assist in plan implementation.

The grassroots nature of the plan and its pragmatic approach to community needs has drawn praise from Leonard Sophrin, the city’s planning director, who often cites WSGT as a community-based model whose concepts will likely be included in the new comprehensive plan for the city that his office is now preparing to research and write.

Construction continues on the redevelopment of The Flats in Wilmington, Saturday July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Construction continues on the redevelopment of The Flats in Wilmington, Saturday July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Five Pillars of the Plan

The organization can already point to achievements in each of the five pillars of its plan: economic development, parks and gardens, housing, public safety, and youth and education.

In economic development, the Lincoln/Union corridor has become a certified district affiliate of the national Main Street Program and, in 2013-14, six new businesses opened, adding 30 jobs and more than $300,000 in investment to the community.

Friends of Parks groups have been established at all the major parks on the West Side, the community garden at the Rodney Street Reservoir has grown to the largest in the city, and the city in June secured $500,000 in state funding to improve the Fourth Street, Connell Street and Father Tucker parks.

In housing, the Woodlawn Trustees have begun the first of five phases in its redevelopment of The Flats, its century-old rental community west of Union Street. The first phase, scheduled for completion in late 2016, involves construction of 72 units between Fourth and Sixth streets. Overall, the $16.4 million project will replace 430 functionally obsolete units with 452 new ones while adding more off-street parking in the area bordered by Union, Ninth, Ferris and Fourth streets.

Also, West Side Grows members provided the early impetus that led to passage in June of a state law that permits cities and counties with high rates of vacant properties (3 percent or more) to create “land banks”—a tool designed to remove blighted properties from the foreclosure cycle and the hands of speculators so they can be restored to productive uses by developers who have a track record of meeting community needs.

To improve public safety, West Side Grows strengthened linkages between neighborhood associations and city police, created a Nuisance Property Abatement Task Force to identify problem properties and to work with city government to address those issues. It also worked with business owners and police to increase patrols during peak hours on Lincoln and Union streets and to install security cameras and improved outdoor lighting. Also, the park improvement projects will include design features intended to reduce the likelihood of criminal activity there.

New youth programs include the Freedom School, a summer literacy and academic program at Mother African Union Church; a partnership with Teach for America to strengthen summer camps for 400 low-income students at three community centers; and creation of a network that brings together youth-services workers at the community centers and other agencies.

Pastor Lottie Lee-Davis of Be Ready Jesus Is Coming Church, right, and Christian Willauer, stand in the fourth street park in Wilmington, Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Pastor Lottie Lee-Davis of Be Ready Jesus Is Coming Church, right, and Christian Willauer, stand in the fourth street park in Wilmington, Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Organizations Large and Small

None of those accomplishments came easily, but individuals involved in those efforts trace the successes back to the WSGT steering committee, which Willauer describes as “a network in which no one neighborhood, no one organization dominates the discussion.”

It matters not whether the organization is large (St. Anthony’s Church, St. Francis Hospital, the Latin American Community Center, for example) or small (Be Ready Jesus Is Coming Church, the Westside Community Action Committee), “every group gets one vote,” Willauer says.

The coalition’s successes are a demonstration of the strength that diversity can bring. The community is roughly 50 percent white and 40 percent African American, with 30 percent of those groups identifying themselves as Latino. Family income ranges from poverty level to upper middle class.

“Because people cared about the same things, we were able to come together,” says Willauer.

Indeed, the West Side Grows organization relies largely on the people who live in the community to get things done. Currently, 350 people regularly participate in implementing its strategies, and volunteers contributed more than 1,500 hours of service in the first six months of this year, says Paul Calistro, executive director of West End Neighborhood House and a founder of West Side Grows.

“There’s a dollar value in that [volunteer service] and there’s a morale value in that too,” he says.
Efforts related to park improvement projects provide some of the best examples of volunteerism and community spirit.

Shamika Miller cleans up the fourth street park in Wilmington, Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Shamika Miller cleans up the fourth street park in Wilmington, Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Crime Prevention Through Design

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is what urban planners call ‘crime prevention through design,’” says Aimee Lala-Milligan, commercial revitalization manager for West Side Grows, describing tactics like eliminating hiding places, creating clear sight lines, improving lighting and making adjacent areas more welcoming and pedestrian-friendly.

On the south side of West Fourth Street, across from Be Ready Church, is the Fourth Street Park, a small lot with deteriorating playground equipment where drinking and drug dealing had become the main activities. “I’d look out from the church window and see such devastation and lack of hope,” says Pastor Lottie Lee-Davis.

When city officials proposed shutting the park down, Lee-Davis worked with West Side Grows to organize a meeting, discuss the alternatives, and urge the city to transform the park. “I got my parishioners out,” Lee-Davis says. “I didn’t tell them they would go to hell if they didn’t come, but I did all that I could.”

The city brought out a landscape engineer to work on a redesign, then put the park on its priority list, and it became one of three city parks whose improvements will be funded from a $500,000 grant included in this year’s state budget.

“West Side Grows has given us a bigger voice,” Lee-Davis says. “Before, we were a sole soldier without a lot of capacity.”

Dayan Knox and Nina David, co-presidents of the Rodney Reservoir Community Garden, have had similar positive experiences. After signing up for a garden plot three years ago, they volunteered to help out and Willauer recruited them to coordinate the operation.

Tropicalia Restaurant owners Fanny Mesa and her husband Valentino outside of their 4th street establishment, Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Tropicalia Restaurant owners Fanny Mesa and her husband Valentino outside of their 4th street establishment, Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Growing Vegetables and Relationships

“It’s a micro-community within Cool Spring,” Knox says, describing it as a place where gardeners meet, grow herbs and vegetables, share their crops and ideas with neighbors, and generally have a good time.

“It’s neat that gardening is a private activity, yet we’re interacting in a public space with others. We’re never alone in the garden,” David says.

With more than 60 plots and 100-plus gardeners, the reservoir has become a community hub. Neighbors get to know each other better and, with more people on the streets walking to and from the garden, safety in the area has increased, David adds.

Rob Pfieffer, president of the Friends of Tilton Park, echoes those stories. Willauer approached him about leading the new Friends group and soon he was organizing a Saturday work detail, with neighbors and city Parks Department workers spending a day clearing out overgrowth that had made the park a haven for illegal activities. “We removed the bushes, and that was pretty much the beginning of the end of crime in the park,” says Pfieffer. On top of that, the project brought the community together. “Now, we pretty much know everybody,” he says.

Public safety remains a major issue on the West Side, in part because of shifting strategies announced by Mayor Dennis P. Williams and the city Police Department. “We’ve been extremely vocal” in questioning police strategies, Calistro admits, “but, day-to-day, we work very well with police in our neighborhoods.”

Still, it could be better. “People in every neighborhood on the West Side are ready to partner with the police,” Willauer says, “but we’re still waiting to find effective mechanisms on the police side so we can leverage that community involvement.”

Moving forward, the West Side coalition must tackle numerous major challenges. Two of the most significant are traffic—specifically, making Union Street and Fourth Street more accommodating to pedestrians, shoppers and visitors—and gaining the upper hand on the persistent blight caused by vacant properties.

“Better Block” Event is Aug. 3-5

A Walkable Community Workshop, held last year in partnership with the Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO), produced design recommendations for Union Street, including crosswalks, better lighting, wider sidewalks and eliminating a lane of traffic for angle parking. A “Better Block” event last summer demonstrated the design improvements and began building support for them.

A second “Better Block” activity will be held Aug. 3-5 in the 500 and 600 blocks of Union Street.

“People just fly down this road. It’s not safe,” says Andrea Wakefield, a fourth-generation manager of the family-owned Mrs. Robino’s Restaurant, a Little Italy landmark. Slow down the traffic, she reasons, and motorists will see more of Little Italy, and perhaps stop to visit the shops or enjoy a pleasant dinner.

Sophrin, the city’s planning director, is already on board with the concept, and he shares the community’s desire to make Fourth Street more hospitable to pedestrians and residents while preserving its function as a gateway from the western suburbs to the downtown business district.

In late June, he joined about a dozen West Side Grows participants and WILMAPCO staff in a walkability workshop on Fourth Street, where they suggested improvements like better lighting, wider crosswalks, benches and plantings on sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and perhaps even a median strip with left-turn lanes.

With clusters of vacant and abandoned residences and retail sites, Fourth Street is also a priority as West Side Grows revs up its battle against blight. “Some say it may take 15 years, but we have to start now,” says Lee-Davis, the Be Ready Church pastor.

Sophrin, Calistro and Willauer agree that the land bank device will be a helpful tool to focus on redevelopment of problem properties, but the city must first pass its own legislation to set up a land bank in conformance with the new state law.

“We’re already working with real estate agents and the city to identify troublesome properties,” Calistro says.

While all the details of the land bank have not been worked out, it would be a non-profit agency with the authority to amass properties via foreclosures, sheriff’s sales and from the inventory of vacant properties now owned by the city. Adjoining parcels would be packaged together and sold to developers who would commit to creating favorable uses for the properties. Proceeds from these sales, and perhaps a portion of property taxes realized when the properties are returned to productive use, would finance the land bank’s ongoing operations.

Officials associated with WSGT attribute their early success to the ability of representatives of 27 organizations to define common goals and inspire their constituencies to work toward achieving them.

“There’s no one key word,” Calistro says, “but the most important are vision, communication, leadership, hard work and tenacity.”

West Side Grows, Sophrin says, “has identified the kind of improvements [for its community] that need to be adopted elsewhere in the city.”

“We didn’t invent most of these ideas,” says Willauer. “We borrowed many of them from other areas across the country. They’re universal ideas for how neighborhoods can build stronger communities. If they can work on the West Side, they can be useful in other parts of the city.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.