A Village in the City

Involved residents have infused Trinity Vicinity with a unique sense of community for nearly 150 years

Running from North Adams Street to North Madison, and from 11th Street to 8th, Trinity Vicinity is a small neighborhood that derives its name from Trinity Episcopal Church, on the corner of North Adams and Delaware Avenue. Like Wilmington as a whole, it has weathered several highs and lows, but today it is thriving, the residents of its nine square blocks exuding enthusiasm and neighborly good will.

DeLorme Smith, treasurer of the Trinity Vicinity Neighborhood Association (TVNA), sums up the atmosphere this way: “In the summer, I come home after work and everybody’s going to come by and drink wine with you. There are times I get out of the car and it’s an hour before I get in the house.”

This sunny outlook has not always prevailed. It’s a far cry from the 1960s and early ‘70s, when urban strife hit Wilmington —and much of the country—with crippling blows. Locally, the construction of I-95 in the early 1960s split the city into two distinct sections, displacing many residents and disconnecting others from former neighbors.

That was a comparative love tap compared to 1968, when a riot following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., resulted in injuries, arrests, and buildings burned, deepened the racial divide already present in the city, and sent middle-class families searching for homes in the emerging suburbs. Many properties were abandoned, causing a dramatic increase in vacant houses and urban blight, and more than a few of those houses were in Trinity Vicinity.

Daniel Frawley in 1973 on the porch of his house on 10th & Monroe Street, which he and his wife bought for $1. Photo provided by Deborah Kraak

Those who didn’t leave immediately following the riot experienced the longest federal occupation of an American city since the Civil War, as National Guard troops patrolled the streets for nine months.  That gave Wilmington a reputation for unrest, violence, and crime. From a high of 112,504 residents in 1940, the population dropped to 70,195 by 1980. (The most recent estimate, in 2014, was 71,817).

The drastic increase in urban blight all over the United States prompted municipal, state, and federal legislators to begin exploring options to reverse the trend.  One solution—urban homesteading, originated by Wilmington Mayor Thomas Maloney—was instrumental in saving Trinity Vicinity. It enabled prospective homeowners to obtain abandoned or tax-delinquent properties at little or no cost if they agreed to rehabilitate, maintain and inhabit the houses for an extended period.

In 1973, Daniel Frawley, who would become mayor of Wilmington from 1985 to 1993, and his wife, Bonnie, were the first to take advantage of the program—not only in Delaware, but in the United States. The couple bought the house on the corner of 10th and Monroe streets—in Trinity Vicinity—for $1. The Frawleys moved in (Bonnie Frawley called the architecture “beautiful”), and Maloney’s idea quickly expanded into a national program, in the form of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

Deborah Kraak, vice president of the TVNA, calls 1973 “the year of heroes. They were giants. That was really homesteading, people moving in who shared a real vision.”

As a result, Wilmington and the Frawleys garnered immediate national attention. In a New York Times article, Dan (who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1994) cited walkability as a major factor in his and his wife’s decision to purchase the house, a sentiment modern Trinity Vicinity residents echo.

According to Kraak, the homesteaders brought life back to the boarded-up homes of the neighborhood. And their vision extended beyond the houses themselves. For instance, along with renovating house after house, residents stripped the asphalt paving from Monroe Street to find, restore, and re-lay the original street paving bricks.

Dramatic Drop in Crime

Trinity has come a long way from the urban crises that plagued the city in the late ‘60s and early ’70s. Crime, for instance, has dropped dramatically. The TVNA, which meets monthly in the Sacred Heart Oratory, begins each meeting with a status update from the Wilmington Police Department. At the

“My grandson calls it Grandmaland,” says Susan Jacobs. Photo Rebecca Parsons, Moonloop Photography

February meeting, police representatives reported that in District 16, which runs from the Brandywine River to the Riverfront and includes Trinity Vicinity, overall crime was down 29 percent compared to the same time last year. Shootings had dropped a whopping 67 percent. Robberies and vehicle thefts were also down, by 50 percent and 67 percent, respectively.

The good news can be attributed in large part to a focus on community policing. A pair of officers on foot patrol have become a fixture in Trinity and surrounding neighborhoods. It’s the same pair of officers every time and this consistency helps them get to know the residents, and vice versa.

But it is the ambiance and neighborliness that are the major selling points for many residents.

Susan Jacobs, originally from outside London, England, is fairly typical. She had difficulty finding a place to settle down when she first came to America in 2001. She spent four years in Florida before coming to Delaware. It took her seven months of commuting from the suburbs of North Wilmington to her job at AstraZeneca in the city to find Trinity Vicinity. She saw a house for sale on Monroe Street, and she knew she had to have it, so she bid more than the asking price to guarantee she would.

Jacobs says she is living “in a village in a city,” and her family echoes those feelings. “Everyone that visits me falls in love with the neighborhood, especially my family from England and my grandkids,” Jacobs says. “My grandson calls it Grandmaland and gets really upset at any thought of me moving house.”

The houses in Trinity were constructed by many builders in waves between 1871 and the very early 1900s, and each one is unique. “The cool thing about Trinity Vicinity is the houses are all slightly different and over the years have been adapted and fixed and changed,” says DeLorme Smith.

Her house is an example of the original construction.  There are four relatively small rooms on the first floor and four on the second, with hallways that run the length of both. The house has the original molding around the doors and windows, a curved wall in the living room, and a bumped-out section of her dining room, which brings in natural light during the day.

Each house’s flooring is a good example of changes over time, as few houses have exactly the same style. For Smith’s house, the changes came in the 1960s. “Some Czechoslovakian woodworkers were staying here, and they put one-inch oak slats throughout [both stories],” Smith says.  The one feature she laments not having is the house’s original doors, which were thin but solid pieces of wood and included protruding metal locks and doorknobs, a sight anyone familiar with historic homes would know well.

The first floor of Jacobs’ home on Monroe Street is more open, with a larger living room and no long hallways.  She’s made her own modifications, installing stained-glass in a few of her windows.

Deborah Kraak and her husband, David Rickman, live on the corner of Monroe and 10th streets, in a house that “appropriately, for someone who’s in historic textiles,” as Kraak puts it, “used to be a dress goods shop.”  The outside of the home retains the large windows of a shop and the outside wall shows the brick pattern disruption of an old doorway, long since filled in.  Their interior features a sunken living room, which would have been the old shop room, a moderately sized dining room, and updated kitchen.

A Café and Linchpin

Diane Moss, shown in front of her home, owns Treehouse Cafe. Photo Rebecca Parsons, Moonloop Photography

A linchpin for the neighborhood is Treehouse Cafe and Training Center, located on the corner of Monroe and West 11th streets. It’s owned by Diane Moss, who was a Delaware State Trooper for 20 years. She also was the first School Resource Officer in Delaware, and the first African-American female sergeant to retire from the force. In 1999, she became a licensed Mental Health Counselor. 

The cafe stood derelict for decades before Moss bought it in August of 2006. She started renovation immediately and continued until 2014. “It took nine years for this baby to come into the world,” she says.  Today, the cafe acts as the neighborhood’s breakfast and coffee shop, meeting place, and music venue. Moss also provides mental health counseling and massage therapy in her second-floor offices.

The tight-knit community modern residents describe is not a new phenomenon. Take Marjorie Devlin, for instance. Devlin was born in 1932 and lived in Trinity Vicinity until the late 1940s. In a letter to Deborah Kraak, dated June 27, 2004, Devlin describes her life in Trinity Vicinity in 16 handwritten pages that give a sense of community that has prevailed throughout the years.

In the letter, Devlin recalls the weekly routine of the entire street, rituals that connected nearly every house and family. Mondays were for washing, Tuesdays for ironing, and Wednesdays for mending. Thursday and Friday were full-house cleanings, with the upstairs the first day and downstairs the second. Saturday was for shopping at local stores, clothing shops, or services, and Sunday was church.

Devlin also remembers neighbors—the Tuckers—who were connected to a Delaware celebrity who attained international influence. In her letter, Devlin wrote: “They were a young family with little kids and they were often visited by Father [Francis] Tucker, pastor of St. Anthony’s Church [and presumably a relative].” Delawareans familiar with Little Italy or the annual St. Anthony’s Italian Festival may know Tucker from the field and park behind St. Anthony’s Church that are named after him. Others might recognize him as the priest who introduced Grace Kelly and the Prince of Monaco.

Other memories, like hucksters selling fruits, vegetables, milk, bread, and ice from horse drawn carriages, or in the 1940s, collecting bacon fat and old tires for the war effort, paint a picture of a neighborhood that made such an impression on young Margie Devlin that, even six decades later, she could rattle off the names and stories of her neighbors as if they were extended family.

Buying and Selling

Trinity’s real estate has been resurgent in recent years, thanks in no small part to Susan Jacobs, the Londoner whose family can’t stand the thought of their matriarch living anywhere else.  She was the de facto leader of a recent, unofficial real estate push by residents, an effort in keeping with the longstanding goal of revitalizing the neighborhood as well as a reaction to the Great Recession’s near destruction of the real estate market.

Homes along Trenton Place in the Trinity Vicinity neighborhood. Photo provided by Deborah Kraak

“Our goal when we first started was to understand why properties weren’t selling,” says Jacobs. She began to contact realtors with properties in the area and was surprised at how little they knew of the neighborhood. For the most part, they were painting urban areas with a broad and inaccurate brush, and not bothering to distinguish Trinity Vicinity from other neighborhoods with higher crime rates or more vacant properties.

Fortunately, once residents convinced realtors that their lack of knowledge was affecting sales, the problem was rectified. Realtors began to work with residents and gained an accurate picture of the neighborhood and its history. Says Jacobs: “Realtors who came [to the neighborhood] to learn sold their properties in next to no time.”

One of them is Kevin Melloy, with ReMax of Wilmington. Someone working with Melloy looking for a house in Trinity Vicinity’s historic district (which follows irregular borders from the corner of Adams Street and Delaware Avenue, down to 9th Street, and across to Wollaston between Jefferson and Washington streets) should expect to pay between $150,000 and $200,000, though some properties sell for more. As of early April, the highest recent purchase was $230,000—for a house on the 1000 block of Monroe Street.

Outside the historic district, home buyers can find property selling for much less. At 8th and Monroe, a home recently sold for $99,000, and on the 800 block of 9th Street, a bank-owned home went for $86,900 as a short sale (a property that sells for less than the homeowner still owes on the home). According to Melloy, prices in and out of the historic district are indicators of a healthy neighborhood and a healthy real estate market.

Realtors like Melloy have spurred the revitalization effort by turning themselves into advocates for the neighborhood. On his off-time, Melloy works with the Land Bank to identify vacant or blighted properties. He then contacts those owners, asking them what their plans are for their property and looking to persuade them to sell the houses to someone who will turn them into livable space.

“Neighborhoods like Trinity are stabilizing because people are really active,” says Melloy.

City Hall Involvement

City officials have also taken an interest in Trinity Vicinity. Mayor Mike Purzycki and his police chief, Robert Tracy, attended a neighborhood association meeting early in their tenure and toured the neighborhood. And Trinity Vicinity efforts helped shape a bill sponsored by City Councilman Bud Freel that would make major changes to Chapter 34 of the city ordinance, taking housing code violations from criminal court to civil court in hopes of expediting cases. Right now, cases can last for months, sometimes even taking a year, while vacant or blighted properties continue to cause problems for neighbors and drag down property values. Of the bill, Freel says, “This will give the city the teeth it needs to focus on blighted properties.”

In addition to combating urban blight, residents attempt to bring in neighbors who may feel they’re not included in revitalization efforts, especially those on 8th and 9th streets. Smith, who lives on West 10th Street, makes a point of interacting with residents down those streets to show them they’re as much a part of the neighborhood as anyone living on her street or Monroe Street. She brings new residents to neighborhood association meetings and even organized an impromptu clothing drive to help one resident and her husband.

Says Smith: “If a community can get together and do that for people, that’s where my heart really is.”

Smith is the quintessential Trinity story. So is Jillian Argue, who lives on the 100 block of Monroe Street. She struggled to find a home, but once she discovered Trinity Vicinity, she knew it was somewhere she could build a life and be part of a community.

Argue’s contribution to the community was to open her home for musical gatherings. Frequency varies, but a gathering is always in the works and each one is different. Some nights are solo acts that border on professional shows, while others feature local children showing off what they learned in a recent lesson. Whatever the act, Argue welcomes it, knowing how nights like this can strengthen a community. “It hearkens back to a time when people got together on porches or families gathered around the piano,” Argue says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be a part of creating something.”

In Trinity Vicinity, that something is a tight-knit community that continues to thrive after nearly 150 years of creating something.”

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