Creating A Community

West Side Grows Together, a 10-year revitalization project, has united several Wilmington neighborhoods to focus on making dramatic improvements


T
here’s strength in numbers.

Wilmington’s West Side—that stretch between I-95 and the B&O Railroad tracks, from Lancaster Avenue north to Pennsylvania Avenue—consists of at least five distinct neighborhoods: Cool Spring, Tilton Park, Hilltop, Little Italy and The Flats, each with a distinct personality.

For years, they endured as enclaves, proud of their traditions but relatively powerless to counter trends that threatened urban communities throughout the nation—vacant and blighted housing, drug dealing and a range of lesser crimes, parks no longer safe places for children to play and neighborhood businesses steadily shutting down.

That’s changing now. Neighbors are starting to think about more than the three or four blocks closest to home and are realizing the strength they have when they work together. It’s the result of a collaborative effort called West Side Grows Together, a 10-year revitalization project coordinated by a steering committee whose members represent 27 community organizations, businesses, neighborhood groups, churches and residents from all those neighborhoods.

“It’s the difference between a neighborhood that is going downhill and a neighborhood that is rebuilding,” says Paula Roddy, a Little Italy resident who was instrumental in the recent renovation of the city’s Father Tucker Park, across the street from St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.

“Every area of the city needs something like this to knit the community together,” says John Constantinou, owner of Walter’s Steakhouse, a landmark on Union Street in Little Italy for 25 years. Through West Side Grows Together, his business and others on Union and Lincoln streets have received grants of matching funds from the state’s Neighborhood Building Blocks Fund to improve their facades or install security cameras.

The new facade at Walter’s Steakhouse. Photo Jim Coarse

West Side Grows Together “got us to the table where we normally wouldn’t be able to sit,” says Lottie Lee Davis, pastor of the Be Ready Church of God at the corner of Fourth and Rodney streets. From the steps of her church, Davis can look south across Fourth Street to a refurbished park, once a haven for drug dealers and now a pleasant playground for neighborhood kids, and a half-block where ramshackle buildings have been razed to make way for a redevelopment project that will include new retail shops and 20 units of affordable housing, including six for people with disabilities.

“With West Side Grows, we have partners we normally would not have had,” Davis says. “When we went to the city [to advocate for the park and the redevelopment], they were there for us.”

With a population of nearly 12,500, the West Side Grows target area accounts for about 20 percent of Wilmington’s population. It’s a diverse cross-section, about 45 percent African-American and 40 percent white, with about a quarter of the residents identifying themselves as Hispanic. About 92 percent of its residents are employed, but a little more than 20 percent are living below poverty levels.

Five Key Areas

Two grants from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation—$100,000 for planning in 2012 and $750,000 for project funding the following year—got West Side Grows Together started. Since then, the program has focused on five key areas—economic development, affordable housing, parks and gardens, youth opportunities and crime prevention—while building a cadre of neighborhood leaders and fostering community spirit.

Currently coordinating the effort is Sarah Lester, director of the Cornerstone West Community Development Corp., the economic development arm of the West End Neighborhood House, but policy decisions are made by the community’s steering committee.

“It’s a flat organization. Everyone at the table has an equal voice,” says Henry Smith, a Cool Spring resident and retired state Department of Health and Social Services manager who led the group for its first five years. That makes for an interesting dynamic—with leaders of landmarks like St. Anthony’s, St. Francis Hospital, and community hubs like West End, the Latin American Community Center and Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center on equal footing with civic association representatives and owners of small businesses.

Union Street’s new markings, including a bicycle lane and diagonal parking, have increased parking space and reduced average vehicle speed. Photo Jim Coarse

When the program was announced six years ago, Luigi Vitrone, founder of the Little Italy Neighborhood Association and owner of Pastabilities Restaurant, said, “This program is only going to be as good as the people who are involved in it.”

So far, those people have been quite good, says Paul Calistro, executive director of West End Neighborhood House. “We’re bringing neighbors together, we’re bringing organizations together, we’re capitalizing on their strengths,” he says. “None of this works without great people.”

Here’s a look at some of what West Side Grows Together has accomplished:

Economic development: Using matching funds from the Neighborhood Building Blocks program to help finance façade improvements and buy security cameras has helped the business environment, especially on Lincoln and Union streets, Lester says. The initiative creates synergies throughout the area, with businesses not wanting to fall behind when they see their friendly competitors down the street sprucing up their storefronts.

In addition, West Side Grows coordinated the “Better Block” initiative, a project that tested alternate configurations for parking and sidewalks along Union Street. After tests on a couple of blocks, the result was a redesign that resulted in back-in diagonal parking on much of the east side of the street, a marked bicycle lane in front of the diagonal parking, and the elimination of one of the street’s three lanes for through traffic. The changes have increased parking spaces by about 15 percent and average vehicle speed has dropped by about 4 miles per hour.

“With diagonal parking, more spaces are available. All in all, it’s had a very positive impact,” Constantinou says.

“With the bike lanes, people can walk on the sidewalks again,” says 13-year-old Brenden Cephas, a volunteer who passed out flyers in the neighborhood to promote the Better Block demonstrations and helped with set-up when the events were held.

“Now I see more people walking on Union Street, going to Acme or Walgreen’s and coming back with their groceries,” Roddy says.

Next up in economic development, Lester says, will be a focus on Fourth Street, a key connector to downtown Wilmington whose storefronts reflect the Latino, Caribbean, African-American, Chinese and Italian heritages of Hilltop and Little Italy residents.

Some of the 144 rebuilt units in The Flats. Photo Jim Coarse

The first big step on Fourth Street will be the redevelopment project at Fourth and Rodney.  Collaborating with United Cerebral Palsy, Interfaith Housing, the Wilmington Housing Partnership and the Federal Home Loan Bank, Davis says she is close to assembling $2.5 million in funding needed for the first phase of the $10.5 million project, and hopes construction can start in June.

“This is the first redevelopment the community has had in 20 years,” she says. When complete, there will be 3,000 square feet of ground floor retail space on Fourth Street, apartments on the second floor, and owner-occupied homes facing Third Street.

Affordable housing: “Maintaining housing stock, eliminating blighted buildings, increasing home ownership—all these things keep the housing market stable,” Calistro says.

The most visible improvement area has been the redevelopment of The Flats, the century-old rental community owned by the Woodlawn Trustees. The first two of six phases—144 units out of about 430 in the entire project – have been completed, financed largely through low-income housing tax credits from the state, according to Rod Lambert, Woodlawn’s president and CEO. Many of the completed units face the west side of Union Street, adding to the neighborhood’s appeal to visitors.

And there have been other pockets of redevelopment in the area as well: gutting and rehabbing old homes, building new units on vacant lots, and rehabbing a deteriorating apartment complex. Including some properties outside the West Side Grows boundaries, Calistro says Cornerstone West has worked on about 400 housing units, both owner-occupied and rental.

Lifetime Little Italy resident Chris Malloy is a beneficiary of one of those Cornerstone West initiatives. He bought a new townhouse on DuPont Street behind St. Francis Hospital and across the street from his father’s iconic neighborhood business, Bernie’s Original Italian Water Ice and Pizza.

Malloy, 31, had been living in an apartment over his father’s shop when he saw that Cornerstone was building the affordable housing units. He had been working a series of jobs but had no credit. He went to West End, learned about the state-sponsored Stand By Me credit counseling service, followed the advice he was given and, after a couple of rejections, finally qualified for a loan. The house was listed for about $145,000, he recalls, but he paid somewhere between $130,000 and $135,000 after qualifying for several grants and subsidies.

“I go out every morning and sweep up the streets. It’s like family out here,” he says. Cornerstone “has literally revitalized this part of the neighborhood. All the other people had the same [financial] problem. We all came onto this block at the same time, all of us with hope and a dream.”

Another ongoing initiative focuses on the area between Lancaster Avenue and Sixth Street, where 10 low- to moderate-income homeowners are receiving up to $20,000 in free repairs and improvements in exchange for promising to remain in those homes for at least five years. Three of the projects have already been completed, Lester says.

Parks and gardens: Resident involvement, right down to having children select the playground equipment, was a key component in arranging $1.4 million worth of improvements to Father Tucker Park and the parks at Fourth and Rodney streets and on Connell Street.

“There was a lot of deviant behavior, and kids stopped coming,” Davis says of the park at Fourth and Rodney. “The city wanted to take out the equipment and fence it up, but that didn’t get a good response.” Since the upgrades have been completed, park usage has soared and drug-dealing and other negative activities have been minimal, she says.

In the Tilton Park area, civic leader Rob Pfeiffer oversees the nearly 60 community garden plots at the old Rodney Reservoir. But he takes greater pride in some of the work he’s done outside his own neighborhood, helping residents develop community garden plots in open spaces on Delamore Place at Second and Fourth streets. Last summer, he says, neighborhood kids helped assemble the frames for raised garden beds and helped spread fresh soil and compost.

In the works for West Side Grows are improvements to Cool Spring Park and Tilton Park, a place where Pfeiffer likes to “crank up the barbecue” and grill burgers and hot dogs for youngsters in the neighborhood. “You’ve got to give the kids some love,” he says.

Youth opportunities: In the fall of 2013, as West Side Grows was getting started, leaders at the area’s three community centers—West End, Hilltop and the LACC—contacted the Delaware office of Teach For America, hoping to locate teachers to work with children on their homework in their after school programs. That didn’t work out, but TFA Manager Catherine Lindroth followed up on those calls to create a program called the Summer Learning Collaborative that now operates at those sites, at other centers around the city and throughout the state—more than 20 locations overall. The program has received national recognition for its progress in reducing summer learning loss among low-income children.

Also with support from West Side Grows, the Mother African Union Church established an after-school program called Ujima, derived from the Swahili word for collective work and responsibility, and a seven-week summer reading program called Freedom School, based on a curriculum created by the Children’s Defense Fund. Freedom School serves more than 100 students a year, in kindergarten through high school, providing them with a free book to read every week.

“We teach the joy and fun of reading,” says the Rev. Lawrence Livingston, the church’s pastor. Also integrated into the program are anti-bullying and anti-drug messaging, and sessions focusing on music, dance and the arts.

“For many children, these are the first books they ever had,” Livingston says. And, after pre-testing and post-testing participants, he says that some youngsters gained as much as 24 months of reading proficiency over seven weeks last summer.

Crime prevention: Initiatives in the other four areas have created what Lester calls “crime prevention through environmental design.” In other words, improving lighting, adding security cameras, making businesses and parks more attractive and giving youths more positive outlets for their energy all contribute to putting more eyes on the street, making the neighborhoods less tolerant of criminal activity. 

Painted electrical box on corner of Fourth & Union streets. Artwork by Food Stamp. Photo Jim Coarse

Capt. Wilfredo Campos, who directs patrols throughout the city’s West Side, grew up in the neighborhood and has seen its impact. He quickly points to the park at Fourth and Rodney as a great example. “It’s a point of pride,” he says. “It used to be a place to hang out. Now, once the community sees the investment, they want to keep it clean.”

From 2017 to 2018, he says that what the FBI classifies as “Part One Crimes”—murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary and theft—dropped by 7 percent within West Side Grows territory. The number of shootings dropped by 69 percent – from 16 to 5—and the number of shooting victims fell from 19 to 5.

He attributes much of the overall crime drop to the park improvements, the addition of security cameras and the growing trust between residents and police, who are now spending less time in patrol cars and more on foot, getting to know the people in the neighborhood.

Campos makes it a point to attend community meetings, usually bringing his patrol officers with him, and doesn’t hesitate to give residents his phone number and email address.

Moving forward, West Side Grows Together has much more to do. In addition to focusing on Fourth Street, plus the improvements at Tilton and Cool Spring Parks, Lester says the group will be watching the state’s plans for modernizing Interstate 95—trying to ensure that however that massive project turns out, the West Side’s interests will be considered.

That’s a challenge, she admits, but it’s a lot easier when dozens of organizations and more than 12,000 residents share the same focus.

“We’ve got some muscle now,” Calistro says. “If you can’t fill the room, you’re not going to be heard.”

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