Will Local Efforts Bolster Neighborhoods along Del. 9?

The corridor along Del. 9 south of Wilmington has long had its share of issues, including flooding, crime and most recently a fatal shooting at a community center. Still, many feel that projects like a new library will help the area thrive.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, the Rose Hill Community Center is bustling. On the main floor, there’s a constant stream of people in and out of the administrative office, while down the hall three boys play a game of pickup basketball in the gym. In another wing of the building, it’s naptime for the children in the center’s Head Start programs. A wedding chapel and accompanying counseling center sit empty, though elegantly decorated. Men shoot pool downstairs in the men’s recreation room, which closely resembles a neighborhood bar. 

The sprawling two-floor building in New Castle houses 16 programs in total, all geared toward providing necessary assistance to the lower-income members of the Rose Hill neighborhood and the surrounding area. Those programs include tenants who rent space in the building, such as the Boys & Girls Club and Head Start, while others hold low-cost classes such as dance or martial arts. A membership to the fitness center is $3 a month, and the center houses a weekly food distribution center. 

Everyone is welcome, says Sheila Berkel, executive director of the center, but her rules apply once someone walks in the doors. Fighting will get someone kicked out, but they are allowed back after six sessions with the on-site psychotherapist. If something is stolen, it can be returned with no questions asked.

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“I really feel like if they’re inside here, they won’t have time to be out there,” Berkel says of the center’s mission to prevent young people from falling victim to or participating in crime. “We try to run the gamut so that, really, they want to be in here being productive more than they want to be out there.”

The Rose Hill Community Center is located in the heart of the Del. 9-U.S. 13 corridor, an area of south Wilmington and northern New Castle largely consisting of neighborhoods established after World War II to accommodate African-American veterans returning from fighting overseas. Neighborhoods include Southbridge, Dunleith, Buttonwood and Rose Hill itself.

“I really feel like if they’re inside here, they won’t have time to be out there,” says Sheila Berkel,
executive director of the Rose Hill Community Center. 

As time passed, the area faced mounting economic challenges. Crime remains an issue. The Delaware Crime Map, a data graphic maintained by The News Journal, shows that the corridor faces more criminal incidents than other neighboring areas, particularly assault and theft. Prostitution has long been an issue, highlighted by a string of sting operations carried out by Delaware State Police focusing on the corridor. 

The Rose Hill Community Center stands as a safe house of sorts in its community, a stellar example of the type of community-level efforts that are plentiful in the neighborhoods along this stretch of road. Tragically, it has not been immune to the criminal element. On the afternoon of Feb. 16, 2015, Jamar Kilgoe was shot to death by an unknown assailant in the center’s basement recording studio. The shooter has yet to be captured. 

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The community center’s reputation took a hit as a result of the shooting but has rebounded, though the two are still inextricably linked for now. 

“The one thing I just can’t escape,” Berkel says, shaking her head. “I refuse to let that one individual, for an isolated incident, color everything that we’ve been doing since I’ve been here. That’s not fair.”

Berkel resisted calls for armed guards or locked doors at the center, desperately wanting to retain the sense of welcome at the center that she feels has been crucial to its success. More security cameras were installed in response to the crime. 

It was the first and only instance of violence at the community center, but signified the struggle of such places to foster the progression they desire in their areas. However, after almost two years, the shooting has done little to deter efforts by residents to elevate their communities. 

One of the major figures of those efforts, politically and otherwise, has been the Rev. Chris Bullock, former New Castle County Council president and currently the pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in New Castle. 

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“I think the main challenge is for the community to believe it can do better, if the community takes ownership of their future,” Bullock says, highlighting that faith, education, business development and restoration of family values all play a role in rehabilitating the area. 

“For too long, communities out here have been told what they can’t do. They’ve been under a spirit of hopelessness. Our message is one of ‘the past is the past,’ but the power of the church can help determine the future. We serve as a resource for hope.”

Bullock believes that while some may see the corridor as a desert, that that perception is changing and will continue to improve. Local groups, churches and organizations, such as Bullock’s church or area stalwarts like the Monday Club, can have a positive effect from the bottom up. The Monday Club is the oldest social club for black men in the state. The club was established in 1876 and has been in its location along Del. 9 since 2000. The club runs several community outreach efforts that revolve around sports programs for young men and women. It also donates food and grants academic-based university scholarships to four high school students each year. 

Bill Allen, a deacon at Canaan Baptist, agrees that the area can achieve a brighter future, but says much work is ahead. Decades ago, the neighborhoods were vibrant and served as a haven for middle-class black families, and the ultimate goal is to return to that status and sustain it.

“The community doesn’t want anybody to give them anything, we’ve been down that route,” Allen says. “The food stamp programs, the [housing] project programs, without having any type of strategic plan for getting out. We know by those errors that that wasn’t totally right.”

Mark Mattei of Bowlerama believes a new library
project is a potential turning point for the Del. 9 corridor.

Mark Mattei, co-operator of the Bowlerama in New Castle, says Bowlerama itself is a prime example of a positive presence—a massive storefront complex that includes a bowling alley, a sports bar and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Despite its decades of history at the location, it seems out of place on Del. 9, still dominated by liquor stores and auto-repair operations. 

Bullock and Mattei both agree that a planned library project is a potential turning point for the corridor. A $21 million Library Innovation Center is scheduled to open in September 2017, fueled by the county’s Department of Community Services, which is using the library as its first major step in its Del. 9 master plan. That plan includes infrastructure improvement, increasing access to jobs and fixing health-related environmental concerns. 

“The more businesses thrive there, the more tax dollars come in, the more the government will be interested in working with us,” Mattei says. “I really think the library is the first giant step.”

One of those environmental concerns exists in Southbridge, which has become notorious for flooding from the nearby Christina River during even moderate rainstorms. The area’s low altitude, combined with the river’s proximity and climate change effects, has made the problem worse in recent years. A solution has been proposed—the South Wilmington Wetlands Project, which aims to take 14 acres of a brownfield site in the area to create a wetlands capable of absorbing the excess water when the river overflows. 

The project “promises to reduce chronic flooding in the Southbridge neighborhood, provide new green space and recreational opportunities, spur economic and housing development and restore damaged natural habitat,” according to the Wilmington Area Planning Council, a regional transportation agency. Included in the project are plans to add new streets and personal transportation trails that would connect the Riverfront and Southbridge. 

The proposal has been a controversial topic among Southbridge residents. During a Southbridge Civic Association meeting, soon-to-be Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki encountered a nervous constituency who, though supportive of the project, maintained caution.  

“No question that it will help, although not eliminate the flooding problem,” Purzycki says. “It should be an amenity that just improves quality of life for everyone.”

However, residents at the meeting were nervous because of comments made at a previous meeting by a city official that suggested there could be rebuilding of the housing adjacent to the wetlands site. This revived fears in Southbridge of creeping gentrification—that the improvements being made to the area would eventually be used to price residents out of their homes. 

Purzycki shot down any notion of gentrification at the Southbridge meeting and during a later interview. He says the overarching goal of the project is to foster Southbridge, a community he views as economically troubled but ultimately healthy, not chase its residents away. 

“Absolutely not true under any circumstances,” Purzycki says. “If we build housing over there, it’s going to be with the full cooperation with the people in the community. It should not be in any way viewed as a usurpation of the prerogatives of people who live in that community as to the future direction of development of the community.”

Most people agree on one topic—the approach to fixing the corridor cannot be foisted upon a single entity. The communities themselves cannot fight alone—resources from local government or county council will be necessary. Any government resources, however, also cannot be utilized to their full potential without the cooperation and efforts of organizations at the community level. 

“I think it has to be a combination,” Allen says. “It’s like a pizza. I don’t think those ingredients are good on their own. If you put them all together, you can have a hell of a pie.”

Though there are places within the corridor facing different, specific challenges, there is a sense of loyalty that links them all, beyond their geographic proximity. An improvement for one is an improvement for all, and an indicator of future positive change. By that same token, should one fail, it could spell trouble for the others. 

“If Dunleith falls, Buttonwood will fall,” Bullock says. “But if Southbridge rises, Rose Hill will rise.”

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