Wilmington's New Chemistry

The city once known as the 'Chemical Capital of the World' is shedding its stodgy industrial image in favor of something with a lot more attitude.


Cover Story

March 21, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to the Sun

Here's what you think you know about Wilmington: It's an Amtrak stop between Baltimore and Philadelphia. It's a skyline, largely unremarkable, that you glimpse while racing up Interstate 95, just before the Delaware Memorial Bridge. And it's the "Chemical Capital of the World," courtesy of the du Pont family. But here's what you ought to know: Wilmington -- yes, that Wilmington -- is undergoing a robust renaissance that makes it a prime destination for day-trippers. It's got a waterfront that's becoming sleek, hip -- and growing more hip. It's got a restaurant scene that's off the charts right now. And it's got a thriving cultural arts community, ranging from the long- celebrated Winterthur to snappier venues like a popular art-movie house, Theatre N, and the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, which presents more than 30 exhibitions a year.

It's a new Wilmington that's attracting younger residents with its pizazz -- and its promise. Kristen Blanchard, 31, an administrator for a local nonprofit organization, is one of them.

"People who don't live here [say], 'Wilmington, Del., where's that? Delaware, is that in Pennsylvania?' I guess people kind of forget about us. We're sort of a drive-through between Baltimore and New York," notes Blanchard. "The thing is you have the best of both worlds here. It's a city, but it's not crowded and crazy. And with the waterfront, the bars, the restaurants, the music, the shopping -- depending on what you like to do -- you can find something here to fulfill that."

Visit Wilmington today and it's impossible not to feel the energy and the excitement. The vaunted Delaware Art Museum, for instance, is undergoing a $25 million expansion that will add more than 100,000 square feet of space and the state's first sculpture garden, some 12 acres.

There's lots of construction in the city center, reflecting the new loft apartments, condos and shops that are in the works. Unthinkable not long ago, a row of former factory-worker homes recently sold in the $300,000 range apiece, just weeks after the "for sale" signs went up. By next year, about 1,000 new residences will have been created since the downtown development push started in 2002.

Part of that number includes Christina Landing, the first development of townhouses and an apartment tower to rise at Riverfront Wilmington, which is building a well-deserved buzz as a dining, shopping and entertainment destination.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that unlike a lot of cities, Wilmington's population has grown since the 1980s. Even so, the 2000 census put the population at 72,664, which makes it something of a small town in a big-city skin. For the tourist, that's a plus because there's a lot of city allure here absent the difficulty some trips pose.

During four recent visits to Wilmington, I didn't have trouble finding a parking space, for example. In-town traffic was no big deal. And best yet, it's an easy shot up I-95 from Baltimore, just under 70 miles.

One of the neatest things about visiting Wilmington? The blue-and-gold Route 32 trolley. For just 25 cents -- and that's no typo -- you can ride the trolley, which operates every day but Sunday, to many of downtown's notable spots:

* Stately Rodney Square, named after Delaware's first great patriot, Caesar Rodney, head of the state's militia in the 1770s.

* Ultra-elegant Hotel du Pont, whose Green Room, with its rich paneling and impressive chandeliers, puts the haute in haute cuisine.

* Bank One Center, temporary quarters for the Delaware Art Museum.

* The shops and restaurants along the Christina River at Riverfront Wilmington.

To get acclimated, I traveled the trolley's 30-minute loop. Tip: Leave your car at the riverfront, where there's usually plenty of parking, then take the trolley to your destination.

Corporate hometown

Most old-timers associate Wilmington with the name DuPont -- both the chemical company and the many generations of du Ponts who have served as some of the city's most stellar citizens. (To clarify, DuPont the company and du Pont the family spell their names differently.)

But DuPont, for so long the state's largest private employer, has been edged out by MBNA, the huge credit card company that set up headquarters in Wilmington after banking laws were relaxed in Delaware in the 1980s. Today, it's not DuPont that dominates this city's skyline but the logos of financial concerns like Bank One, ING Direct, Juniper, Morgan Stanley, Chase and, of course, MBNA, among others.

Still, a good introduction to Wilmington should start with the DuPont story. And the place that tells it best is Hagley Museum and Library, a remarkable 235-acre preserve on the Brandywine River that features 60 original structures from the 19th-century community that housed the first du Pont mills and family home.

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