With Help From the Community, Wilmington's Public Parks are Experiencing a Renaissance

Meet the groups breathing new life into the city's recreational spaces.


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Johnathan Whitney Leads Drum Circle in Wilmington's 8th Street Park

Jonathan Whitney leads the Rock Lot drum circle, which takes place weekly at the pocket park around Wilmington’s 8th Street./Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

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It’s Tuesday during one of Wilmington’s hottest weeks of the summer, and Jonathan Whitney begins the Rock Lot drum circle with a simple rhythm of just four beats, perfect for anyone else who is not a percussionist.

Folks trickle in from the neighborhood around Wilmington’s West 8th Street, and there’s a sense of community around the drum circle. Everyone is here, in the same place at the same time, creating something that is entirely unique to their situation and moment in time. They are dependent on one another.

“People just get called by the drum,” says Whitney, manager of Performance Programs and Community Engagement at the Delaware Art Museum. Whitney helped organize the drum circle when it was located at the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew. Since moving to the Rock Lot, the event has doubled in size to 20 chairs. “We drum together, but there’s also a lot of conversation,” Whitney says. “It’s all about being inclusive and giving people a space to come together around rhythm and drums and community.”

The park is just one success story from Wilmington Renaissance Corporation’s Vacant to Vibrant initiative, which began with the opening of the Rock Lot in August 2017. The “pocket park” tucked among rowhomes features a little lending library and now hosts weekly events and activities, including the highly popular drum circle held every Tuesday during the summer from 6 to 7 p.m.

“I like the fellowship and the opportunity to get rid of anything that’s bothering me,” says an older woman named Pat. “The rhythm of the drums, it’s like a heartbeat.”

Gone to seed

The quality of Wilmington parks has typically been reflected by the style of its trash cans: Parks featuring sleek modern bins with a fresh coat of glossy black paint tend to be better maintained than parks with a rusty oil drum chained to a utility post.

In 2014, the little park on the corner of 4th and Rodney streets had one of those oil-drum trash cans. The corner didn’t look like a park and had long ago become unusable as a recreational space for children. There were no swings, and flakes of paint adorned the pavement and dead grass, leaving the broken equipment looking pockmarked.

No longer a playground, the blighted corner had instead become a space for drug transactions and other illicit activities. The city lacked funds to renovate the space and considered shutting it down.

"Vibrant parks build up the fabric of communities."

“They were going to fence it off and just figure out what to do with it later,” says Sarah Lester, director of Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, a local nonprofit that serves as the backbone of the West Side Grows Together neighborhood revitalization initiative.

In 2012, West Side Grows developed a 10-year revitalization plan, which included recommendations for improving parks to create more educational and recreational opportunities for youth. But just two years later, the city was moving in the opposite direction, on the verge of shuttering a park in a neighborhood that desperately needed more functional open space, not less.

“We knew the park was bad, but how’s the city going to take this little piece of recreation from the kids? They were just going to rip it out and put a fence around it,” says Yolanda McCoy, who worked for West Side Grows at the time and now represents Wilmington’s 6th District on the city council. To try to save the park, West Side Grows hustled to organize a community meeting with the city. “We wanted to see a great park there. We didn’t want the city to take it away from us while they decided what the next step was going to be.”

Partners in parks

Rather than wait on the city, West Side Grows acted. Beginning with that first meeting, a collaborative effort was born between the city and community partners that resulted in $1.4 million in public-private investment to renovate three parks.

Public-private partnerships are proving to be a successful model as the city embarks on its most ambitious parks revitalization initiative in a generation. Since 2016, tens of millions of dollars have fueled a renaissance in Wilmington’s parks and open spaces. The most high-profile renewal project is in Rodney Square, where $6 million-plus in upgrades are underway, another collaborative effort made possible through public-private partnerships.

When Rodney Square is finished, the city will have a beautiful public square in the heart of downtown to be seen and enjoyed by all. But there are also major renewal projects happening at smaller parks and recreational facilities in Southbridge, West Center City, Hilltop and south Wilmington—all neighborhoods that had seen their parks neglected for years, if not decades. Community advocates hope that the benefits of these renewal projects will be broadly shared and mark yet another turning point in the revitalization of Wilmington.

“Vibrant parks build up the fabric of communities,” says Christian Willauer, who guided fundraising and design efforts for the $1.4 million Westside parks project before going on to become director of the Wilmington Land Bank. Willauer now consults with cities and communities on park redesign projects. The social and economic impact of park upgrades “starts by improving the quality of my life, but then it has other benefits: the health of my kids, the health of my neighborhood. And that’s true for every park improvement. It’s an investment that multiplies, like ripples in a pond,” he says.

Connell Street Park in Wilmington

On Wilmington’s west side, Connell Street Park has gone from a dangerous, neglected part of the community to a place where neighborhood children can enjoy play and a summer arts program./Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

A historic investment

Over the past five years, approximately $40 million has been committed by public and private entities to the revitalization of 15 parks and youth sports complexes, and the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center. If we include the Jack Markell Trail, which starts at the Riverfront and continues for 8 miles into downtown New Castle, then total investment increases to more than $62 million.

“Everyone deserves to have a nice park to go to, regardless of where they live,” says Kevin Kelley, director of Wilmington’s Department of Parks and Recreation. He’s optimistic that all this investment is a sign that the city is at a turning point.

The blighted little park on the corner of 4th and Rodney is now a functional recreational space with modern playground equipment and zero oil-drum trash cans; two other westside parks—Father Tucker and Connell Street—were also renovated as part of the same collaborative effort organized by West Side Grows.

“We’re starting to see things changing around 4th and Rodney. Now that the park has been renovated, you can go by anytime and see children playing,” says McCoy. She notes that the park revitalization has become a catalyst for change in the neighborhood, pointing to a new community garden on Delamore Place and a commercial-residential building to be constructed across from the park where a row of blighted rowhomes once stood. “People are ready for the change. Now they’re waiting on the city to follow through.”

"Everyone deserves to have a nice park to go to, regardless of where they live."

On the west side, the Woodlawn Trustees are also installing new playground equipment at Woodlawn Park, including a recreational water feature, with additional renovations planned at the park and at Woodlawn Library. Kelley was unable to provide a specific dollar figure on the renovations, but he suggested the Woodlawn improvements could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Near Maryland Avenue in south Wilmington, construction will soon begin on a long-awaited $600,000 skate park, and $400,000 in renovations were recently completed at Kosciuszko Park.

In Southbridge, $2.4 million in upgrades to facilities and landscaping are underway at Eden Park, including renovations to the park’s three public swimming pools and the installation of a new full-size turf field for local football, lacrosse and soccer teams.

And as part of Mayor Michael Purzycki’s neighborhood stabilization plan for West Center City, $4 million in renovations were recently completed at the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center, including upgrades to the pools, basketball courts and entryway.

The most notable difference, as multiple members of the administration have pointed out, is the removal of the metal detector at the main entrance.

“It looked like a prison,” Purzycki has said on more than one occasion.

Why parks matter

By most measures, Wilmington’s parks are insufficient for the needs of its 72,000 residents who share just 11 square miles of land—that’s a population density of 6,545 people per square mile, or slightly less than Baltimore. With 552 acres of parks, Wilmington averages about 7.6 acres per 1,000 residents, less than the national average of 9.5 acres, according to a 2016 report by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

To no one’s surprise, Wilmington’s wealthiest neighborhoods far exceed the national average. According to data compiled for the Wilmington 2028 strategic plan, those neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity of the Christina Riverfront and Brandywine River Park—Forty Acres, Trolley Square, Midtown Brandywine and the Triangle—have ready access to between 10 and 25 acres per 1,000 residents. The Highlands scores even better, with more than 25 acres per 1,000 residents, or roughly 2.5 times the national average.

But for every affluent neighborhood in Wilmington that scores above the national average, there’s a high-poverty neighborhood where the situation is much more dire. Neighborhoods where the poverty rate—calculated as a median income of $25,750 for a household of four people—exceeds 30 percent have ready access to, on average, only 3.6 acres per 1,000 residents. On the city’s west side, that ratio drops to just 2 acres per 1,000 residents, according to West Side Grows, with the Hilltop neighborhood at the very bottom, with fewer than 1 acre per 1,000 residents. These are the most densely populated sections of the city, equivalent to stacking 265 people onto a quarter-acre of land.

According to a 2016 joint study by Clemson University, Arizona State University and the U.S. Forest Service, access to parks “was among the strongest predictors of overall well-being” in densely populated urban spaces.

Neighborhoods where the poverty rate exceeds 30 percent have access to, on average, only 3.6 acres of public parks per 1,000 residents.

The benefits of access to adequate parks space are numerous and well-documented. Parks support both physical and mental health. According to the NRPA, “Children who live within two-thirds of a mile from a park with a playground are five times more likely to be a healthy weight,” which is more important than ever as young people are facing an epidemic of preventable chronic illnesses associated with too little time outdoors engaging in physical activity, including obesity, hypertension and diabetes.

Parks bring communities together. They reduce stress and foster social cohesion. Parks also reduce air pollution, promote biodiversity and improve the value of nearby homes.

All of which makes this surge of investment in neighborhood parks so noteworthy. In a city largely defined by vast inequalities—where glitzy glass towers downtown literally stand across the street from eastside housing projects—neighborhoods most in need of better parks are finally on the receiving end.

Even though the parks had suffered from lack of investment, “there is a great foundation to build on,” says Willauer. “We need to be thinking about how we can make these transformative investments more broadly, so we can impact residents where they live. We have a great parks system. We just need to recognize it for the gem that it is and reap the investments that enable it to serve those communities.”

Partnerships and patchwork

The changes to Wilmington’s parks are possible because of the public-private partnerships that leveraged the city’s limited financial resources to raise additional investment. That’s another way of saying that the city can’t afford its green infrastructure.

At a recent meeting of the Cool Spring/Tilton Park Neighborhood Association, one resident asked Purzycki why so much of the city’s infrastructure, including the parks, had been left neglected. Years ago, the line of questioning went, the city had the funds to build new parks and recreational facilities. What happened to all the money? Why can we no longer afford these amenities?

“We could never afford it,” Purzycki responded. “When we came in, everything was broken.”

Indeed, funding open spaces has been a decades-long struggle for Wilmington, and one that helps explain the patchwork of institutions responsible for maintaining the city’s parks.

Wilmington’s wealthiest neighborhoods have ready access to more acres of parks than poorer neighborhoods, and most of those acres are maintained by an entirely separate parks system. Of Wilmington’s 552 acres of parks, 345 acres are owned by the city but kept up by the state. Known as the Wilmington State Parks—Rockford, Brandywine, Alapocas and Kentmere Parkway—these spaces have been under the care of the Delaware State Parks system since 1998. Before that, New Castle County looked after those parks.

Similar agreements exist for other parks and recreational facilities. Along the Christina River, Tubman-Garrett Park and the Riverwalk are owned and maintained by the Riverfront Development Corporation.

Last year, the city signed a controversial 50-year lease agreement with Salesianum that will transfer operations and maintenance of Baynard Stadium to the private school in return for $15 million to $20 million in renovations.

"Parks are the low-hanging fruit. If you can organize a community to save a park, then it gives them hope that other changes will happen within their community."

The stadium was built by the city in 1922, and is used by schools and community groups for football games, track-and-field meets and other youth sporting events.

A similar agreement appears to be in the works in south Wilmington, with $5 million in planned renovations to Canby Park, of which $419,000 has been allocated by the city, with the remainder to be raised by St. Elizabeth’s, a private school adjacent to the park.

Sharing institutional responsibility for renovating and maintaining parks has proven to be an effective model that has likely saved hundreds of acres from neglect. But it’s not a realistic solution for all the city’s parks.

The solution, say parks advocates, is greater community involvement. This may take the form of “friends of parks” groups, which encourage residents to get involved and become stewards for their neighborhood parks by picking up litter, trimming bushes and pruning small trees, and establishing personal relationships with the city employees who maintain the parks.

“Parks are the low-hanging fruit. If you can organize a community to save a park, then it gives them hope that other changes will happen within their community,” says McCoy.

The oldest such group is the Friends of Wilmington Parks, established in 1991 to restore and maintain the natural landscape of the Wilmington state parks. Additional “friends of parks” groups have since been established for every major park on Wilmington’s west side by West Side Grows, which is currently planning renovations to Cool Spring Park and Tilton Park.

“We’ve been successful at influencing the way the city does business,” says Lester of the community partnerships organized by West Side Grows. “I do believe that the model we’ve demonstrated on the west side has influenced the city’s desire to get additional community feedback [for parks projects].”

Moreover, the Woodlawn Trustees frequently partner with the city on all sorts of urban renewal projects on the west side. And the Rodney Square Conservancy, a partnership of Wilmington residents, local and state government and businesses established in 2016, is the main fundraising arm behind the current square renovations.

Bike Repair Clinic in Rodney Square, Wilmington

Children take advantage of a bike repair clinic in Rodney Square./Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

Modern spaces

Investments in neighborhood parks and recreational facilities will ensure that more children have access to safe spaces to play, exercise and even gossip on social media. To reach out to millennials, Gen Z and whatever generation comes after that, the vision is to one day provide free Wi-Fi in all the city’s parks, says Kevin Kelley, director of Wilmington’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Our parks were designed for the Baby Boomers, back when kids spent all day playing outside,” he says. “It’s not like that anymore. We need to provide different amenities that will make these parks a hot spot for young people.”

Indeed, free Wi-Fi in all the city parks would be transformational for Wilmington, potentially challenging residents and lawmakers alike to reimagine how parks and open spaces are embedded into the ebb and flow of everyday life. Who needs The Mill? Tilton Park could be your next co-working space.

Transformational is also how Kelley describes the upgrades coming to Rodney Square, which he says will be a game-changer for downtown Wilmington.

Standing next to the statue of Caesar Rodney atop the steps in Rodney Square, Kelley gestures out across the open space. Established in 1921, Rodney Square is the largest public square in the city and regularly plays host to concerts, protests and rallies, farmers’ markets and thousands of daily commuters. All that use has the square showing its age, and the city is planning a $6 million overhaul that will transform it into a modern urban space.

“With the influx of people into downtown Wilmington, Rodney Square is their neighborhood park,” says Kelley. “The vision is to make Rodney Square the central focus point of the city. It’s a place for people to come out and play and have a good time.”

Kelley points toward King Street, where a small maintenance shed stands on the edge of the square. The shed will be replaced by a lighted fountain, Kelley says, allowing the city to use the space in new and exciting ways. For example, once renovations are complete, concerts will have the stage oriented toward the Chemours Building across Market Street to make use of the natural amphitheater; currently, concerts face the Public Library across 10th Street. Additional improvements will include new masonry and benches, improved irrigation, and new planters and trees.

"We want to make the city a popular place to live and work, and we want it to be a healthy city for the residents. Having vibrant parks allows for residents to have a higher quality of life."

Wilmington will also see two new parks constructed over the next few years, including a restoration project that will transform an empty corner lot in West Center City into a much-needed open space. Upon completion, it will become the largest such space between Rodney Square and Helen Chambers Park.

Organized by Wilmington Renaissance Corporation and Creative District Wilmington, the new park will feature a multipurpose lawn area, a raised-bed community garden, and tables for picnics, chess and other activities.

“Community green spaces provide much more than just neighborhood beautification. They are an opportunity for the community to gather and grow,” Creative District strategist Laura Semmelroth said at the dedication ceremony in November 2018.

Moreover, thanks to a $2.9 million federal grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the city will soon break ground on the South Wilmington Wetland Park. This 12.6-acre site will offer ADA-accessible boardwalks and pathways through wetlands that will also improve drainage and flood control in the city’s lowest-lying neighborhood. Walkways will connect the wetlands park to the new bridge spanning Southbridge to the Riverfront, which will then hook up to the Jack Markell Trail, the most ambitious and expensive bike infrastructure project in state history.

“We want to make the city a popular place to live and work, and we want it to be a healthy city for the residents,” says Jeff Flynn, director of economic development for the city of Wilmington. “Having vibrant parks allows for residents to have a higher quality of life.”

Back at the Rock Lot, Whitney begins to improvise as the circle carries the beat, and he encourages others to do the same. A young man named Omar, who started attending the drum circle a few months before, drops his own beats into the rhythm, subtle at first and then more daring, until he and Whitney are alternating in their improvisations, like they’re having a conversation without speaking a word.

The sound reverberates off the brick walls. One can imagine what the music must sound like from an open window a few blocks away, and what it feels like to be called by the drum.

The shadows grow long across the grass. The space feels like a sanctuary, almost like there’s peace with the world. Over against one of the brick walls stand three oil drums with a fresh coat of paint, converted from unsightly trash cans into lovely blue flowerpots.