Part of a Delaware News Journal series by José Ignacio Castañeda Perez
A comprehensive neighborhood action plan for Southbridge – one of Wilmington’s oldest and most historic communities – details a roadmap for the future of the neighborhood as it faces new investments and mitigates old issues.
The plan, which took 10 months to create and was released Tuesday night, aims to address the array of economic, environmental and social problems that have long afflicted the largely low-income neighborhood. Action items for economic revitalization, improved health and increased youth programming are all detailed within the proposal.
The release of the plan comes as Southbridge residents are calling for equal investment in the face of the Riverfront East development – the counterpart to Wilmington’s Riverfront on the other side of the river that is slated to bring $100 million to the area surrounding this community.
RIVERFRONT EAST:Southbridge residents call for equal investment in $100M Riverfront East plan
While residents and leaders are supportive of the development, they say they want the neighborhood to be included in the upcoming growth of the riverfront.
Two new, state-of-the-art turf fields near Southbridge – built by prominent Delaware developer Buccini Pollin Group Inc. – will offer sports programming to the neighborhood’s youth as soon as Sept. 25, when a community day has been planned.
The fields, which are an expansion to the Chase Fieldhouse nearby, serve as a welcome first step for the requests of residents who have long asked for increased youth programming for their children.
“We fully expect to engage the Southbridge community and the first part of this will be September 25,” said Steve Cavalier, general manager for BPG │SPORTS – the operating and owning company of the fields and the Chase Fieldhouse.
“Then, we’ll build from there with the rec leagues, flag football and things like that to get the kids from that community to help participate in the different activities that we have.”
Cavalier worked with Wilmington’s City Council and Hanifa Shabazz, a 40-year Southbridge resident and former Wilmington City Council president, to help develop the fields.
“The city negotiated to give them that privilege to build two more fields, which are right in the backyard of Southbridge,” Shabazz said.
Currently, the only entrance to the fields is a gravel path that can only be accessed by driving off of A Street, across from the Delaware Humane Association.
Shabazz said that she is working diligently with the city to construct a walking path from Southbridge to the fields before Saturday in order to make it more accessible to the neighborhood’s youth.
COMMUNITY RESPONSE:Mass shooting in Southbridge stuns community leaders, prompts calls for action, investment
City Councilwoman Michelle Harlee, who represents Southbridge, presented the legislation that proposed building the new fields near her community after realizing the benefit they would have on the surrounding area.
“When I found out the benefit for the community and for some of our marginalized and underprivileged children to have opportunities to have access to the field, I thought that it would be beneficial for the community to have those fields there,” she said.
Harlee emphasized the importance of BPG following through on its promises and providing more access to the community. She added that there are plans to make the upcoming community event a monthly staple for Southbridge.
The path to the fields would also lead to the long-awaited 14-acre wetland park, which would help alleviate flooding in Southbridge and create a new community park. The low-lying neighborhood has long been plagued by flooding, due to its sewer system that combines sanitary and stormwater.
WETLAND PARK:Wilmington hopes wetland park will stop flooding in low-income neighborhood
Rising sea levels have only made flooding worse.
But the wetland park has yet to be finished, despite a projected completion date of early this summer.
Additionally, Southbridge was identified in 2017 as one of seven communities in New Castle County that are at a much greater risk for cancer and respiratory illness as a result of environmental pollution. Yet in 2019, Delaware officials cleared the way for the construction of a slag-grinding facility near Southbridge despite fierce opposition from residents.
There have also been attempts to put a state prison and a cattle-housing facility in the neighborhood.
‘IT’S OUR TURN’:Southbridge residents say they’re tired of being a dumping ground
In response, the neighborhood action plan calls upon the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to implement impact assessments that would consider the health and environmental repercussions that potentially polluting industries would have if they were placed in Southbridge.
The assessment would take the potential repercussions into consideration before issuing a permit to a new industry in the neighborhood.
The plan details the creation of a referral system that would provide a pool of qualified applicants from the neighborhood for new jobs created with the upcoming Riverfront East development.
Additionally, it calls upon Gulftainer – a global logistics company that is leasing the now-shuttered Elbert-Palmer Elementary School in Southbridge – to implement the promised job training programs, computer training classes and credit union into the community building.
The company’s plans have been delayed due to COVID-19, but have recently been reinvigorated with calls from the community for increased upkeep of the school, given that the conditions have led to vandalism, squatters and trash buildup.
Gulftainer has since cleaned up the area surrounding the school and has implemented 24/7 security.
STATE OF DISREPAIR:How Southbridge’s shuttered Elbert-Palmer school fell into a state of disrepair and what lies ahead
The neighborhood plan serves as an update to the 2006 proposal and was put together by multiple Southbridge-related organizations alongside an outside consulting firm. The Southbridge Civic Association, the South Wilmington Planning Network and Healthy Communities Delaware helped design the plan with input from numerous neighborhood residents and leaders.
With a slew of changes and development set to arrive in and around Southbridge, the neighborhood action plan provides a blueprint for what the community wants and needs.
After receiving input from residents, a finalized version of the report is set to be released in late October.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda.
Southbridge residents call for equal investment in $100M Riverfront East plan
José Ignacio Castañeda Perez, Delaware News JournalPublished 5:00 AM EDT Aug. 3, 2021 Updated 3:28 PM EDT Aug. 8, 2021
s the Christina River flows through Wilmington, its gentle tides serve to separate the realities that flank its body.
On one side, the Chase Center, where President Joe Biden famously declared victory last November, watches over the Riverwalk where passersby fill the air with chatter and laughter as they enjoy the row of restaurants and attractions.
Across the river, the tides lap against the banks of dense marshland – overflowing with cattails and grass – alongside a crumbling wooden dock.
About a mile away sits Southbridge, one of Wilmington’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. The majority-Black community stands isolated from the rest of the city by the natural, curving barrier of the river and is only connected by four small bridges.
In May, the Riverfront Development Corporation, alongside Mayor Mike Purzycki, announced plans to develop this area opposite the current riverfront – converting 86 acres into homes, offices and retail spaces. The project, dubbed Riverfront East, hopes to parallel the existing riverfront with a new walkway, roads and parks. https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.481.0_en.html#goog_756361272Southbridge plans draw skepticsmWilliam Bretzger, Delaware News Journal
The Riverfront East project, not even within eyesight of the true Southbridge community, promises to flood the surrounding area of this largely low-income community with $100 million of investment.
While Southbridge residents and community leaders are supportive of the investment and development, they want it to do more than just encircle their community. They want the neighborhood and its residents to be included in the growth.
“I like the idea of development because that’s progress,” said Southbridge resident Bobbie Foote-Page. “But on the other hand, what about those that cannot afford what’s actually being built and developed?”
Southbridge nourished the political rise of William J. Winchester, Herman M. Holloway Sr. and Henrietta Johnson – earning its reputation as the “cradle of African-American political leadership.” Johnson and Winchester were the first Black woman and man, respectively, to be elected to the Delaware House of Representatives, while Holloway Sr. was the first Black man to be elected to the state Senate.
“Their family legacy is being devastated,” said Yasser Payne, associate professor of sociology, criminal justice and Africana studies at the University of Delaware. “They don’t have much, but what they do have a lot of is each other.”
DEVELOPMENT: Wilmington’s Riverfront to expand east with new $100 million, 86-acre mixed-use project
Residents and experts have expressed worries of gentrification and displacement as the new development threatens to change the fabric of the historic community. Southbridge leaders, however, say they’re not going anywhere and are pushing back against the idea of a developer-first “trickle-down” approach, which assumes any development will automatically benefit the community.
$32 MILLION APARTMENTS: $32 million apartments latest massive development planned along Christina River
At a recent Southbridge Civic Association meeting, Megan McGlinchey, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, acknowledged the longstanding issues that have been facing the neighborhood and said she hopes the development will play a positive role in mitigating them.
“I heard them loud and clear,” she said.
McGlinchey acknowledged concerns that the development could lead to gentrification and displacement in Southbridge, but said they’re a little misplaced.
“We’ve never been in the business of displacing anyone from their homes,” McGlinchey said. “We’re taking land that is completely underutilized, a lot of which is abandoned, and we’re putting it back into productive use and we think that, as a whole, has a tremendous community benefit.”
McGlinchey referenced the current Riverfront as an example of how the development would generate private investment, some of which would go back into the community.
During the meeting, the Rev. Provey Powell Jr., pastor at Mount Joy United Methodist Church in Southbridge, stood up and publicly addressed McGlinchey – emphasizing the idea of equal development in the community and criticizing the idea of trickle-down economics.
“I am and we are pro-development, but we want to see equal development in our community,” he said. “We need to see a direct line between the resources that we publicly invest in a project like that so that it comes back and uplifts this community.”
With millions of dollars earmarked for the riverfront development, residents and leaders are calling for a portion of the funds to be invested in the community to improve infrastructure, develop more community programming and maintain affordable housing in the neighborhood.
But some fear how yet another Wilmington project aimed at making the city more appealing to outsiders will sit with those who have been here from the start.
‘You’re not going to take our history’
Southbridge embodies decades of storied history ranging from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights movement. Community leaders want Southbridge to be recognized and respected.
“You take Southbridge from it, you take all of the history,” said Diana Dixon, vice-president of the Southbridge Civic Association, of the new development. “That’s what we’re fighting for; you’re not going to take our history.” About this series Close and skip
More than 25 years ago, the idea to turn Wilmington’s abandoned, polluted riverfront area into a vibrant community hub was born. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money has been invested and today it stands as a model for other cities. But was it the best use of the time and money?Hide
In the late 18th century, the Underground Railroad passed through Wilmington as a last stop before reaching Philadelphia. Historians say Harriet Tubman, alongside numerous escaped slaves, hid near Southbridge when patrollers blocked their path across the Christina River.
After World War II, the industrial base of the neighborhood began to decline, leaving the area peppered with brownfields and scattered with remnants of industrial sites. Multiple brick row houses now sit vacant with plywood covering their windows, blocking their view into the streets.
These homes have seen countless eras of families live through them, passed down from generation to generation. Some residents have lived in the same home for 60 years – growing old in the same house where they were raised.
Yet today there exists an interesting and intricate entanglement of community, industry, religion and history within the neighborhood’s 1-square-mile radius.
Within this area, there sits about 13 churches and the vacant Elbert-Palmer Elementary School, which closed in 2019, that stands as a deteriorating icon amid the spirited community.
ELBERT-PALMER: How Southbridge’s shuttered Elbert-Palmer school fell into a state of disrepair and what lies ahead
A block away from the school sits Winston Truitt Park, a small but energetic sliver of the neighborhood where lively conversations between residents can always be heard. Across the street is KNF Market Store, one of only two corner stores in the community.
Large trucks driving to nearby industrial plants rumble over the neighborhood’s streets throughout the day, leaving dust clouds in their rambunctious wake.
Residents describe Southbridge as a resilient and strongly connected community where people almost always engage with one another as they walk through the neighborhood and sit outside their homes. Current and former residents retain a bond with the neighborhood and are always proud to claim Southbridge as their home.
“It’s a place where everybody knows everybody and everybody’s connected to one another and at some level, everybody cares about the next person,” said Haneef Salaam, a Southbridge advocate and former resident.
The vibrant community, however, also faces a slew of economic, environmental and social issues that showcase the stark contrast between the hopeful future of the Riverfront East and its own dire reality.
A separate development
The low-lying neighborhood has long been afflicted by flooding due to its sewer system that combines sanitary and storm water, leading to flooded roads and basements when it rains. Rising sea levels have only exacerbated this issue.
The long-awaited 14-acre wetland park, which would help alleviate flooding and create a new community park, has yet to be finished despite a projected completion of early this summer.
Southbridge was identified in a 2017 report as one of seven communities in New Castle County that are at a much greater risk for cancer and respiratory illness as a result of environmental pollution. Yet in 2019, Delaware officials cleared the way for the construction of a slag-grinding facility near Southbridge despite fierce opposition from residents.
There have also been attempts to put a state prison and a cattle-housing facility in the neighborhood.
‘IT’S OUR TURN:’ Southbridge residents say they’re tired of being a dumping ground
Then, there are the mosquitoes.
Due to the low-lying and marshlike characteristics, Southbridge is afflicted with a large amount of these biting bugs. The neighborhood is periodically sprayed to help control the problem.
“You’ve got an area that has historic higher levels of poverty, brownfields, as well as active industry, and then within half a mile you have hundreds of millions of dollars being invested into upper-scale types of housing and consumption activities and leisure activities,” said Victor Perez, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.
Similar research among Mid-Atlantic cities shows that a developer-first approach to urban renewal does not equitably benefit the nearby communities and can lead to gentrification and displacement, said Perez, who is also a member of the South Wilmington Planning Network.
WETLAND PARK: Wilmington hopes wetland park will stop flooding in low-income neighborhood
Payne, who has done extensive research in and about Southbridge, said he’s not optimistic about the Riverfront East development because he hasn’t found an example of development helping local communities.
Payne emphasized similar examples of development that pushed residents out of their homes, only for them not to return after the development was completed. He described how displaced residents would not only lose a home but would also lose their family lineage and social standing.
“I just want to see one example where some developers came in and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to redevelop and at the end of this process it’s going to be a promising neighborhood with the vast majority of people that are living here being the same folks that were here prior to the development starting,'” Payne said.
Additionally, Southbridge residents were not made aware of the multimillion-dollar Riverfront East development plan until the Riverfront Development Corporation informed the general public.
COMMUNITY BENEFITS: In Wilmington’s Southbridge, talk of new industry turns to jobs, community benefits
This lack of community involvement in the plan, Perez said, projects a separation between the developers and the residents.
“It suggests sort of inherently that the plan to develop and the development is separate from the things around it and is meant to invite new types of residents and invite new types of activity,” Perez said.
Foote-Page, a Southbridge resident, said the issues facing the neighborhood will persist unless something is done to provide equitable development to the residents of her neighborhood.
“I don’t see too much light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, “not unless the investors, our mayor and those in charge will genuinely include us and be fair and bring equity to all people.”
The Rev. Christopher Curry, of Ezion Fair Baptist Church in Southbridge, said he was not convinced the project would help neighborhood residents and the issues facing the community.
“You have a multimillion-dollar project that’s going on in a city and normally that would be phenomenal,” he said. “But when the project ceased to spill over to the community that needs it the most, then I’m not too sure if it’s worth the energy that it’s being given.”
Curry wants to see investment in the hardworking people of a community who have not been given their fair share in the past.
“This community is not asking anyone to give them anything,” Curry said. “They’re saying open the door and they’ll get it themselves.”
HEALTH: Report: 7 New Castle communities at greater risk for cancer, respiratory illness
Haneef Salaam echoed Curry by saying that the community has already been planning to develop on its own and is stalled only because of a lack of resources.
Salaam emphasized that he is not against the development but wants to see investment in the community on behalf of the developers in order to have Southbridge grow alongside Riverfront East.
Residents and community leaders, alongside an outside urban planning consulting firm, created a neighborhood action plan to call for equitable development for Southbridge.
The plan includes a residents’ bill of rights that calls for community control in developments that affect the neighborhood, affordable housing, and equitable access to amenities and resources in and around their neighborhood.
The plan also includes a draft document of the community benefits demands for equitable treatment as the Riverfront East development begins to take place. The document details community requests that would help maintain affordable housing, establish and improve youth programming and help provide jobs for Southbridge residents.
One item calls for the creation of a $10 million anti-displacement fund that would help pay for home repair programs, neighborhood programming and health services. The fund would help provide resources for residents impacted by the development.
Another item on the list requests that developers ensure that 20% of all units built have a rent of $575 or less, with priority given to current or former Southbridge residents
As the first phase of the project gets underway, residents and community leaders, such as Diana Dixon, emphasized their desire for equal development and investment. Dixon hopes to rally the community together and fight for the neighborhood she calls home.
“We’re not going nowhere,” she said.
Contact the reporter at email@example.com or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda.