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Wallace Park, enjoyed by many Wilmingtonians, is one of many locales that are saved by stewarding the oak-tree canopy along Market Street. Photo by Bethany Turner

Ilove living in Wilmington. I will say without reservation: I feel intrinsically entwined with this area, and my life view has been shaped by growing up with the renovation of a historic home.

We are only the second family to live in the house my parents bought in 1987. Among other things, it taught me to be gentle on my environment. If things broke, they couldn’t be easily matched from Lowe’s or Home Depot. Many of the fixtures were custom made for the house (for example, none of the windows are perfectly square or standard sizes). The beautiful sconces were not going to support my weight if I tried to hang on them—or hang things from them.

My mother once told me they bought the house for the following reasons: 1) It had a dining room that would one day show off her prized possession: the dining room furniture; 2) a large fenced-in yard for the kid (me) and dog, and lots of bookshelf space for the family’s library; and 3) my father, the nature lover (and expert on Emerson and the Transcendental movement), said the beautiful tree-lined street tipped the scales. (If my mother were alive, she would point out he never raked leaves, and if he had he might have felt differently.)
My friends were moving into newly built suburbs that began to sprawl around the Wilmington landscape in the 1980s. They had sod yards and small, pencil-thin new trees, with the occasional row of young azalea bushes or fresh-from-the nursery landscaping. I grew up with camellias that had been hand-grafted 50 years earlier and produced swirls of different colors, one in particular I referred to as the “peppermint candy bush” because the flowers looked just like striped candies at Christmas.

Our azaleas were taller than me, and the oak trees lining Market and Princess made the most beautiful canopy I had ever seen. While my friends were watching their acorns sprout and begin to grow, I was climbing the mighty oaks that their trees would one day become. I think the magnitude and the longevity of trees and plants became very real for me, but I also was the beneficiary of someone else believing in my future 50 years earlier.

So, what do my reminisces of childhood have to do with living locally and our economy? Our city’s Historic Preservation Commission! Money spent preserving something we have is money spent here.

“Repairing and rebuilding historic wood windows would mean that the dollars are spent locally instead of at a distant window manufacturing plant,” Don Rypkema of Place Economics, a D.C. consulting firm specializing in the economic revitalization of city centers and the development of historic properties, points out. (WDI and Historic Wilmington Foundation brought him here to speak in 2010). “That’s economic sustainability, also part of sustainable development.”

Rypkema cites a study in Delaware that showed rehabilitation of old buildings created 14.6 jobs per $1 million output, as compared to 11.2 jobs created by new construction. In Georgia he brings up a study looking at its primary industries, which has similar findings. “A $1 million investment created 3.5 jobs in auto manufacture, four jobs in computer manufacture, 8.7 jobs in air transportation, 10.4 jobs in poultry processing and 18.1 jobs in rehabilitating old buildings.”

The place of historic preservation in our community is an ongoing part of the conversation. People really do come here from all over the country to see our beautiful historic homes. You can take a picture of a strip mall anywhere, but photographs of oak trees with Spanish moss in front of a lovingly restored 150-year-old house require travel for many people. It is coming to the fore again as a result of the proposed amendments to B&B licenses that, among other things, have made historic restoration and maintenance a possibility for many of the stately homes that would otherwise have disappeared The Historic Wilmington Foundation, established in 1966, is one of the key players in our preservation movement (certainly credit also should be given to WDI and the Historic Preservation Commission, the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society and the Bellamy Mansion, to name only a few—many more organizations and individuals have contributed greatly). Besides the plaque program that recognizes the historic importance of structures, both residential and commercial, they annually compile a list of “Most Threatened Historic Places” in our region.  Past nominees have included Rosenwald Schools of Pender County, Glen Hotel at Wrightsville Beach, Gaylord Building on North Front, and the North End of downtown’s central business district. Last year, “The Majestic Tree Canopy on Market Street” was added to the threatened list. That might sound surprising; usually, the list focuses structures. But the nomination points out: “Stewarding the deciduous canopy along this stretch of Market Street will also contribute to the integrity of significant abutting resources including the National Cemetery, Wallace Park, Burnt Mill Creek, the Mansion District, the Carolina Place District, Westbrook Ardmore District, and the Carolina Heights District.”

I contacted Brion Capo, our urban arborist. He confirms, “Market Street has a replacement plan in place that ends at 17th (trees ordered), and that’s why the CPAHA and HWF are helping to develop something from there to Wallace Park.”

While I had Capo’s attention I also asked him if there was anything that oak-tree lovers could do for their own beloved trees (I have one next to my parent’s house that is of particular importance to me). “Any plant (particularly trees) growing in sand benefits from potassium fertilizer 0-0-60 because it is not found in the soil testing in sand and is an essential macro element for plant growth,” he says.

The HPC efforts not only generate local economic development through restoration work but also from tourism—an industry many people here benefit from, not just downtown merchants but also at the beaches and restaurants and hotels across our area. Take a drive down Market Street  sometime soon, you might think about the quip, “I think that I shall never see a billboard as lovely as a tree.” Just a thought.
To nominate a threatened historic place please visit www.HistoricWilmington.org.

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