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Live Local, Live Small: The gentrification of North Fourth Street and who’s getting left behind

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CONTINUALLY ON THE RISE: Gwenyfar Rowler talks about the 20-year rise of North Fourth Street, which includes the opening of the Brooklyn Arts Center in 2011. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

CONTINUALLY ON THE RISE: Gwenyfar Rowler talks about the 20-year rise of North Fourth Street, which includes the opening of the Brooklyn Arts Center in 2011. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

“What are you thinking?” Jock asked.

“I’m thinking I used to ride the school bus down this street everyday in 1992 and it hasn’t changed much. It looks pretty much the same.” 

We were steering down Red Cross Street and I pointed at Ruth’s Grocery. “I mean, look: Ruth’s is still there and I bet we could take a picture from 20 years ago and hold it up next to this, and it would look almost the same.” 

For the three most miserable years of my life, I attended DC Virgo Middle School in the early ‘90s and rode the school bus past Rankin Terrace to Red Cross, to Nixon to the school that had clearly been built to be a fortress in the event of city war. I recognized the design immediately from my early childhood fascination with castles—which, contrary to popular childhood belief, were not meant to be beautiful and elegant but rather defendable fortresses.

When I looked at my new school—or the first time I understood clearly that I was looking at a building designed to withstand a siege—the main building was up on stilts, and its windows were all slits designed to protect a shooter while allowing a shotgun to protrude. (In the Middle Ages, it would have been long bows instead of guns, but the principal was the same.) It was in a part of town that, up until that moment at 11-years-old, I had never seen. In that instant, something was clearly communicated to me about how the powers that be perceived this particular neighborhood. I did not yet know about the Wilmington 10 or 1898, but I clearly understood someone really feared this place.    

I shouldn’t say nothing has changed. Taylor Homes was torn down and rebuilt. The police department moved their headquarters to North 4th. Rankin Terrace is going through an overhaul, and DREAMS Center for Arts Education has moved into the neighborhood. However, streets aren’t getting repaved and property values are not improving.

The day Jock and I had our conversation we were on our way to Detour Deli for lunch. I have to admit: Though the food is awesome, it is their ongoing efforts to screen film noir movies outside on Thursday nights that endears them to me. Detour’s owner Allister Snyder started the Brooklyn Free Libraries, and its Little Free Library outside the door and walls lined with books inside (Freud, Hemingway, Herbert, Bellow, Gunter Grass, Plato, Joyce, Alan Watts, etc.) captivates. But good taste in books and film aside, after a few visits, I found myself wanting to ask Snyder a bit about his experiences in the neighborhood—because they have clearly been so different from mine. Raised in Wyoming, Snyder moved to Red Cross Street in 2005.

“There is so much potential in the area,” he says. “I walked down 5th Avenue: the median, the beautiful trees … I was confounded why there wasn’t more interest in the area. The property prices made it worth the investment.” 

Snyder also notes the beautiful historic homes in the area, its proximity to the river, access to MLK Parkway, and central location would seem like an area desirable for business and residents alike. With the rise of North Fourth Street, what surrounds it becomes the next point of discussion. It might come as a shock to recent transplants that the excitement about North 4th in recent years was starting to sound like a country western song to locals. At least for me, it started around ‘93 or ’94: “North Fourth is on the rise… That’s the place to buy property… It’s going to be the next hot thing.”

It was almost on a two-year loop tape. Then PPD built their headquarters in 2007, the Brooklyn Arts Center opened in 2011 and CFCC expanded their campus and opened the Cape Fear Stage in 2015. Now it is the hot ticket that the last 20 years promised it would be. So what does that look like for the expanding neighborhoods around it?

Snyder observes there are a number of pieces that need to come together for the next leap in the neighborhood.  Much of the surrounding area is vacant: unoccupied homes, buildings and lots. City services feel absent from the neighborhood, and eventually there has to be some substantial investment. 

“Big money has to come in to do some of the heavy work,” Snyder notes. “But city planning is incredibly important. We want the neighborhood to be mixed use: low-income, median income and upscale housing.”

He points out if someone pays $500,000 for a piece of real estate they aren’t going to put low-income housing on it. Perhaps it is the entrepreneur in me that enjoys chatting with Snyder. There is a reality to how money works in the world, and with small business it is a very immediate and pressing reality that impacts the way I interact with the world: I become a walking cost/benefit calculator.

One of the intangibles that is hard to quantify is perception. Are the quality of homes in Landfall really worth the price tags? Are they made with better or different materials than other homes on Eastwood Road? Much of what people are paying for in the price is the gated community, the name and perceived value that comes with it. Red Cross Street suffers from the reverse perception. Snyder recounts his experience getting a special use permit in order to open the deli.

“I had city council members question my business acumen,” he tells, “city officials talking down a neighborhood— expressing implausibility that a business would consider this neighborhood.”

He shakes his head and points out that, since then, Fly Trap Brewing and Palate have both opened. More so, the surrounding area is gaining momentum.

But the idea of gentrification is one that weighs my mind during our discussion. How does this neighborhood weather such without changing its historic makeup? Thus far the pattern for gentrification here largely has been to push people of color out of areas as they become desirable. People of color steadily have been removed from an area that increasingly is perceived as valuable waterfront property. Snyder points back to city planning and the importance of a long-term vision—they’re also must be immediate increased attention from city officials, better access to city services and change in perception as first steps. “It’s not what the reputation would make it seem,” Snyder says.

I have to agree: Looking around the area, it seems ripe for entrepreneurship and investment. But I have wonder if it is going to be another 20 years of talking about how hot the potential is before it takes off? Once that happens, will it be in a way that embraces the neighborhood and lifts everyone up economically? Or will it only come by pushing residents elsewhere, and making it a hipster playground for the nouveau riche? 

I got my freedom from DC Virgo shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president. Since, the U.S. saw vast economic swings, and Wilmington has grown exponentially. We have yet to learn how to grow our city together instead of at each other’s expense.

“Wilmington isn’t segregated, it’s separated,” is a comment I hear frequently—apparently it exonerates us from guilt. I don’t have an answer for how to do this. I just know it is long overdue to have a serious discussion about economic disparity and creating a path that benefits everyone, instead of continuing the historic cycles of taking from our historically African-American neighborhoods for others’ benefit.

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  1. Dan Solo

    April 14, 2016 at 6:33 am

    Great piece.
    I’d love to know the difference between “segregated” and “separated”.

  2. Madie

    April 14, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Sometimes I think we’ll have to wait or the present older generation to die off in order to change the it just won’t die perception that north 4th and 5th is the “ghetto” of Wilmington. I personally hope for the day when they bull doze the house on 4th and Nixon as it is a hang out spot. The lot next door being empty, crowds gather and it’s scary. This house being at the end of the Brooklyn Arts District, I’m sure it discourages would be investors from giving the far north end of fourth the face lift it desperately needs.
    I lived in Austin TX. While there even being a collage town and the capital city, they passed a law where by it was illegal to have a book bag sitting on the ground next to you. This was their way to make Austin appear as a clean safe city. Eventually soup kitchens and other resources moved closer to the edges if the city. Basically the police harassed some of the homeless out of Austin. Not nice, but true.

  3. Dylan

    April 27, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Someone needs to look more deeply into this disturbing claim:
    “I had city council members question my business acumen,” he tells, “city officials talking down a neighborhood— expressing implausibility that a business would consider this neighborhood.”

  4. Comrad Keenen

    April 27, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    Gentrification happens because private investment is about extracting wealth from communities; not distributing it. The money that is desired to be invested has already been earned by the community; however, wage slavery has misallocated the money to be in the hands of speculators who speculate correctly that people will work for a wage and produce a great deal more value than their wage.

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