Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day 16: What's The Right Size for a City?

Since I started working in Wilmington, I've talked with a number of friends and acquaintances who either live or work in the city or its environs. Most of these conversations, however, have taken place at nightspots in Philadelphia, and the conversation invariably includes an exchange that goes roughly like this:

Me: It's a nice little city, very neat and orderly. But everyone clears out of town by 6.
Wilmingtonian: You got that right. There's nothing to do there at night.

Which, from the looks of things, is a slight overstatement. Downtown Wilmington offers performing arts in the form of the Delaware Theater Company, OperaDelaware and events at the Grand Opera House. Touring stage plays also stop by the Playhouse Theater in the Hotel DuPont. The state's historical museum is right on the main shopping street. It has several fine dining establishments, a smattering of nightclubs and more than a few bars. And in baseball season, the Wilmington Blue Rocks bring minor-league fans to the riverfront just below downtown, where they play in a splendid little ballpark.

Yet the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. For all these assets, downtown Wilmington still appears comatose at night.

Maybe it's because the city's too small. Which strikes me as a bit odd, for Wilmington's size is actually pretty close to optimal for a city. At least, it is if you subscribe to the viewpoint of the social critic Kirkpatrick Sale, who wrote a book titled Human Scale in the mid-1980s. In it, he followed the cardinal rule of the Enlightenment--"Man the measure of all things"--and applied it to the collective organizations we create. Every organism, Sale argued, has an optimal size beyond which it ought not grow. For a city, he said, that size is somewhere around 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants--large enough to offer a full complement of urban amenities but not so large that it becomes difficult to run or chokes on its own traffic.

With roughly 90,000 residents, Wilmington fits his criteria. And it certainly does not appear to be seriously afflicted with the worst urban ills. Traffic flows well even at rush hour. Crime, while not low, is not alarming either. Because the city is carved up among four surrounding suburban school districts, integration and school quality isn't as thorny a problem as it is in other older cities--it is not necessary to leave Wilmington in order to access decent public schools. Abandoned and blighted properties are not pervasive, the way they are in a number of other small, old industrial cities in the region, such as Camden and Chester.

But if you're the sort of urbanite who likes to be where things are happening--well, then, you need to hop in your car and make the 40-minute drive to Philadelphia, just up I-95. There are almost as many people living in downtown Philadelphia--65,000--as there are in the entire city of Wilmington, and hundreds of thousands more live within easy reach of the city center via mass transit or freeway. Those 65,000 souls occupy a territory not that much bigger than downtown Wilmington, and that may account for the difference between the two. Central Philadelphia has enough density in the core to support a higher level of activity, while Wilmington is just spread out enough to keep its activities from feeding off one another.

So the problem, then, may not be that Wilmington is too small. It may be that, in the ways that count, it's not small enough.


Anonymous said...

Sandy, I'm so glad you have discovered Wilimington in wonderful tax-free Delaware. It does clear out after 6PM, as I was once told by a Philadelphian who was transferred there to manage a Strauss Disocunt Auto Parts store. Well, I thought you would use your new job there as an excuse to buy a car, but I guess you like SEPTA. Anyway, have you had a chance to cross that MBNA employee foot bridge that crosses the highway? Must be a breathtaking view?

Sandy Smith said...

Hope you're still reading this, whoever you are.

Make that sales-tax-free Delaware. My paycheck has a nice little chunk of change taken out for the state of Delaware and a much smaller chunk of change taken out for the city of Wilmington. It's sort of the reverse of the situation in Pennsylvania--whose state sales tax is admittedly rather stiff, but it does not apply to food or clothing. Were I working in Philadelphia, I'd have a small chunk of change taken out for the state and a bigger chunk of change taken out for the city. At least I will owe no Pennsylvania income tax this year. Consider this my contribution for a finer First State.

Yes, I do like rail transportation. SEPTA is another matter. It could do a better job in many respects, but it's not as horrible as its worst critics contend--although in some areas (vehicle cleanliness, for instance), it is almost as bad. I must say that I am quite impressed with the operations of DART First State, however.

You can't get from my office to the company cafe without crossing two of those bridges. The view is sort of nice--Rodney Square is an elegant urban ensemble--but it's nowhere near as spectacular as the view from the cafeteria's glassed-in terrace, which faces north towards the Brandywine River and north Wilmington.

There is much about Delaware that is very attractive, including Rehoboth Beach. It's a shame Wilmingtonians can't keep their city center hopping at night, though. That is one of the things I like about living in Center City Philadelphia (which, BTW, is another reason I don't own a car.)