Woodlawn in the News

News Journal Article : Former Resident Remember Life in The Flats

Woodlawn Flats may have been modest, but to those who grew up in the neighborhood of affordable housing units on the west side of Wilmington, it is rich in memories.

When Woodlawn Trustees began a seven- to 10-year redevelopment project in May, several former residents requested bricks, light fixtures or other items they could have as mementos.

For the residents, the bricks represented the nights spent on the front porch, the days spent outside playing with other children, and a sense of community that is difficult to find today.

The entire project is expected to cost more than 0 million and will involve the demolition and reconstruction of all 430 units. The first phase is underway, redeveloping 72 units and costing around .5 million. Residents who lived in the affected units have been moved to vacant homes in the development.

The neighborhood sits between North Union Street and Woodlawn Park, stretching between 4th and 9th streets. The houses line the street in neat rows, each with a front porch and front and backyards. Now, graffiti marks the sides of buildings while the sounds of construction reverberate through the area.

The Flats development began in 1902 to provide housing for workers. Over 10 years, 20 rows of houses were built to accommodate 390 families. Moderate rental rates and the idea of a neighborhood full of rent-based housing made it unusual at the time.

Residents who grew up in the Flats over 50 years ago said the neighborhood had a feel that is unheard of today. Days were spent outside around others. Everybody knew everybody, and they had everything they needed.

Woodlawn Trustees began as the Woodlawn Company after William Poole Bancroft established the group in 1901. Bancroft appointed the company to ensure his contributions, namely parklands, were preserved after his lifetime. In 2012, Woodlawn Trustees donated 1,100 acres of the Brandywine Valley, which became part of the First State National Monument in 2013.

The improved Flats will hold 450 units. It’s going to be different, Woodlawn Trustees CEO Rod Lambert said, but they are trying to preserve the spirit of the old neighborhood.

“We wanted to keep the same feel and flavor and character of the community,” Lambert said. “It still looks like the Flats, even though it’s more modern. It still has those qualities of the old Flats.”

Former residents Ralph Walsh, Barbara Yeatman and Diane Denney and her husband Jack Zebley requested bricks and other items as reminders of their childhoods in the old neighborhood, a place where no one locked their doors and everyone was family.

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Bonded for life

Driving down Springer Street, Ralph Walsh can still point out where everyone lived in the Flats. When he was a kid, he would walk to 609 Springer St. to see Pat Hackendorn.

“That was a candy store called Kelly’s,” Walsh said, pointing to a white door. “Right out of the basement.”

Three other stores were in the neighborhood and Lore Elementary was across the street. They had their own library and would walk across Union Street, which separated the Flats from Little Italy, to grab food from some of the restaurants.

One restaurant, Mrs. Robino’s, was a particular favorite. Walsh said they would walk over with a pot to be filled with spaghetti and meatballs.

Walsh remembers the elementary school would have a fair every year. He said that was one of the most exciting times in the neighborhood.

Of all the memories, Walsh said one of the best qualities of the old Flats was that everyone knew each other. Former residents still have a reunion every other year. Walsh was the chairman of the reunion group, but he passed it on to one of Pat Hackendorn’s sisters, Barbara Yeatman, then Barbara Hackendorn.

“Everybody knew everybody and everybody did everything together,” Walsh said. “I spent more time at Barbara Hackendorn’s house than I did mine. Her brother and I were best friends. Still are.”

Whenever the Flats comes to mind, Barbara Yeatman thinks of one thing.

“That saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ ” Yeatman said. “That was our village. Everybody took care of everybody.”

When she was a child, she knew she could not get away with anything. All the adults looked after the children. If they did something wrong, they knew their parents would know about it.

Everyone was close, Yeatman said. People weren’t as isolated back then. Now, more television, video games and the Internet have diminished that culture, she said.

Back then, most people attended the same church and the same schools. Their days were spent outside, playing volleyball, red rover or going to the park.

She can remember everyone sitting on their porches at night. Another memory was sliding down the “big” hill at Woodlawn Park.

“When I drive by it today I have to laugh,” Yeatman said. “We thought it was so big. It’s this little hill at Fourth and Woodlawn.”

When she heard about the redevelopment, Yeatman attended a meeting at the Historical Society to get more information. She understands why the buildings need to go, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Yeatman did not only get a brick. Her family members also got part of the old fencing from the backyard. Her brother, Pat, is divvying it up between the siblings as another memento.

“It was just a neat neighborhood to grow up in,” Yeatman said. “That’s why I think people are asking for bricks. It’s really a sense of family growing up in that neighborhood. W

We weren’t neighbors, we were just one big family.”

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Diane Denney and Jack Zebley grew up about three blocks from each other, but they did not get to know each other until they were teenagers.

Diane’s father was a police officer, and Jack’s was a fireman. They met as teenagers at Parkway Wesleyan Church. That’s where they were married and where their children were christened.

The church was not just made up of those from the Flats. Several members drove from elsewhere in the city. Regardless of where they came from, they took an interest in the young couple.

“They were all your mother in there,” Diane said. “They were encouraging us, behind us to get married. In fact, one of the women in the church was a nurse and, when I had my son, she was at the hospital to take care of him.”

They were married in June of 1962. They moved out of Wilmington a few years later, though Jack continued to work in Wilmington until his retirement. Diane was a stay at home mom.

Growing up in the Flats, the two say they have nothing but fond memories. Diane remembers a neighbor popping popcorn and using an old reel projector to show cartoons in one of the alleys. Jack recalls timing racing pigeons with one of his friends.

Both remember the overwhelming smell of tar in the air during the summer. The Flats didn’t have shingles, Jack said, and tar would be applied to the roofs.

When they were kids, Jack and Diane could look outside of their houses on Ferris Street and watch a semi-professional baseball team play on the field at Woodlawn Park. Now, their great-grandson plays Little League on the same field.

“You know, I never dreamed that when he and I got married we would be at the park watching my great-grandson play ball right near the porch where I used to watch games,” Diane said. “I never would have dreamed that.”

It was by no means a wealthy neighborhood, Jack said. It was mostly blue-collar workers. They were pipe layers, insurance salespeople, laborers.

It wasn’t a rich upbringing, but it left them flush with experiences, the couple said.

“It sounds like we had a terrible childhood, but we really didn’t,” Diane said. “We were all in the same boat. I have nothing but fond memories.”

Taylor Potter can be contacted at wpotter@delawareonline.com

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Wilmington University Plans New Campus

Wilmington University, a private career-oriented institution in New Castle, is embarking on the largest capital improvement program in its 46-year history with the purchase of 41 acres of undeveloped land on U.S. 202 and Beaver Valley Road in Brandywine Hundred.

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A Teardown Builds up a Delaware Housing Development

At the start of the 20th century, a Quaker cotton mill owner established the affordable-housing community the Flats on the west side of this city. Its goal was to provide decent housing. And at the time, it distinguished itself by providing central heating and indoor plumbing.

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LIHTC Announcement: “The Flats” Project is Awarded Tax Credits for Phase 1

The Todmorden Foundation, Inc. President Rodney A. Lambert announced today the affordable housing provider was awarded $ 1,032,705 in annual Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) funding and $ 2,560,000 in Housing Development Fund (HDF) funding from the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) for the Phase 1 redevelopment effort of The Flats, located in Wilmington, New Castle County, Delaware.

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Concord Township: The Facts

Woodlawn Trustees' commitment to open space is long-standing, and is always a part of projects we are involved with. In response to questions from local residents, we are happy to present this infographic and map detailing the plan for preserved trails and open space paired with responsible development of the Woodlawn Tract in Concord Township. Click "Read More" to view on our site, or download the file.

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400th National Park

National Geographic recently published an article about the United States' 400th Unit of the National Park Service, which includes 1100 acres of countryside that was donated by the Woodlawn Trustees.

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After Demolition, a Neighborhood Reborn

"The development plan would remake a slice of Wilmington and preserve for another century neighborhood founder William Bancroft's vision..."

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New National Monument for the First State

Director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy tells the story of how the Woodlawn property became America's 400th National Park.

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First State National Monument Guide

The National Park Services' guide to First State National Monument tells the story of William Bancroft and the lands he preserved for future generations.

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Big Step Closer to a Park

Drawing on a seldom-noticed executive authority, President Barack Obama will declare a three-part national monument in Delaware, a first for the state and a move that some officials describe as a step closer to creation of a fullfledged national park.

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By Jeff Montgomery and Melissa Nann Burke - The News Journal

Drawing on a seldom-noticed executive authority, President Barack Obama will declare a three-part national monument in Delaware, a first for the state and a move that some officials describe as a step closer to creation of a fullfledged national park. Obama’s action under the Antiquities Act, expected Monday, will designate the grassy area of the The Green in Dover, the New Castle Court complex and the 1,100-acre Woodlawn property adjacent to and north of Brandywine Creek State Park as a unified symbol of the state’s colonial heritage and its role in the nation’s founding under the Constitution.

National Park Service employees will manage all three sites, which will take in the New Castle Green and Old Sheriff’s House as well as the Courthouse.

The monument will be the state’s “first national park” and will tell the story of the early Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English settlement of the colony of Delaware, as well as the state’s role as the first state to ratify the Constitution, according to a White House official who described the plan Thursday under the condition that he not be named because the formal announcement is not expected until next week.

Vice President Joe Biden greeted the news with enthusiasm.

“This national monument will tell the story of the essential role my state played in the history of the United States,” Biden said in a statement released by his office Thursday night. “I couldn’t be more proud to call Delaware home.”

Obama also plans to designate monuments in Maryland, Ohio, New Mexico and Washington state on Monday, bringing the total such actions under his presidency to nine. The Antiquities Act dates to 1906 and President Theodore Roosevelt and figures in sites ranging from the Statue of Liberty to Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients. Presidents can take the step without congressional approval, unlike a formal park designation. Many monuments eventually become parks, including the Grand Canyon.

President Bill Clinton invoked the same law to designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996, a controversial move because it came weeks before Clinton stood for reelection.

Sen. Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat who has championed a national park for the state, said Delaware currently is the only state in the country without a link to the national park system.

“Not only does the national park system gain an important story about the crucial role the First State played in the founding of our country – a story that will now be preserved for generations to come,” Carper said, “but our state can now welcome the many economic opportunities that surround a new national monument and can help boost local businesses and create jobs.”

Carper thanked Obama for the action but vowed to continue pushing for more. “This is not the finish line, but it’s a very good step toward the end goal, which is a national park for Delaware.”

The designation was fast-tracked recently, prompting a decision to use the Antiquities Act, when concern grew that the large Woodlawn site could be lost because of time limits set for its conversion to national parkland. A portion of that property extends into Pennsylvania. Officials said the Woodlawn property and Sheriff’s House already have been transferred to the federal government. Easements will be used to give the public and Park Service access to The Green in New Castle and Dover, and the New Castle Courthouse.

Gov. Jack Markell said Delaware deserves the recognition. “A national designation will draw more people to discover the stories in our history and landmarks of early settlers here in the First State,” Markell said. “This marks a first for Delaware and helps put us on the map for visitors, history buffs and park enthusiasts everywhere.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., described the designation as “long overdue” and “great news for Delaware.” Rep. John Carney, D-Del., likewise cheered the developments, saying in part that it would preserve Delaware’s heritage for future generations.

Carper has worked on a Delaware national park for more than a decade, and along with Carney and Coons had already introduced legislation to authorize a regular parks designation. A resource study conducted by the Parks Service concluded under the Bush administration in 2009 that a park should be placed in the state. Charles A. Salkin, who directs Delaware’s Division of Parks and Recreation, said that his agency already had been working with the Park Service on the plans and cooperation after the designation. In the case of the Woodlawn property, its partial shared border with Brandywine Creek State Park and additional land adjacent to the creek will create “over 2,000 acres of some pretty incredible landscape and natural resources.”

“We’ve had extensive discussions with our colleagues in the National Park Service about how we can work together after the monument designation to be good neighbors, to work on cooperative management plans and to work together to provide a wonderful outdoor experience,” Salkin said. “For all practical purposes, a monument is just as much a unit of the national park system as a park,” Salkin said. “The National Park Service treats them all the same.” The rush to designation had hit a few bumps. In January, some residents and owners of buildings around The Green in Dover objected to the fast track, saying they have yet to receive answers about potential Park Service influence over their neighboring properties. The federal easement covers only The Green itself, not the buildings that border and enclose it.

Staff reporters Nichole Dobo and Jonathan Starkey contributed to this story.

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