When most people are asked to name all 50 US States from memory, there are always a few poor states that are left behind in the retelling. Most people know the states that have North or South in their names (Dakotas, Carolinas), the ones who share a name with a big college football team (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, ‘Bama, Missouri), the big states (California, Montana, Alaska) or even 12 of the 13 original English colonies. But it is that little first state in the Union, Delaware, that goes overlooked. After all it is but three counties, hiding on Maryland’s backside. Up until Joe Biden’s ascendency, no one knew anyone from Delaware even. As for pop culture, Delaware’s only recent claim to fame was Ed Norton’s implosion of Wilmington, home to the great American insurance industry, at the climax of the 90’s cult classic, Fight Club.
I didn’t find Wilmington to be worthy of implosion on my visit to America’s insurance and chemical capital. Rival states may seek such an implosion, as the key to Delaware’s survival has been to become a bit of a tax haven for corporate interests as well as offering tax-free shopping. Not every state could pull this off of course. as Delaware’s tiny footprint on the east coast allows for a better balance between its population and its corporate settlers. Delaware is a bit like the Switzerland of America in that respect–hands-off and regulation free.
Nestled on the Acela line on Amtrak, Wilmington is a modest stop along the American eastern seaboard, between Baltimore and Philadelphia. At a mere 70,000 people, Wilmington is Delaware’s largest city. Too small to be a Philly metropolis, and too big to be an unnoticed suburb to Baltimore, Wilmington is a bit of a Goldilocks. Culturally, the presence of Philly food (cheesesteaks, pretzels) served by polite people with Bawltimore accents (hon!) can be a bit disorienting.
I often wonder, when pundits gripe about politicians and their pork barrel spending, if they ever see the fruits of their own Senator’s labor. In DC, the debate seems abstract. But to visit far and away states and to stand in great buildings, upon mountaintops, and on bridges named for long-time pollcats is another matter. On the very day that my train pulled into Wilmington’s Amtrak station, Joe Biden was there to kick of the rehabilitation of the decrepit, Victorian age rusticle that was Wilmington Station into a gem of the Amtrak system. It of course, didn’t hurt that Biden’s long tenure in the Senate allowed him to move most of Amtrak’s operations to Delaware, and of course, to be honored by having the station he used to commute from Delaware to DC named in his honor.
Politics aside, the station gives a glimpse of the golden age of US rail travel–an age that never ended in Europe, but was thoroughly demolished after World War II in the new, big, free, Buick-in-every-driveway America. Amtrak sometimes feels a bit like the worst of social democracy. The Germans keep a tidy, efficient system. Ours feels a bit like the thread attaching a morose American version of the Gulag Archipelago.
Once on the streets outside of the station, I began my walk up to my hotel. It was only a mile and a half, but the taxi drivers insisted it was safer to drive. Wilmington did have a reputation as a crime-ridden place, but in the years after 9-11, Wilmington pioneered the use of street cameras to deter and record crimes. I felt safe enough to make the sprint up to Rodney Square, where I was staying. Of course, upon arriving at my hotel I checked the stats. Wilmington remains one of the deadliest cities per capita in America, with 150 murders in a city of 70,000 in 2013. This might explain the absence of foot traffic I saw at noon, on a sunny day. How could it be, that in a town noted for being a corporate headquarters haven, could such crime exist? Perhaps it is because the great divide between financiers who live in the Brandywine Valley and commute into the tiny downtown enclave pretty much avoid the daily bustle of Wilmington.
At the center of town is Rodney Square; its centerpiece is an equestrian statue of Delaware’s founding father, Caesar Rodney (who is also featured on the obverse of Delaware’s contribution to the US Quarter series). Only known to A students of high school history, Rodney cast Delaware’s vote for independence, after making a midnight dash by horseback from Dover to Philadelphia.
If staying in Wilmington, it doesn’t get much better than the Hotel DuPont, built by scions of the great American chemical manufacturer. Modeled to resemble a French chateau, the lobby’s ancient wood coiffured ceiling is worth a look, as artificial Honeysuckle aromatics are pumped into the lobby to create that calming effect.
Wilmington, and most of Delaware, was founded not by Brits (as in Pennsylvania), Catholics (as in Maryland) or the Dutch (as in New York). Swedes first emigrated to this corner of America in 1654. The settlement of “New Sweden” was short-lived, as the few Swedes who made the trek were quickly subjugated by Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam (which was in turn, sold off to the British). Aside from the Swedish flag serving as a stand in for the city’s banner, the only other evidence of this early heritage is by way of the Christina River–named for Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689).
Other colonial roots, of later settlers include one of the fee strongholds of the Swedenborgian Church, located a few blocks from Wilmington’s downtown core. The Swedenborgians were a schismatic sect of Christianity, founded by the Swedish scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg in the 1750’s. The main tenants of his teaching was vegetarianism, a rejection of the Trinity, and the belief that he witnessed the Last Judgement in 1757, visited Heaven and Hell, and wrote treatises to guide his followers through a new, uncharted age. After his death, devotees in England expanded his teachings into a new sect. A mere 10,000 worldwide members keep the church alive today in pockets of America, such as Newton, Massachusetts and Wilmington. It not a growing church but a bit of an insular sect–its most famous members being the Gyllenhaal actors. The church’s decor is English Gothic, matching the period in which the church was founded by English followers of Swedenborg. The old church is still attended by those few members, who likely commute into Wilmington to attend church before scurrying back to their suburbs.
Feeling a certain need to get back onto the main drag myself, back in view of the cameras, I headed toward the “Riverfront” park along the Christina River. The walk terminates at a renovated warehouse-turned-boutique mall. I looked for what the locals seemed to eat. Again, being wedged between Philly and Baltimore left bizarre options. Settling for the local Dogfish Head ales, made in Delaware, I chose the Philly pretzel–that smushed, soft variety, as a pairing.
Wilmington, like Charlotte, North Carolina and Hartford, Connecticut, presents a business traveler with a real challenge. It is very easy to miss the charm of the city, as so much of it has been rendered charmless by the presence of corporate glass office buildings and a foreboding citizenry under the watchful and odious eye of Big Brother. That is one take of Wilmington, and ostensibly the whole of Delaware. Wilmington can come off as the dour old maiden aunt to the counter-cultural Newark and Rehobeth Beach that offer something more exciting for the young. The town seems to be one best taken on foot, and at least in my experience, I didn’t find myself dodging bullets. What lies beneath is a quixotic heritage, a cultural blend of the best of Philly and the kindness of Baltimore with nodding references to its Swedish past and Biden-filled present. And those things do make this corner of tax-free Delaware, well, delightful.
Welcome to Wilmington: Source–http://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/apr/10/tax-havens-blacklist-us-delaware