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Delaware Headlines

Demolitions make way for student housing at historic center of Newark's black community

Several houses have been demolished on Newark’s New London Road to make way for new townhouses marketed toward University of Delaware students. 

People who lived in the area decades ago say this project is just the latest example of redevelopment that has irreparably changed what was once a tight-knit African American community there. 

 

The majority of the nine razed houses likely dated back to the mid- to late-nineteenth century, according to University of Delaware historic architecture experts. 

In their place, “Campus Walk II” will fit 12 five-bedroom townhouses and 16 four-bedroom townhouses. The project also involves moving one house from New London Road to Wilson Street behind it, also to become student housing. 

The project was approved by Newark City Council in January, despite concerns from at least one official that it required several variances and an amendment to the Comprehensive Development Plan. 

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Credit Courtesy of the University of Delaware Center for Historic Architecture and Design
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Houses on New London Road before they were demolished or moved

Proponents say the development will improve the look of New London Road. 

But some former residents of the area say it will further cover up the rich history of the New London Road, or “School Hill,” community.

“We’ve been able to watch kind of a transformation happen — how the community has evolved from a real stable, homeowner-based, community-based area to one that’s clearly the polar opposite,” said Dr. Freeman Williams, president of the Newark Branch NAACP and former superintendent of the Christina School District. 

Williams grew up in the community, which centered around New London Road and Cleveland Avenue, and included Ray Street, Corbit Street, Church Street, Creek Road and Terry Manor.

According to University of Delaware research, the New London Road area was inhabited by black families since well before the civil war. 

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Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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St. John African Methodist Church sits directly adjacent to the construction site of Campus Walk II.

Due to segregation, the community was self-sufficient and tight-knit. Williams describes a strong social support system that embodied the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” 

“People would see you ... if you were a youngster and you were doing something that was inappropriate, before you got home, literally, your parents would know about it,” he said. “Your parents would be very happy that they had received information from someone in the community.”

Between 1922 and 1958, the New London Avenue School educated the local children. 

Pilgrim Baptist, Mt. Zion UAME, and St. John African Methodist churches formed the pillars of the community. 

Former residents describe thriving businesses, athletic teams, and a tradition of intergenerational community events. 

“All the cul-de-sacs and all the side streets, this neighborhood was full of individual homeowners and churches,” said Williams. “There were businesses and things that were flourishing here, and as time has gone on, all that has changed.”

Bob Anderson, President of Trustee Board at St. John African Methodist Church located on New London Road beside the recent demolitions, agrees.  He says the area has transformed nearly completely since he moved there in the late 1960s.  

“This area now is 94 percent white as far as population,” said Anderson. “Back then it was 98 percent black. So that has totally changed the dynamics of what happens.”

Williams says the encroachment of student-focused housing happened over time, but has accelerated in recent years. “It first started in the ‘80s but it really just made a major, major turn in the ‘90s. Obviously in the last twenty or so years it's been on lightning speed, the changes,” he said. 

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Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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The new development is being billed as an extension of Campus Walk on the corner of Corbit St. and New London Rd.

Since 2007, three other student-focused townhouse complexes have sprouted up along New London Road: Campus Walk, Campus Side and Emily Bell. They are all owned by the same developer as the new project, Mayhew Management. 

Earline Vann moved from Massachusetts to just off New London Road in the 1990s. 

“I liked the neighborhood because I remember going up the hill, all the property was black-owned property,” she said. 

But Vann says even since the 1990s, the area has become unrecognizable. “The property is gone and now it’s all student apartments and housing. So it’s very different from what it was when I moved here.”

Vann sees the redevelopment impacting not only the residents, but social institutions. “You look at all of this construction and stuff that’s coming up now, and I’m like, what in the world are they going to do?” she said. “How are churches, if they want to expand, going to expand? Where are people going to park? What’s happening?”

"This part here is taking away the last vestiges of the black community for all practical purposes." - Bob Anderson, St. John Church

Florine Henderson, a member of the Newark Chapter NAACP's executive board, grew up at 109 New London Road, where the first Campus Walk was approved in 2013. 

She says the sight of the latest demolitions on New London Road brought tears to her eyes. She said it felt "like sombody died ... a family member."

“This part here is taking away the last vestiges of the black community for all practical purposes,” said Bob Anderson.

 

Kevin Mayhew, the developer of the project and owner of several other nearby properties, acknowledged that some are upset about the demolitions, but declined to comment further. Project proposals show he plans to donate 5,000 square feet of land to the neighboring St. John Church.

When asked about the impact the University of Delaware has had on the New London Road Community, university spokesman Peter Kerwin said UD works to be “good neighbors” and “play a positive role” in the community— but that school representatives have “no role” in developing or approving plans for private housing. 

He added the University has been proud to work with the NAACP and the group Friends of School Hill to recognize and preserve elements of the “rich history” of Newark’s African American Community — and looks forward to supporting such efforts going forward. 

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Credit Courtesy of the University of Delaware's Center for Historic Architecture and Design
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101 New London Road was one of the houses demolished to make way for Campus Walk II. It was previously owned by the Newark Housing Authority, which was required to erect an interpretive sign about the historic New London Road community.

Catherine Morrisey with UD’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design says the area had been identified as eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1998 — and still looked eligible as of 2016. 

“We thought at least based on our physical, like looking from the street, that there was still enough at the time to be listed as a historic district. You still got the sense and feel of this neighborhood,” she said. “So it is a pretty big loss, I feel like, for underrepresented communities in Delaware.”

 

She says the redevelopment of the area has been allowed, in part, because of the City of Newark’s lack of codified protections for historic properties. 

The Newark Housing Authority sold one of the now-demolished houses to the developer. The Authority was required to install an interpretive sign with information about the area’s history— which now stands on the corner of New London Road and Corbit Street. 

The NAACP and Friends of School Hill are planning a homecoming event next month at the George Wilson Community Center, once the New London Avenue School. The event will aim to educate the broader Newark community on the history of School Hill. Former residents of the area are expected to come from out of state to celebrate the history of the community. 

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Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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The George Wilson Center, now run by the City of Newark's Dept. of Parks and Recreation, was once the New London Ave. School

Williams expects it to be a day of mixed emotions — because of the recent demolitions.

“The fact that this is happening and then literally in six weeks we’re going to have a celebration, there's going to be some people who— they don’t live in this area, they live in Chicago, maybe a different part of the country— they’re going to see that and going to have the same reaction that Earline had,” he said. “They’re going to just be initially devastated because of the change, and it’s going to reopen some old wounds.”

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