A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware

Take a ride on DART route 11, and by the mere act of considering it, you feel as though you were in some exclusive club.

One glance at the schedule leaves you immediately overwhelmed. A stylized map purports to depict the general layout of route 11, but the geography is so distorted that whether the route traverses Wilmington or some vague recollection of the city, you cannot tell. The tables of departures are populated with enigmatic, inconsistent times and buses that only serve specific portions of the route; lists of cryptic destination signs for each trip add to the confusion. Reading route 11’s schedule is an achievement in and of itself.

Take a ride on route 11, and begin your trip in the desolate Wilmington suburbs. A few minutes later than scheduled, the bus pulls up. The driver is curt, but in a hurry. A display next to his dashboard reads “7 minutes behind.” Much to your surprise, he pulls away as you are still paying the fare.

The bus speeds down the narrow suburban thoroughfare, lined with humble New England homes with proud grass lawns out front and the forest looming in the back. Route 11 passes underneath the busy Interstate 95, navigates the maze of intersections between its offramps and the local streets, and turns onto the four lonely lanes of the Washington Street Extension, flanked by wilderness on both sides.

As you approach civilization once again, the bus makes sudden detours to serve a large park and a traffic circle. You marvel at the skill of the operator as he fights the sharp curves and the indifferent urban traffic. Route 11 continues down Washington and enters the inner city neighborhoods. Here you see ramshackle row houses, frames not quite straight and yards not quite tidy, intermixed with liquor stores, delis, and other such corner establishments. The bus, by this time, has become fairly full.

As route 11 continues down Washington Street, you perceive a change in the character of the urban neighborhood. The trees lining the boulevard become more numerous, the row houses more proud and well-kept, the grass more neatly trimmed. The bus passes by a large, idyllic park, where city residents can be seen walking their pets.

Route 11 crosses the Brandywine Creek on an ancient, ornate stone bridge, and you are at once enveloped in the bustle of downtown Wilmington. Pedestrians stroll on the wide, clean sidewalks of the carefully architected central business district, decorated with trees, custom lamp posts, and attractive red brick. Imposing stone office buildings suggest Wilmington’s proud eastern city heritage, while sleek glass skyscrapers hint at a modern city open to change.

The bus reaches the Rodney Square hub, where numerous passengers get off, seeking to catch another bus to parts unknown. You wish them luck and continue to ride route 11 to its terminus at the Wilmington Amtrak station. This station, like the rest of downtown, is a fascinating mix of the historical and ultra-modern; a relic of the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad infused with sleek interior decor and today’s digital conveniences. In the distance, you see the old industrial waterfront being revitalized to the tune of under-construction luxury apartments.

Amtrak trains zoom in and out of the station, gliding silently above the city and rattling the lobby below; drawing power from wires hanging underneath the imposing, rusted pylons built during the Great Depression. You see suited businessmen sporting earpieces and laptops, waiting for their Acela Express. Trains from New York on their way to Washington are delayed by 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then one hour.

A SEPTA train pulls into the commuter platform; the engineer stretches his legs and taps away at his smartphone, preparing for his return run to Philadelphia. Amtrak conductors close their trains’ doors and lean out as they depart. In the trains themselves, you again notice the mix between past and present. Shiny, brand-new SEPTA passenger cars and Amtrak locomotives represent a bold step into the twenty-first century. At the same time, still-used Amtrak carriages from the 1970s and decaying infrastructure beyond the station are reminders of an era gone by.

As you exit the station to catch DART route 38, an express route that parallels the 11, back to the suburbs, you are once again overwhelmed by the commotion of downtown Wilmington. Tens of buses are lined up at the station, waiting to commence their runs back out of downtown. The 38 pulls up, late as usual, and you frantically wave down the driver, who must stop in the traffic lane for lack of an available bus bay. This is, after all, the 38’s only evening trip back to the suburbs.

The 38 has an exclusive clientele; downtown office workers, all regular riders, board the bus as it slowly makes its way toward the Interstate 95 entrance. “There he is – you’re late,” comments one, and the driver smiles and nods. As the bus navigates the rush hour traffic, it finally reaches free flow on the wide bridge across the Brandywine Creek. Here, you look back and watch the gleaming towers of downtown fade away, basking in the evening sunset.

Route 38 speeds past the forests and open fields lining Interstate 95. It’s picturesque enough to make you forget the Wilmington that lurks behind the trees, beyond the isolated right of way of the highway. Behind you, the commuters gossip and glance at their tablet computers. The exit comes, and you find yourself returned to the unremarkable suburban landscape.

One by one, the regulars get off, and then your stop is next. The bus deposits you in the midst of suburban rush hour traffic; workers driving home, soccer moms running errands, teenagers escaping their schools. The inhumanity of the sheer volume of cars; the placelessness of the nondescript strip malls and neighborhoods; it’s a testament to the character of modern life, and enough to make you wonder if the bus was more civilized.

In Wilmington, Delaware, you see the fusion of old and new; a city with a proud history to tell, and a future that has yet to be written.