The construction of I-95 in the 1960s split the city of Wilmington, Delaware in half, cutting right through well-established neighborhoods with multiple lanes of high-speed traffic. Construction of the highway further north in Philadelphia had a somewhat similar impact, cutting off access to the Delaware River waterfront. Across the river in Camden, highways were built specifically to get drivers through the city without having to slow down.
In Wilmington, some say the effect of that construction more than 50 years ago can still be seen today in the blocks surrounding the interstate.
“I think that there’s definitely still a deep feeling of that separation,” Sarah Lester said. “It’s a real separation, I-95, but it’s also solidified some kind of special, West Side versus West Center City [division] that we’re really working to connect again.”
Lester is part of the West Side Grows Together network, a group of organizations trying to revitalize the community in Wilmington’s West Side. This weekend, that effort aims to draw the divided community together through an event called “United Neighbors.”
The Seventh Street bridge over I-95 is closed to vehicles this weekend. The bridge will play host to a free community meal Friday with salsa dancing and live music followed by a community block party on Saturday.
“We’re hoping that this is the start, and this really plants the seed for a bigger momentum that we’re establishing for all the residents and community members on either side of the highway,” Lester said.
Tables and benches have been placed on the roadway along with trees and portable lights. More than 100 volunteers were on the bridge Thursday helping artists paint a mural in bright colors with the words “United” and “Unidos” along the sides of the bridge structure.
One of those volunteers is 13-year-old Brenden Cephas who spent years in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood on the West Side and now lives in New Castle. He’s been helping out with community outreach with West Side Grows since he was 8 years old. He’s looking forward to seeing the community reconnect.
“That’s why we’re doing United Neighbors so one half of the area can come together with the other half and bring it together,” he said.
Lester hopes the community will see this weekend’s temporary road repurposing as a template for what could be a permanent reimagining of the overpass.
“It’s not just about reconnecting our communities across the highway. It’s also about what do we want to see in these spaces in the future?” she said.