Downtown Wilmington: Creativity in Community
There are many historic downtowns in the South that are described as “charming.” Images that come to mind when one pictures a charming downtown are historic buildings and sites, a slow pace of life, people greeting each other as they stroll along the streets, restaurants with lots of character, shops selling handcrafted or uncommon items, and businesses where the owners actually work in house or even live upstairs.
While downtown Wilmington has all of the above, there’s much more that makes our downtown special. It isn’t just the history, the beautiful buildings and the clean, landscaped streets. Other cities have those things. It isn’t the cobblestone streets that end directly on the water. A few other cities have those too. What makes Wilmington’s downtown unique is the makeup of the individually owned businesses and the bond that they share through a value for culture and the arts. The shops, stores and restaurants downtown are not a replica of stores in dozens of other towns. They are not chains. They are one (or in a few cases two) of a kind.
Downtown Wilmington’s unique character recently sparked a group of leaders from the theater, museum and business communities to brainstorm about a new slogan to use collaboratively to draw more people downtown. Two slogans emerged that will be used simultaneously — “Do It Downtown” to stress the huge number of fun things to do downtown and “Make Memories Downtown” to stress the rich opportunities for art, theater and history. These two slogans do indeed capture what downtown Wilmington is all about.
Many Cape Fear residents don’t even realize the hotbed of talent that is living among them with respect to the performing arts. Living in the Cape Fear region and having never been to a show at one of the many theaters is akin to living here and having never been to the beach.
Downtown is the center of Wilmington’s cultural assets and is one of the best places in North Carolina to experience live theater, thanks to the many performers, highly acclaimed directors and production groups such as Big Dawg Productions and the Williston Players, as well as the relentless efforts of individuals like Rob Zapple, who works with public radio (WHQR) and Thalian Hall to support, promote and coordinate the many performances that take place each year.
Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts (currently being renovated and upgraded) hosts dozens of professional, Broadway caliber performances each year. Among the reasons that the performances are so professional is that there is usually a first-class team behind the play. The directors, designers and producers often have a professional background, and many have worked in places like New York in the past.
“The ticket value is amazing here,” says Zapple. “People in other places are used to paying fifty to one hundred dollars for a show. They can see the same show here for twenty five dollars.”
In the north wing of Thalian Hall is the 2nd Floor Studio Theatre, a traditional “black box” theatre that hosts smaller, more intimate performances where viewers get to sit in close proximity to the stage and the performers. Of course, one cannot overlook Level 5 at City Stage, located on the rooftop, which offers a very social theatrical experience due to its location. Performances of various kinds are also held outdoors at Greenfield Lake amphitheater.
In addition to Thalian Hall, downtown is also the home of Brown Coat Pub and Theatre, truly a one-of-a-kind performing arena.
“To the best of my knowledge Brown Coat is North Carolina’s only nonprofit theater that does not have to rely on grants or donations, but rather relies solely on ticket sales and alcohol sales,” says Richard Davis, the president of the nonprofit theater.
The Brown Coat is truly community centered in that its mission is to provide support and offer a venue for emerging local performing artists to develop their skills in front of a live audience. The establishment earns money by selling drinks during the show, but then turns right back around and donates that money back to the community, with particular emphasis on the performing arts.
“We donate to charities like the Full Belly Project, but we have also done things like help an actor make rent or pay for gas to make it to an audition in Atlanta,” says Davis. Even with as much as Brown Coat gives, it is a completely self-sustaining nonprofit organization.
The live music scene is alive and well in Wilmington, and particularly so downtown. The Soapbox Laundro Lounge is the first venue that comes to mind. In addition to local favorites, The Soapbox routinely brings larger-name touring groups, such as Chatham County Line, to Wilmington. Bands are of so many different genres, and venues are so plentiful that one can experience performances from bluegrass to jam bands to hip hop all in the same night.
Sixteen Taps, located on Princess Street, draws more of the local bands, such as Barnraisers, L Shape Lot and No Dollar Shoes. The Rusty Nail on 5th Avenue is another great place to check out live music and soulful blues. Some nights, live jazz can be heard at Deluxe, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights Front Street Brewery provides free live music for its patrons. These are just a few examples of the live music that can be found downtown.
Downtown offers something for everyone, including kids and families. The Children’s Museum of Wilmington, which is located on Orange Street, infuses exploration and learning into children’s lives by allowing them to be performers. Rick Lawson, a former educator of 40 years, is now the executive director of the Children’s Museum. His goal is pretty simple: to create a safe place for kids to play, which is incredibly conducive to learning.
The museum starts the thinking, and the children naturally complete the process. The museum houses various exhibits that put the children at center stage, such as the pirate exhibit “Ahoy Wilmington.” Each exhibit facilitates imagination and creative development.
“Why not live life through a child’s eyes?” asks Lawson. “They have a lot more fun than we (adults) do.”
Other places kids love downtown are the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, Wilmington Railroad Museum, Cape Fear Serpentarium and Battleship North Carolina.
Aside from the obvious visual pleasures such as the sleepily flowing Cape Fear River, and the shapes of the historic skyline, downtown offers a visual education if one knows where to find it. Spending an afternoon with Bob Jenkins will show just about any local that they have a lot to learn about their home. Jenkins runs Wilmington Adventure Tours and is just like a walking local history book. His knowledge of the history of downtown Wilmington is matched only by his desire to preserve it. Jenkins was born in the Cape Fear region and has lived and worked in downtown through many different eras. He eagerly shares his experiences from his time here as well as the infamous events of the past.
In addition to Jenkins’ tour there are multiple other opportunities downtown for walking tours, such as the very popular Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington and Haunted Pub Crawl as well as trolley tours, horse-drawn carriage tours and boat tours. Tours of historic homes are also available.
Another particularly good local source of information is Captain Carl Marshburn of Cape Fear Riverboats, who provides his clients a ride on the river but delivers historical perspective as a bonus. Having captained riverboats such as the current Henrietta III for 21 years, the captain has picked up more than a little knowledge on the history and heritage of downtown Wilmington along the way. Marshburn tells his clients that when they visit downtown Wilmington they are “walking where history was made.”
Downtown Wilmington boasts more than 50 places to eat, and nearly every type of dining can be found here. There are a multitude of dining options from reasonably priced restaurants like Front Street Brewery or Slice of Life Pizzeria, to the fine dining of Deluxe or Caprice Bistro (voted best French restaurant for the past three years by Encore). Then you have all the chain restaurants like … insert cricket chirping here since there are no chains downtown — and that’s part of the beauty of downtown. A great deal of downtown’s character comes from the fact that those who run its businesses are actively engaged in downtown every day.
As Joan Loch, owner of Crescent Moon, a handcrafted glass art gallery, will tell you, “Most times, when you go into a store downtown you’re talking to the owner…. You get the customer service and friendliness here that you don’t get with chains.”
Like Loch, those who run the businesses of downtown have more than just finances invested in downtown. Take Jessie Williams at Edge of Urge Boutique, for example. She has created a name that is recognized by women all over Wilmington and beyond by creating her own lines of clothing and a shop built around her garments. She built her business downtown and depends on Wilmington’s creative class.
Mary Ellen Golden is another example. Her art gallery, which displays the watercolor pieces that she creates and the digital artwork that her son creates, has been among the shops at The Cotton Exchange since 1977. The Golden Gallery is also dependent on Wilmington’s vibrant downtown scene.
Downtown is home to some very specific, niche shops, such as Sambuca Boutique, which appeals to environmentally and humanitarian-minded shoppers, or Doggone Crazy, a pet boutique where pets are welcome to come in and peruse the inventory themselves.
Then there’s Old Books on Front Street. Visitors are greeted by owner Gwenyfar Rohler. Rohler had shopped at the book store since she was two years old and frequented the shop so much that when the previous owner, Richard Daughtery, was ready to sell the store, he came to Rohler’s father to explain to him that Gwenyfar needed to be the next owner. Old Books on Front Street has 150,000 books (that’s two linear miles!), and 10,000 of them are priced at one dollar each.
The downtown business owners and nonprofit community (theaters, museums and more) realize that the success of their businesses and organizations and of downtown depends on maintaining a healthy cultural arts community, which is why many of them work together, synergistically collaborating to add value to downtown and to provide great experiences to visitors and residents alike. Restaurants like Front Street Brewery work with Thalian Hall to promote the events and performances that take place downtown, which in turn brings more people to other businesses. While they are in the area, perhaps theater-goers will pick up a piece of original artwork, buy a dress for Saturday night or take a cruise over to the Battleship. Then they may finish up the night listening to live music at Front Street while enjoying a Lumina Lager.
Downtown Wilmington is a community in the way that communities were intended — where the individual members collaborate for the benefit of everyone involved.
How to contact the businesses listed in this article:
Battleship north carolina, 1 Battleship road, www.battleshipnc.com
the Brown coat Pub & theatre, 111 grace Street, (910) 341-0001, www.browncoattheatre.com
cape Fear Museum of History & Science, 814 Market Street, (910) 798-4370, www.capefearmuseum.com
cape Fear riverboats, inc., (910) 343-1611, www.cfrboats.com
cape Fear Serpentarium, 20 orange Street, (910) 762-1669, www.capefearserpentarium.com
caprice Bistro, 10 Market Street, (910) 815-0810, www.capricebistro.com
the children’s Museum of Wilmington, 116 orange Street, (910) 254-3534, www.playwilmington.org
the cotton exchange, corner of Front and grace streets, www.shopcottonexchange.com
creations by Justine, 225 Water Street, (910) 763-4545, www.creationsbyjustine.com
crescent Moon, 322 nutt Street, (910) 762-4207, www.crescentmoonnc.com
Deluxe, 114 Market Street, (910) 251-0333, www.deluxenc.com
Doggone crazy, 20 Market Street, (910) 815-6670, www.doggonecrazync.com
edge of urge, 18 Market Street, (910) 762-1662, www.edgeofurge.com
Front Street Brewery, 9 n. Front Street, (910) 251-1935, www.FrontStreetBrewery.com
ghost Walk of old Wilmington/Haunted Pub crawl, www.hauntedwilmington.com
the golden gallery, 311 n. Front Street, (910) 762-4651, www.thegoldengallery.com
level 5 at city Stage, 21 n. Front Street, (910) 342-0272, www.citystageatlevel5.com
old Books on Front Street, 22 n. Front Street, (910) 763-4754, www.oldbooksonfrontst.com
Sambuca Boutique & Spa, 200 n. Front Street, (910) 343-0201, www.Sambucalifestyle.com
Slice of life Pizzeria, 122 Market Street, (910) 251-9444, www.grabslice.com
the Soapbox, 255 n. Front Street, (910) 251-8500, www.thesoapboxlive.com
thalian Hall, 310 chestnut Street, (910) 343-3660, www.thalianHall.com
WHQr Public radio, 254 n. Front Street, Suite 300, (910) 343-1640, www.whqr.org
Wilmington adventure tours, (910) 763-1785
Wilmington railroad Museum, 505 nutt Street, (910) 763-2634, www.wrrm.org