Joel McLaughlin stands at 5th and West streets in the Quaker Hill section of Wilmington, at the exact place where Thomas West, namesake and distant relative of the 3rd Baron De La Warr, once called home.
“This is where Wilmington was born,” Joel says. “He was a Quaker. This street behind here is named Willing Way. Thomas Willing laid the city of Wilmington out, and it was called Willingtown originally. Then he did something to upset the king and the king changed the name of the town to Wilmington after some duke or something in England.”
If the story of a city can be passed down through its streets and spaces, then Joel has learned how to read Wilmington’s story well. A former Kodak engineer and house flipper who found the home he didn’t want to flip, Joel moved to Wilmington on New Year’s Eve in 2013 and never left. He now lives in a beautifully renovated home on West Fifth Street as he prepares to start renovations on another property around the corner, on West Street. That property dates back to the Civil War and sits in the exact place where Thomas West once lived.
“I love to buy older, vacant properties that have beautiful significant architecture, some kind of historical value, some sort of prominence in the neighborhood, but have fallen on hard times or disrepair,” Joel said. “I'm an engineer. I love tearing them apart and putting them back together. I love taking the ugly duckling on the block and turning it into the swan.”
And he’s not alone. Joel can tick off the names of a half dozen other people he knows in the neighborhood, a tight circle of early adopters who have moved in and started to renovate homes.
“That's how it starts. On each block, block by block, somebody comes in does something, sees the possibilities, the next person coming along says, ‘Oh, I want to do that too.’ They read an article, they see a picture, they drive by a house front that's been transformed.”
“I did some work up in Philly, in an area called Fishtown. You've heard of that? This area has a similar vibe to it -- with artists, like people coming from Tyler School of Art and PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), populating the community. You could see slowly how it was going to transform. And everyone was fixing up real estate. We're in the early stages of that here.”
He’s particularly excited for the arrival of NextFab Wilmington, the makerspace that will be opening in the Creative District just a block from the new property he is rehabilitating.
“ZipCode and NextFab? They're very entrepreneurial. They're used to sharing space for work and facilities. I'm developing with an eye toward their needs. I'm going to be the first residential customer for WhyFly [the high-speed wireless Internet provider in Wilmington]. They're now expanding into residential, and sitting on top of Quaker Hill, I'm in a perfect location to add what they need to get superfast Internet and cut the cable.”
Wicked fast Internet. That might just be the next chapter in this hill’s history.
“The architecture, the streetscapes, the old buildings, the way the neighborhood was laid out. … most of it still seems intact. You can just imagine, if you close your eyes, what it was like as a bustling seaport, shipbuilding industries at the foot of all these streets. This is the prominent hill, where if you owned one of those ships down there, from your bedroom window you could look out and see your company or a ship arriving into town.”
“This is where Wilmington was born.”