City Portrait

Wilmington’s Big Break

Surfers love it, students go wild, and filmmakers abound. 
Why North Carolina’s little port city is riding a wave of attention

Photo: Joshua Paul

Market Street downtown by the Cape Fear River

You can get to Wilmington three ways: by car, by plane, or by 

Drive in from the west over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. You’ll see the battleship North Carolina down below on your left, snug in her last berth on Eagles Island. Ahead of you you’ll see the signature waterfront of the city spread out like a postcard: the restaurants of Chandler’s Wharf just north of the bridge; the excursion boat Wilmington and the stern-wheeler Henrietta III, moored on the Riverwalk; the Coast Guard cutter Diligence; the brick Cotton Exchange; the boatbuilding shop of Cape Fear Community College.

Drop in out of the sky and your glide path will reveal a stunning view of the sparkling ocean to the east and then the lovely recursive tea-colored loops of the Cape Fear River, a coastal meander that appears as a work of natural art on a vast scale, bordered by wild lush greenery. But I like coming in from the water the best—the way the early explorers like Verrazano did. The river and the sea define the place.

Photo: Joshua Paul

Coastal Culture

A surfer heads out at Wrightsville Beach

Ahead of a freshening southeast wind, I sail across the bar hard by Bald Head Island, loop around Southport (scene of Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy), and slide up the long channel another fifteen miles to the city, then tour the whole waterfront in one glorious reeling montage.

A lot of cities in North Carolina were located according to some kind of political calculus. Raleigh, the capital, was plunked down in a central location. But Wilmington is here because of the river.

The original town site was settled as a trading post in the 1730s because it occupied the highest point along the lower river. Fifty plantations once shipped their bounty to the seaport—rice, indigo, food crops. And tar and turpentine, from the statuesque longleaf pine. During the Civil War, Wilmington was the last open port of the Confederacy until the fall of Fort Fisher at the mouth of the river. History is mapped onto the city in overlapping layers.

By the twentieth century, multiple railroad lines converged on Wilmington. The boast was that you could step onto a train anywhere in the United States and step off onto the sugary sands of Wrightsville Beach. But in the 1960s, the last passenger trains pulled out. Storefronts went dark. The local depression was both economic and psychological. Wilmington could have come apart at the seams, a worn-out relic of better times.

Photo: Joshua Paul

The historic New Hanover County Courthouse

A cadre of visionary city leaders, though, had hit upon a plan to bring the battleship to Wilmington, and with it came the tourists and their dollars. They also worked with Wilmington College to relocate the school on its present 660-acre tract on the outskirts of town so it could grow into the University of North Carolina–Wilmington. The town came back.

Today, there’s a sense in Wilmington that we’ve reached a tipping point from big town to small city. Downtown is lively, bluesy, and a little loud and funky—in fact, the bar crowds often get a bit rowdy at closing time on Saturday nights. The mile-long Riverwalk runs between the bridges that bound the harbor. A few miles east, Wrightsville Beach tends to be mellower, more restaurant and less bar. World-class surfers congregate here every season. Sailors like me love the place. In spring and summer, Banks Channel fills up with transient sailboaters, who dinghy ashore in their khaki shorts and boat mocs for a crab omelet at the Dockside.

Our brand-new arts council is (at long last) up and running. The Cameron Art Museum began as a fairly local enterprise showcasing the works of painter Claude Howell. A lifelong Wilmingtonian, Howell used to hold Friday salons in his apartment. Arrive too early, and he just might answer the door in the nude, without the slightest self-consciousness. He spoke in an aristocratic Southern drawl that I always think of as the True Voice of Wilmington—slow and lilting, exotic in its choice of words, refined in its humor, and musical in its delivery.

Now the Cameron curates world-class exhibits: Richard McMahan’s MINI museum of 1,100 classic miniatures; giant puppet figures from the Bread & Puppet Theater; quilts of the African American diaspora.

Photo: Joshua Paul

Lunch at Indochine

Perhaps most surprising, the movie industry is in high gear, anchored by EUE/Screen Gems studios, with its complex of ten soundstages—the largest east of Hollywood. When I first moved to Wilmington twenty-two years ago, I was awestruck to see Robert Duvall, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and other celebs strolling around in broad daylight. Then the infatuation wore off. When I stood behind Ally Sheedy in the local Food Lion, my only reaction was to be indignant that she had fifteen items in the ten-items-or-less express checkout lane.
Two major local film festivals now light up the town: Cucalorus and the Black Arts Alliance’s film festival, and with the influx of movie people, the restaurants immediately got better. And stayed that way.

It’s a far from perfect town. It’s got a history of racial tensions that came to a head in the white supremacist coup of 1898, which in the South seems like about twenty minutes ago, and yes, we’re working on it with some success. The cost of living has gone steadily up, but not most wages. Still, artists of all kinds have invaded the downtown: painters and musicians but also animators and digital editors. And the cafés are full of writers—good ones. It seems like half the students we’ve graduated in the more than two decades I’ve been teaching here don’t want to leave. Retirees have also discovered Wilmington. They come for art, culture, music, dining, and the intellectual life of the university, bringing remarkable expertise to scores of volunteer organizations.

Oh, did I mention theater?

I may be the only person in Wilmington who has not acted on the local stage. There are scores of venues and companies big and small, from the Opera House Theatre Company to the old Masonic theater, City Stage. Thalian Hall, now restored to its former grandeur, was built in the mid-1800s as part of a complex that also houses city government—which over the generations has provided its own kind of drama and comedy. But the crème de la crème is Linda Lavin (of Alice and Broadway fame) and Steve Bakunas’s Red Barn Studio theater, so intimate that even in the back row you are hardly at arm’s length from the stage. Every show is sold out. And whenever you sit in that audience, you feel like you’re enjoying the privileged company of the best people in Wilmington right there, right then. When you emerge, it’s time for a nightcap at one of the cafés on the Riverwalk, watching the lights of the Henrietta as she glides back to her berth.

Photo: Joshua Paul

Rising Tide

Boats docked along the Intracoastal Waterway

For three days in 1921, spectators seated in outdoor bleachers along the river watched an army of five hundred actors play out A Pageant of the Lower Cape Fear, a heroic reenactment of the history of the Port City. Its finale was a parade of ships passing upriver, signifying a future of maritime prosperity. The flow of the great river endures, but now it draws a different parade, the constant influx of traffic across a bridge that wasn’t even there in those days, cars with license plates from all over the country, inbound with passengers full of energy and ideas, dreaming of a future on the water.

Philip Gerard is the author of seven books. His latest is a collection of essays called The Patron Saint of Dreams, from Hub City Press.


Cape Crusaders: Four Wilmingtonians who give this little city some big-time cred

By land or by sea, where to find the most at the coast

By land or sea, where to find the most at the coast