Wilmington’s Districts Infuse Cool Energy in the Port City
I’ve lived in or commuted to Wilmington for more than a decade now and must admit that while I’ve always loved the area, only recently have I noticed how complete this town has become. Don’t get me wrong, I love the beaches, historic downtown and the relaxed recreational vibe of the Port City. Add Wilmywood’s movie-production bona fides and it definitely earns an extra wow-factor. But suddenly, UNCW students aren’t graduating and going elsewhere. And Wilmington’s growth and stature are making news and earning kudos on all kinds of fronts.
Certainly, mid-size cities are all the rage, given the pandemic-inspired and measurable exodus from America’s biggest metros. But what makes Wilmington suddenly so hip for me are its new and relatively numerous districts. These districts serve to expand the areas of destination throughout the city, with each offering its own distinctive appeal.
The Brooklyn Arts District is home to the Brooklyn Arts Center, a former church that was built in the late 1800s but which fell into disrepair over the decades. Its thoughtful restoration in the early 2000s has returned the church to its rightful place at the center of this district where it hosts frequent special events, community gatherings and concerts. The district takes its cue from the church’s historic preservation, with businesses along Fourth Street, its central corridor, largely in restored and historic storefronts. Within walking distance from the BAC, as it is affectionally called, one encounters breweries and a bottle shop, restaurants for dining or just grabbing grub, neighborhood pubs, art studios and makers spaces.
A few blocks away is the up-and-coming Soda Pop District named for a former Coca-Cola bottling facility located on Princess Street, the district’s main thoroughfare. One of the earliest Soda Pop destinations was Jengo’s Playhouse and the Wabi Sabi Warehouse and Art Studio, both of which serve as headquarters for Wilmington’s Cucalorus Film Festival. But a recent infusion of investment has introduced all kinds of new activity. Hi-Wire brought that essential brewery element, but soon came Cugino Forno, an authentic (and I do mean authentic!) Italian pizzeria. Soon to arrive will be Raleigh-based Bowstring Pizza and Brewyard. But perhaps the most exciting is that former bottling facility which is now refurbished as a maker space with storefronts. Light manufacturing brings an altogether different vibe with its assembly of crafters and makers, among them Beach & Barn, Pomona Shrub Company, and Craftspace.
Inspired by Wilmington’s shipyard and ports and the abundance of shipping containers that pass through our city is Wilmington’s Cargo District. Here, storefronts, offices and homes are fashioned from re-purposed cargo containers, and what a fun place it is to stroll! Restaurants, roasteries and taverns, including the award winning End of Days distillery; creative shopping outposts, and offices for makers and creative types give this very walkable area just outside of historic downtown a distinct energy.
The South Front District moves toward the southern side of downtown and is anchored by a pedestrian friendly area that delivers restaurants, breweries, beauty and wellness spots and is not far from Greenfield Lake, park and amphitheater. The buildings are repurposed warehouses, built to support the ship building industry during WWII. Celebrity Chef Vivian Howard opened Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria here, and Satellite Bar & Lounge has long been a Wilmington favorite. New Anthem Brewery, Mariposa Tapas, Second Glass and True Blue Butcher & Barrel round out the reasons to visit.
But, travel further south and you’ll arrive at a destination I personally favor -- that of Riverlights. While not a district, per se, Riverlights is fast becoming a destination for food, drink, shopping, strolling and special events. Riverlights sits on three miles of the Cape Fear River, offering stunning views, particularly at sunset. It’s our Marina Village and Live Oak Commons that pulls visitors in. Here, one can enjoy fabulous restaurants and pubs, shopping and delighting in the outdoor and friendly vibe. Soon, we’ll introduce 7Bridge, a commercial village that will offer modern conveniences in an elevated style.
Drop on by any of these new enclaves in our ever-more-sophisticated city and you’ll find they add great character to Wilmington’s beach and riverfront reputation.