From the broken concrete of Deemer's Beach, you can see north up the Delaware River toward Philadelphia, south down Delaware Bay toward the Atlantic, and east over two miles of sun-tipped waves to hazy New Jersey to get a sense of what people lost when they turned their backs on the waterfront.
"There was the tidal bathing pool, and the trolley, and the baseball ground, and the roller rink, and the dance hall, and the arcade, and the 1,500-foot-pier, and the place where the Wilson Line ships used to dock," said Harold West, owner of the property since 1987.
It's tough to imagine what's gone as West points to the wrecked restaurant, the pier sheared off "when my Uncle Vinny's barge got loose," and the modern boat warehouse that holds mostly lumber now on his 43-acre property, bordered by the chemical factory and the rail line and the tidal swamp.
Would he sell? "I've sold it eight times," said West, who sometimes pocketed down payments, as would-be developers failed to get financing or approvals in time. Plans to reuse Deemer's Beach have piled up in New Castle County records: a 1998 plan to build homes; a 2004 condo and marina project; a 2008 proposal for a senior citizens complex; a 2012 permit application for an indoor sports facility.
This time may be different. Recent coastal flooding has made waterfront land less desirable for residential projects, said Gerald J. Kauffman, who studies marine development at the University of Delaware. And the relatively weak dollar, plus pro-manufacturing policies under politicians such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, have fed proposals to add new jobs-producing export businesses.
"This is zoned heavy industrial, and there's not many pieces of ground left that are zoned this way," said E. Andrew DiSabatino Jr., chief executive of Wilmington- and Malvern-based commercial builder EDiS Co. DiSabatino is negotiating a plan to build a 125,000-square-foot industrial center here with partner Mike Evanko, owner of Port Contractors Inc., which has built oil-industry and recycling facilities in the area.
The project "would be ideal" for port-side steel assembly or wind-turbine manufacturing for one of the electric plants proposed for out in the Atlantic, noted David Wilk, head of corporate real estate for Sperry Van Ness Corporate Property Strategies. Wilk also teaches real estate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The Delaware River is lined with the tree-grown ruins of piers that recall centuries when it was a highway for Leni-Lenape canoes, shad and sturgeon fishermen, local deliveries and interstate ferries, as well as global freight. It was the original recreational Shore, before railroads made Atlantic City a day trip and highways fed the Cape May County resorts.
Between today's oceangoing ship terminals at Philadelphia, Wilmington, Gloucester City, and a few other spots are long stretches where the river is locked behind fences, highways, and railroad tracks.
"We've been choked off the river," said Delaware's Kauffman.
Deemer's Beach lies a little south of New Castle, Delaware's brick colonial capital. New Castle escaped the fate of colonial Williamsburg, Va., after the state government moved out, thanks to local industry like Seldon S. Deemer's ironworks. Deemer developed the beach as an early-1900s playground for families, one of a chain of privately run riverside parks that dotted the river.
"Red Skelton used to play here, and Jerry Mahoney, and Charlie McCarthy and his dummy, and every hillbilly band in the country," said West's friend Harry Strusowski, who was a child in the Depression when Deemer died and his park shut. He says the music venue survived into the 1950s, but mostly "the automobile did 'em in," Strusowski said. "People lost interest in these places."
It wasn't just automotive mobility - it was also gasoline refineries and other heavy industry that drove people off the river, says Maya Van Rossum, head of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an advocacy group.
"In the 1930s and 1940s, the pollution became so bad that people would get sick," Van Rossum said. "That became very ingrained in people: 'If you want to fish, you go up to Bucks County. If you want to swim, go to the ocean.' People literally turned their backs on the river."
The river's cleaner now. But locals are once more leaving the Delaware to industry, Van Rossum said: "It's a struggle to get people to look at it again."