Western Loockerman Street upkeep concerns business owners

Activist Bobby Wilson stands next to compromised bricks on Loockerman Street in Dover last week. Delaware State News/Craig Anderson

DOVER — Some downtown business owners wish the city paid more attention to the upkeep of Loockerman Street’s western area.

Caribbean Cuisine owner Otis Brooks says he’s taken it upon himself to clear drains that flood to the middle of the street near his shop. At least one customer has gotten splashed when entering his business, he said.

Mr. Brooks said he tries not to take the issues from a “Black and white (racial) perspective” but believes the city’s attention should “be the same all the way through.”

Currently, Mr. Brooks maintains, “There’s just a neglect on what goes down on this end (of Loockerman Street) compared to what goes on (east) of Governors (Avenue), completely opposite.

“I’ve mentioned it before … to the very top guys. I don’t see where it goes anywhere because nothing happens.”

According to Mr. Brooks, there’s scant time spent maintaining the area where he’s done business for more than a decade.

“The city never comes down to clean,” he said. “Every once in a while, they come by with the … street sweeper for it to be clean. I make it my duty to use my blower … almost to the end of the block (both ways).

“They don’t come down here and do it, but I make it my duty to do (it) because I’m here and I’m a part of this community and I want to do the best I can to revitalize (it here).”

Owner Otis Brooks stands inside his Caribbean Cuisine business just after opening up on Tuesday morning.

For activist Bobby Wilson, the sight of compromised sidewalks, large tree roots pushing from the ground near buildings and streets, roadway cracks, dirt, debris and unstable bricks are reminders of issues that have been plaguing the western section of Loockerman Street for at least two decades. He said he’s voiced concerns to city officials for years to no avail.

“This (lack of attention) has always been the case,” he said. “It’s nothing new. It’s part of the culture. Black businesses are not taken seriously, and when that happens, you neglect them.”

The hope now, Mr. Wilson said, is that spotlighting problems will spur community members to demand more attention. Until then, the predominately Black-owned businesses in the area will continue to suffer.

He hopes that more public pressure on the city will push it “to look out for and pay attention to all businesses, not just some businesses.”

“Until that happens, you can expect the same old results, and that’s just not right. It shouldn’t keep happening year after year.”

While cutting hair at his second-floor Groom Kings barbershop this week, owner Abbie Watson said, “We (just want everyone to be treated the same) on this block, because we have to take care of things. We have to spend money.”

That Ish Boutique owner James Owens cringes when discussing foot traffic that navigates through nearby unsettled bricks.

“It’s very upsetting because I’ve watched people trip on them,” he said. “I’ve tripped on them. I’ve seen city officials trip on those bricks.”

Shopping at his business requires dedication, Mr. Owens said.

“It’s tough for people to walk through the front door because of the upkeep and homeless people moving around,” he said.

Owner Abbie Watson cuts Tom Cummings’ hair inside his Groom Kings barber shop in downtown Dover.

“The customers are like ‘It’s a lot to come up here.’ The fact is that there’s sparse parking.

“I have loyal customers that go through a lot to shop with me, and I appreciate it.”

Arriving in Dover in 2004, Simaron Pizza & Steak Shop owner Edmound Yousefkhanian said he regularly receives customer calls expressing concern about limited lighting after dark and safety issues. He concurred with others about the supposed maintenance deficiencies and lack of equal attention.

He pointed out the free meal his shop provided to 325 people last Thanksgiving and followed with, “I do my share of taking care of people, but when it comes time for the city to help me — nothing.”

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen said he understands the merchants’ angst about maintenance.

“I’m not happy with it, but that’s the case all over the city. None of this is specific to one area, and any perceived slight is not from anything that’s been done intentionally.

“People who know me realize that that’s something I would never stand for and it would be acted on immediately and seriously if so.”

A City of Dover street sweeper moves down Loockerman Street Wednesday morning.

The decay comes from limited staffing and funding to properly maintain all parts of the city, the mayor maintained.

“Every decision such as this comes down to available dollars and cents, and there’s not enough money to maintain everything as we would like to, and that’s not unique to any one part of Dover,” he said.

While some business owners lamented a dearth of First Friday activity in the western side of Loockerman, the scope has been curtailed throughout the entire area, officials said.

Downtown Dover Partnership operations manager Tina Bradbury said the gathering has diminished from previous larger-scale programming after Destination Downtown Dover removed itself from planning last year.

Now, businesses are urged to create their own entertainment, from sidewalk sales, performers, decorated windows and whatever else brings foot traffic to the area, during scheduled First Friday events.

The DDP distributes information to downtown businesses through email, a private Facebook page and texting, Ms. Bradbury said.

“There’s no program to move, and I think there may be some business owners who are unaware of that,” she said. “We are very equal in our promotion of any (establishment) in the business-improvement district.”