In Wilmington, shelter from the storm

Written By: Beth Kephart and featured on The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday, February 23, 2014.

Photo Credit: Beth Kephart

Original Story: The Philadelphia Inquirer

We were refugees - two of among hundreds of thousands in the sudden snap of cold and dark. We had listened to the savaging of trees, the terrible torque and release of high-up limbs. We had feared for our rooftops, our abandoned cars, the iced utility lines that hung like glassy staffs between tilting poles. We had succumbed to the dissipation of heat and waited for trains that did not run and there was the sound of sirens farther on - trouble that far exceeded ours.

Feb. 5, 2014. The ice storm had come

We drove the dystopian landscape looking for proof that help was on its way. We listened to generators jabber and groan like so many old secrets, watched smoke huff through chimney stacks, wondered about the birds and how far they'd flown. We pitied the jackknifed trees, the bushes iced to the ground, the power lines that had been indiscriminately flung over buried gardens, sidewalks, roads. We took shelter on streets miraculous with power, in the still-percolated coffee shops, over communal power strips, and one day went by, and then two and, family by family, we had to choose.

When our own house filled with smoke after a misbegotten fireplace fire, we packed our bags for Wilmington. Forty minutes later, we arrived to a hushed midafternoon. Trailing ashes, still warming our hands, we checked into a modest Delaware Avenue hotel, and soon set out by foot to explore Delaware's largest city and New Castle's county seat.

How many times had we passed her by on our way down I-95, toward more distant Southern climes? How often had we looked up from our seats on the Amtrak train and wondered about the city that lay beyond the rails? Now here we were, walking Rodney Square and organizing the buildings in our mind - classical revival, Beaux-Arts, contemporary. We stood beneath the towering steeple of First and Central Presbyterian Church. We entered the lobby of the grand Hotel du Pont, 101 years old and full of flourish. We followed the sloping streets toward the broad arm of the Christina River and whatever lay beyond her.

There was no ice to speak of, no hurry. The only crowd was the bus-stop queue. There was a butter glow in the faces of old buildings, spots of sun on a tower, light in the broad windows of the public library. Accidental tourists with neither map nor plan, we circled and walked on.

There are countless ways to come to know a city. I prefer - a novelist's bad habit - to imagine my way in, collecting feelings ahead of facts. I talk to the people who will talk to me. I eavesdrop on the everyday. I pay attention to the places that I, in another lifetime, might decide to call my own.

In Wilmington, we discovered the exuberantly restored Grand (Opera House) scrubbed into a shine. We nodded to the Queen, now home of WXPN's World Cafe Live. We stopped inside the quiet parenthesis of Willington Square - a "representative" courtyard of mid-18th-century brick houses that had been uprooted and relocated to suggest the city's mercantile past. We headed toward the train station, the Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, and (at last and again) the Christina herself and all that has been set down beside her. The Penn Cinema. The Chase Center. The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts. The Delaware Theatre Company. Restaurants. A collection of painted birdhouses sits along the river walk - fanciful, inviting. The old stuff of the city's shipbuilding past has been restored. And in the Riverfront Market - a revitalized warehouse built of thick walls and massive timbers - the commerce of the day was getting done.

We had found, during our meanderings, a restaurant on Market Street called La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro - tin ceilings, light wood, big windows, an easy, unpretentious storefront. We returned that night for a meal. Nothing was playing at either the Grand or the Queen, and so the waiter had time to answer questions. The poached salmon with the crème fraîche was a favorite, he said. The grilled octopus was very nice. The mural above the bar was painted by the owner/chef, whose name, it became clear, is Bryan Sikora, once of Philadelphia's own Django and La Fia opened last year, we were told. People came from all across the country just to try the lamb.

We ate. We believed. We ordered dessert.

The next night we found Market Street crowded with cars and alive with artists and the people who support them, which is to say: We found the people of Wilmington. A high school talent show playing at the Queen. An exhibit of art by bird preservationists at the library. A concoction of artists - photographers, sculptors, painters - at the Delaware College of Art and Design. We wandered in, we wandered out. We listened in. In a city famous for setting so many free, we were not turned away. We were alerted, most of all, to the hospitality of the place as 40 minutes north the nights stayed dark and the air was cold, but help was finally on its way.

**Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of "Nest. Flight. Sky.: On love and loss, one wing at a time" (Shebooks). She blogs daily at