It is not so much a flyover state as a does-the-train-have-to-stop-here? state. Most travellers between New York and Washington do not disembark at the Joseph R Biden Jr Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware. Perhaps they will now take a second look.
The station is where Biden launched his first, ill-fated campaign for US president in June 1987 and where, standing on a deserted platform 33 years later, proud local Democrats cast the votes that clinched his nomination at a virtual convention. Now, with Biden as president-elect, this unglamorous station, city and state are enjoying a rare moment in the sun.
“If there’s anything that people know about Wilmington it’s that there’s an Amtrak station,” said Xavier Teixido, a local restaurateur who has served Biden often. “We don’t really have an airport of any note but the Amtrak station is like our airport. Every Acela [train] that comes up and down the east coast stops in Wilmington, Delaware, and I think there’s a reason for that. It’s probably Joe and our other senators that commute to work.”
Delaware is the second smallest state in the union after Rhode Island. It does not have a professional sports team, signature cuisine or claim to fame except as a corporate tax haven. Wilmington, founded by Swedes in 1638, was long dominated by credit card companies and the chemical giant DuPont. Biden does not have much competition as Delaware’s most famous man.
Caesar Rodney, who signed the declaration of independence, is described by the History Channel’s website as “the founding father you’ve probably never heard of”. A slave owner, his statue was removed from Wilmington’s Rodney Square this summer amid the uprising over racial injustice.
John Eleuthère du Pont built Delaware’s natural history museum to display his collections of 66,000 birds and 2m seashells. He was also a wrestling enthusiast who shot dead an Olympic champion in 1996 and spent the rest of his life in prison (the story was given a chilly retelling in the film Foxcatcher starring Steve Carell).
A recent New York Times article argued that Wilmington, which has a population of just 72,000, has spent centuries in obscurity and long struggled to define its identity, with officials devising earnest slogans such as “A Place to Be Somebody”, then “Wilmington, in the middle of it all” and most recently. “It’s Time”.
But with Biden, it can finally call one of its own “Mr President”. His victory speech at the Chase Center on the Riverfront, and his transition events unveiling cabinet picks at the Queen theatre, have drawn thousands of supporters and journalists. Suddenly thrust centre stage, the city and state are emerging – at least momentarily – from the daunting shadow of New York, Washington and neighbouring Philadelphia.
Teixido, owner of Harry’s Savoy Grill and Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon, said: “I really do think it’s put Delaware on the map.”
Teixido, 67, was born in Paraguay but grew up in Wilmington and after, a few years in Philadelphia and New Orleans, came back for good. “It’s going to be ‘reporting from Wilmington, Delaware’ or ‘Joe Biden did this’ or ‘These people came to Wilmington’,” he predicted. “I’m sure he’s proud of this state and he’s going to show it off the best he can. At a time that things seem so dark and so bleak, it’s nice to have a little light shone on the place that you live and work. Not everyone has that.”
The aura of the presidency can lift small-town America out of obscurity. Dwight Eisenhower, from Abilene, Kansas, once remarked: “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.” Jimmy Carter still lives in Plains, the small Georgia farm town where he was born, and Bill Clinton, from Hope, Arkansas, accepted the 1992 Democratic nomination by declaring: “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
Now it is the turn of Biden’s modest home to get name-checked on the nightly news. Michael Purzycki, the Democratic mayor of Wilmington, said: “Joe’s being elected has created this curiosity about Wilmington that people just never had before. All of a sudden, there’s mystique about Wilmington. Here he is broadcasting from the Queen – where’s the Queen? What’s on Market Street? What are the restaurants down there? What’s special about this place? Where does Joe live? Where did he grow up?”
It might be said to be fitting that Donald Trump – whose brash personality is reflected by garish Trump Tower in New York and opulent Mar-a-Lago in Florida – is about to be supplanted by a man who honed his common touch in Delaware, a low-key state whose riches are less instantly obvious. The place is a measure of a man.
Purzycki, 75, who shared a dormitory with Biden at the University of Delaware and was a classmate of his sister, added: “Joe can expound on subjects but he’s a modest person, he’s not a person with this massive ego that needs to be stroked all the time and I think if you could take a look at our state, we’re an understated place.
“Our train station is small, our convention space is much smaller than you find in the big cities. We have an intimate scale to the city, which I think is a pretty accurate reflection of Joe Biden.”
In fact Biden was born in Scranton, a hardscrabble city in neighbouring Pennsylvania, but when he was 10, his father moved the family to Delaware to work as a car salesman. Biden went on to represent the state for 36 years in the US Senate, famously commuting by train, before becoming Barack Obama’s vice-president.
The size of the state was ideal for Biden to hone his style of retail politics; it does not take long to find someone whom he has looked in the eye or whose hand he has shaken. Local activist Coby Owens noted that his uncle, Herman Holloway Sr, Delaware’s first Black legislator, was a close acquaintance of the future president.
Owens said: “Because we’re a small city, I feel as though we’re connected. We have a very strong sense of self and unity. Everyone knows each other. In some neighbourhoods in the big cities you grew up on your block so you know people on your block. In the city of Wilmington, you know people throughout the city and that’s one of the unique things.”
Although Biden’s vice-presidency was something of a dress rehearsal, Owens, 25, has already noticed an increase in TV crews, Secret Service agents and the Biden motorcade, as well as supporters eager to pay homage. “It’s cool to see that we are literally the centre of democracy right now and, each time he rolls out a new cabinet member, having them come to Wilmington and speak here just brings joy to my heart.”
For the out-of-towners, what else is there do to? Owens suggests attractions including beaches in Sussex county, picturesque churches and parks and the Christiana shopping mall, which includes a popular Apple store. “But we don’t have an Empire State building, we don’t have a Rockefeller. In Washington you have the monuments; we don’t have that here. So I think it’s less of a draw towards that and more a draw towards the shopping and the vacation areas.”
Delaware does boast DuPont family mansions, museums and gardens that are open to visitors. Local tourism officials are also hoping for a post-pandemic boom courtesy of their local hero. Liz Keller, director of the Delaware Tourism Office, which has one of the smallest budgets of any such office in the country, admitted that “we can’t buy the type of media exposure” that comes from Biden’s election.
“It 100% has benefited our state tourism industry and we’re definitely looking forward to welcoming people and also sharing with them some of the Biden favourite spots: some of the dining locations that we know the family likes to visit to get a taste of Delaware.”
It is surely only a matter of time before a Biden statue is erected, perhaps at the railway station he made famous. But some residents are still rather skeptical about the state’s tourism charms.
Cris Barrish, 62, a veteran newspaper journalist now based in PBS affiliate WHYY’s Wilmington office, said: “I’ve travelled to Europe, I’ve been up the east coast a lot, I’ve been north-west, I’ve been to Canada, I’ve been to New England and I can’t imagine wanting to be a tourist and like, ‘Let’s go to Delaware for a trip’ – unless you were going to the beach for a week. l’d put those beach towns up against almost anywhere but the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.”