Maybe your first thought, when you see the words in the photo below, is from the hirsute, late-80s metal band. Maybe it’s from the frequent references in the Roger Corman movie and subsequent off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors. And maybe it’s the reference to the neighborhood just southeast of the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Regardless of what comes to mind, odds are strong that the name doesn’t exactly comport with the edifice itself.
Witness the New England harborside hotel.
The reality is these townhomes sit just a bit south of the main street of Newark, Delaware, the state’s pre-eminent college town and home of the flagship campus for the University of Delaware. And, as most people know, Skid Row is overwhelmingly a pejorative, historically referring to the neighborhood closest to a city center with the highest concentration of homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, or other features usually associated with neglect and poverty. The term putatively exists as a linguistic backformation from “skid road”, a road made of logs assembled in a configuration similar to a wooden bridge, generally installed to ease the hauling of large freight across muddy or swampy terrain. The presence of logs and its widespread use among loggers help to support the notion that the term first came to being in the Pacific Northwest, where the timber industry spurred the growth of cities like Seattle and Portland. Many historians speculate that the newly fashionable (but formerly seedy) Pioneer Square district in Seattle spawned the name.
Regardless of the word’s origins, the vast majority of Skid Rows line the west coast of the U.S. and Canada: East Hastings in Vancouver, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego (even more gentrified than Pioneer Square), and the aforementioned corner of downtown L.A.—the latter of which is of the rare places that actually retains the words “Skid Row” as its primary name. A few major cities east of the Mississippi might lay claim to a Skid Row, but generally it’s a West Coast phenomenon, no doubt due in part to the history but also to the devil-may-care attitude toward certain types of deviant behavior, particularly drug addiction and loitering.
When it comes to Skid Row, the small city of Newark, DE is not a place most people have in mind. And most evidence would suggest this is for good reason. The area surrounding these townhomes doesn’t appear particularly unsavory either.Affiliated with the university, the prominent, boxy building two doors down from The New Skid Row, looks fairly new. And the intersection in the distance opens up to Newark’s Main Street, a lively party district during the school year. So why would the owners seek to name their property after a district broadly associated with vagrancy and reprobate living?
Chances are, it’s a cheeky throwback to the building’s history. Back around 2013, the new investor spent considerable money restoring a structure that had earned the nickname “Skid Row” for its unkempt appearance and the wild behavior it seemed to attract, often accompanied by live band performances (though probably not Skid Row itself). And while it wasn’t exactly blighted, the century-old building—named Academy Corner under its previous management—hardly offered a feast for the eyes. And a vintage photograph from the 1990s shows something even tawdrier. The secret, as is often the case in advertising, is the strategic use of the adjective “New”. Remodeled since 2014, this ain’t your older brother’s Skid Row.
Like many college towns, Newark has its student ghetto: a smattering of rental properties where the twenty-year-old residents behave comparably to transients and treat their short-term home accordingly. Beer cans in the bushes, mutilated mailboxes, a putrid couch on the front porch. You get the idea. No doubt Academy Corner deteriorated to this status many years ago. But also like most college towns, Newark has benefited from the increasing market demand for high-density, urban-scaled multifamily buildings near some of the most walkable parts the town center. The same surge in big apartment buildings—the logical next step after dormitory living—no doubt prompted an overhaul of the Academy Corner. The market forces at play among the youngest Millennials (and the oldest of Generation Y) have helped transform quite a few of the student ghettos, adding new irony to a term like “Skid Row” targeting a cohort that, unless they grew up around Los Angeles, might not even know what the term is.
Perhaps that’s all the better: as much as the typical college town likes to cultivate a bohemian, anti-establishment image, it’s unlikely for that image to extend to an embrace of homelessness, prostitution, or open drug use. After all, even if that’s all well and good for the students, it’s still the parents who typically bankroll their kids’ educations, and a university has nothing to gain from offending the average mom or dad. The most successful college towns can still cultivate a healthy middle ground between iconoclasm and squalor. And Newark may very well earn this balance, at least in part due to a defiantly named building called The New Skid Row—where depression’s hardly just status quo.