Wilmington, NC – If you've never traced the long curve of 11th street through Wilmington's North Side, past the power lines and the cemetery, until you're lost among verdant trees and decaying industrial leftovers, you probably haven't found Love Grove.
It's back here that you find the sleepy little neighborhood of old bungalows and well-kept yards, tucked into a corner of land between two cypress-skirted creeks and the rumble of the CSX train tracks.
Those tracks are the problem; they don't just border Love Grove, they cut it off, sweeping right across the neighborhood's only access road.
Just down from the bottleneck, Tom Atwood passes the time with his neighbors on a hot summer afternoon. He lives in the first house in Love Grove, the one closest to the tracks.
CSX says it runs four to five trains a day along that route and Atwood can tell you exactly when they go through. They rattle his shelves and drown out conversations.
When Atwood's walls start shaking, it means the residents of Love Grove are about to be completely shut off from the rest of the city.
Many in the neighborhood say passing trains often stop at the intersection, blocking the road for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.
Usually the train is just an inconvenience -something residents groan about when they're already late to work. But Atwood and his neighbors fear something much worse.
Atwood says the tracks are an accident waiting to happen. "It would be easy for someone to get sick and need an ambulance to come through here and wouldn't be able to access here because the train is blocking the road."
Across the street, Ronald Davis agrees. He's in the neighborhood this Saturday to trim the grass at his parents' house. He says he worries not just for their sake, but for the many elderly residents here he's known his whole life.
"Someone's subject to get sick or something," he says, pausing in his yard work, "and they might need to get rushed to the hospital mostly any time."
Like many here, Davis and Atwood have long lobbied the city for a second route out of Love Grove. Check the library archives, and every ten years or so, the question of a second road for Love Grove pops back up.
In 1984, early plans for the Smith Creek Expressway located an on-ramp in the neighborhood, but it never happened. In 1995, the question took on some urgency after a rash of fires. At the time, city leaders estimated the cost of construction around a half-million dollars. Too expensive they said.
Last year the issue came up again, and again the city studied it. The price tag for a road this time? $4.85 million.
Once again, city council decided the price was just too high. To say the least, that wasn't a popular decision in Love Grove.
"To refuse to build a second access road," Atwood says, "I think that's a dark ages set of mind."
But City Manager Sterling Cheatham says he gets requests from all over the city for new sidewalks and streets, few of which the budget can cover.
Cheatham says the city has new resources for an emergency in Love Grove: both the police department and the hospital have helicopters for medical evacuations.
There's also the city's new fireboat, although reports differ about whether it could navigate Smith Creek.
Fire Chief Sam Hill says his department has plans, should they get a call while there's a train across the Love Grove tracks, but he's not too worried about the situation.
"We never like to have one entrance in to any part of this city," Hill says, but "I can't recall in five to six years where we've had an incident that King Street was blocked that we could not get apparatus in or out."
Soon, there will be a lot more people in Love Grove for emergency services to worry about.
The neighborhood is more than doubling in size with the construction of Clarendon Park, a new development of 125 homes rising swiftly from the old Southern Box and Lumber Company site on the edge of Smith Creek.
Developer Todd Taconis says he did fight for a second access road during the planning process, but people are still buying his houses without it.
"There's no doubt about it, a second access it would make my property significantly more valuable," Taconis says, "but I also think it would become a cut-through, and the neighborhood would become a cut-through, like so many other areas around the college... where people try to avoid busy roads by cutting through a neighborhood."
Back on King Street, Atwood acknowledges that Love Grove's isolation may have helped bring the community together over the years. Every few minutes, he raises his hand to wave hello to friends in passing cars.
"It's a lot of love in this neighborhood," Atwood says, "a lot of us grew up here. A lot of us went away and came back. We love it here."
But all the silver linings in the world can't stop Atwood and his neighbors from worrying about that blocked street. In their minds, the combination of a stopped train and a 911 call isn't a matter of if, but when.
Atwood sums up that sense of fatalism: "a lot of times, government won't act on something that's important until a tragedy happens. And that's when they have to do something because their back's against the wall."
A year after their most recent battle for a second road, the residents of Love Grove haven't forgotten their defeat, or their determination to fight on.
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