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Exile on Wilmington Street

300 block of S. Wilmington St., 1926. The four storefronts seen left to right are the same ones seen in the photo below. They were built in the late 1870s. (Image courtesy N.C. Division of Archives and History)

I have long appreciated the back street charm of the first three blocks of S. Wilmington St. The east side of the street features a virtually intact collection of 19th century 2-story brick storefronts. Rather than the banks, hotels, high-end department stores, office and government buildings found on Raleigh’s main street, these sturdy brick buildings originally housed cotton and tobacco brokers, seed stores and harness shops, saloons and lunch counters.

300 block of S. Wilmington St., 2009. (Image credit: John Morris)

Nowadays the first two blocks of Wilmington St. are undegoing a resurgence and rehabilitation, while the 300 block remains gloomy and virtually deserted.

Image credit: John Morris

Many years ago, during the period when I worked a string of blue-collar jobs before returning to school, I became a regular client of the Reliable Loan Co. Money was tight back then, and many times my roommates and I could barely pay the utilities or the $100 per month rent on our house in Boylan Heights. I was the only one among the three of us who had any ‘property,’ so on those occasions when quick cash was needed, I would ride my bike downtown, across the Martin St. viaduct, and head straight to Reliable Loan.

I remember the shop was crammed full of guitars, electronic equipment and glass cases packed with jewelry which I passed by on my way to the pawnbroker’s cage at the back of the store. There I would plop down my worldly goods — my high school class ring, my grandfather’s gold pocket watch, my camera, a couple gold coins and a few scraps of sterling silver.  The amount I received for the pawn was always the same — $50. And I always felt slightly guilty for pawning my grandfather’s watch, but doing so provided me with the incentive to return in a month’s time and buy back my possessions out of hock. And although the power and water at our house were shut off on occasion, we always had the money to pay the rent.

300 block of S. Wilmington St. — today a mere reflection of its former self . (Image credit: Raleigh Boy)

Whenever I pass by Reliable Loan these days, I always think of that experience from that time so long ago. I am a little saddened, too, when I think Raleigh may be erecting yet another monument to architectural banality in the form of the Edison, which, if built, will wipe out what remains of this historic block, taking with it, yet another small, and irreplaceable, uniquity of our city’s past.

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