Anthony Hood, who was president of the Woodridge Civic Association from 1994 to 2002, was about to start the monthly meeting back in 1998 when a stranger from Chicago asked if she could speak.
The woman was not on the agenda, so Hood did not immediately give her the floor. But his wife, Carmelia, who had spoken to the woman earlier, urged her husband to let the stranger talk. Hood relented and his decision was ultimately a profitable one for the Northeast Washington neighborhood.
As it turned out, the woman was a representative of the Allstate Neighborhood Partnership Program, an urban outreach program run by Allstate Insurance. Her group wanted to form an alliance with a place like Woodridge -- an urban neighborhood that was in a position to take advantage of Allstate's assistance, but needed a kick-start.
Hood and other civic association members jumped at the opportunity and put together a strategic plan to show Allstate that Woodridge was a sound investment. Their plan included ideas for rehabbing senior citizens' homes; establishing scholarship and summer youth programs; conducting a series of seminars on safety, first aid and home repairs (including field trips to Home Depot); and giving a hefty donation to the neighborhood sports program. Allstate was impressed with the plan and gave the community the green light and a promise of $1.25 million.
Luck played a role in Woodridge's windfall, but the residents' hard work and commitment played larger ones. People such as Hood, 38, who has spent his entire life in Ward 5 and moved to Woodridge in 1989, are determined not just to maintain the area, but to improve it as well.
"We are trying to make it a neighborhood that attracts people, but we are trying to keep it affordable," Hood said.
He said he sees new homeowners as key to the vitality of the neighborhood, which has long been a middle-class black stronghold, many of whose residents have been there for decades.
"Woodridge is a very diverse neighborhood. Different types make the neighborhood healthier," Hood said. "New people tend to be more vocal. They have an investment and they care about what happens to their neighborhood. You get complacent when you've lived somewhere for a long time. That's the key thing -- you have to be able to jump-start the community."
Two new neighbors are Jim Cronenberg, 32, and his wife, Kelly, 34, who moved to Woodridge in April. Jim Cronenberg, who is an architect, saw the potential of the community, with its large single-family houses, nice-sized lots and quiet streets.
"We love it here so far. It has a great sense of community," he says. The Cronenbergs immediately started attending their local Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, knowing that if they wanted a say in the community, they were going to have be involved and listen to what others had to say. Both Jim and Kelly can easily tick off their ANC representatives and recite the most pressing issues facing the community, such as speeding drivers who use the neighborhood as a thoroughfare from Maryland.
The Cronenbergs, who live in a nicely rehabbed bungalow built in 1934, have met many of their neighbors, some of whom are long-term residents.
"People stopped all the time this summer to say hello and welcome us to the neighborhood," said Kelly, who teaches at nearby St. Francis DeSales school. "We didn't know what to expect; it's been a very nice experience."
The Cronenbergs say that they have been pleased with city services in Woodridge and that the city has been responsive to calls about broken street lights and potholes. They also say that the local fifth district police station has been equally efficient, responding to neighbors' calls about suspicious activities. Cronenberg says he is aware there is some drug activity in the neighborhood, but adds: "Some areas are shadier than others. I've never felt unsafe since I've lived here. This place is about as suburban as you can get without living in the suburbs. It's quiet and we have some great neighbors."
Rhode Island Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that runs through the neighborhood, is lined with nail salons, bodegas and well-liked eateries such as the Bamboo Joint. It is not a pretty strip of land, but it has promise, and Woodridge residents are pushing for economic development along the corridor.
In either direction off the commercial strip, the real Woodridge comes into focus. The neighborhood is an architectural collage of lovely detached houses, with Queen Annes, bungalows and Colonial Revival cottages nestled on hilly, tree-lined streets. Most Woodridge residents still eschew privacy fencing, so spacious yards spread uninterrupted, and houses sometimes sit at quirky angles to one another. The houses are, for the most part, well-maintained, and that is in part thanks to the Woodridge Civic Association.
When the association decided to use some of the Allstate money to launch a program to fix up needy seniors' homes in 1998, it approached several older neighbors whose houses were in disrepair. Surprisingly, no one would bite; it seemed the offer was too good to be true.
Finally, one of the association members, Ruth Goodwin, 79, said, "If no one else will take [the offer], I will." Goodwin had all 42 of her windows replaced and her garage repaired with the $15,000 the civic association donated. Today, Goodwin's house is toasty warm, and the civic association eventually completed renovations on five other seniors' homes before funds dried up.
The parks are also well-lighted, the Dwight A. Mosley sports complex is hopping on weekends with football games and children playing, and the alleys are clean.
The Allstate program was established to help communities nationwide revitalize their neighborhoods. The program targeted large urban neighborhoods where a civic association or some sort of community infrastructure was already in place. Said Joe McCormick, Allstate corporate relations manager and the partnership's liaison to Woodridge: "We find neighborhoods where there is an opportunity to lend some assistance. We look for communities that could use some help but are in a position to take advantage of our assistance."
While Woodridge has benefited from the assistance Allstate has offered, community leaders say they have only seen a little more than half of the money and do not know when they will receive the balance. Hood, who has since stepped down as association president but remains a strong presence in the community, says he is disappointed and baffled because he believes the civic association used every cent as outlined in the proposal. And every project was a resounding success.
"But even if we never see the rest of the money, we were lucky to get as much as we did," Hood said.
McCormick said he believes that Woodridge will get the rest of the money once some decisions about budget oversight are made. He said: "The Woodridge Civic Association has done a great job, given its resources, and Anthony Hood has done a great job leading the way. Allstate is committed to providing the full amount [of the grant] to the Woodridge Civic Association."
McCormick said that Allstate chose Woodridge to participate in the program because it had a solid community organization and strong leadership, but he noted that it did not have the infrastructure in place to handle such a large grant. According to McCormick, Allstate intends to give the civic association the last two $250,000 annual installments once a partnership between the Woodridge Civic Association and the H Street Community Development Corp. is formalized. The H Street CDC would oversee the administration of the money as the civic association directs.
Several residents said they moved to Woodridge because its single-family houses fit their budgets. Author Patricia Elam, 48, has lived in Woodridge since 1989. She and her young family had been renting on Capitol Hill and needed a bigger home. "We needed more space and I wanted things like a washer and dryer, a basement, and three bedrooms, and I was looking in a limited price range. I can't tell you how many agents told me to forget about it," Elam said.
In Woodridge, Elam found the house she'd imagined in a price range she could afford. "We've kind of outgrown it now," she says of her Cape Cod, "but at the time, it was exactly what we wanted."
Elam would like to find a bigger house in the neighborhood because she doesn't want to leave the area. While her three children do not attend neighborhood schools, they have many friends nearby. Elam likes that her kids can walk to their friends' homes and that she is surrounded by caring neighbors.
Sabrina Sojourner, 50, a consultant, rents a house in Woodridge but hopes to buy in the neighborhood. She says she moved to Woodridge from neighboring Brookland because it was affordable and she could still be near Brookland, with its stores and restaurants.
"I grew up on the West Coast and have always lived in detached houses. I like the look of row houses, but I've never gotten used to the idea of living in one. I felt fortunate to find a detached house, with lots of light and a big enough yard to play in," she said.
She also said she appreciates the sense of community in Woodridge. "It's very much a neighborhood," she said. "I love living in D.C., but I'm not big on density. I like that there are lots of places I can walk. It's a 10-minute walk to the Monastery Gardens or to the woods near Howard University."
Sojourner agrees with the Cronenbergs that while the area is changing, it's not changing quickly. "There's not the same turnover here as there is in Brookland. There are still predominately older families that have lived here for a long time."
She added: "I immediately liked the feeling in Woodridge. People look out for each other."
Sojourner said she believes that residents have to be active in their community if they want to protect it from crime and drugs. "We have problems as any neighborhood does. We have some crime, but it's a matter of being involved if you want to see it cleaned up," she said. "When my neighbors and I made a point of calling the police when we saw something suspicious, the police responded. That's what it takes to make a difference -- to actually call the police. It's our responsibility to police the neighborhood, too."
Perhaps the hopes of residents are best summed up by the words on the many banners and markers found throughout the community.
One banner reads "Woodridge: The Place To Be In the 21st Century." Another says, "A Community Working Together," and another declares, "A Community Getting Better."