“We are using it to get neighbors what is needed,” said Peggy Robin, who founded the Cleveland Park Listserv with her husband in 1999. “People used to be able to do things in person. Now, they’re doing so much more on this kind of communications network. It's becoming very, very busy.”
The Cleveland Park Listserv, serving the affluent District neighborhood along Connecticut Avenue west of Rock Creek Park, has become a resource for those who need help — or are in a position to help others — in Ward 3 and beyond.
When it debuted long before Twitter and Nextdoor, communicating through the World Wide Web was a bit of a novelty. In a 2002 submission published in The Washington Post, Robin predicted the “Cleveland Park email list” would remain robust “as long as people in Cleveland Park have keyboards, email servers and modems.”
People seem to have gotten the hang of it. The listserv claims about 15,000 members — far more than Cleveland Park’s roughly 9,000 residents. “We've been reliably informed that it's the biggest community listserv on any platform, anywhere in the U.S.,” its website says. (Groups.io, which hosts the platform, did not return a request for comment.)
As the pandemic shuttered the neighborhood’s restaurants days after its showpiece Uptown movie theater closed, people began turning to the listserv to offer or seek help.
After the coronavirus reached the Washington area in March, Skyler Weisskopf, 27, lost a job at a Tenleytown restaurant after five days. He spent two nights in a stairwell and one night outside before finding an Airbnb with help from a mutual aid group — an informal network that has tried to assist vulnerable Washingtonians during the pandemic — that posted on the listerv.
“They put me in a place for close to two weeks,” he said. “They were phenomenal.”
Helen Qubain, who helped raise funds to get Weisskopf into his Airbnb, said she got involved with the listserv after moving to Cleveland Park two years ago.
It helped her find a free monitor for her partner, who is legally blind and working from home during the pandemic, as he waited for his employer to ship a new one. She also helped organize a delivery of N95 masks to a neighborhood health care worker whose workplace had run out.
“It's not so easy to sit in your home and identify how to help people in your neighborhood,” she said. “The listserv makes it easy.”
Other listserv administrators say their mission also has changed, at least temporarily, along with the needs of their subscribers.
Drew Schneider, who founded Petworth News and took over as moderator of the Greater Petworth Listserv last year, said the listserv has distributed numbers about covid-19 cases in hard-hit Ward 4 and enabled residents to share advice about spending days under stay-at-home orders. The platform improves quality of life during otherwise hectic times, he said.
“They're all different,” he said. “They are reflections of the communities that they serve.”
Nancy Carpenter, program administrator of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, which hosts that neighborhood’s listserv, said it has partnered with Georgetown’s business improvement district to support local businesses and organized a “friendly wave” from neighborhood porches at 6 p.m. daily.
“At a time when many people feel disconnected or may live alone, an online community bulletin board can be one way to get involved as you can send and receive information relevant to your immediate neighborhood,” she wrote in an email. “Most subscribers just like knowing the forum is there.”
Amy X. Zhang, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, said as usage of social media has proliferated, the old-fashioned listserv platform is still ubiquitous.
“Not everyone has a Facebook account or a Twitter account,” she said. “Pretty much everyone has an email account. There are many mailing lists today that are decades or many decades old. It’s a social tool with a lot of staying power.”
For the Cleveland Park Listserv, two decades of growth have not come without occasional controversy. Its commenters have been accused of racial profiling, and in 2013 the listserv banned usage of the word “Redskins,” only to reverse the policy after a poll showed 9 in 10 Native Americans were not offended by the term.
Posts have sometimes divided the neighborhood as much as united it, with members battling over a once-unthinkable (and now complete) Giant grocery store expansion on Wisconsin Avenue, the divisive (and now complete) transformation of Klingle Road into a walking trail, or even Elián González’s presence in the neighborhood when the Cuban migrant was temporarily housed there in 2000.
Sara Swetzoff, a Ward 3 organizer for the D.C. Mutual Aid Network, said neighborhood listservs have been a boon to activists trying to organize assistance efforts in all eight wards. As they try to build connections between those with means and those in need, they have found the infrastructure is already there.
“When you can turn to a really developed neighborhood listserv and say, ‘This need exists.’. . . I see a lot of potential for ongoing collaboration,” she said.