By Jim Arvantes
The Cleveland Park Listserv represents an empowering medium for Cleveland Park and many nearby neighborhoods, one that operates on multiple levels, accomplishing simultaneous tasks.
The listserv gives local residents a far reaching and powerful on-line voice. At the same time, it provides a potent forum for sharing information and ideas, tying Cleveland Park and many other Ward 3 neighborhoods together as part of a vibrant on-line community.
During the past 23 years, the listserv has grown dramatically from just a few members in 1999 to more than 12,600 members in 2022. It now ranks as the largest moderated community listserv in the country and possibly the world.
During an on-line Tuesday Talk discussion in May 2022, Peggy Robin, co-founder and moderator of the Cleveland Park Listserv, recounted the history of the listserv, describing some of the listserv’s more colorful and dramatic moments as well as its more humorous and even frightening episodes. She explained how these experiences all played a profound part in shaping and defining the listserv and its foundational role in the lives of so many residents of Cleveland Park and beyond.
Attorney John Barlow Weiner, President of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, moderated the discussion, asking pertinent questions that kept the conversation moving along while revealing inside information about the listserv and its long history.
The idea for the Cleveland Park Listserv came from a listserv in nearby Adams Morgan. Peggy and her husband, Bill Adler, became aware of the Adams Morgan Listserv in 1999, and decided to launch their own listserv for Cleveland Park. Almost immediately its membership grew to include residents of many other neighborhoods, including Woodley Park, Tenleytown, Forest Hills, North Cleveland Park, A.U. Park, and Chevy Chase, DC. It has even attracted members from other wards of the city and the close-in suburbs.
Bill actually started the listserv and Peggy served as co-moderator, an ambiguous role because listservs were relatively new in 1999.
“I didn’t even know how to email at the time,” remembered Peggy, a Cleveland Park resident and writer who has authored and co-authored 12 books. “I only had an email address.”
But as Peggy quickly discovered, “If you can send an email, you can post to the listserv.”
Within days of starting the listserv, Bill visited the Cleveland Park Club, urging people to join the newly-launched medium. He also posted flyers in the windows of local businesses, notifying the Cleveland and Woodley Park neighborhoods about the listserv.
Listserv membership climbed to 300 within a month, and within two to three months, its membership surpassed that of the Adams Morgan listserv – then around 900 members. At first, managing the listserv amounted “to a little hobby, something that just took a few minutes a day,” Peggy recalled.
Peggy and Bill are both book authors, and during the early days of the listserv they were able to research and write books while also moderating the listserv.
But then an event happened during Thanksgiving weekend of 1999 that captured international attention, sparking visceral debate while ultimately enhancing the status and readership of the Cleveland Park Listserv.
TURN OF EVENTS
In late November 1999, two men fishing off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found a 5 year old boy nestled in an inner tube, floating in the choppy Florida waters. The boy, Elian Gonzalez, departed Cuba in a makeshift raft with his mother and his mother’s boyfriend, who were desperate to flee the poverty and deprivation of Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
Elian’s mother and his mother’s boyfriend drowned during the journey. But Elian, who became separated from the adults during the journey, survived — saved from a certain drowning by the inner tube that kept him afloat. The fisherman turned Elian over to the Coast Guard, and after a brief stay in the hospital, officials sent him to live with a great uncle in Miami’s Little Havana section.
Elian became a cause célèbre among anti-Castro Cubans in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, and they waged a valiant campaign to keep him in the United States. Elian’s father in Cuba and Castro demanded the return of the boy to the island nation, pitting the United States government and the Cuban regime against each other in a high-profile custody standoff with international repercussions.
The U.S. government eventually sided with the Cuban government, and in a dramatic pre-dawn raid in late April of 2000, U.S. federal agents, armed with high-powered rifles, seized Elian Gonzalez from his great uncle’s home in Miami and took him to Washington, D.C.
Government officials placed Elian in a house in Cleveland Park on Newark Street where he lived temporarily with his father, his stepmother and half brother who all flew in from Cuba to reunite with the boy. The family returned to Cuba in late June 2000, arriving on the island to a hero’s welcome.
But before leaving, the anti-Castro Cubans discovered Elian was staying in Cleveland Park. They soon found the Cleveland Park Listserv, giving them the opportunity to vent their frustrations about the case.
One morning Peggy woke up and found more than 10 messages on the listserv, demanding the return of Elian to Miami. Most of the messages were posted in all caps, saying, “Bring Elian Gonzalez (Back to Miami),” and “Why are you kidnapping him?” “Let him go.”
Peggy and Bill both realized they had to monitor the listserv more closely at that point, a practice that became standard operating procedure for the Cleveland Park Listserv.
“No one can post unless we review and approve it,” Peggy said simply.
In the early days of the listserv, painters, plumbers, electricians and other business owners regularly engaged in “shilling” – pretending to be customers of a certain plumber or painter when they were the ones actually posting the messages as a way to increase business.
“It was really the painter or the plumber making up the email address and saying, ‘I used this plumber. He is the greatest guy,’” Peggy explained.
The plumber or painter inevitably gave themselves away by saying they were running a special during an upcoming week, something a customer would not know. Peggy and Bill joined other listservs in the area, and noticed the same person, using a different name, posting the same message.
Shilling prompted the creation of rules – about 10 pages of them—which Peggy augments and revises on a regular basis.
“We added rules every time there was a problem on the listserv,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the listserv soon “morphed into a full time job,” Peggy said.
“It is really more than a full time job because I don’t take weekends off,” she said.
Listserv membership is primarily driven by word of mouth. As Peggy explained, “the days are long gone when we used to put out fliers saying, ‘join the Cleveland Park Listserv.’ ”
Peggy and Bill eventually realized they needed to make money for their efforts.
“So we started charging for advertising,” Peggy said.
She emphasized, however, that listserv membership is free and “neighbors can post about neighborhood things for free.”
Listserv members can also sell small personal items at no cost. But if they want to conduct certain types of business over the listserv – such as selling a house or advertising a business – they have to pay.
“Basically, if they want to do any business over the listserv other than asking for recommendations, it is a paid service,” Peggy explained.
Recommendations are the number one service the listserv provides. Listserv members routinely ask for recommendations about plumbers, electricians and painters, among others, Peggy said.
“We also have young people with families looking for nannies and older people looking for caregivers,” Peggy explained.
Peggy tries to make sure that “the recommendations come from other neighbors who have actually used the service.”
Peggy is very careful with negative reviews, requiring the person who wants to post a negative review about a business or contractor to prove their accusations. As she explained, “We are not interested in slandering someone.”
During the pandemic, listserv recommendations helped local residents find services and vaccines and to connect with other people, Peggy said.
“I feel very proud of that,” she added.
Peggy pointed out that she owns the listserv, giving her the right to reject posts she finds objectionable.
“If people want to post something, and I turn it down, I generally turn it down because I don’t think it is a good subject for the listserv,” she said.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Peggy insists people act civilly on the listserv. People are not allowed to call out their neighbors for failing to shovel their walks after a snowfall, for example, or for not trimming their bushes.
When Peggy rejects a post, people often accuse her of censorship, and she tells them the listserv is her “private publication.”
“It is not a public space,” she said simply.
She added, however, that, “I try to let all sides speak equally while trying not to favor one side or the other.”
“People are used to Twitter and other forums where they can call people names,” Peggy said. “They are shocked to find out I will not allow it, and I will say, ‘it is my list serve goodbye.’”
Moderator Weiner commented that “this is not a neighborhood that lacks opinions. It can get hot and heavy sometimes.”
When Peggy and Bill moved to Cleveland Park in 1976, Peggy thought Cleveland Park was an ideal community, full of friendly and caring neighbors.
“My neighbors have always been wonderful people, and then they get online, and start hitting each other with brick bats,” she said.
During the past few decades, Peggy and Bill have banned only a few people.
They banned one local resident who repeatedly tried to post vicious and hate-filled messages. Peggy referred to the man as a “real troll” who created more than 100 on-line addresses to circumvent the ban.
He ran for the Ward 3 seat on the City Council, campaigning against Mary Cheh and other candidates by trying to use the listserv to smear his competition. The man then started stalking Peggy and Bill and a reporter from the City Paper who was covering the election.
“He stalked and threatened a federal judge who handled his divorce case,” Peggy said. “We used to have an outside office, and he scared our office administrator.”
The man also posted malicious and outrageous lies on other websites about Bill, prompting Peggy and Bill to turn to the FBI for help. But the FBI refused to investigate, saying Peggy and Bill could not prove the same man was responsible for the messages and the ongoing harassment.
“I said it is the same IP address almost all of the time,” Peggy recalled. “Sometimes he used different computers but most of the time the same IP address.”
The man also made the same bizarre spelling mistakes in his messages, confirming that he was the harasser.
People urged Peggy and Bill to sue the man for harassment and defamation of character. But Peggy and Bill demurred, believing the man craved attention and would have enjoyed a legal battle in court.
“He loved being in lawsuits where he defended himself,” Peggy explained. “He sued a bunch of people, and he loved being sued.”
The harassment lasted for about three years, ending only after the man died of cancer.
“He joined a cancer support group and harassed so many people that they banned him from the cancer support group,” Peggy recalled.
When Peggy and Bill heard the man died, they didn’t believe it, thinking it was just another one of his hoaxes. But the man did, in fact, die, closing a bizarre and disturbing chapter in the annals of the listserv.
In some ways, the listserv has darkened Peggy’s view of human nature. Yet, the listserv manages to bring out the humanity of local residents on a regular basis.
“I think the thing that gives me the most pleasure is when people post a lost dog, and they find the dog,” Peggy said. “The post mobilizes people to look for the dog, and then they find the dog.”
Every time that happens, she said, “We feel we are doing well with the (listserv.).”
In at least one case, the listserv probably played a life-saving role.
“We had a listserv member in the hospital needing blood platelets, and she posted a message, saying she was in need,” Peggy remembered.
Several listserv members stepped forward and donated blood, playing a crucial role in the woman’s recovery.
Despite some harrowing days with the listserv, Peggy and Bill manage to have fun with the medium. Bill, for example, started the tradition of the April Fool’s joke, employing on-line pranks that challenge the credulity of local residents every April 1st.
One of the best jokes involved a Loof Lirpa, a large — and unbeknownst to the public—fictitious animal that escaped from the National Zoo in nearby Woodley Park. The police played along, saying they were looking to corral the wild beast and bring it back to the National Zoo. (Loof Lirpa is April Fool spelled backwards.)
Peggy and Bill asked the public to click on a link if they saw the animal – and many people clicked on the link – which revealed that the Loof Lirpa was an imaginary animal created for April Fool’s Day.
One year Peggy posted a story about a new pet hotel opening in Cleveland Park – a pet hotel that would also serve as a pet brothel.
“People asked how they could do that – it is not allowed by zoning,” Peggy remembered.
Another April Fool’s joke reported on the impending arrival of a water bar in Cleveland Park that would charge $9 for a glass of water.
“People started sending me (information) about real water bars in other places,” she said. “So it wasn’t that farfetched.”
As a successful author and writer, Peggy has appeared on the Today Show, the Maury Povich Show and Diane Rehm’s eponymous radio program on National Public Radio. She also was a contestant on Jeopardy, appearing on the show the last year Alex Trebek hosted the program.
When introducing Peggy to the national television audience, Trebek asked Peggy what she did for living, and she told him she was the owner and moderator of the Cleveland Park Listserv. She mentioned some of the perennial issues that always emerge on the listserv such as “dog poop” and “bad mail delivery.”
As a writer, Peggy has given serious thought to writing a novel about the listserv. There are “a lot of intertwined stories that could be very funny,” she said. “But I have not gotten down to it — maybe next year,” she added.