Woodbury, seeking revival, wants to be the 'most LGBTQ-friendly city in South Jersey'

City of Woodbury Mayor Jessica M. Floyd, city administrator Scott Carew and Woodbury Police Chief Thomas Ryan at Woodbury City Hall on Oct. 12. The three and others in city government and in the community are working to make Woodbury more LGBTQ-friendly.

The rainbow banners flying along Woodbury’s Broad Street in the summer were signs that the venerable little city’s new promotional effort was under way.

Mayor Jessica M. Floyd, Police Chief Thomas Ryan, city administrator Scott Carew and community leaders hope to showcase Woodbury as a welcoming place for LGBTQ visitors and residents.

The officials say this ambitious bit of branding — which once would have been unusual, if not unthinkable, for a South Jersey county seat — is the right thing to do, and part of an economic development strategy, too.

“We’ve seen what has happened in Collingswood and Asbury Park,” says Floyd, citing two New Jersey municipalities where a visible gay presence has been part of a broader renaissance in recent decades.

“Maybe this is the spin that we’ve needed,” adds the mayor.

A 42-year-old married mother of three, Floyd isn’t gay. Neither are Ryan and Carew. But they’re comfortable with Woodbury’s diversity in all its forms.

“It’s 2017,” Ryan, 37, a 15-year police veteran and a Woodbury booster, observes.

Although no one on the 28-member police force is openly gay, the department supported a recent city council resolution appointing Carew as liaison to the police department on LGBTQ matters, says the chief.

He and other city officials also say they work well with Tony Doran, a native son who moved back to Woodbury two years ago. Doran and the organization he helped establish, Woodbury Community Pride, have helped energize the local LGBTQ community and deepen its relationship with City Hall.

“Our mission is to achieve prosperity through equality and create a safe and welcoming environment for LGBTQ people and small businesses,” Doran says by email, adding that he hopes Woodbury will become “the most LGBTQ-friendly city in South Jersey.”

Camera icon KEVIN RIORDAN
Pride banners along Broad Street in downtown Woodbury in the summer showed the city’s support for LGBTQ equality.

Earlier this month, Woodbury Community Pride sponsored a comedy night fundraiser at the city Armory; other events, such as gatherings for fans of the trivia game Quizzo, have enlivened the heart of the city. And the group has programs in the works “that will continue to highlight Woodbury as a destination for the LGBTQ community,” adds Doran, 44, a government contract specialist who’s currently a Rutgers-Camden graduate student.

“When Tony approached us, it was a no-brainer,” says Floyd. “We’re beyond ‘what are people going to say?’ After the banners went up on Broad Street, there were a couple complaints. But I think this has been received well.”

Needless to say, gay people have been living in Woodbury forever; Rainbow Place, South Jersey’s pioneering LGBT community center, opened on North Broad Street in the mid-1990s and operated there for several years.

“We didn’t know what the reaction would be, but nobody bothered us, ever. It was really kind of great,” says my friend Ted Marvel, 54, of Philadelphia, who was living in Collingswood when he and several other local activists established Rainbow Place.

“There was nothing else like it in the South Jersey region,” Marvel adds. “It really filled a void.”

LGBTQ life has long since gone mainstream. And downtown living is all the rage; millennials and others are gravitating to inexpensive urban neighborhoods across the country.

But while attracting new and younger people in all their variety makes good sense for Woodbury, challenges remain.

The city’s population has been declining for decades and has dipped to just below 10,000; the long-promised Gloucester County rail line and its Woodbury station still exist only on paper; and Inspira (formerly Underwood) hospital, a city institution since 1915, will shift most of its operations to a new Harrison Township campus by 2019.

Woodbury does have a rich history, with roots dating back to the late 1600s. It is blessed with leafy neighborhoods, lovely parks, and eclectic architecture. And churches. A lot of churches, so many, that there’s a postcard showing a variety of local church doors.

In recent years, new businesses, including a microbrewery, have opened on and near South Broad. There’s a growing arts scene, where support for the promotional effort is strong.

The city “has said definitively that this is a place for everyone, and I’ve never been more proud to be a resident,” says artist Jacqualynn Knight, 40.

“Woodbury has a sense of community in an almost retro way,” notes Carew, 48, who previously served as township administrator in Moorestown. Woodbury’s traditional look and feel led him to inquire why the city was not included in the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s Classic Towns of Greater Philadelphia program; Woodbury’s application is pending.

The city also is looking to do well on the Municipal Equality Index, a state-by-state evaluation of American cities conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights advocacy organization. “By achieving a high rating, it will help us get the word out to the LGBTQ community that Woodbury is a safe place to live, work and play,” says Carew.

I’d say Woodbury is doing rather well so far. I was so pleasantly surprised by the banners one afternoon last summer that I stopped to take a photo of one. I particularly like the slogan on it: “Everyone is welcome.”

I asked longtime LGBTQ activist and city native Kathy Hogan, who made local history a dozen years ago as the first openly gay deputy mayor of Haddon Township, what she thinks of her old hometown’s new promotional campaign.

Citing “current attempts [elsewhere] to roll back what rights we’ve gained,”  Hogan says, “Woodbury was a great town for all of us baby boomers to grow up in. I celebrate [the city’s] embrace of our right to live in peace, pride and dignity. Hooray for Woodbury!”