WACO, pronounced “whack-o”

IMAGE: Former WACO president Arthur Karpas on Westmoreland Avenue. Photo by Bill Brown.

BY ARTHUR KARPAS

Founding member and long-time president Arthur Karpas recently donated Westmoreland Area Community Organization meeting minutes to Historic Takoma, Inc. He was asked to create an index for the minutes which cover the years 1979-1983, and to write a brief memoir on how WACO got started and the impact it had on the neighborhood. The index and and minutes will be openly available at Historic Takoma to any interested person and the article announces that.

The following article is an abridged and edited version of the memoir.


In 1973 my family moved into a 1923 Montgomery Ward kit bungalow at 6916 Westmoreland Avenue. Some of the older owners in the neighborhood were either first or second purchasers of their homes. Several houses had been divided two decades earlier into apartments for renters, making a population heterogeneous in age. The North-Central Freeway was being planned to pass through Takoma Park, as we later learned, on the other side of Westmoreland Avenue from our new home. There was neither a sense of permanence nor community. Thanks to Sam Abbott, later to become Takoma Park mayor, and an active, persistent, civic-minded City population, the Freeway plan was abandoned and our neighborhood and City saved. Gradually new families bought homes and a feeling of community began to grow.

By1979 I had been thinking for several years that our neighborhood needed a community organization. One day I heard that a neighbor, Paula Roark, a community organizer living across Westmoreland Avenue, had a group of neighbors meet at her home to create a local block organization. I rushed to join the effort.

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The corner of Westmoreland and Walnut Avenues, Residents of Walnut and several nearby streets are represented in WACO. Photo by Bill Brown.

The first organization meeting was held on September 13, 1979. In attendance were 12 residents. A sample of issues concerning neighbors:
speeding traffic, permit parking, crime, clean up of the block and Urban (“Gazebo”) Park, zoning issues facing multi-family and single-family homes, ward representation, development of the Carroll/Westmoreland commercial area and block grants for the neighborhood.

Despite this weighty list of issues it was agreed that our first item of business would be to organize a neighborhood picnic to be held at Urban Park in 10 days, featuring volleyball and a potluck dinner.

It was agreed that a chairperson would be necessary. I volunteered to be temporary chairman “until elections were held.” My words were poorly chosen because no election was ever held and I continued in the role of chairman, later called president, for 23 years. During that time we tried twice to establish co-presidents but it didn’t really work so I was the behind-the-scene president.

At the second meeting on September 26, 1979, it was agreed that our block organization would be called the Westmoreland Avenue Committee (WAC), focusing on concerns affecting Westmoreland Avenue from Carroll Avenue to “the end of the road.”

WAC was to be the first block organization to eventually form the South Takoma Park Citizen’s Association (STPCA). We envisioned recruiting additional block organizations to form nearby and join STPCA. It was agreed that the concerns of WAC would be exclusively local in nature, concerning only Westmoreland Avenue.

During the third meeting on October 18, 1979 a statement of intent of the organization was read and amended to change the name, and extend the boundaries to include the area surrounding Westmoreland Avenue. The conceptual structure was changed from an association of block organizations to a self-standing organization of residents of a multi block area.

The amended statement of intent read: “The name of this organization shall be the “Westmoreland Area Community Organization.” After deep discussion at Norman Greene’s house and in order to be memorable we chose not to sound like the city in Texas, but to pronounce our name as “Whack-O”. It was one of the best decisions we ever made, and certainly the most memorable. [Editor’s note: Norman Greene sculpted the popular Roscoe statue placed in Old Takoma in 2001.]

“The organization is established as a non-sectarian, non-partisan body open to all interested individuals who reside in the geographical area that is defined as and includes Westmoreland Avenue and the area surrounding Westmoreland Avenue.”

“The objectives of the organization shall be to uphold and defend the community character and park-like atmosphere of our neighborhood; to beautify, maintain and preserve this area, and encourage and support similar activities throughout the community neighborhoods of Takoma Park, MD.”

“To provide means for dissemination of information, discussion, resolution and appropriate action in all matters that directly or indirectly affect the area surrounding Westmoreland Avenue and its residents.”

And finally “the South Takoma Park Citizens Association will be formed and comprised of representatives from area block committees.” Lofty a goal as it was, it never happened nor was ever mentioned again.

After the fourth meeting a letter to neighbors dated February 17, 1980 announced WACO’s creation The letter described WACO’s social events, neighborhood and civic concerns and accomplishments. We could even boast that WACO had been officially recognized by the Takoma Park City Government. The letter invited neighbors to join our organization.

By April 1, 1980 Mr. Jim Holland of 19 Pine Avenue. was introduced as Ward 3 Councilman Elect. He expressed his intent to attend our meetings, inform the city council of our interests and inform us of council decisions. By then the WACO boundaries were Carroll/Columbia, Hickory/Cockerille, Second and Eastern Avenues. We had monthly meetings rotating among homes, announced by a hand distributed monthly newsletter to over 300 homes, and a phone chain for notification of emergency WACO meetings or neighborhood crime.

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Arthur Karpas at his home, scene of many WACO meetings. Photo by Bill Brown.

We became well known, gradually becoming the most active community organization in Takoma Park and sparking a revival of community organizations over the City. We were engaged in building our neighborhood into a community where neighbors knew each other, and kids considered all refrigerators community property and every house home. We had block parties three or four times a year with the roller-skating magician lady, the hook and ladder fire truck or police cars doing demonstrations for the kids, food, live or recorded music, dancing, and games. We knew how to party!

There were Halloween parties and 4th of July parade floats or marching units wearing costumes and on one occasion playing “Hail to the Chief” on kazoos. Our first July 4th parade float entry was a giant athletic shoe with a 2-inch thick rope as a lace and 10 kids inside wearing “WACO for Takoma” T-shirts emblazoned with a four-color rainbow. Our float won a special directors trophy and a citation as the first float ever entered in the parade by a community organization, starting a continuing Takoma parade tradition. Then one day John Fleming said, “You know, with all this organizing talent we could have some political influence in the City.” That is what happened. In time WACO representatives were active on almost every City and area committee.

A favorite example is WACO’s placement each year of a representative on the City committee for choosing projects for use of funds from the Federal Community Development Block Grant program which passed money to the State, County and finally to the City government.

We continued to work on crime prevention, saving the Takoma Park Junior High School, traffic safety, parking, voter registration, zoning and housing code enforcement, and participating in and monitoring City and County council actions. We were also chosen by a Washington area TV station to illustrate the slogan “Integrated Communities Work.” We got the City to provide a police foot patrol officer. We prevented the conversion of a home in the middle of a residentially zoned street to a commercial property. We got a neglected street paved with curbs and gutters. We got designated as a parking permit area. We got an illegal auto repair shop on our street removed for dumping oil down the gutter. We got new play equipment for the park within our boundaries. We drove people to polls on Election Day. We boosted voter turnout until our ward had the highest level in the 1982 City election, and this effect has persisted.

By 2002 we knew it was time to pass leadership to a new energetic person. Amazingly WACO again found no need to hold an election because Bruce Moyer volunteered to the post of president, which he continues to hold.

The WACO meeting minutes from 1979 to 2003 and associated documents have been donated to Historic Takoma. A detailed searchable electronic index of these materials is in preparation and along with the documents is available for study at Historic Takoma.