Maureen Wood Spent A Lifetime Creating A Sense Of Home For Others

Remembering Northside’s unofficial House Mother.

Illustration by Germán Gonzalez

Sunday morning at dawn, January 1989. More than 100 women, and a few men, formed a human conveyor belt across the intersection of Hamilton and Blue Rock on Northside’s main drag. They transferred boxes bucket brigade–style from one storefront to another, singing “You Are My Sunshine” and scooting back to the curb when cars passed. Among the items moved: the books Sappho Was a Right-On Woman and Our Bodies, Ourselves. Vinyl albums of feminist stand-up comedy. Labrys-pendant necklaces. Two hours in, shelves at the old location were bare. The crowd, triumphant, funneled into the new Crazy Ladies Bookstore and Center, now open for business, to celebrate.

Maureen Wood, the 33-year-old store manager, in black jeans, a pink-and-purple scarf, and a dark shag haircut, was as satisfied with the logistical feat she had concocted as she was with the spacious new corner spot. Quietly commanding, she ran the show without seeming much like a boss. Her voice was low and friendly, her sentences punctuated by a signature gesture—looking around, eyebrows raised above dark, deep-set eyes, and nodding: Do we have consensus? Wood had arranged for the bookstore to buy the building for a low five figure price. Since its opening, a decade before, Crazy Ladies had always needed more space. Some say it was Northside’s first post-war community hub, a destination for people interested in progressive causes. Through intimate concerts, support-group meetings, and literature deemed too out-there for mainstream shops, its aim was to change the world.

Like most independent bookstores approaching the Internet age, however, it closed. “I think a lot of people had it in their heads that Crazy Ladies would always be there,” Maureen Wood said in 2002, when the store was shuttered. “It will always be there. It just has to change form to work in today’s world.” Wood personified that changed form, spending the rest of her life helping women climb out of poverty—starting with affordable housing—and fostering community with clever get-togethers like that sunrise book ballet. While helping run Crazy Ladies, Wood also converted two abandoned public schools into apartments; turned a derelict woodworking-tools factory into a bustling community center; and cofounded a collective that taught home-repair skills to more than 2,000 women. The work landed the college drop-out a fellowship at Harvard University. Along the way, she molded Northside as the city’s most diverse intersection of art and activism. Wood, who died suddenly on May 27, was one of Cincinnati’s most prolific and visionary social activists.

“Maureen was special,” says City Council member Yvette Simpson. “She was a committed community leader, a passionate advocate for those without a voice, and a dear friend to many in our community.” If Simpson had added “unrelenting” to that list, nobody who knew Wood would have been surprised. What they were surprised by was her sudden exit. Because for Wood, there was always more work to be done.

Wood had a nontraditional childhood. In 1966, when she was 11, she and two siblings were sent to St. Joseph Orphanage in Monfort Heights. Their mother had died of breast cancer, and their father, a G.E. aeronautics engineer, couldn’t handle the brood on his own. “Maureen was good in the beginning,” says Peggy Wood, Maureen’s younger sister, “but then they switched nuns [overseeing her], and with the second nun, she could do no right.” During high school, the elder sister shuttled between the homes of relatives.

“Having your family fall apart, that changes you forever,” says Nancy Ent, a longtime friend. “Maureen didn’t want to see that happen to other children.” Wood found new mother figures at Grailville, a nature retreat-cum-education center near Loveland run by members of The Grail, a progressive Catholic community. Grailville imprinted upon Wood a model of spiritually informed feminism. The people at Grailville appreciated the energetic volunteer who had a preternatural rapport with kids and a handiness with power tools.

Wood attended Fontbonne University in St. Louis and Edgecliff and Xavier here in Cincinnati, but despite a voracious appetite for books, she found attending classes too passive an activity. Dropping out, she volunteered at Women Helping Women, the nonprofit for survivors of abuse. Since most of Wood’s activities paid little or nothing, she supplemented her income with construction work. One job was at the home of a single mother who was forced to choose between buying food or paying someone to fix the toilet. “That’s when Maureen realized that women need to know how to do simple home repairs themselves,” says Peggy Wood. Both Wood sisters began teaching six-week courses in basic plumbing, electrical work, and construction—after educating themselves by reading manuals and working alongside contractors.

In the ‘80s, the two sisters bought a house together, a vinyl-sided dump on one of Northside’s grittier streets. A former illegal bar, it had green shag carpeting and wood panels nailed over windows. Maureen, just 25 years old, haggled the price from $26,000 down to $16,000.

The Boyd Street home became a modern-day salon with “a huge table bursting with enlightened and engaged conversation about what this world could become if women were full participants,” says artist Ursula Roma. MUSE, the women’s choir that continues to give about 30 concerts a year, was founded there around a baby grand piano. It was also a place where Wood indulged her nieces and nephews. The prototypical cool aunt would put dish soap and water in an electric mixing bowl and turn it on, filling the entire kitchen with bubbles for her young relatives to play in. She would pull mattresses off bedframes so the kids could slide down the stairs on them.

“We really need to rethink how we do housing,” Wood said early in her career. “We’re no longer living in the American Dream of housing.” Wood believed that generating a community around a person’s home was as important as the roof itself, so she forged neighborliness with dances, potlucks, and even apartment-building board meetings where a certain amount of tenant participation was mandatory.

Her ardor paid off. She attracted a fleet of volunteers that enabled her to carry out ever more ambitious visions; Cincinnati’s feminist and lesbian communities were highly mobilized. More than 100 people would show up on a given day at a low-income housing renovation she organized in Avondale in the 1990s. Many of them were eager to polish skills learned in Wood’s home-repair classes. “I admired her intensely,” says Phyllis Carroll, a union electrician who worked on Boyd Street and taught some of the classes. “Not all of us want to be visionaries. We’d like someone else to do all that work. I always liked having that little job. It made me feel good.” (Memories were also forged, Carroll adds: “We painted over roaches!”)

Wood’s weaknesses became apparent, inevitably, as her undertakings grew. “Maureen was not a detail person, and everything was a crisis,” says Joy Lohrer, whose job, for a time, was to keep Wood organized. But no one ever questioned her intentions. “She was selfless,” says Walt Moll, a friend. “She lived the change she wanted to make in the world.” Despite the big money that Wood started to pull in for projects, from government, nonprofits, and investors, she herself lived hand-to-mouth for most of her life.

With two dozen other women, she founded the Women’s Research and Development Center (WRDC) in the late ’80s. The nonprofit gave her a framework to pole-vault her developments to a new level—specifically with Garfield School, in South Cumminsville, just southeast of Northside. Never mind that it had become an open-air drug market littered with old tires. Wood took one look at the century-old structure, with its Rookwood tile decor inside, and envisioned a solution to kids living in slums. “I only see a finished product,” she said in 2006. “The moment I walk into an abandoned building, I have a plan for it in a week.” WRDC hired a commercial construction company to build 47 affordable apartments in the renamed Garfield Commons, a success story that helped lead the city to rethink its policy of demolishing old schools.

In 1989, Wood bought the space that would become her longest-running project and her crowning glory. Off the Avenue Studios, a 30,000-square-foot former factory at the corner of Langland Street and Knowlton Street in Northside, was like Boyd Street writ large: a mega-house for parties, performances, activism, and instruction. Its maze of rooms served as artist studios and housing for the stray individuals that Wood could never stop adopting. “My mom had Moonlight Gardens. We had Off the Avenue,” says Nancy Ent, who would thrift-shop for gowns to wear to Second-Chance Prom parties each May. “That place was packed,” adds Ent, who helped decorate for a beach theme one year, a motorcycle motif the next. “Maureen was in her element, hosting the tribe. It brought us together as a neighborhood. These elderly black ladies would be dancing together with lesbians.”

With a gaggle of tenants to manage and constant repairs to make, Off the Avenue was a full-time job in itself. But Wood didn’t have an off switch, and she piled on additional projects and properties.

Eventually, she went even bigger. Valley Homes would prove to be Wood’s largest endeavor—and her Waterloo. To her admirers, it was proof of how pure her principles were. In 2005 the city appointed Wood receiver of the tract of 350 housing units in Lincoln Heights. Slapped together in the 1940s as temporary lodging for employees of the Wright Airplane Plant (now G.E.), it had been bought by a collective of African-American GIs after World War II. “It was literally returning to the earth,” says Peggy Wood. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility bills were overdue. Residents, many of them senior citizens, had nowhere else to go. Maureen Wood’s job was to collect rent and manage bills.

“Maureen could never stop at a job description,” says Joy Lohrer. “She climbed on the roof when it leaked. Fixed a water pipe when copper was stolen—at 3 a.m. She put herself in all kinds of dangerous positions.”

Wood decided that the tract needed to be razed and rebuilt, and set about generating the funds. Drug dealers, who ruled the streets at Valley Homes, were unenthusiastic about the revitalization. Wood was followed around and threatened by people who owned guns. She stuck it out for several years, and by 2010, the complex was transformed. A commercial developer finished the rebuild she had started, and Wood limped back to Off the Avenue with a case of PTSD. On some days she was unable to leave her home. On others she appeared to be on the mend, leading a summer camp for kids or fighting off a chain store planned for Northside’s business district.

As Wood approached 60, events at Off the Avenue started winding down, and her friends begged her to do the same. Rest, they told her. Downsize. Travel. In 2014, Wood put the property up for sale. The few interested parties to walk through slinked off after observing its junk-crammed courtyard, rotting decks, and fluttering sheets of Tyvek where siding had fallen off. Wood sank into a depression, feeling underappreciated by the neighborhood she’d helped foster. Garfield Commons had been sold and was now falling apart again. Chase Commons, another public school that WRDC had developed into affordable housing, now listed condos for six figures, becoming, ironically, a symbol of Northside’s gentrification. And then Donald Trump was elected president.

Two years after Off the Avenue was listed for sale, an energetic young couple came forward, promising to maintain its art studios and event space. Wood perked up. She moved to an apartment in Mt. Lookout, where the change of scenery re-energized her. “Just don’t buy anything new,” friends joked. Six months of solitude was about all Wood could endure. Suddenly, this past January, she was back in Northside, taking over St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a neo-Norman brick beauty on Kirby Avenue. Common Ground, she renamed it, “a gathering place for all belief traditions.”

Wood explained to her latest crop of volunteers that a haven was needed for disparate members of the community to come together, a place to share ideas and feel safe. Old friends rolled their eyes at what they viewed as Off the Avenue Part Deux. Others figured that Wood could never be content in a normal-sized apartment, and argued that the church was petite compared to past behemoths. Wood brainstormed on a culinary exchange between Muslims and Latin Americans. The church could be a film location. Upstairs rooms could serve as a youth hostel. As if all this were not enough, she announced a change in her personal life: She had a boyfriend.

There was no formal introduction of the mystery man, rumored to be an engineer, to Wood’s entourage. It was early days still, and she was consumed with launching Common Ground. But there was no doubt she had shaken off her funk. Some of the new blood in Northside, such as the millennials running a bike collective that Wood consulted on, referred to her as “the OG.”

But as spring wore on, Wood started feeling ill, and cancelled a pancake breakfast for Common Ground volunteers. On May 26, at the age of 62, she was found dead, fully dressed, in her living space in the church. There were no signs of trauma, so an autopsy has been performed (at press time, results were not yet in). “They think it was quick,” Peggy Wood says.

In death, Maureen Wood attracted the kind of appreciation she had wanted late in life. In early June, hundreds of people streamed into Off the Avenue, which had been spruced up by its new owners, for a daylong celebration. Sifting through a table laden with photographs was a nonagenarian who thought she’d never own a home until Wood helped her to do so. Looking at plaques and awards of excellence mounted to a wall was a woman who went to college only because Wood had been so encouraging. “Maureen was the first person I ever met doing this for women,” she said, raising a fist in the air.

A sculptor who had once lived at Off the Avenue drove in for the occasion, and recounted how he applied lessons learned from Wood to revive a community center near his new home in Knoxville. Kids raced around the space, chomping on food sent over by Northside restaurants. One jumped up to swing from a ceiling pipe. As the day wore on, the younger ones calmed down and musicians took the stage and began to play. Old friends of Wood sang “Whiney White Girl Blues,” an original composition that embodied her self-deprecating sense of humor. And finally, there was a proclamation from Mayor Cranley: June 10, henceforth, is Maureen Wood Day in Cincinnati.

Yvette Simpson, who knew Wood more personally, said via e-mail, “I feel lucky to have known her. She will be missed for her spirit—she truly brought everything she had to everything she did.”

No one saw Maureen Wood’s death coming. But now that the optimistic busybody was at rest, the community she nurtured could start to fully assess her contributions. “I’m very impatient,” one mourner remembered Wood saying, “to see change in my lifetime.”

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