WOODBURY — For decades, one of the first things people have seen coming into downtown Woodbury on North Broad Street has been the Colonial Diner.
And for 17 years, some customers at this classic American diner have had Stevie Logothetis for a waitress. One recent day, the 49-year-old Brooklawn woman led Woodbury residents Peggy Principato, 57, and her mom, Peg Mendoza, 93, past the rotating cakes and vintage jukeboxes to a nearby vinyl booth with a friend.
For Principato, Mendoza and others, Woodbury is a city with a past.
The two share a ZIP code with nearby suburban Deptford. There’s a difference, Principato explained: “To me, Woodbury is more old-fashioned.”
Mendoza said that when she was younger, the small city was a place where people shopped, dined and watched movies. That changed as suburban developments sprouted in the farmers’ fields that once surrounded the city, drawing businesses and residents.
Now, Mendoza said, “they’re trying to make a comeback.”
Many southern New Jersey towns have downtowns, main streets that give people who live and visit a sense of where they are. But few of these downtowns are older or more historic than Woodbury.
The town was founded in 1683 by Henry Wood, an 80-year-old Quaker who left England with his son for the relative wilds of the American territories after a lifetime of religious harassment. This came a year after William Penn similarly founded nearby Philadelphia as a “holy experiment.”
Broad Street itself is a Colonial-era highway that was initially laid out in 1710 as the King’s Highway between Burlington and Salem.
Elements of the distant Quaker past still remain. The modest 1715 meetinghouse off North Broad Street is still the site of regular worship services, with a sign that notes it is “where good people dwell together in brotherhood and peace.”
A nearby North Broad Street plaque also marks the spot where Gen. Charles Cornwallis, a leading British officer during the American Revolution, briefly set up headquarters in November 1777, after defeat in the Battle of Red Bank at what’s now National Park. The British used the meetinghouse as a field hospital.
Ten years later, Woodbury was also designated Gloucester County’s seat, which shaped the development of the town. About 2,500 people currently work for the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of the offices are clustered around Broad and Delaware streets.
The city’s other large employer is what was once called Underwood Memorial Hospital. It merged last year with South Jersey Health Care, which has facilities in Vineland, Bridgeton and Elmer. In May, the hospital was rebranded Inspira Medical Center Woodbury.
The hospital employs about 1,900, said Randi Woerner, the city’s director of economic development.
The two employers have a sizable effect on the 10,174-person city, with doctors’ and lawyers’ offices and restaurants flourishing in the middle of the day to accommodate the workers and everyone who has business with them.
These include Woodbury Station Café, a Louisiana-themed restaurant inside the city’s former 1883 train station, Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse and the Italian-themed Marlene Mangia Bene.
City Councilman Dave Trovato sat in one of the newer restaurants, La Piazza di Scotto, on South Broad Street. For him, the older homes and broad streets of Woodbury are a draw for current and future residents.
“A lot of hometowns went through a slowdown with the malls and everything,” he said, “but I think everyone is moving back to a hometown-style community.”
Trovato pointed to the nearby G.G. Green Block building, a striking former opera house built in 1880. Once nearly condemned, the National Registry of Historic Places building is now in the midst of a conversion to age-restricted apartments. The Victorian landmark will include 52 one-bedroom and three two-bedroom units as well as 7,000 square feet of retail space when finished later this year.
This, Trovato said, “is something the community can be very proud of.”
Trovato moved to the community after he married his wife, Cindy, originally from Woodbury. He is a professional actor, having appeared in hundreds of commercials, as well as in the HBO series “The Wire” as Maj. Walter Cantrell and the NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street” as Officer Mike Graul.
Woodbury, he explained, was close enough to major cities that he could keep acting professionally, while having a normal home life.
Tony Vola, chef of La Piazza di Scotto, came by and greeted Trovato. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Vola said he moved to Woodbury with an eye on the future. He explained, “I see a lot of potential growth here.”
The city has looked to the arts to draw visitors. The city’s second Fine Arts Festival, scheduled for Sept. 28 and 29, is an annual event that this year includes painters, filmmakers and cake decorators. Thousands attended last year’s inaugural offering, and a similar turnout is anticipated this year.
Out on South Broad Street, Larry Jenkins, 56, had a different take on the city. He remained optimistic for the future, he said, because he once knew a more vibrant city. “They just need to open up the stores,” Jenkins said, sitting in the alcove of the White House, an apartment complex in a converted former movie theater.
He moved to Woodbury about eight years ago because public transportation made life more convenient. Since he has lived here, he said he has seen signs of growing prosperity, but more could be done.
Across town, in Stewart Park off East Red Bank Avenue, children in a summer camp played sports on the city’s green fields. Down a hill, Jeffrey Kammau, 44, of nearby Gloucester City, stood on a municipal dock on Stewart Lake and cast his line into the water with his stepson, David Bangs, 9, of Belmar in Monmouth County.
Bangs caught and released 20 fish the day before. He was excited to catch more and was sure he could.
Wood founded his town looking for a better place for his son and him to live their lives. Now, people who visit and live in that town 330 years later have many of the same hopes and dreams, and these play themselves out here on the classic American tableau of a small town with a big main street.
“It’s a good time,” Kammau said, helping Bangs cast his line again. “That’s what it’s all about.”
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