The Porn Star Next Door

Wendy Iwanow says she just wanted to help revitalize her new home. So why did her neighbors run her out of town?

It wasn't until early 2000, after she bought the Northwood Hills house, that police officers again began appearing in her life. When Iwanow first moved into the mansion, she kept to herself, concentrating on refurbishing the home. The previous owners had moved to Connecticut a year before she bought the property, and the time spent sitting empty caused the house to fall into disrepair. Right after Iwanow purchased it for $165,000, she began a massive remodeling effort. With her live-in boyfriend, William Ochs, she rewired the house, refinished the hardwood floors and touched up the wood ceilings. The giant master bedroom was painted and polished, and the master bathroom was remodeled. Iwanow also added a half-bathroom downstairs. Satisfied with the interior progress, she turned her efforts to the outside of the house. She gave the house a stucco finish and painted it terra cotta orange. She planted ficus hedges, built a koi pond and a fountain, repaired the detached garage, and installed the iron fence and gate. And when the outside met with her approval, she turned her attention to the surrounding neighborhood.

When it was founded in the early 1900s, Northwood Hills was one of West Palm Beach's ritzier areas. Legend has it that some of the castle-style homes built on Northwood's hilltops had been constructed by pirates and rum-runners who relied on the unobstructed views of the Intracoastal and sea to watch ships arrive. But by the 1920s, the rogues had moved out, and the castles and mansions were sold to trendy West Palm Beachers. A construction boom in the area at that time yielded a number of stately homes in Northwood Hills. The new residents favored homes like Iwanow's 3916 Westview Ave. mansion because they couldn't afford the much pricier estates on Palm Beach island but wanted the same luxuries that island dwellers enjoyed.

Bordered by 25th and 45th streets and Greenwood and Windsor avenues, the neighborhood built on mango groves quickly became a desirable residential area. A 1924 article in the Palm Beach Post described Northwood Hills as having "the most slightly residential lots in the city," a strange statement that the community seemed to receive as a compliment. But as years passed and Northwood Hills ceased to be a fashionable address, the homes began to show their age. Wealthy property owners moved to newer areas, and middle-class families took their place. In time, the homes continued to deteriorate and the fences sagged. As property values plummeted, absentee landlords bought the castles and bungalows and rented them cheap. When the economics of the community changed, so did the complexion. What had once been a predominantly white community became a predominantly black community, populated with many short-term renters who had little concern for the long-term viability of the neighborhood.

Colby Katz
Iwanow hopes to spend more time working in the garden (above) after leaving a career in porn behind (inset pictures)
Iwanow hopes to spend more time working in the garden (above) after leaving a career in porn behind (inset pictures)

For the past 20 years, Northwood Hills has seemed to be trapped in a downward spiral, at least as far as real estate agents and tax appraisers are concerned. It wasn't until the late 1990s that white speculators like Todd and Kim Turner, Iwanow's neighbors to the north on Westview Avenue, began buying the old homes and fixing them up, hoping to one day cash in on their investments. Residents in similar West Palm Beach neighborhoods like Northwood Shores and Northboro had seen their home values triple in five years' time; Northwood Hills' newest residents hoped the same would happen for them. David Ortlieb, a Northwood Hills resident, says his house has indeed tripled in value since he bought it six years ago; he claims the area is currently considered a top area for young artists and designers in West Palm Beach looking for affordable, attractive homes.

But to many of the longtime, black Northwood Hills residents, the arrival of the new neighbors smacked of race-based gentrification. From the start, Iwanow says her neighbors resented that a single white woman could afford the big house on the hill. "They call it revitalization, but it's regentrification," Iwanow says. "The people see it; they're not fucking stupid. The majority of the people who have bought the big houses there and fixed them up are white. The black people see it, and they see it coming from white people."

But before she thought about any of that, Iwanow settled into the hilltop mansion and was determined to live there. She became active in the Northwood Hills Neighborhood Association. She joined efforts to have big speed humps, called traffic calms, installed on the streets. She hand-planted flowers along the sidewalks. She lobbied for landscaped medians and hosted neighborhood cocktail parties in her home. She memorized city codes and demanded that they be enforced, often angering absentee landlords. West Palm Beach's mayor, Joel Daves, came to some of her cocktail parties and once told the Palm Beach Post that Iwanow and Kim Turner were two of the most productive neighborhood activists in the city, though he did not respond to New Times' request for comment for this article. Iwanow participated in the Help-a-Neighbor program, buying paint and helping refurbish the houses of those unable to do so themselves. "I was painting their houses before I'd finished painting mine," she recalls. She even wrote and edited the neighborhood association newsletter. At first, everyone seemed pleased with her efforts.

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