Separate But Unequal

Has Capitol Hill, barricaded and fenced off, lost its small-town appeal?

By W. Ralph Eubanks

"Pea-soup green and ugly. The back yard is the size of a postage stamp, but it's only six blocks to the Capitol."

Those words—written in a journal that my wife, Colleen, and I kept more than a decade ago—mark the beginnings of my family's life in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In the spring of 1992, we bought an 1890s bay-front Victorian in need of considerable repair. It was shabby and unkempt, with weeds rising waist-high in the front yard. Both house and property looked unloved, and we couldn't help associating this neglect with the fact that the prior owners had just endured a bitter divorce after 40 years of marriage. One day, when clearing the tiny front garden of unruly vegetation, we found a gold wedding band in the dirt.

We knew that the secret to ridding the house of that couple's unhappiness was in its restoration, which we began almost immediately, documenting each step in the pages of our journal. We spent the next eight years, for example, replacing the crumbling plaster walls, cleaning the pine floors that had been stained black with dirt, and fixing a mysteriously sloped kitchen floor. Colleen and I were determined, and in the end, I think we brought back a grandeur the house hadn't known since its earliest days. It may not have been beautiful, but we knew we would love it all the same. Our marriage grew stronger in that old Victorian; we formed new friendships and became attached to the neighborhood, perhaps not realizing then that we had embarked on the slow and subtle process of putting down roots. During those years we brought home each of our three newborn children from the hospital, and we watched them grow up in the house of our making.

We quickly became Hill people, as residents of the neighborhood affectionately called themselves. Almost immediately, we noticed something curious about those Hill people: Even when they moved away, to another part of the city or to the suburbs, their ties to the neighborhood remained unbroken. They would return for annual events—the Mother's Day house-and-garden tour, or the St. Patrick's Day celebration at St. Peter's Church. And they would think nothing of driving in from Virginia, squeezing into scarce parking spaces along Pennsylvania and North Carolina avenues, just to shop at Eastern Market, that vast covered space where vendors have been selling bread, cheese, meat, and fish since 1873. They could not resist the Hill's quirky shops or its distinctive Saturday street life.

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