Saturday, March 14, 2009

~Capitol Hill: The Place We Call Home

by: Maggie Hall

There are very few people in the world who realize that Capitol Hill is not only the seat of the US government, but also a delightful village in the middle of the city. Guide books often give it short shrift, and government issued tourist maps often end at the Capitol grounds.

So it’s little wonder that many visitors don’t make it past the Library of Congress and thus miss seeing the number one place to live in DC. This is no idle boast. Last year the American Planning Association named our community as one of the top 10 neighborhoods in the country.

And while there may be many other close-knit communities in lovely settings, there is probably no other national capital in the world where the seat of government is situated so closely to the homes and daily lives of ordinary citizens. For those of us who live here, it’s a tough heart that doesn’t admit that the magnificent sight of that seat of mighty power at the gateway to our community is constantly inspiring. It’s a visually impressive reminder that we are part of a city that is mentioned, heard from, and seen every day in virtually every newspaper and on every television around the world.

Who we are
The place oozes history and small-town appeal. Here an errand takes an hour because people know each other, and they stop and chat. One of the biggest attractions of Capitol Hill is its residents. What a galaxy of personalities, a truly integrated cross-section of society. It’s no exaggeration to say that Capitol Hill is populated by people from every walk of life. There are senators living next to teachers; judges alongside civil-servants; clerks, shop assistants and laborers sharing space with writers, artists, actors and musicians.

There was a time when young couples moved off the Hill to the suburbs as soon as they had their first child. But the city has changed, and hour-long commutes are not high on anyone’s list of ways to spend their time. People are discovering that the Hill is not just a fun place to hang-out, but a great place to put down roots. These days our six big parks – Lincoln, Marion, Stanton, Providence, Garfield and Folger – with their playground equipment and grassy areas are alive with youngsters. The Hill’s sidewalks are full of baby carriages, kids scooter down the sidewalks to school and giggling teenagers meet in the coffee bars.

And it’s easy for strangers, visitors, tourists, to get involved in daily life. It’s nigh on impossible to sit inside, or outside, any coffee shop or bar and not get talking to a “local.” Of course that local can hail from any part of the United States or around the globe. Washington – with its dominant work-force of politicians, political aides, lawyers, diplomats and journalists – is the great transient city of the world. But those who are lucky enough, clever enough, to choose Capitol Hill to live, quickly find themselves calling it “home.”

Historic Architecture
There’s a wealth of interesting, fine, unusual and curious architecture among the 8,000 dwellings that make up our Historic District. Lovingly restored Victorian mansions butt up against charming clap-board cottages, Italianate row homes stand next to flat-front Federals, and one-time-stables have been converted into quirky apartments with alley entrances. The brick sidewalks are lined with hairpin ironwork fencing, and towering trees shade the avenues.Renovation is a big interest here, and the annual Capitol Hill House and Garden tour attracts thousands from across the city to admire the renovated interiors of these 19th and early-20th century homes. While the facades must be maintained exactly as they are, there is no such restriction inside, and many people have spared no expense to create ultra modern rooms with every modern convenience.

Livable, Walkable Community
Another huge attraction is that you can walk everywhere. Within easy strolling distance is just about everything you need in life, be it a bag of sugar, a pound of hamburger, a head of lettuce or an ice-cream cone; a visit to the doctor, dentist or optician; the need to grab a sandwich, enjoy a happy-hour rendezvous or have dinner out. You can walk to the post office, the liquor store, the cobbler, the pharmacy and the florist. You can buy a fancy gift, a pair of gloves and virtually anything at Frager’s Hardware.

Many Hill residents have done away with their cars, since the rest of the city is easily at hand via one of the five metro stops that serve the Hill. And it’s only a quick walk to the National Mall, the best front yard of any city in the world, with its mind-blowing array of Smithsonian museums. But there’s so much to keep us occupied right here. “Cheers”-like hostelries, spiffy cocktail bars, gourmet restaurants, ethnic cafes, fast-food joints, all happily exist side-by-side. Where else would you get “hole-in-the-wall” conviviality keeping company with the sophistication of some of the sleekest cocktail bars in the city?

The retail map is made up of one-off, privately owned, unusual, shops. It cannot be said that there’s a shop for every need, but few chains have intruded, making shopping on the Hill a fun and unique treat. There are several clothing stores with eclectic fare, plus a popular second-hand clothing store; books, old and new; several gift shops and a new high-end kitchenware store. Then there’s Eastern Market – the gem of our neighborhood. While the original 1873 building is being rebuilt after a crippling fire two years ago, the temporary premises is keeping our beloved market merchants in business. And never a weekend goes by that new people don’t find their way to the delights of the farmers’ line, the antique and bargain-filled flea-market and the staggering array of high-quality art, craft and clothing stalls.

But man and woman cannot live by eating and drinking and shopping alone. Well, they can, but it’s good to do something constructive now and then. And there’s plenty that fills that bill on “the Hill.” Don’t let anyone ever tell you that we don’t have our share of “must” things to do for the domestic and international tourist.

The Folger Shakespeare Library.
Eat your heart out Stratford-Upon-Avon, for here is the finest and most expansive collection of “the Bard’s” works. Scholars and visitors come from around the world to either do research or just gaze in wonderment on his manuscripts and other rare Renaissance books. The 250-seat theater, built within the library, is a timber replica of a London inn-yard performing place, the type of theater that was common in Shakespeare’s time. It stages plays that rival any Broadway or West End productions.

The Washington Navy Yard.
This is a fascinating place to spend time and worthy of space on any tourist’s agenda no matter where the interests lie. Dating back to 1799, it is the US Navy’s oldest shore base, is still an active naval station and home to the Chief of Naval Operations. It houses the Navy Museum, one of the world’s finest maritime libraries and a naval art gallery. The architecture, particularly of the commandant’s house and the other homes occupied by top-brass stationed there, is historically stunning. You can also tour the USS Barry, a 1956 destroyer that’s been converted into a museum ship.

The Marine Barracks.
The oldest active US Marine Corps post is a vital part of the Capitol Hill community. Every day platoons of Marines going through their daily running paces race around the neighborhood. The commandant’s official residence is Washington’s longest continually lived in and certainly one of the most elegant homes in the city. The public can get access to the barracks every Wednesday morning when tours are conducted. And for those of us who live here, a summer rite is to go to the “Sunset Parade,” staged every Friday evening by the United States Marine Band, and the “President’s Own” Drum and Bugle Corps. The “star” of the impressive show is of course Corporal Chesty – a bulldog, the Marine’s traditional mascot.

Congressional Cemetery.
When it comes to conjuring up the history of not just Washington, but the United States, this is the literal and metaphoric dead center of research. With its over 6,000 graves, tombs and monuments, the 200-year-old cemetery is the final resting place for many of the influential figures and colorful personalities that helped weave the fabric of our city and our nation. From leading politicians to prostitutes, from military commanders to murder victims, they all lie here, including Capitol Hill’s most famous son, John Philip Sousa. The revered “Stars and Stripes Forever” composer and Marine bandsman was born on G Street SE, and every Nov. 7 the US Marine Band plays at his grave-side, to commemorate his birthday. But any day of the year is great to walk the cemetery, wander through the outstanding funereal sculpture and soak-up the history created by its occupants. But at the end of the day – and night – what makes the neighborhood of Capitol Hill so eminently attractive, is the atmosphere it pervades. All of the individual lures – be it the interesting characters, the pretty streets, the handsome homes, the pocket-parks, the great shops, the galaxy of eating and drinking establishments, the history – combine into one wonderful, enjoyable zone of livability.

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