The Hill: Bound By Many Definitions
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series looking at issues facing Capitol Hill residents.
On maps created by the D.C. Office of Planning, the Capitol Hill neighborhood appears as a smallish area at the southeast corner of the Congressional campus, just one of dozens of areas within the city assigned its own official identity.
The historic neighborhood is divided among scores of other boundaries as well — through the city’s voting wards and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, its police districts, and a slew of community associations.
In recent months, Hill residents have been faced with a variety of issues — from the rezoning of Metropolitan Police Department’s community policing program to city-funded programs designed to grow and retain area businesses — that often raise questions, and sometimes impassioned debates, about where the neighborhood begins and ends.
The range of answers about what constitutes Capitol Hill can vary from a just a few blocks to a more than 4-mile swath encompassing much of the Southeast quadrant and including a variety of sub-neighborhoods.
The Hill’s own longtime historian, Ruth Ann Overbeck, who died in 2000, described the area in “An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capitol”: “Some say the Hill’s boundaries have never extended past the three or four blocks nearest the Capitol.”
Still, Overbeck noted, as early as 1870 documents show property a mile east of the Capitol labeled as part of the Hill neighborhood.
“The basic thing is, Capitol Hill is too large to really deal with in one bite,” explained Karina Ricks, the Ward 6 neighborhood planning coordinator in the D.C. Office of Planning.
‘Growing, Growing, Growing’
Many local residents point to the expanding concepts of boundary lines when asked to consider how their neighborhood has changed in recent decades.
Although some residents still adhere to narrow boundaries to mark the Hill’s eastern edge — as close in as Third Street — others see the neighborhood stretching along the Anacostia River and extending beyond H Street Northeast.
“It’s taking hold where everyone considers these vast, expansive neighborhoods as Capitol Hill, even though years ago some of the older generations didn’t consider this neighborhood or that neighborhood Capitol Hill,” said Bill McLeod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, which focuses on revitalizing the business district along Eighth Street Southeast.
Overall, McLeod notes, the area is “still growing, growing, growing.”
Rob Nevitt, a Capitol Hill resident and president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, observes that for many of his fellow Hill dwellers, the current boundaries are “pretty blurry.”
Still, Nevitt agrees that the boundaries have grown since he first arrived on the Hill.
“When we bought [our] house in 1983, people said, ‘Wow.’ Eleventh or 10th street, it used to be that nobody went much beyond Sixth [Street],” he recalled.
That eastward expansion is the result, at least in part, of real estate agents.
“Realtors are notorious for pushing these boundaries over the decades as the markets ebb and flow, but it’s not just us, it’s the residents of those neighborhoods that want to be associated with an entity that brings something positive to their values,” said Don Denton, manager of the Hill’s Coldwell Banker/Pardoe Real Estate.
Before the Boom
Before its selection as the home of the Capitol complex in 1791, Capitol Hill was primarily farmland; the plateau where the Capitol building now stands was known as Jenkins Hill.
According to the Architect of the Capitol’s office, French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant called the site, which rises 88 feet above the Potomac River, “a pedestal waiting for a monument.”
It was the blocks around that area that sprouted the first area to be called Capitol Hill some 200 years ago.
“Originally when people said Capitol Hill … they really were referring to the area right to the east,” explains Nancy Metzger, a 29-year resident of the Hill who chairs the Capitol Hill Restoration Society’s historic district committee. The area, Metzger explained, spanned a distance of four to six blocks from the Capitol in a semicircle from South Capitol Street to North Capitol Street.
“For nearly a hundred years there were houses along First Street, so you didn’t have the Library of Congress, the [Thomas] Jefferson Building, you didn’t have any of the House and Senate office buildings, but you had the progression that you see at Second and Third streets came right up to basically the Capitol grounds, so that was really Capitol Hill,” Metzger added.
At the same time, a few blocks south between Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street, the Navy Yard was also developing.
“It was two communities growing together that produced what we now know of as Capitol Hill,” Metzger said.
North of H Street
While many residents point to the northern end as having the neighborhood’s most nebulous boundaries, most mention H Street Northeast as a definitive marker for where the area ends.
“The Hill is prestige,” said Anwar Saleem, who chairs H Street Main Street, a group that focuses on revitalizing the H Street commercial corridor. “It’s more economics than anything else. When the value of property goes up people want to market it.”
Saleem, who owns the Hair Rage salon on H Street, said he has even heard residents refer to the northern boundary as Florida Avenue, which runs on an east-west axis just a few blocks north of H Street and borders the Trinidad area and Gallaudet University.
The gradual absorption of that area, also known as Near Northeast, into what is widely viewed as Capitol Hill is unlikely to cease, at least in the real estate market, Denton said.
“Several people I know have been raising their eyebrows in the last few months when a lot of the things that come on the market north of H Street are called Capitol Hill,” Denton said. “But I think that’s a wave that’s happening that you might as well embrace, you’re not going to stop it.”
But, adds Northeast resident Richard Layman, it’s not merely a matter of marketing, but the architectural history of the buildings that ties together the neighborhoods — from Capitol Hill to southern Trinidad and Ivy City, north of Gallaudet University.
“From a building stock standpoint it’s the same neighborhood,” said Layman, a member of the H Street Main Street group.
On the Waterfront
Even along the Hill’s western boundary, which is widely agreed to be North Capitol and South Capitol streets, there are exceptions.
Several blocks of the city’s Southwest Waterfront, which borders the Washington Channel, often are described as part of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Rob Gabany, executive director of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals, noted that his group has several members in that region.
“We do sometimes feel the Southwest section, especially along the waterfront at Maine Avenue, is part of our neighborhood in that what happens at the waterfront we’re all working on together,” Gabany said.
The area is included in the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a joint effort of federal and local agencies to improve transportation, recreation areas and the environmental quality of a 9-mile area from the Tidal Basin to the Maryland state line.
Similarly, businesses played a key role in adopting the Capitol Hill moniker for an 18-block area located west of Union Station.
The name didn’t emerge from market research, but from the area’s business, which were seeking to join the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District in 2002, explained Rich Bradley, the BID’s executive director.
“When we got started we faced the same question, which is ‘what do you call this area?’” he said. “They called themselves Capitol Hill North.”
Despite the name, Bradley said, businesses in the area — which includes hotels and office buildings, but not residences — “never sensed they were part of Capitol Hill.”
The name is intended to identify businesses along the North Capitol Street, Bradley said, rather than cash in on the neighborhood’s reputation.
One Greater Neighborhood
Perhaps one of the most notable boundaries in trying to identify what actually constitutes the Hill is the Capitol Hill Historic District.
While the district’s creation helped to define the core of the neighborhood, many residents outside its boundaries also see it as a dividing force.
“Before the 1950s when the restoration movement really got a hold here on Capitol Hill, it was referred to as Greater Southeast or Southeast,” Metzger said. “There was a Southeast Civic Association, a Southeast Citizens Association, and it included a wide [swath], it wasn’t just the area closest to the Capitol or to the Navy Yard.“That sort of set the stage for later when the restoration movement got started and real estate agents were trying to sell houses, beyond the traditional line of Sixth Street,” she added.
Some residents in Near Northeast, for example, don’t consider their neighborhoods part of Capitol Hill, asserts Layman, who lives in the area.
“I would argue that once the historic district was created in some people’s minds that shrunk the definition, not expanded it, and now people are starting to think more that Capitol Hill is more than just a historic district,” he said.
Harry Schnipper, of the International Realty Group, has been on the Hill for 23 years and is a proponent of expanding the historic district to cover the geographical Hill area.
“Since most of the Houses on Capitol Hill are pre-1935 houses, it seems to be a moot argument as to whether or not it’s called Capitol Hill or Capitol Hill East,” Schnipper said.
But when Hill residents consider what makes their neighborhood unique, they are as likely to cite its architectural features as they are its general feel.
“There is a sense of joining, there is a sense you get of being part of something on the Hill, which is not unlike what you find in a small town. It has a congeniality to it which is sort of small townish,” explained Sam Smith, a Hill resident who ran a community newspaper, The Capitol East Gazette, in the 1960s and is now editor of the Progressive Review. “It’s not a matter of knowing everyone, but it’s a matter of assuming that the other people share something in common.”
Even in such a large area, many Hill residents cite the sense of community maintained throughout the neighborhood.
“I really do think of it as one greater neighborhood, even though certainly where I live … I’m not going to be intimately familiar with what’s happening at, say, 10th and D Southeast,” Layman said. “But it still matters to me.”