Bloggers Chronicle Neighborhood’s Changes

Posted January 21, 2010 at 3:13pm

Folks in Capitol Hill really love their neighborhood. Whether it’s touting the greatness of Eastern Market or raving about the recent influx of restaurants to the area, there is a lot of pride to be found among the inhabitants of the Hill. But while the trendy and family-friendly enclave is a happening place to live now, it wasn’t always that way. Ten or so years ago, sections of the Hill were no-go zones for house hunting and even walking at night.

“Where I live now couldn’t possibly be more safe,— said Nichole Remmert, a freelance fundraising development and events consultant who lives in the Lincoln Park area. “I wouldn’t have lived there in 1994. Whatever people’s personal thoughts on gentrification, there has been a decrease in crime.—

Remmert is one of several faithful Hill residents who write for the blog the Hill Is Home, which was founded by Kate McFadden last spring. Each of the contributors has seen the changes that have come to the area and are passionate about the neighborhood in which they live.

McFadden started thehillishome.com after being laid off from her job at AARP. She was looking to get some fresh writing clips and decided to do that by fulfilling a need she saw in the community. While other neighborhoods had established blogs, such as the Prince of Petworth and New Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill did not. So McFadden decided to start one.

McFadden first moved to D.C. in 1994, when she was working for the Smithsonian. She says one of the biggest changes she’s seen is the number of children on the Hill, as parents are choosing to start their families there.

“Before, when people had babies they would literally flee to the suburbs,— she said.

The real estate has changed as well. McFadden said she has seen places that were once run down turned into marketable homes. One in particular “used to be a drug den,— she said, but has since been renovated and sold twice within the past few years. At the same time, there are some people who have lived in the neighborhood for 40 years.

“I think it’s always been an interesting mix of people,— she said.

Claudia Holwill grew up on Capitol Hill and moved to New York City to attend Fordham University. She had planned to live in New York after graduation, but when the job market turned south, she decided to move back home. Writing for the Hill Is Home has given her an opportunity to get to know other people nearby.

“It’s been fun to write about the neighborhood I grew up in,— she said.

Holwill had seen the changing demographics of the Hill and also a shift in the overall quality of the area. She said that from her perspective, crime has definitely decreased since her days as a youngster.

“Barracks Row was completely different,— Holwill said. “There were abandoned storefronts, crime. There was no reason to go there.—

According to data from the Metropolitan Police Department, crime rates have fluctuated on the Hill from 2001 to the present, with murder rates down by the end of 2008. Although certain areas of the Hill are still in the early stages of gentrification, many have drastically changed, from barren and dangerous to hip and welcoming.

The Hill Is Home writers each seemed to have a special affection for Eastern Market, which reopened in 2009 after being closed because of a fire. The market is in some ways representative of the Hill, with a diverse mix of vendors, exhibitors and patrons. The lively, communal feel reflects the character of a neighborhood many describe as a “village.—

One aspect that has contributed to the neighborhood’s livability is the shopping. In recent years, a number of stores and restaurants have opened on the Hill, making it a more convenient place to call home.

Gentrification often means that box or chain stores such as Gap, Target and Crate and Barrel will move into the neighborhood, which can have both positive and negative effects on the area. On the one hand, the big-box stores make it easier for people to fulfill all their needs without having to leave their own neighborhood. However, there are some residents who worry that not only will chain stores take away from the neighborhood’s character, they will also crowd out smaller specialty stores.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with that if it means bringing people to the Hill and keeping money on the Hill,— Holwill said.

Holwill’s Hill Is Home colleague Sharee Lawler echoes that sentiment.

“The thing that I don’t like about chains is that the money you spend goes back to the headquarters, and when you shop locally, a much larger portion of the dollar stays in the neighborhood,— she said.

But the development of small “brick and mortar— businesses may be what helps the Hill retain its unique feel.

One such store is Hill’s Kitchen, a fun and quirky shop that caters to patrons’ cooking needs, from utensils and decorations to cooking classes and demonstrations. It is places like this that give the area its unique flavor and make the Hill more accessible. Another is Monkeys’ Uncle, a used children’s clothing store that is committed to environmentally friendly business practices and to encouraging people to shop locally.

Jay Keegan, a co-owner of Monkeys’ Uncle, recognizes the importance of encouraging people to buy their goods in the neighborhood. He and his business partner participate in the 350 project, through which people pledge to spend a total of $50 a month, divided among three of their favorite local shops.

“It’s trying to get people to recognize the small gems they have in their neighborhood,— Keegan said.

“It does make a difference where you spend your money,— said Lawler, who owns Black Lab Advisory, a small-business consulting firm.

Lawler spent a month during the summer conducting an “experiment— — she wanted to see if she could go that long without needing to shop outside the neighborhood. With the exception of buying a new television set, she could. Lawler said she wants people to realize what resources are right in front of them, because spending money at a local store means more will be invested into the community.

There is still plenty of room for improvement, but Capitol Hill has come a long way in just a few short years.

But whatever store or restaurant comes next, one thing is certain — residents don’t want the neighborhood to lose its unique charm.

“It’s sort of the village feel that’s always been,— Keegan said.