Hill Blogs a ‘Labor of Love’
Residents Parlay Their Passion for Capitol Hill Neighborhood Into Blogs
Julia Robey Christian knows Capitol Hill.
No, she isn’t an intern-turned-legislative-aide-turned-legislative-director-turned-chief-of-staff.
Rather, Christian is that rare breed, the native Washingtonian, and even rarer, the native Hill resident. She grew up in Southeast, long before trendy restaurants started opening on Barracks Row.
With such a history comes a devotion to the neighborhood that is manifest on her blog, “What the Hill.”
Unlike the many Hill blogs that focus on politics and policy, “What the Hill” is a neighborhood blog, a growing media type that focuses on the hyperlocal, the “What’s going on in your area?” news that so many larger outlets have struggled to provide in recent years.
It’s one of many blogs covering the Hill neighborhood to pop up in recent years, from “The Hill Is Home,” which features posts by locals that range from photo contests to history bits, to “JDLand,” a blog that covers development in the neighborhood near the Anacostia River waterfront.
It’s a natural fit for Robey Christian, whose professional life revolves around the happenings of the Hill. She’s the executive director of the Hill’s chamber of commerce, the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals. Her days are filled with working with Hill businesses, meeting with board members and organizing events such as H Street’s Halloween festival and the annual Hilly Awards.
But “What the Hill” is a different kind of undertaking for the Hill resident. Robey Christian doesn’t consider the site to be a traditional blog. The idea for “What the Hill” came about while Robey Christian was managing CapitolHill.org, the CHAMPS website.
She struggled with figuring out how to deal with her two distinct audiences: the business owners, who want resources, and the people, who want to know what’s going on this weekend.
“How do you mix those two things in one site?” she said. “Well, I decided you can’t.”
Robey Christian got a grant from the Community Foundation and used the money to launch “What the Hill” in 2010. The website features an event calendar, short features on Hill businesses and other bits of news.
For Robey Christian, this love of the neighborhood is a family legacy. Her father, Bruce Robey, was the founder of the Voice of the Hill, a defunct neighborhood newspaper. A former CHAMPS board president himself, Robey wanted an outlet that would cover neighborhood news in a more time-sensitive fashion, something the monthly Hill Rag just couldn’t do and something the Washington Post wasn’t doing within its local coverage.
In a new-media twist, Voice of the Hill got started as a website before Robey could afford to publish a printed edition.
Now, more than a decade later, his daughter primarily uses the Internet to spread the news. Whether it’s about new legislation dealing with Eastern Market or an event happening at a restaurant on Barracks Row, Robey Christian will be one of the first out there, tweeting links to blog posts.
“This is about the Hill,” she said. “This is about my life on the Hill. This is about our life on the Hill. We’re not going to talk about Georgetown or any other place unless it’s within the context of something that affects our neighborhood.”
It’s a sentiment that is echoed on “The Hill Is Home.” A quick glance at the website shows that it’s more of a traditional blog format, with 10 posts lined up on the home page, listing a variety of things from voting for your favorite pet Halloween costumes to stories of neighborhood history.
In spring 2009, Nichole Remmert had been writing posts for D.C. blog “Prince of Petworth” when she saw a note on the “New Hill East” listserv from Kate McFadden, who was looking for contributors to a new site she was putting together.
Remmert, a Hill denizen for the past 11 years, had recently left her job at a nonprofit policy organization. She wanted to write about the neighborhood for people who actually lived in her neighborhood, as opposed to the readers of “Prince of Petworth,” who mostly lived in the Petworth and Columbia Heights area.
“I was just getting to know my neighborhood again,” she said. “I really didn’t know my neighbors. I wanted to get out and be a part of things.”
Soon enough, Remmert was working as an editor of “The Hill Is Home,” working with McFadden and various contributors to keep the posts up to date.
In the past few weeks, Remmert has left her job as editor but remains a contributor to the site. Her reasons for stepping down sound like those of anyone who becomes consumed in his or her work: She felt like she wasn’t leaving the neighborhood enough and had become oversaturated with information.
Nonetheless, “I love the neighborhood and the people here,” she said.
Remmert said the blog “kind of ebbs and flows, depending on how development happens in the neighborhood. 2010 was a big year for the blog, since it published a feature on every candidate running for the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the Hill area.
“Where we go has a lot to do with where the Hill goes,” she said. “The neighborhood is changing so fast, and there is so much to cover. We will rise and fall on what happens in the neighborhood.”
That’s a concept Jacqueline Dupree is familiar with. Dupree runs “JDLand,” which covers the development south of the Southeast Freeway near Nationals Park and along the Anacostia River. She moved to that area in 1995, around the same time she bought the URL for “JDLand,” a play on her initials.
The daughter of a couple of former Hill staffers, Dupree moved to the area when it was still riddled with crime. “My husband and I used to joke, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if someday we could walk down to the riverfront?’” she said.
A few years later, when news started to break about the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, Dupree started to pay attention. And a few years after that, Dupree made her husband drive her around so she could take pictures so that her father could see what the area looked like.
Soon after, she built a couple of webpages to keep track of links to plans.
Dupree said growing up in the Washington, D.C., area — she spent much of her childhood in Chevy Chase — was what inspired her to keep track of the development. Going east of 16th Street Northwest was unheard of when she was in high school because that’s where the hookers were. Going to the old location of the 9:30 Club on Ninth and F streets Northwest felt like “taking your life into your own hands.”
But as she watched development take place downtown and along Massachusetts Avenue Northwest during the 1990s, she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to the area she lived in.
“If this sort of thing can start to happen in these neighborhoods, what about this neighborhood that’s south of the freeway and is less than a mile from the Capitol?” she asked. “There’s just no way that this development is not coming down there too.”
And she was right. “JDLand” took off in September 2004, before it was announced Nationals Park would be built in the area.
The following years were a flurry of posts, plans and photos for Dupree, all a side project to her full-time job at the Washington Post.
Since Nationals Park opened in 2008, there’s been less work for Dupree to do. But she continues on, whether it’s a blog post about the new name of the Navy Yard Metro stop or asking her readers for feedback on what they’re looking for.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said.
The spectrum of the Hill blog stretches on, from the anonymous posts of H Street Great Street to the newsy reports from the Eastern Market Metro Community Association.
But that’s the beauty of covering the Hill, Christian said. She doesn’t think there’s an overabundance of blogs because there’s so much to cover and, in her opinion, not enough people to cover it.
“There’s a need here, especially with all the development,” she said. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”