Update From Capitol Hill
Washington, D.C. – The young woman was kneeling in the small yard in front of the small but charming house, planting flowers. She seemed happy, and said hello to the strangers walking along the brick sidewalk in front of her home. Her yard was very pretty, filled with flowering plants, yellow and pink and blue, some in buckets, most in natural soil. There was nothing unusual about this scene, nothing you could not see this time of year in countless places in the northern states. But what made it different was that this was an old neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and you would not likely have witnessed this scene five years ago, certainly not 10. For this was Capitol Hill, a neighborhood risen from the dead.
Florida, as we have noted in the past, had something to do with it. In fact, more that something. In 1972 Rhea Chiles, wife of then-Sen. Lawton Chiles (later Florida governor), noticed an abandoned building virtually in the shadow of the Capitol. It was definitely in the afternoon shadow of the Supreme Court, directly across from Second Street. Its windows were boarded and an upper floor was falling in. Homeless occupied the basement. But in 1972 it was not unique. Much of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in the southeast quadrant of Washington, an old section on the opposite side of the famous mall, was a disaster.
Prudent people did not go there. The streets were unsafe. More than a few houses were so neglected as to be uninhabitable. It was a national disgrace. Rhea Chiles may have shared that view, but she also saw opportunity. She had been thinking about a state embassy ever since her kids asked where Florida’s embassy was. She raised the money to buy the dilapidated property, which dated to 1891 and was designed by a famous architect, and in short order an eyesore was restored to a modernized version of its original dignity.
She began the first, and still only, state embassy – Florida House. Gold Coast magazine wrote about it in the late 1970s; it already had a reputation as a convenient place for Florida business people to drop by – an office away from home, as well as a classy place for Florida legislators to hold receptions, and for families touring the capital to get their bearings. By then it had an important side effect in calling attention to its neighborhood as a redevelopment project begging to happen. By the late ‘70s it had already begun, and it goes on as this is written. Within a few years the blocks adjacent to Florida House began to recover. And so it has gone on, almost 40 years now, block by block to the east, all the way to RFK Stadium, roughly 20 blocks from Florida House on the edge of the Anacostia River.
The trend has accelerated in recent years as members of Congress and thousands of government workers have looked for comfortable housing close to the capitol and surrounding government buildings. Commuting from outside Washington has become a nightmare. Every main approach is like a bad day on Interstate-95 in Florida, and that of course includes the same I-95 north and south of Washington. Even the existence of the Metro, an excellent modern subway system, has done little to relieve auto traffic into the city. What Metro has done is accelerate redevelopment of old city neighborhoods convenient to stations. Workers can get to downtown jobs in minutes instead of an hour or more from outside the city.
Most of those buying, at very high prices, and restoring old homes are young people. These are people who love, but could not afford the charm of the old Georgetown section, but they are bringing the Georgetown style to Capitol Hill. The sidewalks are busy with mothers pushing carriages and people walking dogs. The newcomers improving properties often have formidable challenges. One couple bought a house that had been foreclosed on. The floor of the house, including the supporting joyce, was rotted and had to be ripped out. There was no basement and in the dirt below the floor they found old whiskey bottles obviously left by the workers who built the place in the 1880s. This couple spends much time debating what subtle shade to paint their brick front wall and figuring out how to top their neighbors with the contrasting color of doors and decorative shutters. The effect of all this energy has been to stimulate all aspects of urban life that had been in trouble in Washington. Schools and churches that in a different locale might have closed are surviving and growing. Capitol Hill is alive with restaurants and the Eastern Market, not long ago surrounded by a neighborhood where one would venture with caution, has become a tourist attraction.
And those visitors spread without fear into the neighborhood, admiring with awe the renaissance of a city, and exchanging pleasantries with a young woman planting flowers in a front yard.