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Capitol Hill Community – Washington DC


“I’m just a Bill, yes, I’m only a Bill and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…”

This chorus from a Schoolhouse Rock episode of yore, still sung by children throughout the country, conjures an image of the Capitol Building and those who walk its hallowed halls creating the laws of the land. But, Capitol Hill lays claim to more than just the brilliant white dome that is home to the American legislature. It is a diverse, vibrant area of Washington, D.C. and the largest historic neighborhood of the city.

In 1791, as Washington began to develop as a Federal city, the area that is the Capitol Hill of today was a site covered by thick woods, largely unpopulated. The Nactcatanke Indians lived on the site of the new East Capitol Street Bridge. The lands, not occupied by Natives belonged to a man by the name of William Proust, who received it through a grant from the British throne. Pierre L’Enfant, when creating his famed blueprint of the city, chose the hilly site specifically with the Congress in mind and the government began to purchase tracts of land to start building.

Shortly after acquiring the land, the area began to develop. In 1799, the Washington Navy Yard was established on the banks of the Anacostia, which provided jobs to craftsmen who built and repaired naval ships. These employees, who mostly wanted to be able to walk to work, became the first residents of Capitol Hill. They occupied a smattering of boarding houses in the new neighborhood. Soon after, members of Congress began to move into the area and more boarding houses were erected to satisfy their housing needs. Most congressmen did not have permanent District addresses in the city’s infancy and stayed in short-term residences close to the Capitol building.

Then, in 1806, President Jefferson selected a Hill location for the new Marine Barracks, as it needed to be within short marching distance of both the Congress and The White House. Barracks Row would grow in stature and became the first commercial corridor in the District of Columbia. More occupants arrived to the neighborhood and it started too thrive.

By 1810, the neighborhood known as Capitol Hill flourished. Tailors, churches, pubs, goldsmiths and blacksmiths occupied storefronts. A distinct area presented itself to those who wished to live in its environs or visit for the day. The development continued through and into the Civil War period, when new houses were plotted and a hospital was built for the residents. The Hill buzzed with activity and became not only a livable area but also a social one due to those who lived on its tree-lined streets.

Eastern Market was introduced to Capitol Hill residents in 1873, which only added to its attraction. Designed by Adolf Cluss, one of D.C.’s premier architects of the time, it was the first large, city-owned public market. (Eastern Market has been in continuous operation as a public market since this opening. As competition from grocery chains developed in the District, the Market slumped but locals fought hard to keep it open and were successful.) Eastern Market served as a hub for not only food and staple shopping but sharing neighborhood stories and news.

Then, right before the turn of the 20th century, an important development took place that further endowed Capitol Hill as one of Washington’s finest neighborhoods. In the 1890’s, electricity, piped water and plumbing were introduced to the area. This caused a massive real estate boom until 1910 (or thereabouts) as the Hill became one of the first neighborhoods to have these conveniences. Many moved into the fashionable area to enjoy Hill life.

In 1908, activity flurried about Eastern Market. The site expanded and new Center and North Halls were added. Snowden Ashford, who designed or supervised the design of most important District constructions between 1895 and 1921, oversaw the new renovations. Eastern Market grew in stature and remained another jewel in the Capitol Hill crown. Residents city-wide ventured to the market and bought its vendor’s wares.

Throughout the 20th century, the Capitol Hill neighborhood held its own. As different neighborhoods in the District rose and fell, the Hill continued to be a charming and convenient location in which to live. While blacksmith shops and milliners were swapped out for cafes and gyms, the area continued to draw those who wanted to live in the shadows of the great dome. And, it still does.

Today, Capitol Hill still shines as one of the most loved areas in Washington, D.C. This old neighborhood continues to be one of the most densely populated in the city and is home to two branches of the American government – the Congress and the Supreme Court. The Federal townhouses of yesteryear still stand in magnificence. Eclectic shops and fine restaurants serve the neighborhood as they have done for years. And, the community is strong and one that loves the neighborhood.

While Barracks Row no longer holds the title of the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, Pennsylvania Avenue does. It is still a hotbed of retail and restaurant activity. At Barracks Row Main Street, hair salons (for people and pets), custom frame shops and national chains such as 7-11 and Verizon trade in their spaces, while specialty shops such as Capitol Hill Bikes, Homebody and The Kitchen Company offer their wares. Barracks Row Main Street is also home to restaurants such as Lavagna (Italian), The Ugly Mug (Burgers) and Banana Cafe (Cuban/TexMex.)

Capitol Hill has, possibly, the best libraries in the world. Not only is it home to the The Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library lies within its borders. This library is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials. They also hold major collections of rare Renaissance books, manuscripts and works of art. And, for peaceful afternoon strolls, many folks head over to the United States Botanic Gardens, which proudly displays fauna and flora, including those in the National Garden, to great effect. If not the Gardens, strolling along the quaint streets of the neighborhood is a pastime greatly enjoyed as well.

There is always much to see and do on Capitol Hill. It boasts a wide variety of shops, restaurants and American institutions to tickle anyone’s fancy. This charming, old neighborhood is still one of the District’s shining stars. And, who doesn’t enjoy the Capitol views?

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