Dick Wolf, the legendary Capitol Hill community activist, died last week at 79.
“Mr. Wolf was not regularly mentioned in newspaper headlines or on television,” reads Wolf’s Post obituary by Bart Barnes. But his name is all over the Post archives going back four decades, in stories on city and neighborhood concerns of varying parochiality.
Wolf’s legacy includes laying the fabric of the city historic preservation and comprehensive planning process, establishing the Capitol Hill Historic District, saving Eastern Market and rejuvenating Barracks Row. Here’s how Barnes did his work: “He did the nitty-gritty work of arguing with bureaucrats and legislative staffers. He cajoled and pleaded, bullied and browbeat. And he was relentless.”
There is a subtext to Wolf’s passing, implicit in Lydia DePillis’s City Paper write-up last week, that’s worth making explicit: that Wolf’s work represents a brand of urban civic activism that could well be on the wane.
In Wolf’s heyday, activists were most concerned about architecture and scale and historic preservation and developers’ rapaciousness. These days, some influential urban activists are taking a favorable view of increasing density and building heights, exploiting transit connections and finding common ground with developers.
Part of the difference is that Wolf spent most of his activist career in a contracting city, where the continued value of urban living was not taken for granted; the new reality is that D.C. is a growing city and Capitol Hill is one of its most desirable neighborhoods.
The clash is playing out right now in Wolf’s back yard, where redevelopment plans for the Hine Junior High School property have turned into a proxy battle over what neighborhood development should be about. The fight might be over a few feet of building height and a some arcane parking requirements, but the underlying issues go to the heart of the urban philosophical tussle. The debate will be poorer for Wolf’s passing.