Bruce Robey, 65; Theater Founder Helped Revive H Street

Bruce Robey launched the Voice of the Hill newspaper.
Bruce Robey launched the Voice of the Hill newspaper. (Bob Lester - Bob Lester)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bruce Robey, 65, who founded the District's Voice of the Hill newspaper and helped start the revival of H Street in Northeast Washington by establishing a theater, died Sept. 21 at Washington Hospital Center after a heart attack. He lived in the District.

Mr. Robey and his wife, Adele, who jointly owned a graphic arts business and were active in the arts community, used their retirement nest egg to buy the old French's restaurant on H Street in 2002. They invested their labor and bartered with a community action group to help rebuild the property into the H Street Playhouse.

It was not an easy process. For years, H Street had been considered a "firebreak" for the development pushing north from Capitol Hill, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher wrote in 2006.

"We were so naive," Adele Robey said at the time. "That's when we found out how truly difficult and poisonous the politics of race was."

As white property owners in a traditionally black neighborhood, the Robeys addressed accusations of gentrification by forming alliances across racial and class lines, offering free admittance to performances to anyone who lived within five blocks of the theater. The couple also moved into an old alley dwelling, a 10-foot-wide apartment about 30 yards from the theater, property that they believed is a remnant of the residences of former slaves who flooded into the District after the Civil War.

The establishment of the H Street Playhouse helped spark a renewal of the area, which in 2000 was still recovering from the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Restaurants and bars have since joined the barbershops, car repair shops and coffeehouses on the street. In 2006, the Atlas Performing Arts Center opened.

Mr. Robey's passion for the neighborhood "had a strong impact," said Anwar Saleem, executive director of the nonprofit group H Street Main Street. "He had no city money, all private money, his own money and any donations he could get. . . . It takes many people with many visions, and he was definitely part of that puzzle."

A native of Washington's Anacostia neighborhood, Mr. Robey graduated from Oxon Hill High School in 1961 and studied music at the University of Maryland. He served in the Marine Corps in the United States in the mid-1960s and returned to his hometown after his discharge.

A musician and photographer, he lived on Capitol Hill from 1975 to 2002. About 10 years ago, frustrated with the community newspaper that served the neighborhood, he launched Voice of the Hill as a Web site. It later became a monthly tabloid newspaper. The publication dogged officials about all kinds of issues.

"Bruce never sugarcoated anything he said to elected officials. He was always straightforward and wincingly honest, which I found refreshing, as I railed from the blows," D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said on a WTOP (1050 AM) blog last month.

Mr. Robey was a past president of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals and a founding board member of the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District. The Capitol Hill Community Foundation gave him its 2003 Community Achievement Award.

When Mr. Robey sold the Voice of the Hill to Current Newspapers in 2005, he stayed on for a few years to run the paper's Web site. Eventually, he and the Current parted ways. He recently revived the most popular part of the old Voice of the Hill as a news aggregation site and discussion group,

His first marriage, to Carol Lee Reif, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Adele Robey of the District; a daughter from his first marriage, Jennifer Ludwig of Leesburg; a daughter from his second marriage, Julia Christian of the District; a sister, Kathy Hunter of Fort Washington; a brother, Bill Robey of Accokeek; and three grandchildren.

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