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Capitol Hill:
Residents Cast
Their Lots Together

By Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 06, 1992

The weekend south-central Los Angeles rioted, many Washington area residents held their breath and stayed indoors, fearful that violence would break out here as well.

Not Capitol Hill. There, residents turned out in force for the area's annual market day—a fund-raiser for a local social service agency. Black, white and Hispanic residents celebrated their community's cultural diversity, moving among stalls selling local artists' wares, delicious breads, flowers and food from every continent.

"A lot of communities would have panicked and would have called it off or had trouble [at the festival]. We didn't," said Don Denton, a local real estate agent who lives and works in the shadow of the Capitol dome. "We band together out of necessity and good things come out of it."

Some 32,500 people live in the area commonly referred to as Capitol Hill—that is, the neighborhoods bounded by North and South Capitol streets on the west, 15th Street on the east, H Street on the north and by the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, recently renamed the Eisenhower Freeway, to the south.

Slightly more than half of the area's residents are non-Hispanic whites and 47 percent are black, with Hispanics and Asian Americans making up the remainder, according to the 1990 census.

This neighborhood of tree-lined streets of town houses is largely populated by working adults, both singles and families with young children, according to statistics compiled by Denton's real estate firm for a somewhat bigger area—all the way to RFK Stadium to the east. The firm found that 25- to 34-year-olds are the largest single age group, accounting for 30 percent of the population, and 16 percent of area residents are aged 35 to 44.

John Arrascada, 25, moved to a two-bedroom town house on Independence Avenue last summer to be close to his classes at Georgetown University Law Center, but he quickly discovered other benefits to life in what his neighbors call "the small town within the city."

"You can go to your favorite bar and see the same people. We know the bartender and our favorite waitress who's always there to greet us with a big smile and get us our beer right away," Arrascada said.

Unlike Georgetown, which draws enormous crowds from all over the metropolitan area, the Hill bars and restaurants, like Tunnicliff's Tavern, the Park Cafe and that venerable dive, the Tune Inn, tend to be filled with local folks, especially after the happy-hour crowds of congressional staffers go home.

This is an old-fashioned city neighborhood, where residents often do their shopping on a daily basis, stopping at the neighborhood's bakeries and small grocery stores on their way home from work. With only one large supermarket in the area, major shopping trips may have to wait for the weekend, when there's time for a trip to the suburbs or upper Northwest. The area also is short on clothing stores, but Hill residents say the commercial thoroughfares have almost everything else, much of it in historic buildings renovated over the past decade.

Saturday morning often means a trip to Eastern Market for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Much of the area's appeal lies in affordability. With most town houses selling for $150,000 to $350,000, Capitol Hill is significantly less expensive for families than upper-class neighborhoods in Northwest. Its plethora of town houses also pulls in single people who prefer to own a single-family home rather than a condominium in Dupont Circle or Adams-Morgan.

Though the rental market was slow last winter and this spring, property managers say the pace is escalating as this summer's flock of interns and recent graduates flood the area looking for cheap housing convenient to their government and lobbying jobs.

While group houses generally cost about $400 a person per month, one-bedroom units often go for $550 to $900, and a two-bedroom town house might lease for $1,000 to $1,200 in the areas close to the Capitol, according to property manager Louis Kovalsky. Farther from the Capitol, say several blocks east of Eastern Market, rent on a two-bedroom town house might total $800.

"People who live on the Hill may come for a variety of reasons, but if they stay in the city, they won't leave, because they get the sense of community," said Terrell Mellen, 35, who in March bought her second home on the Hill, a two-bedroom town house on East Capitol Street. Forty percent of people buying homes through Denton already live on the Hill.

"When I lived in Georgetown I didn't know my neighbors at all," said Mellen, director of marketing for a trade association. "Here you have a sense of who's on your block. We look out for each other, we walk our dogs together in the park and we have nice conversations on the street."

They don't just talk to one another. As might be expected from people who live and work near the seat of government, Capitol Hill residents are constantly organizing themselves into everything from historic preservation groups to a chamber music series to children's soccer leagues.

But with all the positive attributes of urban living come significant negatives, and chief among them is crime.

"It's like looking over your shoulder. Our [crime] statistics are not that bad, but there have been a number of incidents that have not been solved," said longtime resident Richard Wolf, a government attorney. "If you get your car vandalized three or four times [you] don't like it. And that's pretty minor stuff for the Hill."

In 1991, an average of four people a day were robbed in the police district that includes Capitol Hill, according to police statistics. Just last month, a Democratic House member, Bob Traxler of Michigan, was clubbed on the head and robbed as he walked to his car, and earlier this year a Hill staffer, Tom Barnes, was killed during an apparent robbery attempt.

However, police officials say they hope the situation is improving, in part because neighborhood residents have banded together to fight crime. With the notable exception of stolen cars and thefts from automobiles, the crime rate is falling for the second year in a row for most major offenses, including rapes, robberies and burglaries.

"Capitol Hill is definitely not more dangerous than anywhere else. It gets more attention because of the people there, like that congressman ...," said police inspector W.B. Sarvis, acting commander of the district that includes Capitol Hill.

Families with children face a second dilemma: the District's troubled public school system. Many longtime residents can name scores of neighbors who fled for the suburbs once their children reached school age, and many of the middle-class families who chose to stay enrolled their children in parochial or private schools.

Capitol Hill residents have started to tackle this problem as well. Area residents and businesses have formed an alliance with Hine Junior High School Principal Princess Whitfield to help the school in a variety of ways, including donated supplies and tutoring and mentoring programs. When a fire destroyed the school's band uniforms, area residents and businesses organized a concert at the Kennedy Center to raise the money to replace them.

"They are accepting us and working with us just as if they had children in the school," Whitfield said."We feel a part of them and they are a part of us."

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