Moira Ambrose and her family were among the early white families that moved to Capitol Hill in the late 1960s. This neighborhood east of the Capitol was being discovered by whites as an alternative to communities west of Rock Creek Park with their high prices and homogeneity. Ambrose's Capitol Hill has now largely disappeared. "When I graduated from college last May, I came home to a neighborhood that was vastly different from the one I remembered . . . . I wanted to write about it before I forgot what it had been like and so that current residents could take care to keep some of the good things of the past as they shape the community of the future."
The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscences. By Moira Ambrose
Capitol Hill used to be a small town in a big city. In the past 15 years, however, the residential area east of the congressional office buildings has changed substantially. Developers and new residents have very much altered the community I grew up in.
My family moved to the Hill in 1967, one of many white families moving into what was then a predominantly black neighborhood. My brother, sisters and I went to Brent Elementary School at Third and D streets SE. My friends and I all loved school. In P.E. we did the hokey-pokey, "Shake it Senorita," and some African dances that people from the African Art Museum taught us.
We played jacks at every recess and taught each other dances like the cosmic slop and the shaft. We slapped each other a "low five" or a "high five" depending on how well we did on tests, and we all detested the SRA reading series that occupied so many mornings.
Every February, during Negro history month, our class enacted the scene of Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus. And every year we shivered in collective reverence as we sang "We Shall Overcome" at the end of the assembly.
We were oblivious to skin color until about junior high. As we became preteens, however, differences in economic and social backgrounds became obvious -- and divisive. Black girls would only associate with other black girls, and white girls only befriended other whites.
After elementary school, the white and black kids in the neighborhood saw less of each other. The white kids went to private schools and held part-time jobs at Grubbs Pharmacy on East Capitol Street, or The Ice Cream Lobby on Pennsylvania Avenue. A number of my black friends from Brent worked at McDonald's down the street from The Ice Cream Lobby, where I worked. But, as teen-agers, we only saw each other when I bought a Big Mac from them or they ordered a double scoop from me.
In the late '60s and early '70s, no open-eyed Hill resident could avoid the race issue. Throughout the '70s lower- and middle-income blacks were edged out of the neighborhood as wealthier whites bought and renovated houses. Although I was little affected by race at school, I did notice it on the street. There, older black kids, in addition to typical teen-age bullying, would yell, "Hey, whitey, whutchyou doin' roun' my way!"
Yet, in another way, this fostered a community spirit different from the one the neighborhood has now. Many residents, black and white, were already involved in antiwar or civil rights activities and applied those ideals to their community. Neighborhood institutions blossomed: the Capitol East Children's Center, Capitol Hill Day School, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, a local newspaper (Capitol East Gazette), and Market Day -- a fund-raising event for Friendship House, originally a settlement house, that has offered social services for decades.
Other organizations, more oriented to social change, were founded, such as the Capitol Hill Action Group (CHAG) and the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, a network of community churches.
CHAG and other ad hoc groups worked with lower-income residents to help them find the means to stay in the neighborhood. As property values increased, black residents could no longer afford to live on the Hill. Many black residents in the neighborhood today are still there because they owned their own homes in the mid-1960s. Realtors are a powerful force in the community and, with the approval of many residents, have played a key role in the neighborhood's change.
Today's Capitol Hill is still a close-knit, neighborly community, but it is much more up-scale and homogeneous than the Hill I remember. The apartment building formerly inhabited by the Tennis Ball Man, a balding gentleman who threw us tennis balls from the trunk of his jalopy, is now painted an uninteresting green. The apartments are trimmed with black iron balconies and brass door knobs. Gone is the building where elderly residents, black and white, chatted on the steps in the afternoon sun.
A few blocks away a squash club has displaced an old warehouse that had the only machine that I remember selling Pepsi soda for 25 cents a bottle. Catering to the influx of two-income couples, the squash club was only the first of several fitness centers in the neighborhood. Clothing shops, restaurants and specialty stories now lace the community.
Neighborhood landmarks are being demolished. The Washtub laundromat across from the Eastern Market was recently torn down for construction of a new minimall. Even the name had a soapy, homey feeling that suggested the friendly conversations that occurred between loads. The Penn Theater, the scene of vicious popcorn and peanut battles during Saturday afternoon Bruce Lee movies, has disappeared. Only its facade was saved to be an old face on a new building of condominiums and offices.
Even the neighborhood's city-wide reputation has changed in recent years. Capitol Hill is now viewed as a trendy, wealthy enclave within Southeast and Northeast. When I was growing up, parents of my suburban friends wouldn't let their daughters come to parties at my house because our neighborhood was "too tough."
Distinctions made between Capitol Hill and other parts of Northeast and Southeast are telling as well. If I tell people I live in Southeast, they ask how many locks our family has on the front door. If I say I live on Capitol Hill, they ask if my father is a senator and which Ivy League school I attended.
Our street even boasts an "urban garden" -- five or six plots conscientiously tended by people on the block -- including my family. My family is obviously part of the cycle that brought changes to the neighborhood. But I sense that the community my parents sought in the late '60s is different from the community that new Hill residents desire.
My parents wanted to raise their children in an integrated, economically diverse community. The Hill was really never integrated and it is certainly no longer economically diverse. The neighborhood never became integrated because black residents couldn't gain the economic foothold needed to stay. The new residents -- congressional staffers with families and professional couples -- now move to the Hill partly because of this demographic change. People like these avoided the Hill 15 years ago.
As a result, the neighborhood is now more homogeneous and, arguably, less interesting. The Hill is predominantly white and seems to lack neighborhood "characters" such as the Tennis Ball Man or Mr. Shilden, who used to sharpen knives door-to-door and peddle books he found in garbage cans.
The Hill of today is an inward-looking community. It has little in common with surrounding Northeast and Southeast, and young professional newcomers rarely participate in school board elections or municipal politics.
The community groups organized to cope with the social change have now disbanded. One of the strongest community groups now is the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals (CHAMPS).
CHAMPS sponsors worthwhile programs such as summer youth employment, but 15 years ago such programs would have been administered jointly by concerned neighbors and local businesses.