July 20, 2012, Washington, DC: Like so many of us, Julia Christian very deliberately selected a place to call home. Bottom line: She loved it there. But unlike those of us with ultra-nomadic tendencies who land far from the nest, Julia chose to return to the very neighborhood in which she grew up. She decided she simply couldn’t live without Capitol Hill.
Julia is a nomad of a different kind — she doesn’t necessarily travel the world but she most certainly travels the neighborhood. On a daily basis, her whereabouts are hard to pin down; she is constantly on the move, seeming to appear everywhere at once in the bars and restaurants and arts organizations throughout the neighborhood. She is a product of four neighborhood schools and five local addresses; the former executive director of Capitol Hill’s Chamber of Commerce, called CHAMPS; the current managing director of the H Street Playhouse; a consultant of sorts for H St. Main St.; and the proud owner of the Twitter handle @CapitolHillDC.
I recently met Julia on H St. at the British pub, The Queen Vic, before she darted off to a planning meeting for the H St. Festival.
Where Everybody Knows Her Name: I like to come here on Sundays a lot and read the Sunday paper and do the crossword puzzle. I was in last Sunday and I didn’t get here until late and the crossword here was already done. I realize it’s not mine, but damnit.
Obviously my job has me out and about. Every time I go to a bar or restaurant, I can say I’m supporting a local business. But it’s been really amazing because I’m friends with all of the people here and we’ve done so much work together over the years, whether it’s preparing the festival or whatever. It’s the same feeling as it was when I was a kid: We all take care of each other.
So much of who I am and the things that I value and the things I’m involved in is a byproduct of my environment.
A Childhood on the Hill: It’s crazy and creepy and fun and weird. Inevitably, people say, Where are you from? And I say, I’m from DC. They say, No where are you from originally? And I say, Here. Right here. You mean Virginia? No. Here.
One of the coolest things about this neighborhood is that I have four best friends in the entire world and none of us ever went to school together. We know each other from the neighborhood. There weren’t nearly as many kids in the neighborhood then. You turned three and if you were bound for DC public schools, you either went to Peabody or Brent. There wasn’t this whole lottery thing. I think all of our parents sort of banded together and took care of us. The shopkeepers and restaurant owners, too — there weren’t that many at the time — and they looked out for us. It was sort of this really cohesive community unit.
I felt like when I graduated from school, I needed to go work and give back to the neighborhood and the community that raised me, whereas most people say, I gotta get out. So I’m either totally sane or totally insane.
Creative Urban Roots: I grew up on 8th and A SE, a block from Eastern Market. My parents bought the house on 8th St. shortly after I was born in 1976 for $70,000 and sold it in 1994 for $275,000. They bought a house on 11th St. SE which was twice as much house — it had a little carriage house and everything — for $225,000. At that point, my parents were publishing the Voice on the Hill newspaper and they ran the paper out of the carriage house. They ended up selling the paper to the Current newspapers, and sold the house around 1999 for $975,000. They used that money to purchase what is now the H St. Playhouse and a small house in the alley on the court right behind it. I was just out of college at that point, working as the program director at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and helping my family manage the Playhouse.
What’s Next for the Playhouse: The Playhouse is unique because we’re not a production house — people come in and rent the space and it’s theirs. That was the whole model: a place to give our fledgling theater companies around town an affordable venue to produce their work without all of the strings; you aren’t required to hire our staff or use our box office or any of that. The model allows companies to better control their production expenses while helping maximize their profits. The Playhouse has been home to countless theatrical and dance productions, art exhibits, concerts, social events and community meetings. It’s been booked solid for as long as I can remember and it’s booked right through the time we change locations in February 2013.
This is probably the time you want me to tell you where we’re headed, but I can’t do that just yet. I can tell you we’ve located a space that we’re incredibly excited about and we hope to be able to make an announcement in the coming weeks. No matter what or where, there will be a new iteration of the H Street Playhouse!
DC Then And Now: The gas station at 6th and Florida and the one at Bladensburg — when I was growing up, these were places that my father was like, ‘Don’t you ever get out of the car. I don’t care if you’re running out of gas, don’t you ever get out of the car.’ I walk to these places now. At night. There really are very few neighborhoods in the city that aren’t renewing or in the pipeline to renew.
On H St., this all started about ten years ago. My father was one of the founding board members for H St. Main St. The Playhouse used to host a lot of community meetings, often with the Office of Planning, DDOT and other city agencies who were starting to initiate plans for the H Street NE Streetscape Project. It’s funny how things change: We officially opened in 2002 and for the first two to three years, we were begging cabs to come take patrons home, people’s cars were getting broken into while they were seeing shows. But as one thing after another started to open up, that kind of thing became much less of a regular occurrence. I’d say that while the urban renewal of the corridor started about ten years ago, H St. development really started to take off about five or six years ago and has been exponentially developing since.
On the other side of the Hill, Eastern Market/Barracks Row changes began more than ten years ago. When I was growing up, my mom had her office on 8th St., first in the old City Bank building and then in what’s now Homebody. I went to the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop every day after school and was always part of their community productions. When I was 11, I played Annie in CHAW’s production that ran for a few weeks and was performed on the stage inside of Hine Junior High School. Every year, CHAW had a big spring musical that was produced in Hine. Just about everyone in the neighborhood would participate. Think Waiting for Guffman.
I think a lot about those days and what the neighborhood was like. On the corner of 7th and G SE, what’s now that really cool white house across G from CHAW, was Bordow’s Liquor. There was bullet proof glass and you had to talk through the little carousel thing to ask for your items. We’d go over there before ballet or whatever class we were taking to get candy. Behind Bordow’s, where the Ellen Wilson town homes are, were some of the worst public housing facilities I’ve seen. I just can’t imagine how people were ever expected to live in those conditions.
On the other side of the freeway, it was the same thing. We now have the riverfront, an entire neighborhood that literally never existed. Literally never existed. Everything was torn down. It’s strange that there hasn’t been broader attention paid to that socially. The buildings that were there before were several-story public housing buildings that were closed in by big metal gates. It looked like a penitentiary. Again, it’s embarrassing to me to think that our city would ever allow, let alone expect, human beings to live in those conditions, but I’m not sure the answer was to demolish everything without a plan for the community that was there. I know there have been a number of programs that have helped preserve the housing for low income families, but I don’t know, there’s still a significant amount of people who are somewhere else.
Her Concerns about a Changing Neighborhood: H St is another area where I think there’s been some widespread pressure on longtime residents as a result of the redevelopment. Suddenly, your taxes increase much more rapidly than they should and families that have been here forever are suddenly not able to afford to stay. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. And that’s the kind of thing I think the city should be doing a more adequate job of figuring out how to fix. It seems like our government often approaches problem solving with the same fixes that haven’t worked in the past. I think these socioeconomic pressures need to be approached from a different angle. I’m not saying I know what the solution is, but I can’t help but think that there’s some kind of innovative way to level the playing field for residents who have been here for such a long time. We’ve been able to work with Council on several pieces of legislation aimed at preserving longtime businesses while also recruiting new ones. There’s no reason we can’t apply these ways of thinking to our residential population too.
Talking Politics: I’ve had my career trajectory jump from being in all arts administration and arts education to then taking over at CHAMPS, which found me lobbying, providing business development advice, promoting our neighborhood… essentially, nothing to do with the arts. As I spent the last three and a half years walking the halls of the Wilson Building, I have at times found myself thinking, I could do this. I sat down about a year ago over dinner to discuss it with Tommy [Wells], who was incidentally my Sunday school teacher as a kid. I know, it’s amazing, right? It’s like an episode of Gilmore Girls.
Let’s just say I’m not ruling anything out. While I love what I’m doing now, the idea of local politics really excites me. The fact that you can put your energy into something and actually make and see a difference on a local level, that’s one of the biggest things to me. When I’m going down and testifying for or against a bill, it’s having a real effect on people who I know and I see everyday.
From One End of the Hill to the Other: Growing up, we didn’t really have all of these intraneighborhood distinctions – Barracks Row, Hill East, etc. It was pretty much just Capitol Hill. Now that our footprint has, in a sense, expanded, I take our neighborhood in two segments, northeast and southeast. Having grown up near Eastern Market in southeast, I have an affinity towards that area. It’s been really interesting to watch the development happen over there because there’s just as much development that’s happened, but over here in northeast, it’s just a different kind. In the Barracks Row, Eastern market area, it’s more about going out to dinner or shopping at one of our quaint little stores. Lots of families and pets. H St. has more of a nightlife. When I go out on the weekends, I’ll usually go out somewhere in southeast first and then don’t end up coming over to H St. until after 11 p.m. when things in southeast are sort of buttoning up.
The Scene on H St.: I’d probably have more of a visceral reaction to things that are going on if I was away and I came back and saw it all with fresh eyes. But I’ve been in the middle of it and it’s been this slow organic process.
It’s funny, we spend a lot of energy trying to get people here and supporting these businesses, then they come here and we’re like, Look at all these people! Where did they come from? You have to remind yourself that this is actually a good thing. We did this. It’s good for our businesses. It’s good for our neighborhood economy. It’s good for the city.
One of the things I think is important is that we’re actively working to ensure we have a really good diversity of businesses. I’m working right now with H St. Main St. to recruit more retail and we’re rolling out all sorts of business development programs aimed at retaining the current businesses. One of the things that we’re doing is a survey and community focus groups aimed at trying to get as much community-driven development as possible. It’s incredibly important to me, and to Anwar Saleem, executive director of H St. Main St., that no one be excluded. I feel like a lot of times in the city, development is based on who the developers are and what they need to make their bottom line and isn’t generated from the inside out. Of course I understand that there are market forces and I can’t blame a business person from trying to recoup expenses and turn profits. But I can spend my time trying to provide these business people with the information and tools they need to take a chance on the businesses our greater community needs and will support.
I spent three and a half incredibly rewarding years running CHAMPS. I loved waking up and going to work everyday. Now, I’m essentially doing a lot of the same work I was doing at CHAMPS but focused more specifically on H St. It’s great, being able to work with a narrower geographical scope; it’s much easier to be more efficient and effective. CHAMPS was such an amazing job for me and I loved it. I ate, slept and breathed it a little too much. I have a tendency to do that when I go at something, I can’t help myself.