Bill Walsh and the Hill

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Bill Walsh on the last day of the old Washington Post newsroom, December 2015. Photo: Jacqueline Dupree

The news seems to be well known at this point, but I will still note here officially that Bill Walsh, known colloquially in these parts as Mr. JDLand, died on Wednesday of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, a rotten cancer of the bile ducts and liver made more rotten by the frequency with which it isn’t found until it has spread.

I won’t run down his full biography here, except to say that he spent 20 years at The Washington Post and was known throughout the language biz as the rock star of copy editors. I used Facebook for a more personal, grief-soaked farewell that gave a hint of the heartbreak I am now facing and have lived with for the past nine months, knowing that it was highly unlikely this cancer was going to be beat.

I wanted to ruminate for a moment or two about the part Bill played in JDLand, and not just as the chauffeur on that fateful day in January 2003 when I took the photos that really started this adventure.

When Bill moved to this area from Phoenix in 1989, he lived in Alexandria at first, but with a commute to the Washington Times building on New York Avenue NE he was soon drawn to Capitol Hill, and found a place not far from Eastern Market. The Hill of the 1990s, of course, had a very different feel than today, as did the entire city, but he fell in love with the walkability and even the slight edginess of the time.

I was born on the Hill, but my family left the area when I was a toddler, and when we returned we settled in Chevy Chase. While I considered myself a Washington-area native, I was ensconced in the world of upper Northwest, Bethesda, and points west. Sure, I had spent more than my fair share of time at the original 9:30 Club on F Street, drank yards of beer at the old Tiber Creek Pub (where Bistro Bis now resides), served two summers as a Hill intern, worked at a couple of jobs near 16th and K, and wasn’t a-feared of going downtown in the late 1980s and early 1990s as many of my cohorts were, but it still just really wasn’t part of my orbit.

Until in April 1993, when I met a guy living on Capitol Hill.

By 1995 we had bought our house on the south side of the Hill, much to the chagrin of friends who thought we were crazy to buy in such an unsafe place, a feeling that intensified for many who came to our house-warming party via the Sixth Street exit off the freeway. They were not happy to be greeted by the boarded-up shells of the old Ellen Wilson Dwellings and the only slightly less forbidding, not-yet-boarded up Capper apartment buildings.

But we loved it. We loved walking the neighborhood for hours. We loved Eastern Market. We loved walking to the Hawk ‘n’ Dove or the Tune Inn or La Lomida Dos. We loved going to open houses just to look. We loved the House and Garden Tour. We loved being 10 minutes from National Airport. We loved seeing the Capitol just as part of the neighborhood landscape.

And we loved watching it change, as it really began to in the early 2000s. Somewhere on Bill’s hard drive is a running list, going back to well before we arrived, of which businesses occupied which addresses on Pennsylvania Avenue and on Barracks Row. He loved telling people about how Eighth Street had transformed from “our little slice of Queens” to the restaurant row it is today.

Then I extended the boundaries of our interest when I started hearing about plans to transform the blocks south of the freeway, an area we rarely ventured into. We would sometimes jokingly sub-reference “Bonfire of the Vanities” when telling people how to get back to the freeway and safety: Don’t go under the overpass!

When I am asked to tell the story of how I began to follow the neighborhood, I almost always mention how Bill and I used to stand on Third Street and look southward under the freeway to catch a glimpse of the Anacostia River, and how we used to say to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great if someday we could walk down there from here and then along the river?” (which was usually followed by loud ironic guffaws). Then I was off on my one great hobby, watching Near Capitol Ballpark River Yards grow from nothing to what it is today.

Through all of this, the rest of DC was changing too, and we became even more intensely in love with our city and what it offered. We ate at as many of the city’s restaurants as we could. Bill began biking to and from work at the Post. We would walk to Caps games at the Verizon Center and then home. We Bikeshared. We Car to Go’ed. We Ubered. We waited for the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail to be extended. We went to Nats games on a whim. We rode the H Street streetcar on the first day. We reveled in referring to ourselves derisively as urban hipsters.

Much of our daily messaging commentary to each other was news of what we had seen and heard. Did you hear Hank’s is opening on the Hill? The weird florist at Eighth and E is gone! Matchbox is almost open! Wait, let me guess, you want to go to Morini again.

In 2015, when Bill began a walking regime to combat a bit of fatigue that was probably a missed early sign of his cancer, his route covered all the bases, down Eighth Street to the freeway, back up to Pennsylvania Avenue, down New Jersey under the freeway, over to First Street, down to the ballpark, along the river, and home. I received bulletins all along the way of whatever he saw that was new.

We just loved living here. Every minute of it.

A few weeks ago, I felt he was stable enough to allow me a little time to take some ‘hood pics for the first time in a few months. It was a beautiful day, I was doing what I have loved doing for more than a decade now, and was on autopilot – until I looked at the large, as-yet-unleased corner retail space in one of the new buildings. I couldn’t breathe, because I knew it would be a restaurant, and would be a restaurant that he would never know about. That we would never eat at.

When my brother brought me home to the Hill after leaving the hospice center for the final time (I can’t even believe Bill died in Arlington and not DC), we came across the 14th Street Bridge. I caught sight of The Wharf construction and burst into tears.

We may not have been activists, or preservationists, or even particularly involved in the culture of the Hill and surroundings, but our neighborhood(s) infused every part of our days. These streets and buildings and businesses and history united us as much as our life at the Post, our love of travel, our cats, and our expert-level pop-culture referencing.

Now I just have to figure out how on earth to watch it all alone.

However, having moved through the aftermath of my mother’s heartbreaking death three years ago, I do know that time heals, and what feel like machete strikes to my chest today will eventually be wistful pangs. There will come a time when roaming the streets will not smack me with what he is missing but remind me of everything we shared and enjoyed so very much.

 

Jacqueline Dupree is the publisher, writer, editor, photographer, and webmaster behind JDLand.com, which has tracked the redevelopment of the neighborhood near the Washington Navy Yard since 2003. She has lived on the Hill since 1994.