In the city of Washington, D.C., there's an abundance of unreality, as we all know. Hollywood on the Potomac, and so on. But several neighborhoods are real villages. Some of the people who live in DC (as the "natives" call it) believe that there are quite a lot of real, homey villages hidden behind the marble halls of politics and bureaucracy. One of the quintessential villages of DC is Capitol Hill. And one of its most villagey streets is East Capitol Street.
A walk down East Capitol from the Capitol Building to RFK Stadium is a great way to spend a few hours if you can escape the usual round of business or tourism. You'll find a spectrum of city pleasures, from the elegant Folger Shakespeare Library and Church of the Reformation to the funky food stands at the gates of RFK. The map [add link] shows the details. Here are some highlights.
From Art Deco to Funky Food
First, a few words about the street itself. East Capitol Street has a mystical significance in Washington: it's one of the axis streets that define the four quadrants-Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest. If you cross the middle of the street, you magically pass from the southern to the northern parts of the city.
It's a long street, running from the east side of the Capitol building, logically enough, to the eastern border of Maryland, where it turns into Central Avenue and keeps on going to the Chesapeake Bay-for all I know. I'm sure there are other interesting stretches of East Capitol, but the focus here is on the Capitol Hill stretch--minus the Capitol itself, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court, all of which are amply described in any DC guidebook.
At Second Street, heading east, notice the Folger Library (http://www.folger.edu/) on your right and the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on your left. These two building complement each other. Both were put up in the 1930s, and both are worth exploring. The Folger usually has a nice exhibit of beautiful books or Elizabethan history, and the Church of the Reformation has what must be unique art deco stained glass.
At the corner by the Folger is a charming and famous (to some of us at least) fountain with a statue of Puck. [add photo] He is in a fey pose, and the legend engraved in the stone pedestal on which he prances says "Lorde What Fooles These Mortals Be." It's a great reminder, a cheery greeting; one hopes the lawmakers and jurists who work nearby are friends with Puck!
At Third Street, you'll start seeing the gorgeous Victorian houses that set the tone for this stretch of the street. Some of the houses around here are owned by the Library or the Church. I know one used to be the rehearsal studio [check] for the theatre in the Library, a replica of the Globe in London that's a great place to catch a recital by the resident medieval singers group The Folger Consort or even the occasional play (the Shakespeare Theatre was resident here until it outgrew the space and moved downtown).
At Fourth Street are some community stores, including a charming old pharmacy that had a soda fountain until recently. Then at Fifth Street are a row of new houses on your left. This is a phenomenon on this choice bit of real estate: in the past several years a number of luxurious new houses (all conforming to the style of the surrounding Hill Historic District, have been put up along the street.
At 508 East Capitol is the Baker Doolittle House, a commodious and charming Bed & Breakfast. Another B&B, the Bull Moose Guest House, is just around the corner on Fifth Street.
At Fifth Street is and Jimmy T's restaurant—famous for its homey (complete with Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils) breakfasts and lunches. Then at Eighth you come to more neighborhood stores and the Capitol Hill Gallery, which sells a variety of bric-a-brac. (Seventh will take you down to Eastern Market, and wonderful distraction, the location of a close Metro station, and the subject of a future JT essay.) Eighth will give you much traffic--including a bus to the Metro.
On Toward the Park
Between Eighth and Ninth are more new houses on your right, and then at the corner of Ninth an old bank sveltely converted into a house. It was on the local house tour a couple of years ago, but the lines were around the corner, so I can't tell you exactly what it looks like inside. The architect left the night depository.
At Tenth you see Lincoln Park straight ahead. But meanwhile, and this includes the whole walk, there are glorious gardens all around you. The story is the DC planners like Pierre L'Enfant wanted East Capitol to be a commercial street--thus the width and very generous setbacks. The few commercial buildings now are a nice counterpoint to the gardens that take advantage of the scale of the streetscape.
At Eleventh you reach Lincoln Park [add photo?], a true local gathering place—especially for dog owners. (The park stretches from Eleventh to Thirteenth and actually splits East Capitol, which runs along its north and south sides.) Friends with dogs tell stories about how the dogs and people who frolic here. The park has big old trees, playgrounds, beautiful Japanese magnolias whose frilly white flowers are some of spring's first heralds, and two great statues. The one at the Eleventh Street end is of Lincoln freeing a slave by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Considered a masterpiece by some and highly patronizing by others, it nevertheless is provided brilliant counterpoint by the other statues, of [add info], the great educator.
Here we pause and enjoy the park. Then onward. East Capitol continues where it more or less left off at Thirteenth Street. Facing the park here is, of course, the Park Café, which serves Latin food in a charming room with or course park views. If it's a nice day and you'd rather sit in the park, Al's Pizza a block beyond at Fourteenth Street (north side) has some of the best in town to carry out. The also have sandwiches.
From Church to Stadium
At Fourteenth on your right is Holy Comforter–Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church. A rather glorious melding of Byzantine and Romanesque elements, it conveys a solid spirituality fitting for a parish that maintains a thriving school, with its building in the next block.
The Baptist church on the north side of the street appears to be well endowed with businesslike grace. Its buildings look almost like a large house.
Then, we reach Eastern High School, famous for its band. In the face of all the troubles afflicting the city's public schools, here is one that has sent its band members [add info] and also maintains decent academic standards and [add info].
Finally, there is Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Stadium looming ahead. Aside from sports events and rock concerts, on Saturdays it shelters a farmers' market. It's got its own Metro station, which its shares with the old Armory across the street. Also across the street are the DC Jail, DC General Hospital, and Congressional Cemetery. Here, at the banks of the Anacostia River, we either catch a Metro or turn around to stroll back on East Capitol, one the grandest yet funkiest streets in any city neighborhood.