History at the Hill Center

March 18, 2012, Washington, DC: On Thursday evening, I stood outside the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital talking with three neighbors I’d met that day. We were discussing the history of the place, led by Peter McCall and Barry Harrelson, both residents of Capitol Hill since the early 1970s and volunteer historians charged with launching a docent program and leading tours here beginning next month. McCall and Harrelson agreed to take a practice run of the recently renovated building with me, and together they were painting a picture of what the Hill Center and its environs looked like when the building opened as a hospital here in 1866.

What a fascinating neighborhood this was and still is!

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Documenting Hometown History

Taylor St., Nob Hill, San Francisco, February 2012

“As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.”
-Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

March 3, 2012, Washington, DC: We dined two weeks ago Nob Hill Cafe, my favorite neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco. From our little table on Taylor Street, we sifted through old photos that accompanied a Huffington Post story published that day on the death of one of the few remaining survivors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. There atop Nob Hill, we scrolled through photos of the very block where we sat, illustrating it completely leveled from the earthquake and fire that destroyed it more than a century ago. The information was available at our fingertips on our phone, as if we’d dug up an old time capsule.

In a sense, we had. For all the talk of the pitfalls of the digital age, we should recognize some of its greatest assets: History is accessible. Readily available information offers us new perspective and insight into experiences we never knew.

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Historic Hubs: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and DC’s Eastern Market

February 24, 2012, Washington, DC: Location, Location, Location. Cities sprung up where they did in the first place due entirely to their geographical assets. New York City: A trading post in a sheltered harbor at the mouth of the Hudson River that would later take shape as a critical terminus linking the Atlantic to the Hudson and the Erie Canal. Chicago: A short portage that would eventually connect the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes via the 1848 opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. San Francisco: A fort called the Presidio at the mouth of the Golden Gate marking an entry to a Pacific trade route.

Geography has long played a pivotal role in the identities and growth of our cities, not only for the promise of protection, but for the promise of access. As natural terminals, first by water, later by rail, public transit and air, our cities have always served as hubs that facilitate the transport of both people and goods.

But how many of the historic hubs of your city remain relevant to your life today?

A weekend visit to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, followed by a return to my own neighborhood at Eastern Market, has me thinking about the ways in which some longstanding urban cores still have the ability to anchor our cities and our neighborhoods.