Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

The women of Capitol Hill are a rowdy bunch. Once a month, we meet for lunch at a downtown café to swap Capitol Hill neighborhood news. Who’s traveling, moving, having a baby or retiring? Whose foundation’s leaking? And what’s up with the parking situation — important, weighty stuff. The café management often asks us to quiet down as we sip our tea. OK, maybe we’d like them to, so we could seem a bit edgier. There’s something old-fashioned about meeting with neighbor ladies to exchange neighborhood news. But it’s also very timely; a foil against too many hours spent with computers — and deeply pleasant.

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Libby Sterling / Libby Sterling
Libby Sterling / Libby Sterling

The Capitol Hill neighborhood is a pleasant place to live — even though you can’t find it on a map. Officially, there are three main neighborhoods directly adjacent to the downtown business district. Juneau Townsite is the largest neighborhood, wrapping the sides of the half-bowl in which the downtown sits. The Chicken Ridge neighborhood perches on the western, top edge of this bowl, wrapping around to Basin Road. The House of Wickersham is a prominent Chicken Ridge feature. The Starr Hill neighborhood is at the top of the eastern edge of the bowl, resting against Mounts Maria and Roberts. The Mount Roberts trail starts from the top of Starr Hill.

Because of crazy downtown topography, it’s easy for micro-neighborhoods to develop, regardless of where the map lines are drawn. The Capitol Hill neighborhood is technically in the Juneau Townsite, and includes a bit of Chicken Ridge, but is defined by its most prominent neighbor: The Capitol. Capitol Hill extends from roughly Fifth Street up to Seventh Street, and from the drop off west of Main Street to Capital School Park. Really, it’s the hill above the Capitol. Thus the name was suggested a few years ago by a neighbor who was confounded that it hadn’t always been called that.

I love living on Capitol Hill, though I can take little credit for this good fortune. It was my parents who bought a declining house on Main Street back in the early 1970s for something crazy like $20,000. My husband and I bought it from them in 2003 for a significant bit more, but still a good price because, well, it’s a house that was built during the Gold Rush and has been attempting to decline ever since.

That’s one of the hallmarks of living on Capitol Hill. With many homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, if my neighborhood had its own coin, on one side would be a lovely historic home and on the other would be that same home, falling apart. Colorful Juneau history and constant renovation are a way of life on this hill. And many neighbors don’t just accept this reality, they revel in it. Like the owners of the neighborhood bed and breakfast, Alaska’s Capital Inn, Linda Wendeborn and Mark Thorson. They chose Capitol Hill for their home and business partly because it was built by one of Juneau’s founding fathers, John Olds, for his young bride, and filled with Juneau history. But also because it would give them an opportunity to get their hands calloused by making it shine again. And they are not alone. As finances and time allow, or as the old homes demand, Capitol Hill neighbors are frequently spotted at the hardware store.

They might even have walked there. Walking is a many-layered benefit for the downtown neighborhoods. First, there’s security in having everything you need within walking distance, especially if you have kids. (Unfortunately there are quite a few things within walking distance that we don’t need, as well. I have yet to find a need for emeralds, a fur bikini or moose poop swizzle sticks, and we could do with fewer bars.) Second, who needs cardio boot camp at the club when you’ve got Main Street? Third, and most important, every time you greet a neighbor while out walking, the cohesion of the whole neighborhood is strengthened.

That’s really what makes a neighborhood most livable: Good neighbors. When asking residents what they like most about Capitol Hill, a consistent answer was knowing that they could rely on their neighbors; to be helpful, to be kind, for a friendly chat, to buy raffle tickets from the neighbor kids, to help shovel a sidewalk, to keep a sliding truck from hitting your car, to collect the mail and feed the animals while you’re away, to write a letter to the editor about a shared concern, and even to respect your privacy though they live only five feet away.

Another way in which Capitol Hill neighbors rely on each other is as defenders of our livability. We want most of the people in our neighborhood to live here, not lock up and head home for the night. Which is a valid concern in a neighborhood that has always been at the edge of the government and downtown commercial areas. For more than a century both of these interests have ebbed and flowed up the edge of Capitol Hill. In fact, from around 1906 until 1912, the Territorial Governor’s house and office were located on the northwest corner of Sixth and Main, a block farther up Main than the Capitol Building. (This forgotten fact was rediscovered by a neighbor intrigued by an historic photo of a large house that she should have seen from her living room, if it were still there.) Mining offices and boarding houses were historically found on Capitol Hill, as well, and these are still reflected in an engineering office, a B&B and several in-home offices and apartments. The general consensus is that the current mix of uses makes for a comfortable, thriving neighborhood.

Part of what makes it thrive, we all know, is our namesake neighbor, the Capitol. In fact, many Capitol Hill residents look forward to the mid-winter thrum of the Legislature moving back in. The feeling is entirely different than when the surging tide of summer cruise ship passengers covers the downtown. In summer, Capitol Hill mostly observes the throngs from our cozy hill, smiling a welcome to the few hardy souls who venture up Main Street. During the Legislative session, we’re much closer to the action. Decisions that affect the whole state, good or bad, radiate out from our neighborhood. There’s a weight to that.

Maybe that’s why we make a point, on Capitol Hill, of “celebrating our commonalities,” as one neighbor put it. We’re good neighbors to each other because we try to focus on the many ways our lives can intersect, rather than on how to more accurately divide our properties. We have garage sales, neighbor lady teas, monthly lunches, kids in our yards, no-electricity pot-lucks (well, just a couple of those during that “No-Snettisham Spring”), girl scouts selling cookies, gardeners trading tips and cuttings and a phone tree for bear sightings. We’re not overly concerned about having Main Street dug up and repaved this summer, and maybe it’s because we have personal experience with the need to renovate things when they start to fall apart, and know it’s difficult, but worth the trouble.

So the women of Capitol Hill will continue to meet once a month, to catch up on the news of the neighborhood. And often comment on how we hope other Juneau neighbors are doing the same.

• Sarah Lewis, a local architect and social worker, lives in the one house on Capitol Hill that can never be seen in neighborhood photos. It’s also at the place on Main Street where every car slides out of control in the winter. Capitol Hill’s own little Bermuda Triangle, perhaps?

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