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 biography here, especially since the fabulous Washington Post obituary
does a great job sketching the portrait of the "rock star" of copy editors. And my grief-soaked Facebook farewell
gives a hint of the heartbreak I am not only now facing, but have lived with for the past nine months, knowing that it was highly unlikely this cancer was going to be beat.
But 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 series of 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.
While I had been born on the Hill
, my family had left the area when I was a toddler and when we came back we settled in Chevy Chase, so while I very much considered myself a Washington-area native, I was pretty firmly ensconced in the world of Upper Northwest, Bethesda, and points west and north. 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-feered 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 many people who thought we were crazy to buy in such an "unsafe" place, a feeling that intensified for many who came to our housewarming party via the 6th Street exit off the freeway who were not happy to be greeted by the boarded up shells of the old Ellen Wilson Dwellings and the only slightly less foreboding, 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 his hard drive is actually 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 8th 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 the various plans to transform the blocks south of the freeway, an area we rarely ventured into and in fact would sometimes jokingly subreference Bonfire of the Vanities when telling people how to get back to the freeway and "safety": DON'T GO UNDER THE OVERPASS.
When I get 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 3rd 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) And then I was off on my one great hobby, watching Near Capitol Ballpark River Yards grow from nothing to what it is today.
Of course, 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. He 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 walked 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 running 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 8th and E is gone! Matchbox is almost open! Wait, let me guess, you want to go to Morini again.
And in 2015, when he 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 8th Street to the freeway, back up to Pennsylvania Avenue, down New Jersey under the freeway, over to 1st Street, down to the ballpark, along the river, and home. And I received bulletins all along the way of whatever he saw that was new. He became the first and only official JDLand stringer.
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 go 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. And then 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.
I will continue to pop in and out in the coming weeks, because he would not be pleased if JDLand was collateral damage in all of this, but it will take a long while before I return to full steam.
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 that roaming these streets will not smack me with what he is missing, but remind me of everything we shared and enjoyed so very much.