A Tribute to Bruce Robey

By Mark Segraves

The Hill and our city is a little less today.

Many of us have lost a good friend; we’ve all lost a true visionary and pioneer. Bruce Robey, co-founder of Voice of the Hill newspaper and the H Street Playhouse, died Sunday night at Washington Hospital Center after a suffering a heart attack.

I didn’t know Bruce as long as many people in the community did, but like anyone who met him, I knew him well enough to know that he was a compassionate and driven man committed to family and his community, whatever community he found himself in.

Whether he was vacationing in South Carolina, “retiring” in West Virginia, serving in the Marines, or raising a family on Capitol Hill, Bruce was engaged and determined to make his mark.

Our neighborhood is a perfect example of how Bruce’s impact will be felt for generations to come. He brought the neighbors of Capitol Hill into the digital era by creating one of the best community-based Web sites in the world.

Voice of the gave Hill residents a place to gather without leaving their homes. It became a platform for news, information, gossip and the time honored tradition on the Hill of complaining about everything. Hill Talk was an on-line forum that sparked debate on every issue facing Ward 6 long before the listservs of today.

With the Web site came the newspaper. I don’t think Bruce ever imagined himself the publisher of a newspaper, but he saw a need in the community and he filled it. That’s the Bruce Robey I knew, a man who didn’t let people tell him he couldn’t or shouldn’t do something. If he decided to do something, he did it. When Bruce hired me to work for the Voice about 10 years ago, he wanted to use the disinfectant of the press to hold our local elected officials accountable.

Today, Ward 6 boasts some of the most productive and accountable ANCs in the District. It wasn’t always that way. Many of the ANC commissioners who hold office today were inspired to run for office because the Voice made them more aware of what was happening in their community. Likewise, many of the old commissioners who abused their office are no longer in office, again, because Bruce was determined to inform the public.

Ward 6 Councilman, Tommy Wells knows all too well Bruce’s determination to speak truth to power.

“Bruce never sugar coated anything he said to elected officials,” Wells said, “He was always straight forward and wincingly honest, which I found refreshing as I railed from the blows.”

Wells says Robey was a true renaissance man living among us.

“He grew up in Anacostia and had so many different interests,” Wells said. “The fact that he could start a profitable newspaper from scratch and he didn’t do it as a young man, was extraordinary. He was also a fisherman and a musician, he was such a renaissance man that was truly a local homegrown star.”

But where Bruce and his wife Adele really took a leap of faith was on H Street.

Today, H Street is a destination for the young and the hip. It’s fast becoming the “New U” with restaurants, bars and theaters. Just last weekend, thousands of people flocked to H Street as the neighborhood celebrated its 6th annual H Street Festival & Bazaar.

That’s not how Bruce found H Street, but it is how he left it. In 2001, when Bruce and Adele saw a void in the theater community the Robeys stepped up to create the H Street Playhouse. They used their own money to buy the old French’s Restaurant and a theater district was born.

Anwar Saleem of the H Street Mainstreet knows that H Street is what it is today because of Bruce.

“Bruce had a vision he was a trailblazer,” Saleem says. “When there was no entertainment he gave us that. He had the original vision. His dream was larger than the H Street Playhouse. He added his flavor to the pot.”

Don Denton has been selling real estate on the Hill for 30 years. He first met Bruce in 1975. Denton knows the importance of having engaged neighbors like the Robeys.

“Bruce and Adele Robey are two of those most special Hill business people. They have not only raised their family here and operated their businesses here on the Hill for over 30 years, they have contributed mightily to the fabric of our community. Bruce stepped up to assume the Presidency of CHAMPS during two very pivotal years for the organization. When Bruce and Adele saw a need/an opportunity, they would risk their time and treasure to make it happen. They envisioned a second and complimentary newspaper for our community – and the VOICE of the Hill was born. They felt that the arts were an essential ingredient of any growing and prosperous community. They invested in H Street long before it became the popular thing to do – and the H Street Playhouse (their dream) is still today a major anchor for that thriving commercial community.”

Bruce not only knew the importance of community, he also knew the importance of family. It was a lesson he taught me one day as we rode across Capitol Hill in his pick-up truck delivering copies of the Voice. As we were stopped at a traffic light, Bruce saw Adele walking across Lincoln Park.

“She brightens my every day, lad,” he said with a breathless smile. “Every man should be so lucky.”

Bruce, you brightened my life and our city in ways that will continue to shine for many years. Every community should be so lucky.