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Monday, March 28, 2011

The Birth and Death of Chocolate City: A New Perspective on Washington, DC

Last weekend, my husband and I took my mom and dad on a field trip down memory lane. Our destination was Ben's Chili Bowl, the eatery made famous in recent years by a visit from a certain White House resident who goes by the name of POTUS. But Ben's Chili Bowl already had established a warm spot in the hearts of the citizens of the Nation's Capitol, and not just because of its chili and cheese Philly half-smokes! Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, opened Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 on U Street. The street was dotted with clubs where legendary black entertainers performed, earning the area the nickname of the "Black Broadway". U Street was a part of the Shaw neighborhood, and it was into this neighborhood that my dad and his mom settled upon their arrival from rural southeast Virginia.

To my dad and others like him, DC was the land of opportunity, where a black man could own his own home, start a business, and eat a hot dog seated next to stars like Ella Fitzgerald or Bill Cosby. He was a frequent visitor to Ben's Chili Bowl, in good times and in bad, and the bad times came with the riots of 1968. The riots tore through the city, leaving city blocks in tatters. In the first few days after the riots, while the streets of DC were still smoldering, Ben's Chili Bowl was one of the few restaurants open to feed the exhausted firefighters and volunteers who were working to restore order. The aftermath of the riots would bring about some of the most profound changes in DC. The city's white population fled to the safety of the suburbs in large numbers, and in the years to follow, Washington, DC became Chocolate City.

My dad considered himself one of the lucky ones, having forsaken his adopted city shortly before the riots to take up his role as husband, and later as father in the suburbs outside of DC. However, he made frequent return trips to the old neighborhood to visit his mom. By the 1970's, seven out of ten of every Washingtonian was black, but those numbers don't really portray the state of their existence in those sections of the city that had been leveled by the '68 riots. The city block on which his mother lived had been the epicenter of the riots, and was several bus rides away from all of the necessities one needed for life. It was also turning exceedingly dangerous as open air drug markets and violent crime took over the landscape. There was a growing divide between the blacks who "made it" and were living the suburban dream of manicured lawns and thriving children, and the blacks who were "stuck" in the city.

While last week's release of the latest Census data - showing an 11% decrease in Washington, DC's African-American population - made for blaring headlines, there is a much more intimate narrative at work here. Sitting at a table at Ben's Chili Bowl, and listening as my mom and dad and Virginia Ali spoke of old times, I was suddenly struck by how profound a loss is the loss of a community of shared experience. But I was also struck by how these new residents will erect their own communities of meaning.

I'm just saying.

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