Friday, July 3, 2009

Ben's Chili Bowl

By: Anonymous #1
HS120, Summer 1 2009

I visited Ben’s Chili Bowl on the evening of June 12, 2009. The restaurant is an institution on DC’s U Street corridor, one of the city’s centers of African-American culture. Although I have lived in the Washington area my whole life, I had never before set foot in this landmark, so I decided to check it out. Given my background in business, I also thought it would be interesting to learn more about this remarkably successful African-American family-owned business.

Ben’s was founded in the Summer of 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali, a newly married couple. Ben was a Trinidadian Muslim immigrant and Virginia was an African-American from Virginia. Interracial marriage was illegal at the time, and they had attempted to marry several times before finally being able to do so. Shortly following their marriage, they used a $5,000 loan to renovate the former Minnehaha Theater building at 1213 U Street, in the heart of the city’s black Shaw neighborhood. Incidentally, the Minnehaha was one of the first silent movie theaters in DC to cater to black audiences. Ben’s opened in August of that year, serving simple comfort food, including its now-famous chili and half-smokes.

During the 1950s, U Street was the center of African-American life and culture in the nation’s capital. Known as the “Black Broadway,” U Street was home to black artists and musicians, and its jazz clubs were frequented by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Cab Calloway. But it was more than just an entertainment district -- U Street was home to black professionals, businesses, restaurants, and shops. Ben’s quickly established itself as the meeting place for the neighborhood locals, and also was a popular eatery and hang out spot for jazz legends, black celebrities, and leaders in the civil rights movement, including Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr.
On April 4, 1968, when Ben’s was just a decade old, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. The aftermath of this horrific event escalated into violence and rioting in African-American neighborhoods in several U.S. cities, including U Street in Washington, DC. Entire blocks of U Street were destroyed by looting and fire, buildings were reduced to smoldering rubble, and business came to a halt. All except Ben’s (or “The Bowl” as it had become known), which remained open, thanks to a permit obtained by Stokely Carmichael, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was headquartered across the street from Ben’s. The permit allowed Ben’s to remain open to provide sustenance to activists, law enforcement officials, firefighters and first responders. It took the neighborhood more than a decade to recover, and the neighborhood declined into a period of rampant street crime and drug peddling.

During the 1980s, the community seemed to be on the verge of renewal. A new community center was built, businesses were on the rise, and Bill Cosby (who had once courted his future wife during dates at Ben’s) visited The Bowl and drew national attention to the landmark. In 1987, another challenge to Ben’s survival came during construction of Metro’s Green Line and the U Street station, which was built directly across the street from Ben’s. Although the construction caused other businesses to close, disrupted traffic, and essentially turned the street into a giant construction pit, Ben’s stayed open with two employees working to satisfy hungry construction workers, and of course, the regulars.

Today, Ben’s is nationally renowned for its home-cooked flavor and its original décor, which is basically unchanged since it first opened. Ben and Virginia, who have since retired, probably never would have imagined that their little chili dog restaurant would have garnered so much national and even international attention. The country’s first black president paid homage to the eatery just 10 days after his inauguration when he visited with the city’s African-American Mayor, Adrian Fenty. Although Ben’s is still considered an institution of “black” Washington, people of all races can be found eating there today, as is visible in the photograph.

In conclusion, it is virtually impossible to recount the history of Washington, DC’s African-American residents without discussing Ben’s Chili Bowl – both are inextricably linked. What began as a “mom and pop” kind of hot dog stand became an important community gathering place for black professionals, entertainers, and civic leaders. It survived the 1968 riots, the decline of U Street into drugs and violence in the 1970s, the construction of the Green Line metro in the late 1980s, and various economic challenges. Ben’s truly has stood the test of time, and will continue to provide a gathering place for blacks – and others – for generations to come.

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