Thursday, August 21, 2008
Bens Chili Bowl: Renegade Survivor or Beneficiary of Gentrification?
Today's Washington Post celebrates 50 years of Ben's Chili Bowl, a Washington D.C. landmark restaurant. It is a great feature article, but I feel that the author, Keith Alexander, may have missed what actually happened at Ben's and how it is emblematic of what is going on all throughout Washington D.C. and in other major cities across America. The well-known story of Ben's begins as the restaurant opens in the late 1950's when U Street was oft referred to as the "Black Broadway", where many of the most prominent black performers, including names such as Duke Ellington staged many live shows. As many well know, the late 90's and early 2000's saw a change of demographic in the inner-cities. In D.C., this started close to 1998 just after the Verizon Center (then the MCI Center) was built in NW D.C. More and more wealth poured into the city looking for a taste of urban living, property taxes sky rocketed and black owned business after black own business shuttered its windows. All along U Street businesses were forced to shut down or relocate, making way for brand name chain retailers, such as T.G.I. Fridays, Starbucks, and others of the like. Ben's Chili Bowl was one of the lone exceptions of a black owned business remaining open and succeeding on U Street despite the raised property taxes. Why is this? Well in my estimation, which differes from that of the Post's staff writer Keith Alexander (who credits its success to a community rallying together and uniting all races, religions, and ethnicities to keep a family owned business in tact), is that all wealthy people cling to certain establishments in inner-cities to make themselves feel more authentic. That is half the reason for gentrification, to get out the suburban monotiny, and while the creature comforts were constructed, many feel it necessary to get the "real" city-life experience. Whites, Asians, and yes, even Black people, for whatever reason chose Ben's Chili Bowl above all the other black owned businesses (which the Washington Post never addressed or even asked why the community wouldn't unite to save), perhaps because it is the best product or maybe by pure happenstance, but the point is Ben's is no renegade survivor of the evils of gentrification. Get real.