POLITICS
04/08/2011 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

As Black Population Declines In Washington D.C., Little Ethiopia Thrives

It was about an hour into the afternoon rush at Ben's Chili Bowl, and Kassahun Addis pushed through the back kitchen doors and made his way through the dining room to the front counter.

He lugged a red bucket full of soapy water from table to table, his skinny arms bulging under its weight as beads of sweat gathered on his brow.

This was his umpteenth trip of the afternoon: through the doors, past the folks chowing down on Ben's famous chili dogs, to the counter with the line of customers snaking all the way back to the front door. Wipe. Wipe. And do it all over again.

It could have been a scene from Dinaw Mengestu's novel "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," where Sepha, an Ethiopian political refugee from Addis Ababa finds himself in Washington, D.C., doing manual work and wondering how he ended up here, of all places.

"How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia?" Sepha wondered. "I wasn't, I decided. I wasn't supposed to live here at all."

It was Kassahun Addis' first week on the job and his first job in the United States.

Less than two years ago, Addis, 28, who holds degrees in political science and international relations, was a freelance journalist in Ethiopia covering political shenanigans and regional conflict for local newspapers, Time magazine and The Washington Post. But after being persecuted by the government for his work, Addis fled his homeland, first to Kenya and then to the United States.

Now, he's cleaning tables and fetching napkins and condiments at Ben's Chili Bowl, a black-owned landmark in one of the city's most storied African American neighborhoods.

Addis is one of the more than 150,000 African immigrants to call Washington, D.C., and the metropolitan area home. And the numbers are growing. Year by year, as more and more of the city's native-born blacks leave, historically African-American neighborhoods are evolving as gentrification hastens black dislocation, and new immigrant communities are forming in their footsteps.

Some of them are thriving. Others are not. But both of these black communities and their respective cultures are profoundly changed by many bumps along the way and the shared experiences of being black in white America.

"What we are seeing in Washington within the African immigrant community is exactly what was happening when African Americans moved from the South to the North during the great migration," said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research agency dedicated to social equity. "They are moving into communities, joining networks of friends and family that have already been set up to support them."

On the surface Addis' story is hardly unique. The United States has no shortage of immigrants searching for better lives or who fled vicious governments or wars back home. But over the past few decades something phenomenal has been taking place in Washington, D.C.

According to the latest U.S. Census data, the city has joined a growing list of major American cities that have seen their native-born black populations declining at an alarming rate - including Detroit, New Orleans, and among the biggest losers Oakland and Chicago with losses of 25 percent and 17 percent, respectively - with Washington seeing an 11 percent decline, all over the past 10 years.

Over the same period, the African immigrant population in the Washington metropolitan area, and the rest of the country for that matter, has hit an all time high, according to demographers and those who study the African Diaspora.

In 1964 there were about 64,000 African immigrants living in the United States. Today there are about 1.4 million, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank that deals with immigrant issues. Most of these newcomers live in New York, California and the Washington-Maryland suburbs.

The Washington metropolitan area, which includes swaths of Maryland and Virginia, with their soft and fluid boundaries, is home to upward of 150,000 African immigrants. About 10,000 to 15,000 of them live in the city of Washington, D.C., according to demographers and data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

Ethiopians represent the largest African immigrant population in D.C. One in every five black African immigrants here is an Ethiopian, according to survey. Nigerians represent the second largest group, and Sierra Leoneans, Ghanaians and other west and sub-Saharan Africans, and refugees from Somalia and the horn of Africa make up a smaller percentage.

Around the city and especially in the traditionally African American Shaw section, along a stretch of U Street once known as D.C.'s "black Broadway," Ethiopian restaurants, grocery stores and specialty shops have become a ubiquitous sign of transplanted African roots. Some refer to the area as Little Ethiopia.

They have opened businesses and cornered a share of the city's valet parking, parking lot and taxicab markets. Their injera and other culinary staples are luring Washingtonians from Chinese, comfort and soul food joints. And politicians must commit at least some degree of courtship to their African-born constituency. The city has even opened an Office on African Affairs.

But things have not always gone smoothly, said Maurice Jackson, an African American history professor at Georgetown University.

"A lot of it has to do with opportunity and jobs. You can see it with migrants who come in," he said. "Go up and down U Street and you see a large number of Ethiopian restaurants, Ethiopian cab drivers. Somehow they have found capital, or their families have the capital or maybe they pooled their money."

Blacks, he said, for a number of economic and socio-economic reasons, have not been able to pool the same kinds of resources and by and large, been able forge the same kinds economic power.

When the Ethiopian business community pushed to have the city recognize an area between 13th Street and 9th Street along U Street as Little Ethiopia, and do so on street signs and plaques, some in the black community pushed back.

The Shaw neighborhood, home to Howard University, was born from the hands of freed slaves who built an encampment there. And its namesake is homage to the white Civil War Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the revered all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

"People thought we were taking the African American culture away," said Yared Tesfaya, who opened Etete, an Ethiopian restaurant on 9th Street near U Street. "But this neighborhood was dead. Nothing but gunshots, gunshots."

The official signs never went up, but through the years simmering tensions have cooled he said, and more African Americans are patronizing Etete.

"They are starting to like the spicy, spongy food," Tesfaya said. "We all get along now."

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In the 1950s and 1960s, diplomats from recently independent African countries and their children came to study at historically black colleges like Howard. Others were drawn to the cosmopolitan nature of the city and its racial diversity. Some sought refuge as asylum from their home states. And D.C., with its many African embassies, made good sense.

Between 1990 and 2000 the number of African immigrants doubled. And since 2005, the population is doubling at an even quicker rate.

Many have come through the State Department's diversity visa program, an annual visa lottery that issues 50,000 permanent visas to immigrants from underrepresented countries. Applicants must have a high school education and two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training.

Partly because of the programs educational requirements, African immigrants tend to be the highest educated of all immigrants. In 2007, nearly half of the 1.1 million African-born adults had a bachelor's degree, according to a report released by the Migration Policy Institute.

Addis, who was granted political asylum, said that D.C. appeals especially to the Ethiopian psyche.

"In our country we have one big city, one capital. That has always been the seat of the king, the power," he said, during a break at Ben's Chili Bowl. "The closer you get to the king, the more safe and stable you are."

But there have been a few things that Ethiopians - who boast of being the only African country never to be colonized by the white man - and other Africans have had to learn about life in America.

Though the concept might not resonate much in their respective cultures, they are still black by most Western standards.

"One thing a lot of them seem to be taken aback by is their experiences of racism, in terms of how they might identify themselves, how they define themselves and how others identify them," said Kevin Thomas, a professor of African American studies, sociology and demography at Penn State University who was born in Sierra Leone.

"A lot of them, especially the first generation, might not define themselves as African Americans. It's almost like a culture shock for someone who might define themselves as a Nigerian or Ghanaian, but who sees the same kinds of discrimination and prejudice that an African American might experience, directed at them because of racial similarities."

Semhar Araia, 32, the American-born daughter of Eritrean parents, said that immigrants face myriad issues in acclimating to this country. There are complicated systems of governance, law, education and health care. There are language barriers. For black immigrants there is the added complexity of color and race, she said.

"I don't think many African immigrants imagined the reality of being black in America and what that means," said Araia, an international human rights attorney and founder of the Diaspora African Women's Network (DAWN). The organization pulls together women from across the African Diaspora in D.C. from different professional fields to fellowship with each other and mentor young immigrant women. "Back home the color of your skin has less to do with it than religion and ethnicity. [In America], who we are is part of the new black identity."

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Back at Ben's Chili Bowl, Addis, the over-trained busboy, said that he still struggles to relate to his American-born counterparts, those from the African American community and the Ethiopians.

He struggles to understand black American slang and dialects. Because of his thick accent, some assume that he neither speaks nor understands English, though he does both exceptionally well.

The American-born Ethiopians are much more African American than African, he said. They've grown up together in schools, played on the same sports teams, socialize at the same bars and dance to the same music in clubs.

"To be honest, I haven't met any friends that are white or African American since I came to D.C.," he said.

It's harder for newcomers and for the older immigrants to find friends outside of their community, many said. They find solace in the comfort of the insularity of their churches, their families and their long-forged social networks.

"People who immigrated to the U.S., most people think that's a success by itself," Addis said. "So, if he or she was here before you, they think they achieved more than you."

He continued: "Sometimes it's difficult to relate with people who have been here for a long time, and these people do not know what I did in Ethiopia. They don't care to know and they don't give you the respect you need."

As Addis wiped up tables in a back dining room, Virginia Ali, 77, the owner and matriarch of the place, walked over to another employee, an ill teenager slumped over a table in a corner, and pushed a bowl of hot soup across the table, urging him to eat.

"Mom is still here and she's still the boss," said Sage Ali, the eldest of Ms. Ali's three sons who help her run the place.

She's been mothering her employees, neighborhood folks, politicians, policemen and anyone else who walks through those doors since she and her late husband, Ben Ali, opened the place in 1958.

"So much has changed since then," Ms. Ali said. "Seems that Ben's is all that's left."

Back in the 1950s, D.C. was still in the grip of Jim Crow. But that also meant a strong sense of community and self-reliance.

"It was a thriving but segregated African American community," Ms. Ali said. "You had intellectuals, plumbers and lawyers living next door to each other."

U Street was lined with black-owned businesses including pool halls, restaurants, bars, jazz clubs, theaters and a photo studio. There was a business school that trained black secretaries and the Industrial Savings Bank, which remains black-owned and operated.

Luminaries like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Cosby have all spent time down on U Street and some time hovering over one of Ben's famous Chili Half-Smokes.

As the 1960s wore on and the nation's capital dabbled in desegregation, African Americans dabbled right along with it, going to white theaters and restaurants downtown, and moving into neighborhoods they never could before.

Then in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the Shaw neighborhood erupted in rebellion. U Street stores were torched and looted. Practically all but Ben's Chili Shop, with the words "Soul Brother" scrawled across the front window as a treatise, were damaged or destroyed.

As the fires blazed, Ben's was an "island of calm," said Marshall Brown, a historian of the neighborhood and of Ben's Chili Bowl.

After the riots, the neighborhood became a slum in the most traditional sense: racial isolation, crime, drugs and violence.

After decades of U Street as a no man's land, the Ethiopian merchants started buying property and opening restaurants and other shops. At the same time a stream of gays and young white professionals began to come into the neighborhood. Other historically black enclaves like Columbia Heights and gritty fringe communities began to fall to gentrification. High-priced condominiums and refurbished homes followed, along with doggy parks, bike lanes and Starbucks.

"I started to see white people moving into places that I never would have wanted to live in," Ms. Ali said.

Even at Ben's the scene has changed. At any given time more than half of the staff is Ethiopian and the majority of the customers are white.

"I don't care what race or color you are," said Ms. Ali. Regal, with her head full of winter-white hair, Ms. Ali then rose from her seat and walked past Addis and his red bucket of soapy water.