U Street's gradual U-turn

Mrs Virginia Ali recalls how U Street changed in the aftermath of the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr's assassination.
Mrs Virginia Ali recalls how U Street changed in the aftermath of the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr's assassination.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
An aerial view of the riots in U Street and Columbia Heights in north-west Washington DC that left the neighbourhood stagnated for 20 years.
An aerial view of the riots in U Street and Columbia Heights in north-west Washington DC that left the neighbourhood stagnated for 20 years.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

"You wouldn't think it today but there were times we did not know if we would survive," says Mrs Virginia Ali, owner of Ben's Chilli Bowl, an iconic Washington eatery that she and her late husband Ben started in 1958.

Today, times have changed.

The soft-spoken 84-year-old grandmother of three smiles as she steps out on the sidewalk on a sunny spring day in May to inspect the new wall mural outside Ben's Chilli Bowl, where waitresses serve up the eatery's legendary "half smokes" - hot dogs drenched in a thick, piquant chilli sauce.

Located at the corner of 14th and U Street, it was barely a block from here that the first stone was thrown on the evening of April 4, 1968, the day civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

For days, the district - and several other cities in the US - burned as roving African American youths went on a rampage.

After the riots died down, only three businesses were left standing in the area. Among them was Ben's Chilli Bowl.

The only reason it was not touched was that the locals always gathered there and did not allow any harm to come to the Ali family.

But in the aftermath of the riots, the once vibrant neighbourhood known for its theatres and jazz clubs, which produced Duke Ellington, and where Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald were regulars, sank into despair.

The African American middle class fled. The neighbourhood stagnated for 20 years and soon became a symbol of a crime-infested city.

"Buildings that were burned and looted never reopened. Middle-class African Americans moved away because by then, segregation was over and you could live anywhere. Heroin and cocaine moved in, and this beautiful community became a ghetto," Mrs Ali recalls.

"When the sun set, we had to go home because there were no street lights. There were no cars on the street. It was a mess, full of drugs and prostitution."

She adds with a sigh: "We literally destroyed our own country. Washington was the murder capital of the United States. We used to be almost ashamed to say we were from Washington."

Then in 1991, the U Street Metro station opened, and the slow climb back began. "The children's hospital, which was a den of drugs, was renovated,' says Mrs Ali. "The street was widened. Businesses moved in."

The area slowly became gentrified and is now a hipster condominium, retail and food district known as the "U Street Corridor".

Millennials cycle to work, walk their pedigree dogs, and eat and shop at the scores of restaurants, oyster bars, and organic food and lifestyle stores - most less than 10 years old - that line the nine-block stretch.

Theatres such as the legendary Howard and live music clubs such as the 9:30 are flourishing. The best Ethiopian restaurants in town are here. Vibrant murals adorn the walls of establishments, one of them on the side of Ben's Chilli Bowl, which is now a regular stop on cultural tours of the city and counts a long line of personalities, including former president Barack Obama and wife Michelle, as its customers.

As Mrs Ali inspects a brand new mural featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal - ace basketball duo of the Washington Wizards - she tells The Straits Times: "Now this neighbourhood is the place to be."

Nirmal Ghosh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'U Street's gradual U-turn'. Print Edition | Subscribe