Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Since Amadi pretty much said it all about the inauguration itself, I'll take a different tack on the recent festivities and how they might connect to the neighborhoods back here in Chicago. The picture above is a cellphone shot of Ben's Chili Bowl, an already-famous Washington eatery that experienced the "Check Please" effect on steroids in January, thanks to Barack Obama's visit shortly before taking office. I went by the day after the inauguration vaguely hoping to try the chili, but the crowd was so thick it was hopeless. Two policemen were out front warning tourists not to stand in the street to take photos.
Ben's is located in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, where the main drag, U Street, was known as "Black Broadway" back in the 50s, when Ben's first opened. Shaw predates New York's Harlem as a center of African-American life and culture. Originally settled by freed slaves during and after the Civil War, Shaw became the center of Washington's black community and was the largest African-American community in the nation until Harlem surpassed it in 1920. Nearby Howard University began to attract African-American intellectuals as early as the 1870s.
Although it's tempting to draw parallels between Shaw and Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, their trajectories diverged somewhat in the mid-20th century. Shaw survived the Great Depression and World War II relatively unscathed compared to Bronzeville, where the depression followed by the creation of the Ida B. Wells housing projects devastated the neighborhood. (See this Wikitravel article for more.)
Meanwhile, Shaw thrived until the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For the first decade of Ben's Chili Bowl's history, everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bill Cosby to King himself could be found having a half-smoke at Ben's. (It's smoked sausage with chili sauce on a bun, but you should click the link and read the mouth-watering description they give on the menu.)
From there, Shaw's history looks like that of Bronzeville, North Lawndale, Woodlawn, and many other Chicago neighborhoods--a generation of crime and blight after the riots, followed by regeneration, which has come faster in some places than others. In Shaw's case, the rebirth has been fairly explosive in recent years, fueled by an influx of Ethiopian restaurants and businesses moving in from nearby Adams-Morgan. In a pattern familiar to community development folks, the neighborhoods took off (or fell, depending on your perspective) like a row of dominoes. First Dupont Circle got pricey, then Adams Morgan, then Shaw. Although to the naive out-of-towner the crowd in Shaw still seemed largely African-American, both on the street and in the storefronts, Wikipedia cites Census data showing the proportion of African-American residents in Shaw has declined from 92% in 1970 to 56% in 2000.
One thing Washington has in place is some cultural tourism infrastructure that extends beyond the most obvious neighborhood destinations to neighborhoods like Anacostia, which has both middle-class enclaves and a reputation for crime, drugs and violence. On this trip I got a first-hand look at the walking trails in both Adams Morgan and Shaw/U Street, more by accident than design. But I wasn't the only tourist reading the plaque explaining the area's history while taking a stroll or waiting for the bus. I definitely think Chicago has room to grow in this area.
For now, here's my favorite way to draw tourists to Chicago neighborhoods. Maybe someone can persuade President Obama to take a vacation from DC and stop by Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles!