Sunday, March 1, 2009

What’s a hot dog between buddies on a Saturday afternoon of hanging out in Washington? A lot, if the guy buying is President Obama and the restaurant is the heart and soul of the city’s U Street Corridor.

Sales nearly doubled at Ben’s Chili Bowl after Mr. Obama and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty stopped in on Jan. 10 for one of the establishment’s legendary “half-smoke” hot dogs.

Though the U Street neighborhood has long been the center of the city’s black culture and among the most prosperous over the past couple of decades, the rise of Mr. Obama, the country’s first black president, has created a wave of energy and prosperity that has rippled through the community.

“It’s the cultural heart of the city,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. “The scene isn’t driven by politics or money, so it’s a good opportunity to escape the D.C. bubble and meet a diverse set of people.”

Ben’s co-owner, Nizam Ali - whose father, Ben, opened the restaurant with his wife, Virginia, in 1958 - recalls the night that Mr. Obama won the election.

“People were pouring out into the street,” he said. “There was a lot of love, just a wonderful feeling.”

The momentum continued through inauguration week, when lines to eat at Ben’s were often out the door and around the corner. Even when the sidewalk in front of the restaurant was clear of waiting customers, passers-by often had to walk in the street because tourists had blocked the path while taking pictures.

“We pretty much called anyone and everyone who has ever worked [at Ben’s] and had them work the week of inauguration,” Mr. Ali said.

Sales of the signature half-smoke - a half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage on a bun with spicy chili sauce - went to 5,000 that week from the normal number of roughly 2,750. And the restaurant went through roughly 550 gallons of chili, compared with the typical 250 gallons a week.

The recent prosperity is just the latest turn in the neighborhood’s long, storied history.

The neighborhood, loosely defined as U Street Northwest, between Ninth and 18th streets, has had one of the country’s largest black populations since the late 1800s and early 1900s. Often called “the Original Harlem” or “Black Broadway,” its black-owned clubs, theaters and restaurants attracted such stars as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and native son Duke Ellington.

The low point came after Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968 and rioters destroyed much of the community. Among the businesses to survive was Ben’s Chili Bowl, which provided food and shelter for activists, police and firefighters alike.

Blighted for nearly 20 years, the neighborhood of Victorian-style town homes re-emerged in the 1990s as developers looked to continue their success in the nearby neighborhoods of Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle.

Today, the mix of longtime residents, urban professionals and bohemians now includes Mr. LaBolt and other Obama staffers, who have eschewed the more traditional, official Washington neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Georgetown.

Lisa Williams, president of Senate Realty on U Street, said she has received at least 15 referrals from Obama staffers in the past several weeks.

“We’ve had a ton of inquiries,” she said. “It’s just been an inflow of people. If you see one staffer, they refer tons of people to you. Everything is very word of mouth.”

Miss Williams said the clubs and restaurants that have recently opened to complement the Lincoln Theatre and the Bohemian Caverns nightclub have brought a new electricity to the neighborhood.

“There is a huge migration now,” she said.

Among the new establishments - and one that has prospered since the new administration - is the restaurant Marvin, off U and 14th streets Northwest and named after the late soul singer Marvin Gaye.

“It’s very humbling to be part of any business that is successful, much less growing, in these economic times,” said general manager Sheldon A. Scott. “I think the most overwhelming feeling is just gratefulness that people are allowing us to host them.”

Michael Petruzzello, managing partner at Qorvis Communications in the District, thinks the recent change in political power has made Washington among the best places to be right now.

“I’d rather be in business here than in any other country in the world right now,” said Mr. Petruzzello, whose firm created a mobile-phone application called Navigating Washington.

“You’re going to see a lot of activity rolling out from changes in Congress and the administration,” he said.

Victoria Isley, senior vice president of Destination DC, said the group has been promoting the U Street Corridor for years, “but the Obama effect, if you will, has taken the lid off that. It has given people an opportunity to see the powerful federal side of the city but also glimpses of the backyard, where people in D.C. live, work and play every day.”

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