Hundreds of people packed U Street NW Wednesday for an all-day block party celebrating the 60th anniversary of the District’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The 1200 block of the historic U Street corridor was shut down for a bouncy house, free Italian ice, a rock-climbing wall and of course, plenty of go-go music. Many of the party-goers held their cellphones high to record the celebrities and city officials who crowded the stage.
“There’s 700,000 of us who call Washington, D.C., home, and there have been decades of Washingtonian that have come here right here to U Street — our Black Broadway — to visit our businesses,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a speech before the party kicked off.
Joining Miss Bowser on the stage outside the diner were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and councilmember Jack Evans, among others. Virginia Ali, co-founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, was the guest of honor.
“One of the biggest testaments to you and your family is when we can go in your restaurant and meet employees that have been with you since the very beginning,” the mayor said, turning to Mrs. Ali.
Then Mrs. Ali unveiled a new street sign renaming the 1200 block of U Street as Ben’s Chili Bowl Way — a gift from city lawmakers, who voted for the change in July.
Mr. Evans led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to the eatery and, with Mr. Mendelson and councilmember Brianne Nadeau, presented to Mrs. Ali a ceremonial resolution declaring Aug. 22 as “Ben’s Chili Bowl Day” in the District.
In 1958, Virginia Ali founded Ben’s Chili Bowl with her fiance, Ben Ali, whom she married seven weeks later.
The U Street corridor was the center of black entertainment and business in the District at that time. The chili diner earned a faithful following in the 1960s by staying open until 4 a.m., serving musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole late night performances in the nearby Howard Theatre. Many politicians, performers, athletes and other celebrities have made it a point to eat at Ben’s, which bears images of some of its famous patrons in a mural on its wall.
Martin Luther King dined at the restaurant, and after his assassination in 1968, Ben’s was one of the few businesses spared in the rioting and violence that erupted throughout the city.
Lifelong D.C. resident Joyce Tyler recalled when the Ali family took over a movie theatre on U Street to open the diner.
“It was like a part of all of us. We wanted to be a part of it,” Ms. Tyler said. “People of color love to see stuff like this, that you can branch out and still make it.”
Retired musician Esther “QueenE” Mayberry grew up around the corner from Ben’s and remembered throwing rocks in the riots as a 13-year old girl and wrapping rags around her and her friend’s faces to protect them from the tear gas lobbed down the street by police.
“As a teenager we were just throwing rocks. But we skipped [Ben’s]. We didn’t touch them,” said Ms. Mayberry. “They were neighborhood. They were family.”
Many residents remember Ben’s as a safe zone during the riots where police and rioters alike were welcome and served.
It’s a legacy that Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said he wanted to honor by attending Wednesday’s celebration. He told The Washington Times it ties into the department’s new racial sensitivity training that began this year. Officers learn about the history of policing black neighborhoods at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and “learn from the errors of our past,” he said.
“Some of our officers are brought to tears from that experience,” Chief Newsham said of Ben’s. “We’re going to get everybody from the police department in there this year and we intend to build on it from there.”
Ben’s has weathered several changes since the riots — the construction of Metro’s U Street station, the crack cocaine epidemic, and most recently, gentrification — but residents applauded it for keeping its half-smokes and cheesy fries coming and its doors open.
“They are very, very tough. They have hung in there,” radio host Donnie Simpson said of the Ali family. “They’ve been the linchpin, the anchor of this community, and for that, we applaud them and celebrate them.”
Today, only five of U Street’s original black-owned businesses and organizations remain: Ben’s, Lee’s Florist, the Industrial Bank, the Howard Theatre, the Lincoln Theatre and the Prince Hall Freemasons.
The eatery has become a Washington institution. Framed pictures of celebrities and politicians hang on its walls, such as that of the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ,who reviewed the diner in 2007 and called the half-smoke a “different animal altogether.”
In 2009, the movie “State of Play” filmed a scene inside Ben’s in which a D.C. reporter played by Russell Crowe picks up his regular order.
For many, Ben’s importance is captured in its mural: Images of Prince, Barack and Michelle Obama, Taraji P. Henson, Dick Gregory, Chuck Brown and Dave Chappelle adorn the wall, painted by artists last year after Mrs. Ali did away with the previous mural. On Wednesday, portraits of local radio icon Cathy Hughes and Mr. Jackson were added to the mural, as go-go music blared and people danced across the block.
Block party organizers announced that all of Wednesday’s proceeds with go to the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation, which donates to various local organizations.