November 14, 2008

More Than Chili


A while back, I came across a blog post on the DCist.com that announced the release of a new Images of America book for a well-known DC restaurant called Bens Chili Bowl on U Street. The release coincided with its 50th anniversary. The author of the blog explained, at $19.99, the book would make a perfect keepsake for half-smoke devotees (Sommer, DCist). For those not accustomed to Bens Chili Bowl terminology, the half smoke is the trademark half pork, half beef, hot dog. And while I had never tried one, and certainly wasn’t a half-smoke devotee, this blog post held a special appeal to me. It was a perfect subject for an assignment I had recently been given to research a DC area landmark. Not only was it an interesting and unorthodox choice, but by choosing it, I would already have a primary source.

I should have responded by ordering the book on Amazon.com and then plan out a time to visit the restaurant. But I procrastinated. I thought to myself, The book and the place will be there when I get around to starting. Such a passive approach to schoolwork rarely proves beneficial. In this case however, it worked out. Two weeks after I came across the blog post, I attended a Mason Jennings concert at the 9:30 Club on V Street in DC. V is one letter up from U, but I didn’t care to note the significance at the time. When my friends and I got off the metro to go to the concert, we happened to walk down U Street. And there, beaming its neon open sign down on us was Ben’s Chili Bowl, looking just the same as it did in the retro cover photo of the Images of America book. Unknowingly, I was graced with the opportunity to turn my irresponsible Wednesday night concert going into primary research time for my paper. I told my friends, We’re gonna get some chili tonight. I wasn’t open to counter-proposals.

The concert let out around midnight and, true to my plans, we headed back down U street to get some chili. Luckily for us, Ben’s is open till 2AM on weekdays (4AM on weekends). When we arrived, we were greeted by a homeless man who was opening the door for patrons in hopes of weaseling money. He supplemented the act of opening the door with excessive phrases of servitude. Being that my two friends, Ali and Sep, are smiley, carefree and generous girls, the homeless man rudely seized the on the impression they made and asked Sep for a hug. This action occurred right after his soliloquy about humility and right before he opened door. Embarrassed and suspicious, Sep said No. The homeless man realized that he went too far and started backpedaling, “Its just the way I show my love. My preacher always asks me, why you always so happy? Why you the only one in church always smiling and always singing? I tell him God moves in me.” He thumped his fist to his chest and continued. “I wake up in the morning and I’m happy cause I’m living.” He spoke in this way for a couple of minutes, and his words left a remarkable impression of genuineness. Sep was near tears. For a second I thought, was I totally wrong to feel disdain for this guy? Is this an angel of God or something? Or is he just a crafty beggar who knows how to sound convincing in his remorse? Either way, his words had a positive effect. His speech changed our approach of sharp caution to playful engagement (at arms length). We weren’t going to hug him, but we talked and thanked him for opening the door.

When we stepped inside, I noticed a poster on the wall advertising the book: For Sale, Ask Cashier. How perfect? I thought, Kill two birds with one stone: visit my DC landmark and collect my primary source. To top it off, Ben’s Chili Bowl turned out to be a trendy after-party spot. The line at the counter was full of young, concert-going, bar-hopping hipsters, who, like us, thought chili after midnight sounded like a brilliant idea.

“Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts was blaring over the jukebox while we waited in line. I started singing along and was immediately chided by the friendly homeless man, “Whatchu know about Summer Breeze?” He abandoned his door opening business to show me some dance moves and a belt out a more genuine rendition of the song. When we finally made it to the cashier, I ordered a bowl of chili and a vanilla shake with the book on the side. My friend Ali had chili fries and a chocolate shake. Sep had a chili veggie burger and a chocolate shake. We sat down on the bar stools in front of the traditional open grill, the likes of which can been seen in any Waffle House, and I started flipping through my new book. I was disappointed to discover that it was mostly pictures, hence the name Images of America. The pictures were of black celebrities, actors, activists, politicians, athletes and prominent community members eating at the restaurant. There were several pictures of Bill Cosby, who I learned from the book, took his future wife on a date to Ben’s back in the day and has been a faithful patron ever since. He is a celebrity of particular adulation at Ben’s, as a sign behind the counter gives notice: People who eat free: Bill Cosby, and no one else (Authors note: the sign was recently amended to read, Bill Cosby, the Obama family) (redacted 8/15)

What is made clear in the book is that Ben’s Chili Bowl is an important place in Washington DC. To its credit, it was inducted into the DC Hall of Fame in the business category in 2001. It won the Gallo of Sonoma Award, American Classic in 2004. And beyond any award it might receive, it is widely recognized in the black community all across America as a culturally significant spot. What is not clear in the book is, why? Is it simply the famous chili dogs AKA half-smokes or something more? The food is an important part. Bill Cosby attests, “All I need is six half-smokes and a good woman and my life will be complete.” (redacted 8/15) But as I see it, that something more that makes Ben’s Chili Bowl so revered is derived from four factors that are subtlety apparent the story of its creation and survival: location, an enterprising spirit, diligence and family values.

Part of what makes Ben’s Chili Bowl so special is its location in the nations capital. Washington DC is obviously a tourist destination because of its monuments and impressive government buildings. But it is also famous for the role it has played in African American history. After the Civil War, the number of African Americans living in DC rose dramatically due to it being one of the southern most pro-union cities. By 1900 it had the highest percentage of African Americans of any city in the United States (McQuirter 4). Naturally, such a high centralization of the African American community lead DC to be an important place for art-sharing, black enterprise and education. The Shaw neighborhood which contains the section of U street where Ben’s is located, particularly experienced this growth. Howard University, referred to as the capstone of Negro education, is 8 blocks east of Ben’s. And U Street spawned many theatres and jazz clubs that showcased black talent. In its heyday, the area was known as Black Broadway. Athough Ben’s Chili Bowl didn’t arrive on the scene until 1958, it still embodies the time when Duke Ellington (a Shaw native), Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole were regular performers on in the DC circuit. Its a standing representation of that era.

Another remarkable quality is its family roots. At the center of that family are the two founders, Ben and Virgina. Ben’s real name is Mahabood Ben Ali. He is an immigrant from Trinidad who arrived in DC in the 1950s to study dentistry. An accident forced him to give up his studies but an enterprising spirit lead him to invest $5000 dollars into converting an old silent theatre at 1312 U Street called the Minnehaha into a hot dog stand (Bennett 9, 10). He did banking at the Industrial Bank on 11th and U, one of the oldest and largest black owned banks in the country, which still stands to this day. This is where he met a young African American bank teller named Virginia Rollins. The two married on October 10, 1958 and the core of Bens Chili Bowl formed. From its first years to the present day, Bens has been a family owned and operated business. And its success can be attributed to the hard work and dedication that Ben and Virgina embody and have passed down to their three sons, Haidar, Kamal and Nizam (Bennett and Ali 12-13).

The course of their 50 year history has not been without dramatic trials which tested the family’s diligence. Just ten years after its founding, a national event caused a chain reaction that degraded life severely in the Shaw neighborhood. On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. And riots broke out in DC. It started at the intersection of 14th and U (two blocks from Ben’s) when a local black leader named Stokely Carmichael went around to local business demanding that they close in remembrance of Dr. King. Frustration turned to anger. Anger turned to hatred. And hatred turned to chaos and lawlessness. Stokely Carmichael was not directly indicted in the riots but he is recognized as initiating some of hostilities the first night. When it was over the damage was estimated at 24 million. 7,600 people were arrested. 12 were killed. 900 business were damaged by rioters. (Gilbert 13, 32, 178) In a popular book about the riots called “Ten Blocks from the White House”, Ben Gilbert mentions the intersection of U Street and 14th as the unofficial nerve center of active black leadership groups the place to go with a grievance. Dr. Kings Southern Christian Leadership conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people all had offices nearby. It was the heart of the black community but it was also the hardest hit by the riots. The majority of the arsons, deaths and damages occurred in this 14ths street corridor and the 7th Street corridor between U to F street. (Gilbert 44) 14th Street is a couple blocks west of Ben’s Chili Bowl and 7th street is a few blocks east. Ben’s somehow avoided serious damages but other business in the area weren’t as fortunate.

Shaw, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, was the slowest to recover (Diner 81) The era following Kings death was marked by an increase of drug traffickers, addicts and thugs on U street. More so than the riots themselves, this period present the gravest threat to their business. Rather than having to deal with benign preachy homeless men bothering the customers, it was faced with a more legitimate threat of violent assaults and the overall problem of community degradation. At the time, it didn’t have the luxury of being a tourist destination. It was just a hot dog stand in a rough part of town. Ben’s company survived the hard time and his example of hard work and longsuffering are qualities local government still want to encourage today. Urban blight continues to be a problem in many of DCs neighbor hoods even if it has been reduced in immediate vicinity of Ben’s Chili Bowl. In 2004, DC ranked 9th among the 50 most populated cities in the US in the violent crime rate per capita (US Census Bureau 193).

But crime hasn’t been the only hazard of owning a business in DC. Metro stop construction project, which has been an impetus for gentrification, nearly put Ben’s out of business. The 4-year of construction turned U Street into a 60-foot crater. While construction workers lowered a huge steel support sections for the metros underground structures, the front doors of the restaurant were nearly inaccessible to customers. No monetary compensation was offered by the City to make up for lost revenue. The restaurant staff shrank to as few as two employees and only grossed between $100 and 200 dollars per day, mainly off the business of construction workers (Bennett and Ali 79,80). Just like the post riot period, Bens weathered the storm and gained wide admiration for doing so. Their resilience caused the city to name the ally way behind the restaurant Ben Ali Way because it served as the only artery to the restaurant customers during construction.

Today, Ben’s chili bowl is in a good location and is poised for continued growth. Its reputation has even allowed for a second stand to be built inside the new Washington Nationals stadium. The metro stop, which was the reason for my first encounter with the restaurant, makes it an easily accessible stop for DC sightseers. And now the baseball stadium expansion has made it a convenient place for baseball fans. But its important to note that neither the metro stop nor National Stadium were a factor in Ben’s original business plan as they have been for the speculators and developers in recent years. Ben’s place in DC is noteworthy because it is not something that spawned overnight. It reflects the history of DC; especially the Shaw neighborhood.

I went back to Ben’s Chili Bowl recently on a more deliberate research venture after having educated myself. I was much more sensitive to my surroundings. I noticed the man in a suit sitting in one of the booths and wondered if he was a government official. I noticed a well-dressed black couple sitting next to me at the bar and wondered if they were visiting from out of town. I watched the workers dance to the RB music that was playing loudly overhead and wondered at the future role Ben’s would play for the 21st century U street community. I watched Ben’s son Kamel take inventory of straws, sugar packets and remind employees of individual meetings in his office. I considered the business values that Ben passed down to his sons, which were the only defense against an economically hazardous city. I knew that these values were not only important in handling unforeseen citywide problems but also necessary for dealing with the day-to-day troubles of door guarding hobos and lazy employees. These were the thoughts in my head as I filled my stomach with my first half smoke. When I was done, I was inclined to agree with Bill Cosby on the recipe for a happy life: 6 half smokes and a good woman. (redacted 9/18)

Glossary

  • Bennett, Tracy Gold and Nizam B. Ali. Images of America: Bens Chili Bowl. Chicago: Arcadia P, 2008.
  • Diner, Steven J. A History of the District of Columbia. Washington, DC: Associates for the Renewal of Education, Inc., 1979.
  • Gilbert, Ben W. and The Staff of The Washington Post. Ten Blocks from the White House. New York: Praeger P, 1968.
  • McQcquirter, Marya Annette. African American Heritage Trail, Washington, DC. Washington, DC: Cultural Tourism DC, 2003.
  • Sommer, Mathis. New Book Celebrates Bens Chili Bowls 50th Anniversary. 2008. DCist. Sep 2008. http://dcist.com/2008/08/11/newbook celebratesbenschili_bowl.php
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2007 (126th edition). Washington DC, 2008

Hi! My name is Matthew Halbe.

I'm a web developer working at Vistaprint in Silver Spring Maryland. I have four kids, August, Liesel, Levi and Clementine, and a wonderful wife, Dory.

I spent 6 years as an enlisted soldier in the Army before coming out to the DC area for school and work.

My main interests are web development, US-Iran Relations and documentary films.

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