That record, he noted, includes establishing a sister city relationship with Beijing, helping to erect the Chinatown Friendship Archway and establishing the city Office of Asian-Pacific Islander Affairs during his four terms as mayor.
But he gave voice to decades-old tensions between the largely black residents of the District’s poorest neighborhoods and the many Asian owners of the carryout, convenience and liquor stores that serve them. The shops, he said, are dirty and unwelcoming, often placing thick bulletproof plexiglass between customers and employees.
“I’m not doing anything except trying to have a renaissance of our community and get some respect. A number of these restaurants serve high-caloric food, bad food, et cetera, but the more important thing, they don’t participate in the community,” Barry said. “That’s what I object to. I don’t care who it is.”
Asked why he singled out Asians in his remarks, Barry said: “Because that’s reality. Who owns these little restaurants? Who owns them? You know, Asians. . . . 90 percent of all the small restaurants in Ward 8, at least.” It is difficult to verify that claim.
He added, “We’re spending our money there, and we demand respect. We demand they participate in community affairs. We demand they give jobs to Ward 8 people regardless of their cultural situation. That’s as American as apple pie.”
Barry tweeted photos Thursday of the facade and interior of a Congress Heights carryout and added, “Funny how folk expect us to sit down, shut up and expect lower standards than what they enjoy in their communities.” It is not clear whether the business is Asian-owned.
The owner of the restaurant, the China Inn Deli, said he was “very offended” by Barry’s comments. “It’s because of the neighborhood and how it is,” said the man, who did not give his name. “It’s a low-income community. The crime rate is high. We just have to make a living.”
The use of plexiglass, in particular, not only creates a physical barrier but also represents what divides the businesses and residents. Barry’s Congress Heights neighborhood, for instance, suffered a recent spree of violent robberies, including one in which a gas station attendant was fatally shot. But many residents consider it insulting that businesses insist on bulletproof barriers.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said she does not patronize shops that have erected plexiglass. “It sends the wrong message for the residents of a community,” she said. “It sends the message that we’re all criminals.”
One prominent Korean entrepreneur criticized Barry for lumping all Asian business owners together, but he said he understood the root of his concerns with “dirty shops.”
“He shouldn’t have said Asians,” said Gary Cha, who owns the Yes! Organic grocery chain. But he added that “any of those people running a dirty store that have an adverse impact on the community should go. And sometimes I am ashamed some of the Asian business owners don’t spend the time to keep the stores in a respectful manner.”
He added, “I do go around and say, ‘Look, if you clean your store, your business will probably go up by 65 percent — no-brainer.’ I’ve probably said that a thousand times to people, but it doesn’t work. . . . In that sense I am with [Barry], but just like saying things about African Americans — not all African Americans do certain things.”
Cha — who said relations between Asian businesses and the black residents they serve are “a sensitive issue” — has opened an east-of-the-Anacostia River store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, in Ward 7, but he has no locations in Ward 8. He is a past president of the Korean-American Grocers Association, which lobbies on behalf of Asian small-business owners.
Like many of the city’s Asian leaders, Cha fondly recalls steps that Barry took as mayor to involve them in the city government. He also noted Barry’s advancing age — he’s 76 — in saying, “I think we should just let it go.”
“I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with my view, but that’s what makes this country such a great place to live and work,” Cha said. “You can disagree with people and still be friends, and I totally disagree with him, 100 percent, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be my enemy or I am his enemy.”