Shaw Shuns 'Little Ethiopia'

Ethiopian entrepreneurs Yared Tesfaye, left, Yeshimebeth Belay, Yehunie Belay and Sinidu Sodere on Ninth Street NW, long tied to black history.
Ethiopian entrepreneurs Yared Tesfaye, left, Yeshimebeth Belay, Yehunie Belay and Sinidu Sodere on Ninth Street NW, long tied to black history. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 25, 2005

Derege Zewdie pointed at the gleaming kitchen where cooks will serve up lamb and beef stews, fish and flat bread in the convenience store he plans to open in a few weeks. The rich oak shelves along the wall, he said, will be stocked with coffees, spices and music cassettes from his Ethiopian homeland.

Zewdie is among a cluster of Ethiopian entrepreneurs who have brought life to a long-neglected strip in Northwest Washington. They have worked long hours buying and renovating properties, opening restaurants and shops and offices, including one planned as a headquarters for an Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce.

They also are seeking recognition, lobbying the city for a street sign christening the strip "Little Ethiopia," a designation that would "give the rest of the world a chance to know who Ethiopians are," Zewdie said. "It will be on the map."

But the location -- Ninth Street NW between U and T streets in Shaw -- is in a neighborhood steeped in American black history and culture, prompting some community leaders to dismiss the Ethiopians' campaign as inappropriate.

"They haven't paid their dues," said Clyde Howard, 71, a retired postal worker and longtime Shaw activist. "Where were they during the [1968] riots? They're Johnny-come-lately. What gives them the right? Just because you opened a store?"

An extension of U Street -- which once was known as the District's "Black Broadway" -- Ninth Street for decades was the address of jazz clubs and restaurants patronized by African Americans. The street fell into disrepair after the riots, and as landlords abandoned it, vagrants congregated and drug peddlers commandeered street corners.

As the District experienced a renaissance in the past decade, investors poured money into Shaw, including U and Ninth streets, where Ethiopians and other African immigrants bought properties and took over storefronts to open restaurants and shops.

Tamrat Medhin, a leading advocate for the designation, said it would help draw patrons and would trumpet the community's importance in the neighborhood and across the region. "We'd like to get recognition from the host country for our contributions," said Medhin, a real estate broker and chairman of the Ethiopian American Constituency Foundation. "There are thousands of people serving in taxis, parking lots, hotels and restaurants. We are doing stuff."

Community leaders do not dispute that the Ethiopians are enterprising, but they said that few live in Shaw and that the new merchants have failed to forge ties with African American residents, sometimes coming across as aloof. "You get a gold star because you're good entrepreneurs, but that doesn't mean you get a whole corner," said Myla Moss, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member whose district includes the east side of Ninth Street. "The timing is off. Until the glass wall evaporates and we can get a warmer vibe, I don't think you're going to have a lot of the African American community rallying around this."

San Francisco's Chinatown and New York's Little Italy are two of the more famous ethnic enclaves that developed over the past century. Yet, such nicknames often were created by outsiders and were not embraced by the immigrants. "It was a vernacular thing. It would depend on the stereotypes of the groups, and the lower down the group, in terms of poverty, the more pejorative it became," said John Mollenkopf, professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

More recently, some immigrant groups have embraced such labels as Koreatown, as Annandale's downtown is unofficially known. New York created Korea Way in Manhattan, while Los Angeles has designated Little Armenia, Thai Town, and, several years ago, Little Ethiopia.

Ethiopians began streaming into the United States after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1970s, and many settled in the Washington region, where, according to the 2000 Census, 15,000 Ethiopian immigrants now live. The Ethiopian Embassy disputes that number, saying as many as 120,000 live in the region. During the 1980s, some opened restaurants along 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan, but rising rents have pushed them east along U Street. In recent years, Ethiopians have opened as many as 10 restaurants east of 13th Street and along Ninth Street between U and T.

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