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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)

"This block was a dead block. There was no money being generated for the city," said Yared Tesfaye, 26, outside Etete, a restaurant he and his brother opened on Ninth Street, downstairs from a new Ethiopian-owned hair salon. A few doors away, workers compiled the latest edition of the Ethiopian yellow pages, which has grown from 80 to 800 pages since it was first published 12 years ago.

Ethiopian community leaders approached D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) in the fall with the Little Ethiopia idea, after Graham visited their homeland. Graham endorsed it but cautioned that he needed to survey community groups. "It's a fitting honorific designation of one community's major contribution to the District of Columbia," Graham said.

The campaign was knocked off course after Abdul Kamus, a leader in the local Ethiopian community, promoted the concept in an interview with the Washington City Paper, angering some Shaw leaders. Kamus later offered an apology to anyone he had offended and abandoned any public role in the cause.

Medhin brought the idea before the full D.C. Council in May, and last month he appealed for support to a neighborhood association a block from Ninth Street.

He and other Ethiopians said they are sensitive to concerns raised by American blacks and stress their shared African heritage. But they brushed aside the idea that they have not been in the neighborhood long enough for such recognition. "Show me where it says you need to be somewhere 12 years to have your own community. Things change," said Tefera Zewdie, Derege's brother, the owner of Dukem, a restaurant at 11th and U streets.

Ethiopians, he said, took pains not to request U Street because of its historical significance. "Washington, D.C., is so big," he said. "We didn't ask for U Street. We said Ninth Street. U Street doesn't run all the way to the White House."

Andrew Laurence, an advocate for the Ethiopian arts, makes a point of highlighting the shared history of American blacks and Ethiopians when he makes appeals for the designation. He also likes to say that many African Americans have moved from the District in recent decades. "They ran out to Prince George's County; they left it for 30 years," he said. "Now other people are coming in, and they want to reclaim it."

Deairich "Dee" Hunter, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that encompasses Shaw, responded that many African Americans remain in the neighborhood, even as newcomers transform its character. "It's being revitalized and gentrified, and the people in the forefront are not the Ethiopian community," he said. "The reality is that it's predominantly whites and gays, but you don't hear these populations asking to change the name."

The passions over Ninth Street reflect broader tensions that sometimes underlie relations between black Americans and African immigrants, strains that are reinforced by street encounters, cultural differences and media stereotypes, even as the groups express support for each other.

U.S.-born blacks sometimes believe Africans come from lands rife with war, disease and starvation, immigrants said. "When I speak to Americans, including African Americans, and I tell them I'm Ethiopian, they think I'm hungry and have no place to live," said Elias Kifle, publisher of the Ethiopian Review magazine. Africans, he said, are influenced by what they see on news programs and in movies, in which U.S. blacks often are portrayed as impoverished and as criminals.

Joe Leonard, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of 23 civil rights groups, described the relationship between the two groups as "measured distance from one to the other, and it's two ways. The solution is cordial discourses, so they can understand each other instead of assuming stereotypes."

If Ninth Street does get the designation, it will encompass another group from a country with which Ethiopia has waged bitter war: Eritreans, who own four restaurants on the block. "You can't call it Little Ethiopia. We're not Ethiopians," said Akie Esata, 36, an Eritrean singer who was sitting last week at a Moroccan eatery on Ninth Street, puffing on a hookah.


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