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  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.
"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.
Division over the designation does not always conform to expectations.
Alfie Alloway, 35, who grew up in New York's Harlem neighborhood, stood in the doorway to the takeout market he opened a month ago on Ninth Street. He said the tensions between American-born blacks and Africans are unmistakable but unspoken. "I've brought Ethiopians around blacks, and the blacks will stop talking," he said. "And I've brought blacks around Ethiopians, and they start talking in their own language. In both cases, everyone shuts down."
He acknowledged discomfort with Ethiopians at times, though he said he supports the designation. "They want the stature, a position of eminence, you can understand that.
"Who's the majority here?" he asked. "Times change."
Up the street, Adey Abebe, 32, an engineer who emigrated from Ethiopia more than a decade ago, walked out of Etete with a group of friends. The idea of a Little Ethiopia is fine, she said, but not in the middle of Shaw.
"It's not our right to take someone else's culture and make it our own. This is a historical black neighborhood," she said.
Bantamlak Yimenu, 52, an Ethiopian cabdriver who lives in Greenbelt, stopped on Ninth Street for a coffee on another day. If there's a Chinatown, he said, there should be a Little Ethiopia. But he is not interested in tampering with history.
"They're black, and we're black, too," he said. "Why should we fight over a street name?"