Standing at the window of the new Harambee House Hotel, the facility he fought 10 years to build on this hodgepodge strip of Georgia Avenue, Ed Murphy glows. Then he glowers.
Within his view there's a post-card panorama of downtown Washington, steeples and monuments soaring. But, also, a bird's eye view of a flourishing junkyard - radiators and bed frames jutting above the trees - directly across from the hotel entrance.
Murphy fidgets, shifting his rod-thin frame from one leather slip-on to the other, as his hard, dark eyes case the streetscape. Up the avenue is the marquee of his second supper club, a short-livetifiable face on the unemployment line to respectable buseven its marginal financial success.
Qucikly Murphy turns away from these static reminders of heartache. He's coolly ecstatic, the joker's grin spreading across his angular and taut face, a face that has been part of Washington's street scenes for most of his 47 years. Now the biggest gamble of his business life, converting small talk that started around his nightclub's mahogany bar into a nine-story hotel, has hit the jackpot. People are signing the register. Music blasts from the supper club.
Though Ed Murphy is far from the hotel magnate status of his dreams, and doesn't own the hotel, it's his picture that hangs in the lobby and his ideas that have injected a fanciful individuality into the Harambee.
"I want to be a home. The commitment is to a first-class operation," says Murphy, relaxing in one of the hotel's penthouse suites that is swathed in the deep beiges and oranges of the hotel's general decor. "I don't want to challenge Pitts and Paschals," says Murphy, mentioning black-owned hotels in Washington and Atlanta. "But our challenge is to the Hyatt-Regency."
And every imaginable roadblock has occurred getting this far. Over the last 10 years, Murphy's personal odyssey has been a rocky one - from flamboyant bar owner to identifiable face on the unemployment line to respectable businessman. On the way, Murphy changed, learned to compromise, toned down the high life. He was schooled in the ways of the executive board rooms, where the rules are light years away from the corner of 11th and O streets NW, where Murphy grew up.
No saga of the black businessman is uncomplicated, but Murphy's story was additionally affected by events he had no power to control. The junkyard is only one part of the story. There is also Watergate, the once-bright hope of black capitalism, local power politics and investigations that have stalked Murphy's business dealings.
And the gamble isn't over. The Harambee's location and limited convention facilities are some handicaps, say some observers.
The Harambee, located off the bustling intersection of 7th Street and Florida Avenue between the campus and hospital of Howard University, is one of a handful of black-owned hotels in the country. One of the largest minority commerial building projects in the city in recent years, it is expected to renew interest in the Georgia Avenue corridor.
Initially Murphy approached the federal government for the construction money, but the Commerce Department advised him it couldn't lend to an individual. The People's Involvement Corporation (PIC), an 11-year-old antipoverty agency with a proven record in that neighborhood, received the $7.5-million loan and grants and owns the hotel. It leases the business to the Murphy Hotel Corp., whose chairman is Ed Murphy. Easily recognizable by its rooftop insigna - a profile of an African likeness etched with a black, red and green stripe - the Harambee contains 169 rooms with a computerized lock system, a health club, a nightclub and several meeting and reception rooms.
"It's an excellent facility," said Len Hickman, executive director of the 40-member Washington Hotel Association. "It has more amenities than others that size. Its major drawback is the location, but the planned Metro stop will help that. Like the Madison and the Georgetown Inn, it takes time for an independent to build a reputation."
And the immediate reputation of the Harambee depends largely on Murphy.
In every city's night-life gallery, the characters who stand out are the smooth, flashy and care free ones, those who evoke equal shares of mystery, romance and rumors.
In Washington's cast of "Guys and Dolls," Murphy has been one of the another step, a hotel. I was tired of al-Streets. Sometimes I broke the rules and regulations on protocol, but I did it," says Murphy, whose Washington childhood was a segregated one. Born in the Shaw area, he looked up to the barons of U Street, who struggled to keep their barber shops and pool halls open. After Cardozo High School, he went into the Army and returned to Washington to buy the store where he once stocked groceries.
A successful business was his only goal and he worked his way up, bootstrap by bootstrap, nickel by dime, hot-dog stand by super club. "Then I outgrew the supper club. So I took it another step, a hotel.I was tired of always going to Connecticut Avenue for meetings and family meals out. So I was determined to keep this business on Georgia Avenue," says Murphy.
But Murphy, before his rebound into present good fortune slipped badly and ended up on the front pages, a very recognizable face on the unemployment line. Anticipating the groundbreaking for the hotel, Murphy had lost some of the nutrients of a street guy's happiness, the farewell party, surrounded by the judges, secretaries and doctors who had made Murphy's a popular watering hole for the black middle class. Murphy was buoyant, toasting his bright future.
Within weeks, Murphy was picking up a $105-a-week unemployment check. "It's so degrading that it's humorous - almost. In the community, I'm looked up to as successful," Murphy said at the time. "If a guy like myself, grassroots, from the ghetto, if I can't make it, then what chance have others got?" He pointed a finger at the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration (EDA) which had held in escrow some of the money due Murphy for relocating his business.
"Once you package a $7 million project, you should be something. Not a complete zero," said Murphy, fingering two gold bracklets on his arm. His voice is usually a growl and even now his words for the government aren't kind. Some feel that Murphy's own candidness about his lifestyle - once in a 1972 magazine article he posed bare-chested in his apartment among the waterbed and fake fur throws and openly talked about how gambling gave him his start - prompted some federal agencies to scrutinize his bankbooks.
Part of his disillusionment came because Murphy had given a good stab to linking up with the establishment. Though he never cut off his old friends in trying to get the hotel project, he built up a working relationship with then-secretary of commerce Maurice Stans. At a dialogue between Stans, city officials and black businessmen in 1969, an aide of Mayor Walter Washington's stood up, and in effect said, "if you care so much, Mr. Secretary, why aren't you looking at Ed Murphy's project?" Murphy gave his spiel. Stans liked what he heard.
"Everyone was talking about black capitalism. Some people like Stans were sincere," says Murphy, his manner changing from languid to combative as he talks about Stans."All I can say is that Stans gave his full support. We did our part, pounding home on the black theme," and Murphy, who was then an outspoken member of several black economic groups, laughs a hard laugh.
"We were into our black thing; Marion Barry and Calvin Rolark, we would usually meet with Stans every 30 days. There was this man, Stans, heavy into African safaris. He speaks fluent Swahili. If he had challenged us on that level, we couldn't have retorted."
However, ujima, Swahili for cooperative economics, was not around the corner. Stans was indicted in the Watergate coverup in May 1973 and was acquitted in April 1974. A few months later Murphy opened the second supper club, up the street from the original, and it failed.
More than the money, Murphy had lost some of the nutrients of a street guy's happiness. Gambling was out, as were clothes spending-sprees. Also, his political base was eroding without the supper club, where many of the city's maverick politicians and groups held forth.
Because Murphy was determined ("We are going for broke on this project," he told friends. "We will show a black idea can work"), he learned the art of bridge building. "At some of those early meetings Murphy would jump in and call a spade a spade, saying 'you're trying to put the clamps on this project.' Then he would switch to a very philosophical, oppressed posture. He would say 'you are kicking my butt and everyone feels it.' Now he combines the angry man, the intimidator, with business sense - the 'this is profitable for you' approach," remembers Darryl Hill, then president of the Greater Washington Business Council.
"I have never given up," says Murphy, his back flat against a brown suede-covered chair."Some of these events have been very damaging to my reputation as a businessman. But every time I went trough a heavy number, I looked at it as a test. And I enjoyed the fight.I am still one of the everyday people." Murphy smiles faintly. "I don't dare try to do anything else."
Once past the plain concrete front, where a former doorman of the Madison Hotel reigns, the dual personality of the Harambee - African casualness and small-scale efficiency - is immediately evident.
Murphy's hotel is rich in textures and warm, foresty colors. But the occasional juxtaposition of moods - a beige fabric wall, deep chocolate tile floor, a few sculputres and perforated ceilings in one corridor - caused a critic to label the decor "afro-tac."
But unlike some other new hotels, the Harambee lobby is not encumbered by fountains, travel desks and shops. A straight path, lined with couches and potted plants, leaves social space and leads directly to the registration desk. The rooms, which are decorated with vivid, tapestry wallpaper, cost from $25 to $210 a day.
On the second floor a spacious room with an elevated bandstand in the center serves as both dining room and supper club. It's called Murph's Haramba Supper Club.
Guest artists at the Haramba have included Freddy Cole, Oscar Brown and Jean Pace. Dick Gregory performed in an adjacent room because he wouldn't appear where alcohol is served. Both the supper club and a first-floor meeting room, the Kilimanjaro Room, have been used for press conferences by Muhammad Ali, Coretta Scott King, Nancy Wilson and community groups. Vice President Walter Mondale came to one political party there. Half the staff of 215 has been hired for food and beverage service. The breakfast menu is standard hotel, the lunch expands beyond the routine to include Tasmanian beef, water chestnut pie and Tunisian couscous; dinner features Continental food as well as one soul dish. During a recent show, however, only a skimpy menu was offered, limited to five main dishes and no appetizers.
The Harambee features a health club, a luxury feature in a small hotel. Like the Watergate facilities, it's open to memberships. Though the pool isn't as large as the Watergate's, the area around the pool is conductive to cabana parties.
To keep the Harmabee from being classified as a hang-out Murphy and James Gibson, president of the hotel corporation and second-in-command to Murphy, developed a Winners Club system. The membership system includes the supper club and the health club; besides admission to the gym and pool, the $50 to $1,000 charge doesn't seem to buy more than a "no cover charge" arrangement or discounts for performances.Nevertheless, about 400 people, according to Murphy, have signed up for the plan.
Initial reactions have varied. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a correspondent for PBS' "McNeil-Lehrer Report," missed a clock in the lobby and didn't receive some of her messages. "In my profession I need to communicate with the outside world and the telephone system wasn't satisfactory. But when I complained, everyone was agreeable."
Joseph C. McKinney, finance officer for the AME Church office here, decided to switch his board meetings from the Washington Hilton to the Harambee.
"The only drawbacks are parking," says McKinney, "and the view from the dining room." Plans for an underground parking lot had to be scrapped when water was found underneath the property, but a 300-space garage is one block away.
Actually, at night the junkyard doesn't intrude, looming as a collage of urban living or a bit of Star Wars mental on the chicken wing strip. But in the daytime, it is an intrusion. And Gilbert Freedman, the scrap iron dealer who has been at that location for 37 years, says, "I don't have any plans to move."
But Ed Murphy isn't worried. He feels his new game of politics - the combination of street savvy and mainstream pragmatism - will win. And the optimism that carried him past obstacles isn't going to be broken by a junkyard. Instead, he talks of his corporate capability, the 120-year lease.
He whispers wistfully, "Atlantic City," as he talks about advising minorities on hotels there and as he pushes back from a meal of hard-shelled crabs.
"I know there's a certain reluctance, it being a black hotel. And some people don't want to have a chain. But I think people will come. Realistically I know at first white people don't want to sleep on Georgie Avenue. But they will come up for cocktails and entertainment, enjoy the hospitality and come back to stay.
And no one," he says finally, somewhat fiercely, "is going to let a junkyard kill the million-dollar project of a black man. Not as long as I am here."