Bonita Billups surrounded herself with lifelong friends at a white-cloth-covered table packed with bottles of champagne on ice.
It was the first Thursday of July at the corner of 12th and U streets NW. Club music filled the air as patrons packed the lounge’s bar and patio, embracing each other like family members. Adeletha “Addie” Green, Billups’s friend and matriarch of the establishment, greeted customers the way a mother embraces her children.
“Everybody in here knows everybody,” Billups, 72, said. “Ms. Addie took care of us.”
Even though there were smiles and stories and drinks and laughs to go around that night, the occasion was a somber one. It was the last official night of the Islander Caribbean Restaurant and Lounge, an eatery that, over the years, had become a beloved institution on U Street NW.
Green said that after decades of serving up pineapple chicken, Caribbean kicker cocktails and Green’s Calypso Chicken, she is closing the Islander, eager to leave the stresses of running a restaurant in a changing neighborhood to someone else.
“I thought it the appropriate time to unload myself of the emotional stress and distress in our community and move on,” Green said, adding that she wants to spend time with her ailing husband, Ernest, who has retired from the D.C. fire department. “It really has taken a toll on my husband more so than anything else.”
For many longtime patrons, who crowded into the corner restaurant that night, it was more than just a familiar eatery moving on. It was yet another harbinger of an evolving city, where old-time restaurants are closing or moving to different neighborhoods.
The Islander arrived in the District in the late 1960s at Sherman Avenue near Howard University. It moved to a second-floor space on Columbia Road in 1984, and then found a permanent home on U Street in 1994. It became a mainstay of black-owned restaurants on U Street, continuing the strip’s history as “The Black Broadway.”
It wasn’t a move that seemed unthinkable back then. When Green saw the U Street building and said she wanted to move there, her son Darryl said they probably had “the biggest argument of our lives.”
Darryl Green said he was nervous about the area, which hadn’t recovered from urban blight sparked by the 1968 riots. “Being a person in the city and knowing what was going on in this area and especially on this corner,” he said, “this wasn’t a building I could ever perceive being” what it is today.
The Islander was among the first businesses to reintroduce jazz to U Street in the late 1990s. Green’s son Brian scheduled jazz musicians at the restaurant, where live music began to thrive.
In the two decades since, customers and local politicians said, Green became an “icon” in the community, as the weekly jazz sets and Caribbean music nights attracted visitors from across the region.
At a retirement service for Green last month, Jerry Paris, the interim general manager of WPFW-FM, gave her an award for her support of the community radio station. Paris said the restaurant “stands alone” as a place that brought disparate parts of the community to U Street around “authentic” Caribbean food when so many other businesses abandoned the area in the late 1960s.
But in recent years, newer residents surrounding the Islander complained about the restaurant’s late-night noisiness. The tension reached a critical stage in 2013, when a group of residents protested the restaurant’s efforts for a liquor license renewal. That the restaurant is black-owned and the committee was largely white was not lost on the committee and community.
Michelle Busch, 37, was one of many who fiercely defended the restaurant. “If you didn’t want to deal with night life, then why’d you move here?” asked Busch, adding that she was “heartbroken” to see the lounge close after years of employing and feeding “everybody.”
For Green, it was these battles that ultimately wore her out.
“Our community is going to experience a great difference with us not being there, because there aren’t many other businesses like ours,” Green said. “It’s the kind of change I believe Washington wants.”
The loss of the Islander on U Street highlights changes on the strip for many of its regulars. Johnny Bilheimer of Silver Spring, Md., said the Islander has treated him like family for years. Bilheimer said his daughter compared the atmosphere to the fictional bar on the television show “Cheers.”
Bilheimer, who is white, recalls how African American musicians such as Duke Ellington frequented U Street in the early to mid-20th century. Although musicians still play there, Bilheimer said, “the black culture here has been diminished.”
“There’s a certain amount of black heritage that’s been lost,” said Bilheimer, 70.
Older mom-and-pop businesses catered to black natives of the District for years, but property rent has increased as the community around U Street diversifies. Local businesses are being replaced with chain stores that older residents say cater to a younger demographic.
“Within the last six or seven years, property taxes around here have gone up more than 300 percent,” Darryl Green, 50, said. “A lot of people really just can’t afford to stay here and are not bringing in the type of revenue they need to maintain.”
But there is a glimmer of hope that the spirit of the Islander may live on. As manager of the lounge, Darryl Green said he plans to take over and relocate the business to a more affordable place in the District.
“We’ve been doing this for so long, and everyone is like family,” he said.
In the meantime, old-timers could only mourn the ending of their corner lounge and its memories.
“She has always been a fine lady to me,” said Grace Ridgley, who has known Green for 21 years. “I’m hurting because she’s leaving me.”