WASHINGTON – When Ben Ali and his wife,Virginia,opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958,they weren’t thinking about making history. They were thinking about making a living and making the hot,“half-smoked” chili dogs that have since become a Washington staple.George Washington University held a ceremony at the Gelman Library to commemorate the donation of historic papers,photographs and other documents from the Washington eatery to the library’s Special Collections Research Center.
“It’s a huge accomplishment to be able to highlight an African American business that has had such success and had such an impact on its community,” Meredith Evans,the library’s director of special collections,said.
The collection,which will be available to students and the public,includes original menus and promotional calendars,as well as the restaurant’s first payroll.
“These are items that are just daily work. At the time,you don’t think of them as historical,its just work,” Nazim Ali,Ben and Virginia’s son,said. He and his brother,Kamal,now run the restaurant. Ben Ali died in 2009.
The story of Ben’s is actually many histories,Maurice Jackson,associate professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University,said. It is the story of the self-made man,taking from and giving back to the community,perseverance and the American dream.
“D.C. is not just the Capitol or the Library of Congress,it is the community institutions like this,made by African Americans that serves the community itself,” Jackson said.
“It’s a symbol of what people can do when they strive.”
Located at 1213 U Street,NW,in the heart of Washington’s U Street Corridor,Ben’s and the surrounding Shaw neighborhood have been through many changes. From the 1920s to the 1960s,the neighborhood was known as Black Broadway. Duke Ellington,Ella Fitzgerald and other legends made their names in U Street theaters,where black patrons in the segregated city could enjoy cultural life. The neighborhood was home to black America’s growing middle class and intellectual elite.
The neighborhood started to change dramatically after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the riots that followed,Virginia Ali said.
In the days following King’s assassination,fires and looting spread from the Shaw neighborhood to other parts of Washington. Most of Washington was shut down,and a city-wide curfew was in effect,but Ben’s remained open. The restaurant was allowed to keep its doors open after curfew to give food to activists,firefighters and police trying to restore order to the city. But the restaurant’s reputation as a black-owned business also kept it safe from looters.
Ben’s survived the crack epidemic that hit the community hard in the 1980s,turning U Street and its surroundings into an open-air drug market,an era that Virginia Ali calls “frightening.” It was during those tough times,however,when comedian Bill Cosby first put Ben’s Chili Bowl in the national eye. He held a press conference in front of the restaurant to celebrate his sitcom,“The Cosby Show,” when it became the nation’s top-rated television show. Cosby became a Ben’s patron when he was in the Navy.
Cosby spoke on the telephone at the ceremony. He joked and reminisced about enjoying “those delicious half-smokes” as a young man.
Many famous musicians,actors and athletes have tasted Cosby’s favorite D.C. delicacy – as evidenced by the pictures that line the walls. Hanging behind the cash register is a list of people who may eat for free: “Bill Cosby,The Obama Family and no one else.” President Barak Obama had his first taste of a Ben’s chili dog just days before his inauguration in 2009,escorted by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty.
The crack years weren’t the toughest times for the restaurant,Ali said. Construction of the D.C. Metro’s green line came to U Street in 1987 for five years. U Street was torn up. The restaurant remained open with just two employees,mainly serving construction workers who were building the subway system.
“We used a sign that pointed down the alley that said,‘This way to Ben’s,’ and we used the back entrance,” Ali said.
Today,the U Street Corridor,which runs from 7th Street to 16th Street,is lined with new apartment buildings,shops,restaurants,clubs and bars that typify gentrified neighborhoods in large U.S. cities. Ben’s itself expanded,opening an elegant restaurant and bar,Ben’s Next Door,which,fittingly,is next to the original restaurant. Ben’s Chili Bowl,however,stays,as it always has,in its original building,which was converted from a silent movie house – a link to the old Black Broadway.
“I hope this will be beneficial to students who are studying business. It will be an incentive for students to know that you can open a business and make it work if you really dedicate yourself and work hard,” Ali said. “I think it will also inspire them to check out the history,of not just the Chili Bowl,but of the entire U Street corridor,because it is a significant area.”