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HEDRICK SMITH: Okay, here we are, July 15th, 1999, with Ben's Chili Bowl and we're talking to Mrs. Virginia Ali, A-l-i. Tell me, Miss Ali, when did you all start doing business here in Ben's Chili Bowl right here on U Street?
VIRGINIA ALI: Ben and I opened this Ben's Chili Bowl on August 22nd, 1958.
SMITH: You've been doing business here consistently ever since then?
ALI: We've been here since then, yes. We close on Christmas Day. And that's been about it. We were here for the riots. We were here during the bad times, the good times, all the times we've been here since 1958 consistently.
SMITH: Tell me about the night of Martin Luther King's death. What did you all do that night?
ALI: The night that Dr. King was shot, you know, his office was just up the street, his satellite office was just up the street at 14th and U and that was where the news came first. And, of course, it trickled down here that he had been shot. We turned on the radio. And learned that, yes, he has in fact been shot.
So, we listened, listened, because immediately it wasn't known that he was dead and then we did hear that news and it was just a very traumatic and sad time. People just started to cry. Everybody that came in started to cry.
The radio was playing gospel music and it was just a very sad sad time. And everybody just felt depressed more than anything else.
SMITH: What did you do?
ALI: Well, we were here. People continued to come in. I mean, you talk about it, you can't believe it's true. How could a man this gentle, this kind, that's not doing any harm to anybody, get shot, how could that happen. My husband stayed here for the whole evening. I had young children, so I had to go home.
But shortly after I left, I understand that when the news did come -- that this gathering at 14th and U now had begun to turn to anger and just threw the first brick in the drugstore, People's drugstore. This was at 14th and U. And, of course, it escalated from then on in.
We went through the riot period without incident. We identified this business. The slogan at that time was, Soul Brother. So we identified our business by writing Soul Brother across the window. We stayed opened during the entire time. Although there was a curfew for the next few days. Stokley Carmichael was one of those members in the community that was working with groups. And he was a part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He got permission for our employees to come to work. We were still open until three o'clock in the morning during that time.
SMITH: What happened to U Street during that period of the riots?
ALI: There were fires. You could look outside and you could see smoke, you could see burning. You could see windows broken, you could see trucks coming to put in wood panels to cover up these windows and try to protect the stores. The National Guard was right outside here with their big old guns.
Just very sad. It was like a war zone. You could walk anywhere and get a whiff of tear gas. So, it was just a very sad and scary time.
SMITH: When you look back at U Street, when you started business, what was U Street like, what was the night life like, what businesses?
ALI: When we opened in 1958, it was still a fairly segregated community and this was a middle class African American community. This particular strip was a commercial strip. There were physicians. There was an ophthalmologist on the corner at 13th and U. Dr. Nash's office was just two doors down.
All of the prominent African/American lawyers, doctors, dentists were in this immediate community. In addition to that, the residences were in this particular area, because we were not permitted to buy homes up in upper Northwest or that kind of thing. And a lawyer couldn't put his office down on 5th Street near the courts. It just simply was not allowed during that segregated period.
But the community was strong, it was just classy. It was a very classy neighborhood. I remember when I worked at the bank and I was just out of college on a summer day like today, I'd have on a nice crisp cotton dress, ironed to perfection, with little short white cotton gloves to go to work every day.
Ladies didn't wear pants in the street in those days. It was just a wonderful time. There were wonderful clubs, jazz clubs. If you wanted soul food, you came here. If you wanted jazz you came here. If you wanted to go to your physician, you came in this neighborhood.
Doctors might live next door to the plumber. Everybody got along fine. It was, I mean, I think about it and I think we lost something when we lost that.
SMITH: And then what happened?
ALI: Then what happened? All of a sudden we're integrated now. Instead of a lawyer having to leave 11th and U to go all the way down to the courts, why not get an office down there. And instead of being next door to the Lincoln Theater, to see the same movie that was playing at the Playhouse downtown, well, we were never in the Playhouse, why don't we go to the movies there. We did that. Same movie. And then the restaurants that opened up to us, we'd go to the downtown restaurants.
As a result of that, this community suffered. We didn't support this community and the first class things that we had. So, they couldn't afford to continue to bring first rate movies. And that was what happened after the riots. It's integration. It started with integration.
SMITH: So, what you're saying is, ironically segregation and Jim Crow, which was discriminatory and mean and unjust, forced the community together. How would you put it?
ALI: Well, that's how it was. We were denied, you know, the rights that we should have had. But I think in retrospect, we should have gone down and experienced these things once in a while, but come on back and support our communities. I wish in retrospect that we had done that. Because the history that we're now trying to preserve may still be in action if we had done that.
SMITH: So integration was one thing that led people to spread out.
ALI: People began to spread out, that's right. Began moving all the way uptown and so when you come back again, you know, you're not so close as you were. I mean, it was such a small area. It was kind of a confined community that we all lived in back in those days. So, you knew everybody. Everybody knew everybody.
And now, we're all sprawled out. You may run into someone you know, you may not. But that's part of the times. That's part of growth, the area now is very diverse and that's a good thing. So, I've had it all.
SMITH: Integration was one thing, but what about the drug dealers and construction. You went through some very hard years here. What happened. What were the hard years and what happened?
ALI: After the riots, as the area began to deteriorate -- and that's because we're not supporting the good movies, so we're bringing in the cheaper movie, or bringing in a different class of people, drugs started to infiltrate the community. Heavy drugs on the corner over there at 11th and U on the corner, and 12th and U and then 14th and U.
As a matter of fact, The Washington Post referred to the area as the 14th and U drug corridor. So, the drugs were very, very prevalent in the community. And, as a result of that, people were intimidated to come here. There's crime. Crime increased. There is a period when we could not get fire insurance in this community after the riots, in this Chili Bowl. We went for years without fire insurance. We couldn't get it from anybody.
We're not the only business that had to go through that kind of thing. It was horrible. What can I tell you, it was just absolutely horrible. But we've had to experience it. People were just intimidated. People didn't want to come into this community. I mean, I'm talking about African Americans didn't want to come into this community.
And didn't have to, because there were physicians other places and doctors and restaurants and theaters and everything, so we didn't have to and this area just deteriorated to absolute slums. And after the riots, the city did absolutely nothing for umpteen years to help to restore this community.
SMITH: Why did you stick it out, why did you stay here?
ALI: We stayed here because first, we owned the building. We have had no bad experiences in spite of the drugs, the riots and the subway construction, which was the worst thing of all that we had to go through. Nobody bothered the Chili Bowl. We've always been supportive of this community. We've always been supported by the community, even with the drugs.
If I saw activities going on in here I could walk over to them and say, look, please don't do this in my store. Please don't do this. And they'd say, okay Miss Ben, okay Miss Ben, and leave. So, I never had a problem here.
There was a period when it was so thick that we didn't close up in the evenings. If the police would come over to the corner, the scout car would pull up, then everybody would parade in here. So, we started closing a little earlier. So, that's why we stayed.
And we have been very strongly supportive of this community. We're what I call an extended family, those are guys that grew up in the neighborhood. Some of them have gone on to great things. One's a lawyer around the corner, one's a cab driver, various types of businesses and professions -- that still come here, still sit at this table, discuss the events of the day and I think they've been part of the reason that we've had such a successful time here in terms of not having to experience the violence.
We have not had violence in this store. I'm very proud of that. I'm very thankful and grateful to this community for that.
SMITH: Now, why was the subway construction a problem?
ALI: It was a problem. The subway construction was devastating to this entire corridor and 7th Street as well. We've been promised a subway for years. It should have been completed more than ten years ago.
What happened when they came into this area, they did what I think they did not do in other communities. The tunnelling machine that they use in some communities, they didn't use here. It was this big old machine that just dug 65 feet down in front of your door.
It took a very long time. There was a problem with the contractor. Once the street was dug and everything was in complete disarray, then there was a problem with their contractor. He was either terminated or quit and then we had to wait for another one. So, it took a very long time, during which period there were times when there was no traffic on U Street at all.
The only way to get to the Chili Bowl during a great deal of that time was to come on one of those cross streets further down, maybe 11th, and come up to V Street, which is one way, come down V Street and down the alley by the Chili Bowl. And then you'd have to reverse out.
We didn't make any money during that period, of course, but I was determined not to let them kill my business, so we stayed here. One other employee and me.
SMITH: How many years was that?
ALI: The construction took about five years. Not all of that period was as bad as that time. Because they did put these tires and made a wooden street, which was higher than our walkway.
So, what happened during that time is you'd come in on any given morning and they would have popped a line or something had happened and you'd walk in and there's three or four inches of dirty, dirty, dirty water from the front of the store to the back.
We had to evacuate the place many times, because it hit a gas line and, you know, the normal things, but it's kind of like having a baby. You go through all that pain and suffering, but when it's over, you just forget about it. You're happy.
SMITH: What did it mean when the metro finally opened, what was it like?
ALI: We had this wonderful sign -- when the metro opened, we put up this wonderful banner all the way across the store on that great opening day, that big opening day, WE SURVIVED METRO. That is what the sign said. Caught a lot of attention.
It was wonderful. First of all, we had this wonderful street back. We had our whole street back, all paved and nice. Our customers and clients and patrons could now just drive up again. That was most meaningful. Most of our patrons still come back up. So, that was most meaningful, just to have that street back.
And, of course, we do get people from the subway and the subway has been an enticement for other businesses to come into the neighborhood. I think that was the thing that brought other businesses in right away, some of the clubs in the neighborhood and that kind of thing, that subway construction.
And, of course, Marion Barry put the Reeves Center up there as a, you know, a stability for the community. And that worked well. That was pretty difficult, a very difficult decision for him, because most people didn't want him to do that. And many of the people got work in that building, who wouldn't think of coming to 14th and U and especially at the time 14th and U still had such a terrible reputation. But they survived, the building's doing fine and we've come back to life.
SMITH: How do you feel about the economic renewal that's going on here right now?
ALI: Exciting. I'm very excited about it. I think it's wonderful. It's very diverse, it's cultural now. I mean, Shaw is a big deal all of a sudden. We've gotten historic status for this city and I'm just very excited about it. And I think the diversity is neat. It's really neat.
SMITH: What's going on in the economic revitalization at this point? What do you see happening around you?
ALI: I see, for example, the True Reformer building is about to be purchased and developed. I think there's going to be a non-profit organization in there. But nonetheless, that building has been dead for a long, long time. Duron Paint had their store there for many years on the first floor. The upper floors were never utilized for the last umpteen years.
The Thurgood Marshall Center around the corner is coming back, that's historic. We've got many people coming into the neighborhood with their jazz clubs. The jazz clubs, the Caverns on the corner. I guess you've seen that. It's going to be very, very beautiful and a first class club like it was when I was dating.
I think we still need maybe a grocery store or some type of anchor store to bring masses of people. But we certainly have a night life like we had many years ago. And my children told me that if you're out here on a Friday night at 11 or 12 o'clock, you just see gobs of people of all nationalities, all races, all colors all going to the clubs in the night, coming into the Chili Bowl. We're open until 4AM on Friday and Saturday night to accommodate the young folks that are going to the clubs.
I remember it used to be very alive, like Broadway. And I think that's going to continue.
I was 21 years old when I came to Washington from Virginia. A beautiful time to come to the city and I worked at the industrial bank for 6 years and met Ben, got married, opened the store. Been here since then. Been on U street all those years.
SMITH: What do you remember of U Street. Did you go to the Howard Theater, did you go to Lincoln?
ALI: Went to all of them.
SMITH: Can you describe who was playing. What do you, who do you remember. Do you remember Duke, do you remember Cab Callaway. Who do you remember?
ALI: When we were going out in our young days dating, we'd go to the Lincoln Theater there, the Lincoln Colonnade. Dance to Count Basie. Or Cab Callaway. Illinois Jack, I mean I can't even remember the names of all these guys but they were all there. There was a club right next door. Price in later years. The Crisco cavern for jazz. Bill Bailey's husband the big drummer, you know, they were all here. I've seen all of them. Nat King Cole. They were all here at some point in time in this area. And so was I. And in later years, got to go to the Casino Royale to see Harry Belafonte or Nat King cole and then of course even before that time when they would entertain down there or perform down there they'd come here to eat or come to U street. They'd all come to U street after their performances. They weren't free to go sit in the dining room there.
SMITH: So who do have you seen in Ben's Chili Bowl over the years.
ALI: My son asked me recently, mom don't you have some pictures of people you know like Nat King Cole and Count Basie and Dr. King and all those coming into the Chili Bowl. No they were just people, they just came in. They said hi how are you. Didn't take pictures. It wasn't, wasn't a big thing. They were just people. So we didn't do all that picture taking. But they all came here. Diana Washington, Marian Anderson, I mean everybody, everybody has because they were here. It was U Street. So you're going to the theater. There's another one in the next block, the Republic Theater. Or you're coming to the Lincoln. You're stopping here. Or if you're going to the jazz clubs, you stop in here. And we had this little slogan about sober up with the chili dogs. If you'd been out and you'd had your champagne or whatever, stop by and have a chili dog.
The difference in those days too was that many, many people, many of our patrons would take food out. Sometimes you'd see them with the formals on because they were always dressed up to go out. I have pictures of me in the Lincoln Colonnade with the strapless gown and they long gloves and the whole bit. But many times you're just out and somebody would just run in, pick up a dozen chili dogs, or two dozen or whatever we needed.
And that's different than now. Now everybody wants to come and experience the ambience. But in those days there was a lot of take out. From 12:00 until 4 in the morning you couldn't get in here. Folks were just ordering to go, yelling I want 12, give me 6, give me 8, whatever it was in those early days.
SMITH: So tell me do you see the old U street coming back now. Is that what's happening?
ALI: I see serious economic improvement. And I think it's coming back in terms of entertainment. I think it's definitely coming back, the jazz clubs and the nice restaurants and perhaps even coffee shops a little later on. i think that's coming back. It's just going to be very diverse. Even the ownership I think will be diverse and, and the patrons will be. And I think that's a very good thing. I'm looking forward to seeing more and more of this.
SMITH: So it's not going to be the same.
ALI: No, not going to be the same no.
SMITH: What's going to be the same or what's going to be different.
ALI: Well I think we're still trying to capture that culture that we had here. I think we're still trying to have the jazz clubs and those things that were typically, so to speak, African American. Because in those days that's where jazz came from. And the kind of music that we had in those days, I think that's going to be here. But I think we're also going to be able to experience African food and Spanish food and Jewish food and all these other things. I think all that's going to happen. It may be a mini Adams Morgan type thing, predominantly African American though. Whereas that is predominantly Spanish, I think.
SMITH: There was a social mix that people talked about back in the old days, that you had professional people and you had black elite and you also had very ordinary people. Do you see that breaking up? I mean that it went down hill and at one point it got real poor and that now there's gentrification going on. Do you see the same kind of social mix being restored economically? Maybe they're more diverse ethnically, racially but do you see that same mix holding together or not?
ALI: I think so and I think the common denominator will be to experience this same kind of food, the jazz that we talked about and the same kind of food that we talked about. Everybody will want to experience this. Everybody will want to go back to the crystal caverns. The affluent, and, and the not so affluent. I think everybody will enjoy that and everybody will want to come back and do that again. And I think those kinds of businesses will bring that back here, I think.
But I think it's going to be more the entertainment industry that will do that. I think it will be more entertainment than even the restaurants, although if there are soul food restaurants then I think people will come. They still don't have the typical soul food base here that was so prominent, you know the restaurant where you would just go in and have a typical, typical soul food dinner kind of thing. So I think that's going to be needed. And people will come and experience that.
There was a time after the riots when this theater next door had just all these black movies. They were kind of junky, tacky movies but they were there. But that brought in a different crowd. Most of the, you know, the elite so to speak wouldn't bother with that type movie. So I think like the Lincoln theater now has been restored. it doesn't do movies, it certainly won't do junky movies. It's now a legitimate theater doing plays. I mean, you may see a Korean group over there one day. You will see an Indian group over there one day. You will see African Americans performing or doing something over there and that's the kind of thing I think that will continue.
SMITH: I want to go back to the riots and you talked about staying here through it. You talked about being open that night. You talked about how hard it was. What was the effect of the riots on business in this community.
ALI: The riots took its toll on the businesses in the neighborhood. Many never reopened. There were some Jewish owned businesses in this neighborhood. Didn't reopen. It was that difficult for people and some black businesses that were burned didn't reopen. So it took a serious toll on the community. A serious toll and the city was not helpful at all in trying to bring things back.
And there was like 25 years before we could even get a subway. The only thing that I don't think that I mentioned was that there was a developer that came through this community just prior to the construction of the subway. Mr. Jeffrey Cohen, who was very supportive of our Mayor Barry at the time, and who was able to get funding from the district government for his projects. This was to be named the Samuel Jackson Plaza. It was going to have underground parking and all these wonderful things. The man had laundry. He wanted the Chili Bowl. I just said no, can't have the Chili Bowl, but quite a bit of the properties in this block didn't turn. He filed bankruptcy.
So then the theater was now owned by the city because the city was the one that provided those funds. As well as Children's Hospital cause there's a big site there. All those properties belong to the city after Mr. Cohen filed his bankruptcy charges. That was a hard time too because when few things were left here. He just boarded up.
The theater was still at least open. They were showing very tacky movies but it was open. When Mr. Cohen bought it he just closed it, boarded it. So it made it real dead. We were the only light on U street at night for a long time. It's scary when I think about it. I must have been younger then. I can't imagine how I did that. I'm glad I did. It's still fun to me. I meet the most interesting people from all walks of life. And we have a judge sitting over here and a junkie here. It's been wonderful. It's still fun to me.
We've been very strongly supported by this community. Even during that time people would just drive up, drive their cars to the front, run in and place an order. This is, as I say, has been amazing to me. The caring that we've gotten from the community and the support, and folks just love our chili dogs. So it amuses me.
SMITH: So tell me what's going on in there, the economic renewal down on U Street. Is U Street coming back?
ALI: Oh U street is coming back. It's very exciting. We're looking forward to continued growth. We've got new clubs in the community reminiscent of what U street used to be many years ago. Jazz clubs coming up. The orchestra well on its way and it's going to be absolutely fabulous.
SMITH: Do you see U street coming back the way it was.
ALI: U street will not come back the way it was. We did have big businesses, we had Thompson's dairy. Well, now at the Thompson's dairy site we will have condominiums, new condominiums are coming up there. It won't be the same. It'll be diverse. A great deal of emphasis I still think will be put on the entertainment industry. The theater will still you know the theater brings in diverse groups. There's any time you could go over there and see an Indian group or an Indian movie or a Korean organization.
SMITH: And tell me about the famous people. You must have had a lot of famous people in here.
ALI: It's easier to tell you who didn't come into the Chili Bowl in terms of celebrities than to tell you who did. Back in those days, initially anyone but we had Dr. King, Nat King Cole, Diana Washington, gosh I could go on and on and on. Harry Belafonte still comes. And of course our most prominent Bill Cosby is always here. He comes several times a year. He even did a spot on CNN for our 40th anniversary for us. Which was wonderful and he's done national press conferences right here in the Chili Bowl. So we've had a great time with him. And with all of our good patrons, and we are very grateful. Once they came in and said I need a couple of t-shirts. And we sold him the t-shirts. And he said we're going to the French Riviera, Bill comes every summer. Just want to walk out on the beach with this Ben's Chili Bowl t-shirt on. I thought that's kind of cute.
SMITH: So tell me what's happening in terms of the renewal, the return of, what's happening in terms of the economic renewal right around here.
ALI: The economic development's growing. The neighborhood is growing. Everybody is excited about us. We have obtained historic status. We've got a new subway system, we've got new clubs coming in. New restaurants. Everything.
Smith; Do you see the old U street coming back.
ALI: It's not going to be the same, it's not going to be the same, and you know that saddens me sometimes, but then I think this world's not the same, this country's not the same. When we opened the Chili Bowl there were a handful of people from other countries I mean. Certainly with accents.
SMITH: Do you see the same old social mix coming back where you get professional people and working class people and everybody kind of mixed together.
ALI: I see that yes, I see that because I think that U street will offer jazz clubs and the entertainment that will bring these people together. I think the elite, everybody, I think from all walks of life will want to come and experience the new clubs that we have and especially those that are doing the jazz and doing the kinds of music that U street was so famous for.
SMITH: So entertainment is really the heart.
ALI: I think entertainment is the heart and it was known as Black Broadway. U street was known as black Broadway and I think that's going to be here again and I think that's going to bring everybody here.