U Street has been an entertainment hub of Washington D.C. for almost one hundred years, evolving from a mostly black community to a diverse scene for D.C.’s nightlife. While much of the area has been taken over by new apartments and stores, a few relics of the past still stand tall on the street. The Lincoln Theatre and the updated 9:30 Club give visitors a chance to stand in the same rooms as some of the greats and gain insight into D.C’s music history. Yet, the way people have experienced those venues have drastically changed over time, from the grand outings of the 1920s to the basement shows of the 1980s to the multifaceted events of today. As the neighborhoods of U Street modernism so do the mindsets of the people living within it. Attending a concert or show in a historical venue has become less of a whole experience and more of a simple outing; people want to capture the moment instead of being in a fully immersive environment. So, the question is, can these historical venues be brought back into the art? Will artists take advantage of these spaces and use them as assets? Or will U Street fall into the pit of crowd pleasing concerts?
While the website for the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl showcases the restaurant’s adaptation to the new technological times, it fails to reflect a sense of the past in the present and show Ben’s ties to the U Street community. A simplistic design allows the owners to communicate their love of food and tradition while creating a visual time capsule that holds great memories that the restaurant has experienced. On the other hand, as a pinnacle of the black community, the lack of specific history hinders visitors from understanding why it is more than just another fast food restaurant.
The front page of the website greets you with two huge rotating pictures specifically of Ben’s famous chili and a graphic advertising their 58th anniversary photo contest; surprisingly, of five smiling customers taking a selfie with the logo, there is one woman of color to four whites, which is odd considering the ties that restaurant has to the black community. To an outsider who lacks the knowledge of Ben’s history, the front page seems like any old restaurant that is attempting to draw people in with its ‘famous’ foods and attempts at diversity. There is a great lack of information, unless you dive deeper into the tabs on top. Though, the front page does feature addresses for four of the chili bowls that are located around D.C., including the original location on U Street, which does hint at its regional popularity and ability to expand.
Formally known as “Black Broadway”, U Street has been home to Ben’s since 1958; we learn the latter from the ‘About Us’ page but have to search for Ben’s place in black history within other sources (Witchel). Articles from publishments such as The New York Times and PBS illustrate Ben and Virginia Ali’s dedication to their business despite the rocky path U Street has sent them down (Carufel). Details are spared on the ‘About’ page, and, instead, the simple mentions of surviving the race riots of the 60s and welcoming President Obama before his inauguration serve as its history. As an attempt to showcase how its intentions have not changed, the page spends a paragraph on how they have kept its original interior (counter, booths, and stools) and its signature dishes.
Lacking the proper oral history, Ben’s website attempts to create a visual look back on many of its highlights on its ‘Photos’ page. Users can jump from various perspectives of the building itself to a slew of smiling customers, some of which are familiar faces. From Jimmy Fallon to Kevin Hart, the restaurant has had its fair share of celebrity guests, but one notable guest is missing from the line up: Bill Cosby, a long time customer of Ben’s and friend of the Alis. While the restaurant eagerly tells of the comedian’s support on its ‘About’ page and features a portrait of the man on the side of the building, his many visits remain removed from the ‘Photos.’ His absence is explainable, due to the recent rape allegations, yet the restaurant has defended the large mural’s place on the restaurant even when questioned by major news sources such as The Washington Post (Carman).
(Artist Aniekan Udofia, who was commissioned by Ben’s to paint the mural, has spoken out about the portrait and its meaning to Ben’s and U Street’s history. There are debates about whether the art stands as a motive of free speech or a negative reminder of his crimes, but the Ali family has clearly stood their ground despite beginning to distance themselves form the comedian.)
If anything, this dedication shows Ben’s awareness of its past and the people who have gotten it to where it is today. Another notable part of the website links to the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation site which does just that: recognize the community that they have been apart of for so long and work to give back to that community. Most of the projects they contribute to deal with supporting multiracial families, black students, and the youth of D.C.
Now, for a restaurant with such a rich, cultural history that works every day to give back to the U Street community and beyond, it seems odd that those aspects are absent and even hidden from a viewer’s first glance. The opening page might make you crave some good, home cooked chili but does not invite you to dive into the history of that chili. As Ben’s has proved, food is much more than just food; food is tradition, food is family, food is community, and food is, most of all, a connector. Ben’s Chili Bowl has acted as a gathering place for the people of U Street for almost sixty years and, while its food may be good, people come for the feeling of being at Ben’s. Through a time of segregation and racial tensions, economic troubles and a changing world, Ben’s has always been there. It’s like coming home.
While people might go to Ben’s website to find its address or order a late night burger online, they don’t go to it to find that feeling.
Ben’s Chili Bowl. benschilibowl.com. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.
Carman, Tim. “Why Ben’s Chili Bowl hasn’t rushed to remove traces of Bill Cosby.” The Washington Post, 8 July 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/why-bens-chili-bowl-hasnt-rushed-to-remove-traces-of-cosby/2015/07/08/04d62d1e-2569-11e5-aae2-6c4f59b050aa_story.html
Carufel, Ashley, et al. “Restaurateur Virginia Ali.” PBS, 2012, www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/black-chefs/bens-chili-bowl-restaurateur-virginia-ali/.
Witchel, Alex. “Ben Ali: Hot Sauce.” New York Times, 23 Dec. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/magazine/27Ali-t.html.
U Street seems like an unusual spot for a theater. Sure, the surrounding area’s recent urbanization hosts a slew of restaurants and hipster hot spots, but much of the area is still home to locally owned shops and uniformed rows of apartments. With the sounds of construction coming from across the street, you can tell that the area has upgraded from its older community, slowly becoming a part of modern D.C. The street itself is very open and airy with plenty of sidewalks to keep pedestrians moving besides traffic, the kind of street you feel like you would find in a quiet end of a city. Therefore, you can understand my amazement when I spotted the grand Lincoln Theatre wedged between a phone repair store and a chili restaurant.
(When walking up U Street, it is impossible to miss the theatre’s awning that juts out into the street and provides a brief period of shade for passersby.)
And the theatre truly is grand, even from the outside. A red, marquee type overhang with vintage lampposts on either side give depth to the simple, flat building. A large vertical sign with large capital letters spelling ‘LINCOLN’ sits prominently on the building’s right side. In comparison to its original state in 1921, the building seems to have barely changed besides a fresh coat of paint between its detailed stone carvings (product of its restoration in the 1990s) (“Lincoln Theatre (Washington, D.C.)”). The theatre has kept its original set up; the box office greets you right as you face the door and advertisements for the upcoming concerts/events are featured in its windows. There are hints of development inside the structure though; after comparing my photos with a picture of the theatre in 1921, I saw that they had taken over the two stores next to them (Boese).
(Those exiting the metro stop across the street can see the full face of the theatre including its original carvings and famous sign.)
It is rare to see a venue so quiet and peaceful, a structure that is usually wrapped in so much festivity. So, at 2:00 in the afternoon (the time of my visit), the Lincoln Theatre’s true form seems hidden. It seems destined to shine at the late hours of the night when its bright lights can bring brightness to the simple structure. It needs people to bring it to life and not just people walking unknowingly by it. No, it needs a line of excited people wrapped around the building waiting for a show. It needs an artist inside doing a soundcheck with their favorite instrument in hand. It needs a sold out crowd, a chorus of voices singing, listening, and watching others share their hearts and secrets on stage.
Even at 2:00 in the afternoon, this is what you feel when you are at the Lincoln Theatre in the middle of a quiet city street: the ghosts of Louis Armstrong, Hozier, and the talent that has walked inside and the memories of blues ballads and rock anthems that haunt the air. For a moment, you are transported to another world. You can feel the cold air in your lungs as you wait for your favorite artist on a dark night. You can hear the excited voices surround you and wire the air with an infectious electricity. You can feel the lights radiate a golden heated glow across your skin as you look up at that sign that so many fans and music lovers has gazed upon. But this is not a sold out crowd on a dark night. This is the Lincoln Theatre in D.C. on a sunny afternoon.
But you can still feel it.
(Even the storm drain by the theatre has been marked by its music loving attendants.)
Boese, Kent. “Then and Now: Lincoln Theatre.” Greater Greater Washington, April 27, 2009. http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/2147/then-and-now-lincoln-theatre/.
“Lincoln Theatre (Washington, D.C.).” Wikipedia, September 30, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Theatre_(Washington,_D.C.).
“Then and Now: Lincoln Theatre – Greater Greater Washington.” Accessed September 30, 2016. http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/2147/then-and-now-lincoln-theatre/.
“The Lincoln Theatre.” The Lincoln Theatre. Accessed September 30, 2016. http://www.thelincolndc.com/.
Ramanathan, Lavanya. “Lincoln Theatre’s Revival Ushers in a Gilded Age for Music Fans – The Washington Post.” Washington Post, August 29, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/lincoln-theatres-revival-ushers-in-a-gilded-age-for-music-fans/2013/08/29/3535627a-09b6-11e3-b87c-476db8ac34cd_story.html.