‘Little Ethiopia’ takes root in D.C.
Capital region has largest Ethiopian community outside Africa
(AP) — Inside Dukem, one of the city’s best-known Ethiopian
restaurants, the bustle on the street seems far-removed as burning
incense mingles with the aroma of spicy stews.
On a small
stage, performers in sequined white gowns thump on drums and sing
traditional music from the East African nation. Patrons sitting nearby
use their fingers — no forks here — to tear into spongy pancakes and
scoop up exotic cuisine such as awaze tibs, which is lamb marinated
with jalapeno, tomato and garlic.
A new ethnic identity is taking
root in a once-decaying neighborhood not far from the White House,
where 10 Ethiopian restaurants are clustered together and dingy
storefronts are now splashed with bright hues of blues, yellows and
“You feel like you’re in your own country when you come
here,” said Tefera Zewdie, the owner of Dukem, who left Ethiopia as a
teenager 20 years ago.
The Washington region has the world’s
biggest Ethiopian community outside of Africa, according to the
Ethiopian embassy. The 2000 Census reports 15,000 Ethiopians have
settled in the Washington area. But the embassy and those who study
African immigration argue that number is far too low, saying the actual
number is closer to 200,000.
Now this growing ethnic group wants to be recognized in the city by naming a street “Little Ethiopia.”
the location — near U Street — faces resistance from some in the
community who want to preserve the area’s historic significance. Before
riots erupted in the 1960s, the area was known as America’s “Black
Broadway” because of its thriving black-owned jazz clubs, shops and
“They’re trying to erase us,” said longtime city
resident Ora E. Drummer. “This community was built by
African-Americans. I would never go to Ethiopia and name it ‘Duke
Ellington Way,”‘ she said. Ellington, an influential jazz musician, was
a native of Washington and is closely linked with the neighborhood’s
Kinuthia Macharia, a sociology professor at American
University, said he believes the special ethnic designation is more
about the potential economic benefit for business owners, rather than
an attempt by Ethiopians to elbow out other cultures.
“If you go
to San Francisco or New York, people tell you about Chinatown,”
Macharia said. “In addition to eating, you visit businesses” giving
them more exposure and raising their profile.
There is already a
Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and
Pico boulevards. The area has many Ethiopian businesses and restaurants.
formal designation in Washington would be welcomed by Senedu Zewdie,
Tefera’s sister. She decided to open her own restaurant, Sodere, last
spring a few blocks away from Dukem. On a recent weekday afternoon the
restaurant was nearly empty — but she says the crowds pick up on
Designating the area Little Ethiopia, she said, would
make it more of a destination for tourists who might otherwise ignore
that section of Washington.
Opponents include community activist
Deairich “Dee” Hunter, who claims the campaign is the work of a “small
group of people who are obsessed” with the idea. But several thousand
people have signed a petition circulated in support of the name change,
said Tamrat Medhin, who is leading the effort to hang signs that say
Little Ethiopia, or something similar, on Ninth Street between U and T
“The Ethiopian community came in and moved in when
people were afraid to come to the neighborhood,” said Medhin, who
chairs the Ethiopian-American Constituency Foundation. His idea has the
support of District of Columbia Councilman Jim Graham, who represents
Graham said he favors the idea of Little
Ethiopia because of the immigrants’ significant contributions. Besides
restaurants, Ethiopians also have opened churches, hair salons and a
community services center.
“Anything we do that underscores the
multicultural nature of where we live … is fine with me,” said
Graham, who spent about a month in Africa last year to learn more about
the people he represents.
Many Ethiopians began arriving in the
United States after a military coup in the 1970s, said Hermela Kebede,
the leader of Washington’s Ethiopian Community Center, which assists
newcomers by helping them find housing and offering English classes.
said the presence of the embassy is a big reason Ethiopians initially
decided to settle in Washington. Now, the community has grown so large
it has its own Ethiopian Yellow Pages.
“They’re coming from one Ethiopia to another,” Kebede said.
said it is too soon to say when the D.C. Council will act on the Little
Ethiopia proposal. In the meantime, he said it is important to win the
support of those who are angered by the Ethiopians’ campaign.
the owner of Sodere, also hopes that naming the area Little Ethiopia
will increase Americans’ awareness of her homeland, pointing out that
many people know little about Ethiopia, except for what they have seen
and read in the news about famines and war.
“Ethiopia has a rich culture,” she said. “We want (people) to come back again and again.”
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