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Spotted today at 9th and E Streets, Northwest Washington, D.C.

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Although the upcoming presidential election has many in the District of Columbia feeling giddy, U Street Northwest was in a typical midwinter weekend mood earlier today. Grey clouds sat low in the sky and the sidewalk and street traffic was medium light. Cold rain approached from the west while rows of glistening half-smokes sizzled and popped on the griddle at Ben’s Chili Bowl.

The U Street corridor was known as D.C.’s Black Broadway when Ben and Virginia Ali took over the store front at 1213 U in 1958. Jazz musicians, including native-born son Duke Ellington, played in nearby venues like Bohemian Caverns and the Howard Theater. Washington had become a majority-black city the year before and segregation in restaurants had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1953.

In 1968, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and several days of civil unrest rocked U Street and other parts of the city. The strip saw its fortunes decline in the aftermath of the violence but the Bowl stuck it out. And although Bill Cosby’s visits brought publicity to the restaurant in the 80s, years of construction on the Green Line of the Metro turned much of the area into a large construction zone. Completed in 1991, the U Street-Cardozo Metro station contributed to the area’s ongoing gentrification.

Ben’s has seen it all and business these days is good. The line at the walk-up counter can get long, particularly after the bars and clubs close, and the Ali family recently opened a bar and restaurant in the adjacent building. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty makes frequent visits, as did his predecessor Anthony Williams. Bill Cosby continues to eat there and, until November 2nd, 2008, was the only person who had an open invitation to a free meal. On that day, perhaps feeling confident about the presidential election being held two days later, Ben’s extended the invitation to the Obama family.

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Yet Obama still hadn’t eaten at Ben’s until shortly after 12:30 pm today when he and Mayor Fenty dropped in for lunch. According to Sonya Ali, wife of Ben and Virginia’s son Kamal, the visit was unexpected. “We had no idea,” she said. “The mayor is a good friend of ours and a good neighbor. The mayor and other people probably put the bug in [Obama’s] ear.”

The restaurant was not cleared of customers before his arrival and Obama took several minutes to greet people and pose for photos. According to Ali, the President-Elect ordered a half-smoke with chili and cheese and a sweet tea. He didn’t take advantage of the free meal offer, however, and paid for his and the mayor’s meal with a $2o bill.

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After the motorcade drove away at approximately 1:15 pm, the assembled crowd surged into the street. Some headed straight into Ben’s, where the employees were beaming as they continued their work among the flat tops, formica and deep fryers. Other folks-including various federal agents, police officers, and Mayor Fenty (above)-milled in the street.

Sonya Ali is hoping that Obama will find the half-smoke to be habit-forming.

(Photos by Natalia Drelichman)

Mean Streets

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This bit of automotive crumbs is all that was left at the intersection of 19th and K Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C. on Monday, Dec. 2.

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This specimen was found in a very mellow mood lying on the leaves on Lovers Lane in Rock Creek Park.  He/she was about 11 inches long.

northernbrownsnake2Although thousands of leaves are now carpeting the ground and staining the creek brown, many trees still have their foliage and the colors, yellows in particular, are incredibly vibrant.

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Liberal though Washington, D.C. is thought to be, on an average day in the downtown core warm and fuzzy feelings can be hard to come by. Traffic is a prime arena to observe and experience the competitive, individualistic and occasionally nasty undercurrents that form part of the social fabric here. Disagreements often arise concerning the proper hierarchy of the myriad participants in the traffic flow and the car horn is often employed as an audible middle finger. In the evenings the action shifts north to areas including U Street NW and a stretch of 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan. Horns still get honked but feelings of antipathy are also expressed via the occasional robbery or fist fight.

Thus it was refreshing to find a party in progress in the middle of 18th Street NW yesterday evening shortly before midnight. Barack Obama had been declared the winner of the United States presidential election less than an hour before and a chanting, singing, dancing, and shouting throng gathered on the block between Belmont and Columbia Roads and made a joyful racket. The car horns were sounding not angry monotones but giddy, staccato chirps. A mini marching band consisting of an arrhythmic percussion section and an atonal trumpeter offered a spirited version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Strangers hugged and took photos of one another and the Metrobus drivers briefly stuck in the crowd showed not a trace of annoyance in their smiles.

18thstreetcelebrationThe police closed the street and did not attempt to clear it. Obama’s victory speech and a bit of spitting rain thinned out the crowd enough to allow traffic to pass.

Down at 14th and U Streets NW, the celebration was larger and slightly more organized. A group of drummers was sheltered from the precipitation by a small portable canopy and the police had closed the streets for several blocks in each direction. Fireworks streaked into the sky and a man in a banana suit climbed the flag pole in front of the Reeves Center. As in Adams Morgan, the police generally stood by and allowed the people to enjoy themselves, although around two a.m. they began to ask people to descend from their perches on trees and pieces of public art. The crowd was generally diverse in age, ethnicity and economic status.

14thanducelebration1 Elsewhere in the city people squeezed off gunshots of happiness and gathered in the rain in front of the White House.

For a few hours D.C. experienced an unprecedented moment of unity and joy.

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Thousands of bleary-eyed people joined the workforce this morning and promptly snatched up every daily newspaper in downtown. Newspaper boxes that often sit half full by late afternoon had been cleaned out by mid-morning. Whether free, local, national, conservative-leaning or liberal-leaning, every periodical printed that morning announcing the results of the election was by lunchtime a collector’s item.

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Even a 25 percent boost in circulation was not enough to satisfy demand for The Washington Times. The Washington Post increased production by 30 percent and still took the step of releasing an afternoon “commemorative edition.” Those who started their treasure hunt late could only hope for help from a litterbug or a sympathetic (or disinterested) building concierge.

boxes43And so the newspapermen experienced a bit of euphoria of their own and declared the enduring relevance of their medium. Although not necessarily as a source of news. The commemorative edition of The Washington Post will sell for $1.50.

Although the urban/rural split in American society gets a regular, predictable airing every election cycle, prevailing trends worldwide seem to indicate an ever increasing urbanization of the earth. Palin may consider the small town experience to be more authentically American but the growth is happening in the cities and, especially, their suburbs and exurbs. Had humans not figured out how to successfully grow food crops this juggernaut of increasing population density and development would never have gotten rolling. Now food production occurs far out of sight and mind of most urbanites. Many garden in their backyard or windowsill in an attempt to regain some bit of earthiness but few get much actual sustenance for their troubles. Still, it’s nice to pick a green bean from the plant growing in a pot in the backyard. It’s nice, also, to leave a bar in downtown D.C. and pluck a sprig of oregano on the way out. The bit of wishful thinking employed by the urban gardener is not so dissimilar from the mental route a newcomer to the American West may travel when endeavoring to build a new, more natural and independent life away from the city. He may not see a cop on every corner and his neighbors may be a bit friendlier than those back east. But the new traffic lights in town just may have been paid for with federal money, thanks to a congressman or -woman working in a little city called Washington, D.C.