Naming Dispute Brewing over Washington's U Street

Washington, D.C.'s "U Street corridor" has been a center for African-American commerce and culture for decades. But efforts by African immigrants to rename part of the area "Little Ethiopia" has emotions running high. The immigrants see themselves as part of the rebirth of the area.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A different kind of immigration story now, a story about a struggle for recognition. In Washington, D.C., a controversy is brewing over what to call one block in one neighborhood. There's an effort underway to name that block Little Ethiopia.

But as NPR's Michel Martin reports, that's put African immigrants at odds with some African Americans.

MICHEL MARTIN reporting:

For decades the U Street corridor was known as the heart of black commerce and culture in Washington. Madison Avenue and Broadway, all in one. These days a new group is setting up shop with their own language and rhythm.

(Soundbite of Ethiopian version of Staying Alive)

MARTIN: You can hear it at Hebetie, where the lunch crowd is just thinning out on Ninth Street just off of U. Diners polish off spiced lentils on agyria bread, most are observing Lent, and nod to the latest hit by Ethiopian songstress Ababa.

As many as 200,000 Ethiopians have migrated to the Washington area over the last 30 years, believed to be the largest population outside of Ethiopia. Many have thrived in Washington, opened restaurants and other business to serve their own, as well as customers from across the city, which sparked an idea. Why not name a block off U Street Little Ethiopia?

Mr. TOMRAT MADINE (ph) (Real Estate Agent): I know people were thinking, hey, we've been here for quite a while, the generation who came here as refugee here have brought their own identity, their culture, their food their religion. And they say, why don't we try to have something to name our identity and our presence in Washington, D.C.?

MARTIN: That's Tomrat Madine, a real estate agent who has lived in the areas for 30 years. He thought with a dozen Ethiopian businesses clustered along just one block, who would object?

Ms. SANDRA BUTLER-TROUSDALE (Washington resident): I say to them find another block, because that block is a historical block for blacks.

MARTIN: Sandra Butler Trousdale is a fourth-generation Washingtonian and the owner of a local business on U Street, the Emma May Gallery.

When you first heard about this idea what was your reaction?

Ms. BUTLER-TROUSDALE: When I first heard about it I was very angry, because it was my thought, the nerve of you. I mean, yes, I welcome you into the community to do whatever it is that you need to do. But I don't like the idea of you coming to my country, my city, my whatever, neighborhood, and saying that I should change something and make it Ethiopian Way.

MARTIN: Butler-Trousdale's family has owned a house in the neighborhood for more than 100 years. Her father ran an accounting business on U Street at a time when Washington was more segregated southern town than urban Metropolis. Her store is part art gallery, part black history museum.

Ms. BUTLER-TROUSDALE: That is a black and white photo that was taken in New York City.

MARTIN: Hung, floor to ceiling, with portraits of artists and legends, who made U Street the place to see and be seen.

Ms. BUTLER-TROUSDALE: It was a wonderful place to be. It was Easter Sunday. It was Memorial Day. It was, let's get out and boogie woogie at the Lincoln Colonnade, Lana Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker.

MARTIN: Butler-Trousdale believes the newcomers don't appreciate what the old-timers went through, the riots, the crack wars, the red-lining to make the area livable, let alone desirable. But not everyone who shares that legacy shares that view. Take Rick Lee.

Mr. RICK LEE (Washington resident): A lot of it's happening now, as a matter of fact, there's more diversity now.

MARTIN: We talked with Rick Lee at a spot called Duke City. He owns Lee's Flowers and Card Shop, a business on the U Street corridor, founded by his parents in 1945. Lee thinks Little Ethiopia could be good marketing in the way Chinatown is shorthand for exotic food and fun.

Mr. LEE: I love the Ethiopians, I love the Latinos, the Asians are up here, you know, and the yuppies. I don't have problems with the yuppies. Yuppies work for me. The color of money is green, so I'm selling flowers. I'm not worried about who's buying them. I just want you to buy my flowers, okay?

MARTIN: Rick Lee may have the detachment of a pragmatist, but the disagreement has left plenty of hurt feelings on both sides of U Street, an unwelcome undertone to the strings of jazz, hip-hop and (unintelligible) music heard along this bustling thoroughfare. Among those with bruised feelings is Tomrat Madim, who still hopes to see Little Ethiopia recognized.

Mr. MADIM: I really was surprised at first. I said, well, we are (unintelligible) who came late, but (unintelligible) come early, and I thought they should be trying to bring us together. They should try to you know, help us to be part of the system.

Ms. BUTLER-TROUSDALE: I am offended by some of the actions and reactions to our saying that we don't want this to happen.

MARTIN: Sandra Butler-Trousdale.

Ms. BUTLER-TROUSDALE: The persons that I talk to seem not to want to acknowledge that history that's there. That's my concern.

MARTIN: Acknowledgment. Some might call it respect. That is, at the end, what stands at the core of argument over Ninth Street, two peoples with a shared, but separate past, unknown to each other, reunited, uneasily, at a corner in Washington.

Michel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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