DC institution Ben's Chili Bowl repaints famous mural – without Bill Cosby

At a Washington eatery that sits at the heart of the black culture and history it celebrates, the entertainer’s fall from grace poses painful questions

People stopped, stared and posed for photos. A colourful mural on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant, a lynchpin of African American life in Washington, included Barack and Michelle Obama, Muhammad Ali, Prince and Harriet Tubman. It included actor Taraji P Henson and rapper Wale. But one prominent local figure was missing.

“Is this where Bill Cosby used to be?” asked Vivian Staine, 30, a nurse and studio owner, as she beheld the artwork for the first time. “It’s kind of shocking to see Bill Cosby is down after he’s been here so long.”

The entertainer’s fall from grace has posed difficult questions for many in the black community and for Ben’s Chili Bowl in particular. Cosby has been a regular customer since his navy days in the 1950s. He befriended its owners, Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad who died in 2009, and his wife Virginia, who now runs the restaurant with their three sons. A historical information sign outside states: “Thanks in part to the patronage of entertainer Bill Cosby, Ben’s has become a national landmark.”

It was no surprise that when artist Aniekan Udofia painted a mural on the restaurant’s exterior wall in 2012, it featured Cosby along with Obama, local radio DJ Donnie Simpson and godfather of go-go Chuck Brown. But then came allegations that Cosby sexually assaulted dozens of women and court documents showing that he admitted intending to drug women he wanted to have sex with.

Last Saturday, in Pennsylvania, a judge in the sexual assault trial of 79-year-old Cosby declared a mistrial after jurors reported a hopeless deadlock after six days of deliberation. On Wednesday, in a ceremony featuring comedian Dave Chappelle and others, Udofia unveiled a new mural expanded to 16 luminaries – but minus Cosby.

Virginia Ali, 83, explains that the restaurant ran an online poll to ask the public who should be included: Barack Obama came first, Michelle Obama was second and Cosby did not place in the top 16.

Referring to the allegations against him, she said: “That’s not the man I knew. It’s one of those ‘he said, she said’ things and there’s no point getting into it because I wasn’t there. I feel badly for everyone involved.”

Cosby’s face is still visible in two photo montages inside the restaurant, which is famous for its signature half-smoke – a sausage with mustard, chopped onions and homemade chili on a hotdog bun. Ali said: “Everybody’s welcome to Ben’s. When you walk in the door, what you’ve done is left outside and we treat you as family, as a guest. We treat everyone with the same dignity and warmth. We don’t judge people here.”

In a photo from 22 August 2003, Bill Cosby, left, joins Virginia Ali and Ben Ali for a celebration on the 45th anniversary of Ben’s Chili Bowl Restaurant.
In a photo from 22 August 2003, Bill Cosby, left, joins Virginia Ali and Ben Ali for a celebration on the 45th anniversary of Ben’s Chili Bowl Restaurant. Photograph: Dennis Cook/AP

As newlyweds in 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali used their $5,000 savings to renovate and open the restaurant on U Street in what had been a silent film cinema. They had spotted a gap in the market.

“There were a lot of hamburger places in this town but there were no hot dog and no chili places,” Virginia Ali recalled. “It was a little scary for me: I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business.”

Washington was, she said, still a racially segregated city. U Street, known as Black Broadway, was at the heart of African American life. Subject to Jim Crow laws elsewhere, between 1895 and 1920 the number of black-owned businesses in the area mushroomed from about 15 to more than 300. They included thriving bars, clubs and theatres: Duke Ellington grew up and played his first jazz here.

But after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, riots erupted along the U Street corridor. At the request of the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, the Alis kept the restaurant open past curfew to serve police officers, firefighters and black activists.

Sitting at the original bar as staff feverishly prepared half-smokes and burgers, Virginia nodded towards the now bustling street. “There was a lot of tension,” she said. “The national guard were out there with big guns. Young people were walking down the street with Molotov cocktails. I could smell the tear gas. I got a little tear gas in my eye. It was a very frightening time.”

In subsequent years U Street suffered decay and disinvestment as the middle class took flight, drug trafficking took hold and storefronts became shells. But Ben’s Chili Bowl stood firm, even during the construction of an underground railway line. Its roll call of famous customers includes Ellington, King, Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Fallon, Jesse Jackson, George Lopez, Chris Rock, Usher, Bono, Hillary Clinton and then president-elect Obama. The restaurant also appeared in movies: The Pelican Brief with Denzel Washington and State of Play with Russell Crowe.

Barack Obama stops to eat in Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington before his inauguration in 2009.
Barack Obama stops to eat in Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, before his inauguration in 2009. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Today, U Street is gentrifying and diversifying, attracting a new generation of affluent urban dwellers and the usual dilemmas around changing character and spiralling prices. Ben’s Chili Bowl’s neighbours include banks, bars, dry cleaners, an Italian market, a tarot card reader, a barre and cycling studio, a yoga studio, an Ethiopian restaurant and the historic Lincoln Theatre. The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum is a short walk away.

On Thursday, Tanesha Willis, 36, came for her first look at the mural. “I think it’s epic, it’s gorgeous actually,” she said. “It’s got people and colours that embody DC.”

The sight of the Obamas made her wistful in the age of Donald Trump, a president accused of reigniting forces of white nationalism. This week the Congressional Black Caucus declined an invitation to meet him.

“It’s sad that as Americans we’ve come so far yet overnight we’ve gone backwards,” Willis said. “People fought for our freedom and we could lose that. A hundred years later people harbor the same hate because of skin colour.”

Bridget Eguakun, 58, a retired staff assistant at the Internal Revenue Service, took photos of the new mural and cited the Obamas, Prince and Muhammad Ali as her favourites.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s an African American restaurant and they’re depicting the parts played by African American people.”

Ben’s Chili Bowl seen from U Street in December, with the old mural in place.
Ben’s Chili Bowl seen from U Street in December, with the old mural in place. Photograph: Beau Finley

She shared the ambivalence of many regarding the exclusion of Cosby.

“He did some wrong but you can’t take away everything he contributed to African American culture,” she said about Cosby. “He’s still a great guy. The University of Missouri just took away his honorary degree but they didn’t give his money back.”

Several onlookers commented that The Cosby Show gave a positive portrayal of a black middle class family in the 1980s, a time when U Street was in disarray and most media portrayals of African Americans focused on crime, drugs and poverty. But Cosby’s legacy has been tarnished by the recent scandal.

Brandi Summers, assistant professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said: “There’s a lot of tension between people in the black community who think Bill Cosby’s been set up because his wealth and power are threatening to white people and they’re trying to take him down, and others who think the women are telling the truth and he’s a predator.”

She added: “Sometimes the burden of black figures is to represent most or all black people and we forget all individuals have their own stories. We invented Bill Cosby as a figure; we don’t know the man. The Cosby Show’s legacy can live on but him as a figure is what’s transformed.”

Contributor

David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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