WASHINGTON—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 reds.
“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.”
But 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 theaters.
“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 history.
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.