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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 June, 2005, 07:50 GMT 08:50 UK
Washington row over 'Little Ethiopia'

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

In Washington DC, the city council is due to make a decision shortly on whether to give an official name to a part of the city commonly known as "Little Ethiopia".

In the past few years, immigrants from that African country have bought property and set up businesses in what was previously a neglected part of the US capital. But not everyone is happy with the proposal.

Ethiopian woman in a shop in Addis Ababa
The arrival of Ethiopians has diversified Washington

Andrew Laurence, head of the Ethiopian American cultural centre, is my unofficial guide to the area.

As we thread our way through a stretch of shops and restaurants, with names such as Etete and Feker Sound, he tells me of the deep cultural links between the land of his Irish-American mother and that of his Ethiopian father.

"When the African-Americans would read in the Bible about Ethiopia, they would say: 'Well that's us, that's Africa.' They were able to use that to inspire them throughout the whole period of slavery."

And now this community is hoping these links will be formally recognised. The DC city council is considering a proposal to give this area an official title, such as Little Ethiopia.

Mr Laurence is involved in the lobbying, and in the bars and restaurants we enter, the smell of doro wat chicken stew mingles with a sense of expectation.

"It's so important for us, like the Chinese or the Koreans, to have our own little village, or little area, so that we can be proud of ourselves. We want to show the Americans our culture and traditions," says Mr Laurence.

'Black Broadway'

On the street outside, a persistent homeless man offers his services. This is still a run-down part of town, but the arrival of the Ethiopians has brought a sense of possibility.

The Ethiopian community is a great community, but they must understand that they are our guests
Tony Prassard
Jazz club director

They have established a business community which even has its own, fairly sizeable, Yellow Pages. Some people here consider the name recognition as payback for a development job well done.

But there's a snag.

Ninth and U sits in what was once known as Black Broadway - a buzzing, hopping cauldron of jazz, which was home to such greats as Duke Ellington.

When Washington was a strictly segregated city, the area's guest houses offered roofs to visiting black musicians.

Duke Ellington
Some see Little Ethiopia as a threat to the area's jazz heritage

One of the few surviving jazz clubs here is called HR57 - named after an act passed by Congress calling on jazz to be preserved as a national treasure. Its director, Tony Prassard, thinks that calling Ninth and U Little Ethiopia hardly fits in with the spirit of that bill.

He says: "Everything that is historic by Europe is preserved, is honoured, cherished. Everything that's American should be done the same way - still call it a Black Broadway.

"The Ethiopian community is a great community, but they must understand that they are our guests. This is an American community. African-American contributions should be acknowledged and preserved just like anybody else's contribution."

And some of the jazz musicians sitting with him agree.

'An American tale'

"It should be Little Harlem to me," one of them tells me. "At least Ninth and U... give us a block. Don't take anything away from the Ethiopians, they are a productive and positive thing to our city and the food is good."

But one of those who serves the food takes a different view. African-American student Jennifer Blake is a waitress at the nearby Salome restaurant.

"Ethiopia is African-American history," she says.

"There are many different cultures within the whole African-American community and I think that it's important that we grab hold of each culture, each country. We need to love one another."

And if Little Ethiopia is officially recognised it would, in some ways, be a classically American tale. Confirming the foothold made by a community from one of the world's poorest countries at the very heart of one of the world's richest.

Country profile: Ethiopia
05 May 05 |  Country profiles



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