Busboys and Poets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As gentrification upends urban environments around the world, a space where different communities can come together is invaluable.
By Emily Cadei
Flip open the first page of the menu at Busboys and Poets, D.C.’s popular chain of coffee-shop-cum-community-gathering spaces, and the first thing that catches your eye is not the appetizer list but something called a “tribal statement.”
“Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted … a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul … a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide.”
The first page of the menu at Busboys and Poets … is not the appetizer list but something called a ’tribal statement.’
The statement is also featured prominently on a placard above the bar at the 14th & V Street location, which features a bustling cafe and bookstore along the U Street corridor, a part of the city once known as “Black Broadway.” It’s the sort of place where you can curl back into one of the worn, mismatched couches with a chai and a good book and lose yourself for several hours, or just people watch as a constant stream of diners and shoppers of all ages, colors and kinds come in and start typing away on their computers or talking animatedly with friends.
“I always saw the U Street corridor as the heart of D.C.,” owner Andy Shallal, the restaurateur and Leftist political activist who is now running a dark horse campaign for mayor of D.C., says of the location. Busboys and Poets is named after Langston Hughes, the renowned African-American poet who was famously discovered while working as a busboy at D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s. “I always thought D.C. never owned the Harlem Renaissance and it should,” Shallal says.
Indeed the nation’s capital is rich in such history, thanks in no small part to the traditionally black Howard University, located not far from the original Busboys. It has long been known as the “chocolate city,” although as the 2010 census showed, that’s no longer such an apt description. The most recent figures put the African-American population in our nation’s capital at just a squidge over 50 percent. The white population in the city, meanwhile, has skyrocketed.
Busboys and Poets offers itself up as a bridge between communities — a sort of Switzerland of the gentrification wars.
The result: urban gentrification, with all its ups and downs. It’s a phenomenon that has gathered steam across the United States and the globe over the last decade. For Washington, D.C., Busboys and Poets has always been on the edge of that trend, offering itself up as a bridge between communities — a sort of Switzerland of the gentrification wars, where urban blacks, young white professionals, hipster bike messengers and college kids of all colors come together over a menu of Southern soul food, Chesapeake Bay classics and Middle Eastern fare, with some vegan favorites mixed in.
Which is exactly as Shallal, an Iraqi-American immigrant who grew up in nearby Virginia, intended.
“I look for diversity as much as possible, a place that kind of has a need,” he says of the locales he’s chosen to open Busboys and Poets, which now has five locations in the D.C. metropolitan area. Plans for a sixth — in Brookland, one of Washington’s lastest up-and-coming neighborhoods — were announced at the beginning of December.
People do understand that we’re not trying to usurp culture and reimagine it but rather uplift it.
Busboys and Poets’ overt embrace of progressive politics isn’t for everyone — one anonymous reader, commenting on a Washington Post profile of Shallal online, complained that while dining at the cafe, he “was having the extreme progressive liberal agenda pushed on me with my appetizers.” Shallal’s political positions — particularly his criticism of Israel and American foreign policy — also have their share of detractors.
And he has had to win over the local African-American community, acknowledging that he and the restaurant faced “healthy skepticism” about their intent after naming the place after an icon like Hughes.
“It put a lot of onus on us to make sure that the work we do here … is exemplary and to really honor the history and the past and not trivialize it,” he says. Exhibit A: the regular poetry series, open mic nights and political discussion forums hosted at all the Busboys locations. It took some time and a dialogue with both local poets and prominent African Americans, but the skepticism, Shallal says proudly, “has turned into great support because people do understand that we’re not trying to usurp culture and reimagine it but rather uplift it.”