WASHINGTON — It’s Friday night, and rapper Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle” is blaring inside of the only black-owned bar in D.C.’s predominantly white Dupont Circle neighborhood. Its patrons, drinks in hand, are enjoying various items from its Southern-influenced menu, like chicken and waffles and shrimp ‘n’ grits.
But this bar wants to be known for more than just another late-night spot in a city replete with them. It wants to be a space where black people can come together to freely express their whole selves, in a city where such spaces seem to be disappearing.
The Caged Bird, which opened its doors in July, is the newest bar that seeks to cater to black millennials in a city that was sued for discriminatory practices that promoted gentrification earlier this year.
Washington, D.C., one of the blackest cities in America, has been experiencing an economic renaissance for nearly two decades — but that renaissance is considered nothing more than gentrification by longtime residents. According to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Business Report, “whiter and richer” families are increasingly displacing low- and middle-income families. As affluent families move in, higher rents push out black residents, and black businesses leave with them.
Derek S. Hyra, a public affairs professor at American University and author of Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, says the District’s redevelopment is disproportionately affecting communities of color.
“With this economic boom, the tax base in Washington, D.C., has grown, but so has racial inequality,” Hyra told HuffPost. “There’s a study by the Urban Institute that shows that white household wealth is 81 times that of black family wealth. There’s immense inequality in the city.”
Dupont Circle has been known as Washington’s central neighborhood for gay life and business for decades. It is a trendy area filled with art galleries, bars, nightclubs and shops. Black business owners weren’t seeing themselves represented in this vibrant area, prompting some entrepreneurs to plant roots in the neighborhood to try and attract black customers.
Brandon Rule, one of the co-owners of The Caged Bird, knows how important it is to have a space for black people, by black people.
“We wanted to combine the power of food, culture and community to foster an environment that welcomes and encourages artistic expression, cultural exploration and diverse experiences in hopes that, together, we can reimagine what’s possible for our culture and community in D.C. and beyond,” Rule told HuffPost.
Rule, 30, founded the bar with seven others who combined their resources to create a space, named in honor of Maya Angelou’s famed memoir, that is “100 percent owned, operated, staffed and financed specifically by black millennials.” It joined the roughly 2.6 million black-owned businesses in the United States, according to the United States Census Bureau.
On this night, the people inside The Caged Bird are choosing from the specially crafted menu at the venue for DMV Black Restaurant Week, the first of its kind celebrating the best black restaurants in the nation’s capital.
Andra “AJ” Johnson, a co-founder of the inaugural restaurant week, is a consultant for The Caged Bird.
“Our mission is about setting businesses to succeed by being able to reach the customers they need to reach,” Johnson said, explaining the thought process behind creating restaurant week. “Representation from an ethnic standpoint is low, and from a black standpoint, it’s even lower. It’s all about inclusivity.”
That’s partly why Kimberly Smith and Amaya Smith, founders of the Brown Beauty Co-Op, decided to open their business in Dupont Circle. The duo recently celebrated the grand opening of their store in December and chose the neighborhood because of the lack of representation in the area.
“It was important to me that if I started a business, I want it to be in the District. Not outside on the outskirts or the suburbs, but be here,” Kimberly Smith, 38, said.
The pair wants the co-op to be known as more than just a shop to purchase beauty supplies. They hope the Brown Beauty Co-Op will also be a safe space for all women of color and a hub that provides mentorship for emerging black entrepreneurs and businesses.
They plan to provide newer brands shelf space to showcase their products and provide feedback from consumers and industry professionals to help them thrive in the market.
“We want to help other businesses,” Kimberly Smith said. “Not every beauty business can be in a Bloomingdale’s or Target, but there are so many people that are making really great products, and we want to give that retail experience to other small, emerging brands.”
“We wanted to show other people that we can have a successful business here in Dupont Circle that is catered to us. We chose this space, not only because it was needed, but to show that we can still be successful even when we target ourselves.”