D.C. Black-Owned Businesses Struggling To Exist In Popular H-Street Neighborhood

Washington, D.C. is among a growing number of historically Black cities contending with an ever-changing landscape that often leaves local communities and businesses like KitchenCray searching for lasting remnants of its original identity.

For business owners in the popular H-street area of what was once the “Chocolate City,” the struggle to exist in a neighborhood desperate to erase them has been arduous. 

For chef James Robinson, who overcame homelessness to become the owner of KitchenCray, it means closing the doors to his restaurant after only three years.

According to DCist, Robinson opened his soul food eatery in 2020 in an effort to bring cultural cuisine to the historically Black area. However, constant scrutiny from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and complaints from newcomers in the area stunted the restaurant’s growth.

“You’re in the neighborhood where it’s white, Asian, and other races and not Black,” Robinson said. “They don’t want us to be here.” Due to the ANC’s governing of liquor licenses in the area, businesses like KitchenCray have found themselves allegedly targeted by members who display racial bias in their actions. 

In an effort to maintain a certain cultural climate, ANC members will often protest against new businesses in order to have control over how they may fit into the neighborhood as well as their operations, DCist reports.  Robinson claims that the scale very rarely tips in favor of Black-owned businesses in the area.

According to DCist, four out of the six businesses at the center of liquor license protests in recent years were Black. So, when Robinson and his partner Sudon Williams had the idea to turn the basement of their restaurant into a lounge with a live DJ to help offset the $24,000 rent on their space, they geared up to appear before a committee made up of mostly neighborhood volunteers, in a show of good faith.

“Many members of the community spoke up on the call to raise concerns about issues they have had with Kitchen Cray, including with respect to communication, parking, and behavior of staff and patrons, among other things,” according to a written summary published on ANC 6A’s website.

Williams claims that during the meeting one member told her and other KitchenCray leadership to “control your people.” Her claims were substantiated by Commissioner Robb Dooling, who agreed that the language “went too far.”

For Robinson, the disrespect and targeted attacks combined with the financial stress of trying to reach a favorable agreement, forced him to shut KitchenCray’s doors.

Other Black entrepreneurs share the chef’s frustrations with the majority-white ANC. “They come at us so hard,” H Street Main Street executive director Anwar Saleem said. “Businesses already have challenges getting their permits.”