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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Ben's Chili Bowl Celebrates 45th Anniversary

Aired August 22, 2003 - 19:44   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thousands of people are gathering tonight at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are there to pray tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Violent riots following King's murder did major damage to Washington, but despite the chaos, one of the city's landmark restaurants managed to keep its doors open. In the 45 years Ben's Chili Bowl has been in business, its owners have seen history unfold literally before their eyes. Our Bruce Morton has their story.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The chili dogs are excellent. Some say the halfsmokes, that's a pork and beef sausage, are better. It's an old argument. Ben's Chili Bowl, he and his wife Virginia started it, is 45 years old, located on Washington's U Street Northwest and it has seen the city change all around it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This was known as black Broadway.

MORTON: The Howard Theater was around the corner. The Lincoln, open again now, next door.

VIRGINIA ALI, CO-OWNER, BEN'S CHILI BOWL: So we had the great fortune of hearing Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and the list goes on and on.

MORTON: The good times ended when U Street burned in the 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King's murder. Ben's stayed open, it was a place where cops and street activists could meet.

And then the hardest times, U Street did not recover. Battered buildings, streets full of drugs.

V. ALI: The word is scary. That's -- the front over there was just an open drug market, an open-air drug market. Heroin addicts over there just by the hundreds. And it was indeed a very scary time.

MORTON: Ben's was down to one employee. And then, finally, recovery, signs of gentrification, construction everywhere. The penthouse in this building, local gossip says, will go for $900,000.

V. ALI: That just seems unreal to me.

MORTON: Ben's gets tourists now.

V. ALI: You see the high school kids coming from Iowa and Wisconsin. They come in, they have their lunch, and they're like, this is awesome.

MORTON: Ben is pretty much retired now. That's him with Virginia when they started. She, at 70, is still active, though her sons, Nizam and Kamal (ph) run the place these days. And they worry, the neighborhood's changing. What about them?

NIZAM ALI, BEN'S AND VIRGINIA'S SON, MANAGER, BEN'S CHILI BOWL: I think the fear is that the neighborhood may lose its history, so we're trying to hang on there and at least try to preserve what little we can.

MORTON: It's always been a special place, young and old, black and white, a judge next to a junky, Virginia says.

V. ALI: We have what I call an extended family in the neighborhood, folks that just kind of look out for the Chili Bowl. And that makes me really happen. So I don't want to lose that.

MORTON: Bruce Morton, CNN, at the Chili Bowl.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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