DC institution Ben’s Chili Bowl repaints famous mural- without Bill Cosby

At a Washington eatery that sits at the heart of the black culture and history it celebrates, the entertainers fall from grace poses painful questions

People stopped, stared and posed for photos. A colourful mural on the side of Bens Chili Bowl eatery, a lynchpin of African American life in Washington, included Barack and Michelle Obama, Muhammad Ali, Prince and Harriet Tubman. It included performer Taraji P Henson and rapper Wale. But one prominent local figure was missing.

Is this where Bill Cosby used to be? asked Vivian Staine, 30, a nurse and studio proprietor, as she beheld the artwork for the first time. Its various kinds of shocking to ensure Bill Cosby is down after hes been here so long.

The entertainers fall from grace has posed difficult questions for many in the black community and for Bens Chili Bowl in particular. Cosby has been a regular customer since his navy days in the 1950 s. He befriended its owners, Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad who died in 2009, and his wife Virginia, who now operates the restaurant with their three sons. A historical information sign outside nations: Thanks in part to the patronage of entertainer Bill Cosby, Bens has become a national landmark.

It was no surprise that when artist Aniekan Udofia painted a mural on the restaurants exterior wall in 2012, it featured Cosby along with Obama , local radio DJ Donnie Simpson and godfather of go-go Chuck Brown. But then came allegations that Cosby sexually assaulted dozens of women and court documents showing that he admitted intending to medication females he wanted to have sex with.

Last Saturday, in Pennsylvania, a judge in the sexual assault trial of 79-year-old Cosby declared a mistrial after jurors reported a hopeless deadlock after six days of deliberation. On Wednesday, in a ceremony featuring comedian Dave Chappelle and others, Udofia unveiled a new mural spreading to 16 luminaries but minus Cosby.

Virginia Ali, 83, expressed the view that the restaurant operated an online poll to ask the public who should be included: Barack Obama came first, Michelle Obama was second and Cosby did not place in the top 16.

Referring to the allegations against him, she said: Thats not the man I knew. Its one of those he said, she said things and theres no phase get into it because I wasnt there. I feel badly for everyone involved.

Cosbys face is still visible in two photo montages inside the restaurant, which is famous for its signature half-smoke a sausage with mustard, chopped onions and homemade chili on a hotdog bun. Ali said: Everybodys welcome to Bens. When you walk in the door, what youve done is left outside and we treat you as family, as a guest. We treat everyone with the same dignity and warmth. We dont judge people here.

In a photo from 22 August 2003, Bill Cosby, left, joins Virginia Ali and Ben Ali for a gala on the 45 th anniversary of Bens Chili Bowl Restaurant. Photograph: Dennis Cook/ AP

As newlyweds in 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali used their $5,000 savings to renovate and open the restaurant on U Street in what had been a silent movie cinema. They had spotted a gap in the market.

There were a lot of hamburger places in this town but there were no hot dog and no chili places, Virginia Ali remembered. It was a little scary for me: I didnt know anything about the restaurant business.

Washington was, she said, still a racially segregated city. U Street, known as Black Broadway , was at the heart of African American life. Subject to Jim crow laws elsewhere, between 1895 and 1920 the number of black-owned business in the area mushroomed from about 15 to more than 300. They included prospering bars, clubs and theaters: Duke Ellington grew up and played his first jazz here.

But after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, riots erupted along the U Street passageway . At the wishes of the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, the Alis kept the restaurant open past curfew to serve police officers, firefighters and black activists.

Sitting at the original bar as personnel feverishly prepared half-smokes and burgers, Virginia nodded towards the now bustling street. There was a lot of tension, she said. The national guard were out there with big guns. Young people were strolling down the street with Molotov cocktails. I could reek the tear gas. I got a little tear gas in my eye. It was a very frightening time.

In subsequent years U Street suffered deteriorations and disinvestment as the middle class took flight, drug trafficking took hold and storefronts became shells. But Bens Chili Bowl stood firm, even during the construction of an underground railway line. Its roll call of famous clients includes Ellington, King, Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Fallon, Jesse Jackson, George Lopez, Chris Rock, Usher, Bono, Hillary Clinton and then president-elect Obama . The restaurant also appeared in movies: The Pelican Brief with Denzel Washington and State of Play with Russell Crowe.

Barack Obama stops to eat in Bens Chili Bowl in Washington, before his inauguration in 2009. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/ AP

Today, U Street is gentrifying and diversifying, attracting a new generation of affluent urban dwellers and the usual dilemma around changing character and spiralling costs. Bens Chili Bowls neighbours include banks, bars, dry cleaners, an Italian market, a tarot card reader, a barre and cycling studio, a yoga studio, an Ethiopian restaurant and the historic Lincoln Theatre. The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum is a short walk away.

On Thursday, Tanesha Willis, 36, came for her first look at the mural. I think its epic, its gorgeous actually, she said. Its got people and colours that exemplify DC.

The sight of the Obamas constructed her wistful in persons under the age of Donald Trump, a chairman accused of reigniting forces-out of white patriotism. This week the Congressional Black Caucus declined an invitation to gratify him.

Its sad that as Americans weve come so far yet overnight weve gone backwards, Willis said. People fought for our freedom and we could lose that. A hundred years later people harbor the same detest because of skin colour.

Bridget Eguakun, 58, a retired faculty deputy at the Internal Revenue Service, took photos of the new mural and cited the Obamas, Prince and Muhammad Ali as her favourites.

I think its awesome, she said. Its an African American restaurant and theyre depicting the proportions played by African American people.

Bens Chili Bowl seen from U Street in December, with the old mural in place. Photograph: Beau Finley

She shared the ambivalence of many regarding the exclusion of Cosby.

He did some wrong but you cant take out everything he contributed to African American culture, she said about Cosby. Hes still a great guy. The University of Missouri just took away his honorary degree but they didnt dedicate his money back.

Several spectators commented that The Cosby Show dedicated a positive portrait of a black middle class household in the 1980 s, a day when U Street was in disarray and most media portraits of African Americans focused on crime, medications and poverty. But Cosbys legacy has been tarnished by the recent scandal.

Brandi Summers , assistant prof of African American Examines at Virginia Commonwealth University, said: Theres a lot of tension between people in the black community who suppose Bill Cosbys been put in because his wealth and power is in danger of white people and theyre trying to take him down, and others who believe the women are telling the truth and hes a predator.

She added: Sometimes the burden of black figures is to represent most or all black people and we forget all individuals have their own tales. We invented Bill Cosby as a figure; we dont know the man. The Cosby Shows legacy can live on but him as a figure is whats transformed.

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