From Ethiopia to El Salvador: At opposite ends of the same street, the Del Ray and Chirilagua neighborhoods reveal ‘hidden’ sides of Arlandria
| By Monica Arpino |
On the outside, the Caboose Cafe and Bakery in Alexandria, Va., appears to be just another sandwich shop. The restaurant’s red and yellow awning repeats the words bakery and café, and window decals promote gourmet coffee and artisan bread. Stay-at-home moms and nannies park their designer strollers at bistro tables next to water dishes for neighborhood dogs.
But a closer look at the restaurant’s menu reveals another option — a taste of Ethiopia.
Owner Rhoda Worku, 52, said customers are often surprised to discover Ethiopian food is offered there. From sambusa, a savory appetizer filled with lentils or meat, to zilzil tibbs, beef strips seasoned with tomatoes and onions, Caboose Café belies its exterior.
“It wasn’t in my plan at all,” Worku said about serving food from her home country.
A slender woman with a slight accent, she said some of her regular customers suggested that she offer a few Ethiopian dinner entrees. Now, those same customers request injera, a traditional African flatbread, rather than a baguette with their lunchtime soup.
If food represents a community, Worku is an ambassador to the Northern Virginia neighborhood of Del Ray, which is itself on the edge of contrasts and changes that reflect the region’s shifting demographics. Worku, who speaks Amharic at home and became a U.S. citizen in 1995, doesn’t advertise her Ethiopian menu. She attributes its popularity — the restaurant serves mostly Ethiopian food in the evening — to word-of-mouth exposure, she said.
The end of the block
Worku named the restaurant after a red train caboose that sits perpendicular to Caboose Café, at an elementary school where she occasionally teaches Ethiopian cooking classes. It’s also a nod to the fact that her restaurant anchors the end of the street block — and the edge of Del Ray.
Steps away from the restaurant, a green directional sign points bicyclists north for Arlandria and south for Del Ray. One street divides these blocks-turned-neighborhoods that can’t really be called Arlington, but aren’t like the rest of Alexandria. They sit at opposite ends of two-mile Mount Vernon Avenue in terms of geography, cultural identity and zip codes. The estimated median household income in the Arlandria is slightly below $50,000, compared with nearly $75,000 in Del Ray.
Along the avenue, Arlandria is more run-down and less tree-lined than its southern neighbor. Clunkier strollers dot this end of the thoroughfare, and Latino bakeries and grocery stores are commonplace. Many construction and traffic signs are written in both English and Spanish.
In contrast, Del Ray is lined with purple flags proclaiming itself as the place, “where Main Street still exists.” President Barack Obama has visited two of its eateries for brick oven pizza and frozen custard. A gluten-free bakery and bicycle co-op recently opened a few blocks away from an organic dry cleaner and all-natural pet food store.
A self-described people person, Worku left her 15-year baking job to launch her restaurant near this street intersection in May 2004. She calls it a family business, as her two college-aged sons still sometimes help run the cash register and sell bread at the year-round farmer’s market. She considered moving her family closer to the restaurant, but said high real estate prices dissuaded her. She said Del Ray’s bungalows and Cape Cods hardly stay on the market for long, and the price rarely drops.
“The neighborhood is changing. When we came to this place, especially this block, it wasn’t like this,” Worku said. “There wasn’t much traffic, but now you see people walking at night. The houses are changing. Everyone’s remodeling their homes.”
At home in Virginia
Worku came to the United States from Ethiopia three decades ago, saying she left because of problems in the country. In the 1980s, Ethiopia experienced a series of civil wars and famines that killed more than one million people. Worku joined an estimated 200,000 Ethiopians who live in the United States, according to the 2010 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.
She said she first traveled to California to study accounting at a community college and then followed her now-husband to Springfield, Va., where they live today. She attends one of the dozen churches in Northern Virginia that cater to Ethiopians, but said they can barely hold all of the congregants.
The restaurant has few, if any, Ethiopian or other African immigrants as customers, Worku said. She said once they realize the coffee shop also sells Ethiopian food, it probably wouldn’t be authentically spicy enough for them. Her customers come almost exclusively from the neighborhood, which is comprised of young and middle-aged educated professionals who are mostly, but not all, white.
“It’s the perfect place for them,” Worku said about Del Ray.
Candice Mitchell, who is 30 and African American, is one of those residents. Even though she has never sampled the Ethiopian menu at Caboose Café, she said she knows it’s there.
“It’s just hidden,” Mitchell said with a smile.
A lifelong Del Ray resident, Mitchell went through the Alexandria public school system and continues to live in her childhood home. She said she enjoys the neighborhood and is surprised by how well known Del Ray has become.
“I never had a reason to leave,” Mitchell said, shrugging her shoulders.
A changing ethnic enclave
The Howard University graduate is a program coordinator at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center, located in the heart of Del Ray. She chatted about her neighborhood while painting glitter onto foam discs in preparation for a cheerleading competition at the center.
Mitchell said all of the change in Del Ray is positive, from new lofts for sale to a proposed trolley service from Old Town Alexandria. But she said she does worry how it could affect some of the city’s low-income families.
“It will definitely change the population and dynamics of the area,” Mitchell said. She said she expects a lot of working-class residents in Arlandria will move to the west end of Alexandria near Landmark Mall, where housing is more affordable.
About a mile from Mitchell’s office in the Arlandria half of Mount Vernon Avenue, a wooden sign introduces a cul-de-sac of apartments as Chirilagua. Named after a small southeastern city in El Salvador, Chirilagua is home to an enclave of Spanish-speaking immigrants. The neighborhood primarily draws native Bolivians, Hondurans and Salvadorans.
Residents such as Diana Cisneros, 21, settled there in order to ease the transition to the United States. Cisneros moved to Virginia from El Salvador with her mother and two sisters when she was 8 years old. She said they moved in search of a better, more peaceful life, and she couldn’t imagine living in any other community.
“I’m just used to it,” Cisneros said about her neighborhood.
Cisneros works as a receptionist at the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative, which provides apartments at affordable prices. It’s across from a planned construction site that will demolish an existing strip mall along Mount Vernon Avenue. In its place, there will be two, six-story buildings with about 500 apartments and 53,000 square feet of retail space. The developer agreed to reserve 28 affordable rental units in exchange for the right to build two extra stories.
The project has sparked debate across Alexandria about how an influx of newcomers might raise housing prices and clog roads. In Del Ray, St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub owner Nora Partlow said she was upset when she learned the construction project had been approved. She said the city needed to first sort out its infrastructure, such as the bus line.
But Partlow said the planned development is just one of many changes she has experienced since moving to the area in 1985. When she first arrived, she said Del Ray was hardly a destination.
Instead, she said it was plagued with drugs and prostitution, and people didn’t walk around at night. So when a space opened along Mount Vernon Avenue in April 1996 and she drafted plans on the back of a napkin to open the first “upscale” coffee shop, she said people laughed and called her crazy.
That winter, the coffee shop expanded to fill a thousand square feet and a steady string of customers. Today, it’s a popular Del Ray institution — its motto is “the community gathering place” — that serves local food, displays local art and hosts local musicians. On any given day, a local florist jots notes with an engaged couple, a group of senior citizens chats over coffee and streams of yarn connect a group of women who meet every other Tuesday for their knitting club.
Partlow, who also works as a realtor, calls her coffee shop “artsy and cool.”
“The neighborhood is turning around,” Partlow said, a pashmina covering her shoulders. “There’s a different class of customers coming in.”
She said some condos down the streets are selling for nearly $900,000, saying, “That price was unheard of a few years ago.”
Still, she said she worries not only about where some of the city’s lower income residents will live, but also where her own employees will live. One of the St. Elmo’s job requirements is that employees be able to walk to work, which is open 16 hours a day, 364 days a week. Partlow said she lives within biking distance.
“Even young people can’t live here,” Partlow said. “It’s very hard to live here.”
Where everybody knows your name
Partlow worked with Worku at a bakery for several years, and eventually mentored her into starting Caboose Café two blocks away. From coffee to Ethiopian food, Worku said nowadays people living in the region are knowledgeable about international cuisines. She said she is thinking of hosting a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony every month.
“I remember when I came first to this country. When you say Ethiopia, they don’t even know where it is. I’ve been asked, ‘Is it in Paris? Is it in Canada?’” Worku said.
Worku knows half of her customers by at least their first name, saying that some of the neighborhood children call out greetings or news of a lost tooth to “Miss Rhoda.” She said the vegan sampler, such as yellow peas mixed with chili powder, is a popular choice among Del Ray parents who are raising their children as vegetarians.
“I love the kids when they come in and tell me what happened at school or at their birthday,” Worku said. “It’s just a little neighborhood.”