I visited Fat's Chicken and Waffles on a rainy Tuesday night. The place was packed. The veteran hiphop promoter and rapper Jonathan Moore was spinning old and new tracks. People were standing at the door waiting for tables to open. Waiters were constantly taking and delivering orders. The kitchen was super busy. And the dining area was a picture of racial diversity. There were as many blacks as there were Asians and whites. Everyone was getting along. For once, a new place had opened in the Central District that did not have the air, the appearance, the stigma of gentrification.
Yet, the owner of the place, Marcus Lalario, is white, a successful entrepreneur who owns several businesses around town and has the capital to open even more. What did he do right that so many have done and keep doing wrong or badly? Why is there no bitterness about Fat's Chicken and Waffles, despite the fact it replaced one of the most prominent black American institutions in the city's cultural history, Catfish Corner?
What Lalario shows is you can do gentrification wrong or right. Indeed, when you are doing it right, then in a way, you are not doing it at all. Gentrification only means the transformation of a neighborhood from affordable to expensive, and in the process, the establishment of businesses that service people with deeper pockets. These businesses tend to replace older ones that serviced the poor or working class. Because many black Americans are poor or working class, in our country this transition has a racial sting.
Lalario could have opened in the space on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and made it a tapas bar and charged a lot of money for very small plates. Had he done this, most of those eating in his restaurant would have been white and wealthy. But what he did instead was simply work with the history of the location, and he also hired people of color. (The general manager of Fat's is Erika White, also known in the 206 scene as Beyond Reality.) So though the place is new, and the owner is white, there is a feeling of continuity. Also the food is great and affordable.