WASHINGTON — Inside Dukem, one of the city's best-known Ethiopian restaurants, the bustle on the street seems far-removed as burning incense mingles with the aroma of spicy stews.
On a small stage, performers in sequined white gowns thump on drums and sing traditional music from the East African nation. Patrons sitting nearby use their fingers — no forks here — to tear into spongy pancakes and scoop up exotic cuisine such as awaze tibs, which is lamb marinated with jalapeno, tomato and garlic.
A new ethnic identity is taking root in a once-decaying neighborhood not far from the White House, where 10 Ethiopian restaurants are clustered together and dingy storefronts are now splashed with bright hues of blues, yellows and reds.
"You feel like you're in your own country when you come here," said Tefera Zewdie, the owner of Dukem, who left Ethiopia as a teenager 20 years ago.
The Washington region has the world's biggest Ethiopian community outside of Africa, according to the Ethiopian Embassy. The 2000 Census reports 15,000 Ethiopians have settled in the Washington area. But the embassy and those who study African immigration argue that number is far too low, saying the actual number is closer to 200,000.
Now this growing ethnic group wants to be recognized in the city by naming a street "Little Ethiopia."
But the location — near U Street — faces resistance from some in the community who want to preserve the area's historic significance. Before riots erupted in the 1960s, the area was known as America's "Black Broadway" because of its thriving black-owned jazz clubs, shops and theaters.
"They're trying to erase us," said longtime city resident Ora E. Drummer. "This community was built by African-Americans. I would never go to Ethiopia and name it 'Duke Ellington Way,' " she said. Ellington, an influential jazz musician, was a native of Washington and is closely linked with the neighborhood's history.
Kinuthia Macharia, a sociology professor at American University, said he believes the special ethnic designation is more about the potential economic benefit for business owners, rather than an attempt by Ethiopians to elbow out other cultures.
"If you go to San Francisco or New York, people tell you about Chinatown," Macharia said. "In addition to eating, you visit businesses" giving them more exposure and raising their profile.
There is already a Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Pico boulevards. The area has many Ethiopian businesses and restaurants.
A formal designation in Washington would be welcomed by Senedu Zewdie, Tefera's sister. She decided to open her own restaurant, Sodere, last spring a few blocks away from Dukem. On a recent weekday afternoon, the restaurant was nearly empty — but she says the crowds pick up on weekends.
Designating the area Little Ethiopia, she said, would make it more of a destination for tourists who might otherwise ignore that section of Washington.
Opponents include community activist Deairich "Dee" Hunter, who says the campaign is the work of a "small group of people who are obsessed" with the idea. But several thousand people have signed a petition circulated in support of the name change, said Tamrat Medhin, who is leading the effort to hang signs that say Little Ethiopia, or something similar, on Ninth Street between U and T streets NW.
"The Ethiopian community came in and moved in when people were afraid to come to the neighborhood," said Medhin, who chairs the Ethiopian-American Constituency Foundation. His idea has the support of District of Columbia Councilman Jim Graham, who represents the neighborhood.
Graham said he favors the idea of Little Ethiopia because of the immigrants' significant contributions. Besides restaurants, Ethiopians also have opened churches, hair salons and a community services center.
"Anything we do that underscores the multicultural nature of where we live . . . is fine with me," said Graham, who spent about a month in Africa last year to learn more about the people he represents.
Many Ethiopians began arriving in the United States after a military coup in the 1970s, said Hermela Kebede, the leader of Washington's Ethiopian Community Center, which assists newcomers by helping them find housing and offering English classes.
She said the presence of the embassy is a big reason Ethiopians initially decided to settle in Washington. Now, the community has grown so large it has its own Ethiopian Yellow Pages.
"They're coming from one Ethiopia to another," Kebede said.
Graham said it is too soon to say when the D.C. Council will act on the Little Ethiopia proposal. In the meantime, he said it is important to win the support of those who are angered by the Ethiopians' campaign.
Zewdie, the owner of Sodere, also hopes that naming the area Little Ethiopia will increase Americans' awareness of her homeland, pointing out that many people know little about Ethiopia, except for what they have seen and read in the news about famines and war.
"Ethiopia has a rich culture," she said. "We want (people) to come back again and again."