Gentrification and Race in the New Shaw: A Conversation with the Owner of Calabash Teahouse & Cafe


Sunyatta Amen is a fifth-generation Jamaican herbalist, who grew up in Harlem, and whose business SiTea: The Spice Boutique opened in 2011 in Takoma Park, before Calabash Tea & Café opened in Shaw (1847 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20001) in May 2015.

We met in Fall 2015 during Art All Night and began discussing the rapid changes in the Shaw neighborhood and throughout DC, along with issues of gentrification and racism. This dialogue is ongoing and the following is only part of that conversation.   

Jason Whitney Biehl: What have you seen recently in terms of new business development in Shaw?

Sunyatta Amen: I would say the vast majority of businesses that are on 7th street or that will come to 7thstreet or being lured to that area, are going to a bar. It’s bar culture and I think that’s what that particular demographic is asking for.

JWB: What is “Shaw Main Streets”?

SA : There are many main streets all over the United States that are granted through city funds. Shaw Main Streets is the one that governs Shaw specifically. That’s what they do.

JWB: What’s your experience been like working with other businesses that are part of this?

SA: I’ll say that Alex Padro who heads Shaw Main Streets is absolutely awesome and really works to get things done on behalf of the business owners there. He works to get business owners to work with each other. I think we all have things to offer each other. I already get things from bakers in my area. I get things from other producers in my area so in some ways it's a good idea.

Calabash Tea House, 1847 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

Calabash Tea House, 1847 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

My experience has been that unfortunately when it comes to other people procuring product from me that there's a lot of conversation when mayors are around or council people. When the head of Shaw Main Streets himself was there, there have been conversations (that I’m not eliciting) saying, “Oh we’d love to have your product here, we don’t love our tea service, or we don’t love what’s going on here. We should work together and do something.” “I’m like, okay great.”

That sounds good but then when I send someone else in to have a conversation with those folks or I may just be patronizing that particular place and I see the owner and say, “you know we should catch back up about that stuff. It’s good for you and I’ll bring you some samples.” And they’re like “What? Oh.”

In the case of one particular place I was told—and I was there as a customer with my family—“Oh well, we’re not really tea people or coffee people. You know we just kind of have what we have right now. We’d have to convince our staff and our manager to change over.” So, now I’m in the position of having to convince someone when that conversation two weeks before was them asking me about my product. But that was in the presence of the overlords. The salt in the wound is that a month later I came to understand that they are starting a tea brand.

JWB: So, do you think there’s an old boys network?

SA: I think it’s a new “old boys network.”

JWB: How has your partner Jack, who is white, been helpful with all of this?

SA: He’s my other half and is sometimes my ‘white beard’. He can go and do things that I cannot do. And when I say cannot it’s not because I’m not capable of doing it. That’s not the issue. I could spank him in Scrabble. I outscored him on the SAT. That’s not the point. The point is that he’s an attorney so when he walks in with his white man privilege suit, they take him seriously. There’s something about the essence of being who I am that somehow conveys ‘well I just said what I said’ when people are around. It actually helped me as a business person to borrow this brown woman’s magic. To say, oh yes, I’m asking her about her product, that sort of thing. When the reality is there will never be a follow through. It was probably never intended.

I shouldn’t get any special favoritism, not at all. Just how about an even playing field, because I would put my product up against anybody else’s product, any day of the week, blind, and we’ll see. Sometimes all you want is that level playing field.

JWB:  And an interest and investment in community.

SA: And not a pretense. Their workers come to my place all the time and go back with stories of how miraculous they’re feeling and how they fought off a bug and were able to come to work that day when normally they would not have been able to because they’re feeling sick. So, I helped nurse them, they went to their job with these folks and spoke volumes about what we do and still there’s this kind of run around.


JWB: So, how do you view Calabash’s role in Shaw?

SA: We are cultural custodians.

JWB: Speak more on that.

SA: It’s our job not just to provide modern people with reconnecting to ancient ways of healing themselves physically, but there’s also a spiritual deficit, that comes clear when people come into our place and they find it as an oasis and they can breathe a sigh of relief.

We provide what I feel like is this safe haven from the onslaught of stress that they have to endure on a daily basis, at their jobs, for just existing as a city dweller in a place that’s a very high-pressure environment. We see ourselves in that framework. We’re providing more than just a physical product in the way of something to drink. We’re not a tea house and that’s all we do. We’re really a modern-day, old school apothecary and a temple to those old ways, which include knowing how to relate to each other and how to find spaces for communication and community.

We provide what we feel is that community space and we are cultural custodians in that capacity. Many people have forgotten how to be a community. Not to join a community, not to create community, but how to BE community.

'The Shay'

'The Shay'

JWB: So, a lot of us have seen the banner from ‘The Shay’ at 7th and Florida.

SA: You can’t miss it.

JWB: Yeah, it’s pretty—I find it offensive. You’ve mentioned some art related to that building?

SA: There was an art project with a connection to the Shaw community center. The children who’ve been living there, their parents, grandparents and so forth are very vested in the community. I think part of the problem was that they were promised that this area was going to be public space or park space or mixed use space. That it was going to have affordable units mixed in.

JWB: Specifically at 'The Shay'?

SA: Yeah. Well, before it was ever built. This is how people get the buy-in from the community to build projects. The same thing happened on 14th street where the Trader Joe’s is and around there. If you call over there and ask do you have any apartments that are sliding scale? No. They start at $3,500 a month or $4,000 a month and they’re straight-faced about it. Like, “and what?” 

JWB: When it was probably agreed upon to have a certain percentage designated as affordable?

SA: It can be agreed upon or you’ve got to wonder who is greasing whose palms that that didn’t happen. Like how is that possible? Saying all this to say, that this artist had the children create these little clay boats. And the boats were all laid out, dozens of boats in front of The Shay. So, as people were walking in and out they had to step on the boats, actually, smash them to get out of the building or back in. So it’s like you have to walk over these children and their names on the boats in order to get in. It’s we count, we matter, we’re here.

JWB: What are some other instances of signage or images that you may have found alarming?

SA: I’ve taken some pictures outside a coffee shop that I don’t think is there anymore. It says we have “dranks and thangz,” you know with a z on it. I’m just like, I know these guys are not—and okay, nobody owns vowels and consonants—but what’s insulting is there is a double standard at work. When the so-called African-American that wants to speak in a vernacular that is more relaxed and is not the king’s or queen’s English and is understood to be colloquial, it is frowned upon or seen as lower-class, or bad breeding, lack of education, etc. Yet it can be employed liberally by people, who are typically very left of center and feel like this is okay to do. There are so many layers cuz now their café is in a place that has seen the worst of the cracked out 80s and 90s and some depression era, and so it just stings. Like you’re borrowing it and you’re making fun of it in a way like, “I’m hip and cool and look how fun this is.”

JWB: Right.

SA: And there’s nothing funny about it. Not at all. It doesn’t feel like the person is in on the joke. It feels like you are the joke. Instead of being an ally, it doesn’t feel like that.

JWB: Have you talked to the people with the sign of a black woman with an afro that said, “treat yo self.”

SA: I didn’t say anything to those people cuz I was busy and because they are my neighbors too. I wanted to have a little chitchat and felt if I’d seen anything else that was like that…they use the quintessential essence of the people to be hip. Truthfully there’s nothing cooler or hipper or more amazingly fabulous than brown people all over the world. It just is. It’s part of our being and it comes from a soulful place. And it’s not that we have a monopoly on it, we’ve just had it so long. And it’s one of the things that is indelible. You have to try hard to shake that.

JWB: Amen to that. I was at a community event in Anacostia recently and learned about a firm from San Francisco who was offering $5,000 for artists to paint a mural at Minnesota Ave and Benning road. I wonder if you could speak on that in terms of the ways that street art is being used to make public spaces more welcoming for gentrification. So it’s revitalization, but who is it for?

SA: I think it’s clear who it’s for. When it comes to the street art again what gives me pause is the borrowing of that magical element. The borrowing of our skin, the very skin that keeps us from so many things, whether it’s the uncomfortability of entering a restaurant, or whether someone is going to follow you around in a retail establishment that’s now in your neighborhood, but you’ve been there forever.

JWB: It’s actually a vibrant time for black artists in DC in this era of Black Lives Matter. Yet, I feel like they have a very tough time finding spaces to create and ways to earn a living. I’d love to see a larger collective of artists with greater organizing power in these times of erasure and gentrification. Any thoughts on that?

SA: My mother’s an actress, so I have a lot of background experience with performance space, especially coming from a time when they were really working very hard. It’s still that. It’s still white Hollywood and white Broadway. Unless it’s like, “need nigger #3.”

I will say that my aunt’s an artist. She used to display with Basquiat. She’s the one who helped me develop my space. She and I did all the work. She even signed the couch in front. She told me the same thing. We grew up in Tribeca. She was a girlfriend of Robert Deniro. The space for artists of color is weird. It’s often underappreciated. Even with Basquiat, people are going bananas and Warhol used the shit out of him. And he just dies with a needle in his arm. She told me that was one of the reasons she could not socialize with Warhol, and we lived right there in a loft, just down the street. “I just can’t with these people because they will eat you. They will just eat your soul. They just want what we have so badly and then they will spit out the husk. And there’ll be nothing left.” So either you can be famous in those circles and be stripped to nothing like a piece of sugarcane, just sucked everything. Or you can be under the radar and more whole.

JWB: That’s the Catch-22.

SA: It really is. When I look at an artist like Beyonce, I know people are like, don’t say anything about Queen Bee. I think she’s incredibly talented. She’s a show person. She’s good at a show. I just wish a lot of it was more covered and I’m all for these--go titties, go booty. I’m not trying to body shame anyone and she’s absolutely gorgeous. What happens is America has an addiction for the tragic magic mulatto. An addiction for our deaths, our sex, our thoughts, our art, our music, our high performances. When we are performing, we are tolerable. Just tolerable though, not accepted. So it becomes a thing. What I do is also its own performance. So when I am of use to perform for these people, in front of the mayor or whoever, it’s when we are down to brass tacks then who would I ever think I was to follow up in this space. This is the new golf course. This is the new country club. Make no mistake, these are now 'celebranteurs' (celebrity restaurateurs) with celebrity personalities associated with restaurants.

JWB: So at the heart of what we’re speaking on with Shaw and business is do you feel like you want a seat at the table with your neighbors, or do you feel like you kind of want to burn these new boys network down?

SA: (laughs) Well, that’s a great question. When you say seat at the table you tell me what that means to you?

JWB: That’s a good question. I would say access to power and wealth and reciprocity and true collaboration, in helping with the expansion of your business. With everything you have to offer, I would hope it would be embraced in a way that it hasn’t been.

SA: So, what is going on that I’ve explained to you goes on with a lot of people who are minority business owners, whatever that minority may be. For example, my parents aren’t even from this country yet if people read you as African-American that’s what you’re gonna be seen as. Second, it’s a microcosm so I love this question. When you’re asking me about a seat at the table for this business and this business district, for me this is about a seat at the table for people of color in general, in America. When I look at people wanting to train police officers because they need to be more sensitive, so it’s communal and serving the people, that’s bullshit to me. It’s never going to work. It’s not a matter of burning the whole thing down. I think there’s a third answer.

JWB: Good.

SA: The third answer is there’s never been a conversation in this country that hasn’t been met with resistance about what has happened here since the 1600s. No one wants to really have THAT conversation. It becomes defensive. It’s like a bad marriage. It’s an abusive marriage conversation, where one party has been injured and the other person refuses to acknowledge it, will not say sorry, will not come to the table and say, “how can I make you whole?” And because that won’t happen, or hasn’t happened, we cannot move on.

JWB: Right.

SA: For me to ask for a seat at a table, where other people think I got my seat because I am who I am, instead of wow, how the fuck did she get here? That’s fucking amazing. So instead of them saying, “she’s actually interesting. This woman actually went to some of the same prep schools I did or on that level. This woman went to medical school.”

JWB: “I have something to learn” would be nice.

SA: “She has something to contribute.” She has experience and is willing for that to happen in a reciprocal fashion. Wouldn’t it be easier for me to get coffee down the street, for my own shop? Hey, my parents are from coffee countries. I know coffee. I’m not new in this. I grew up next to a coffee plantation. What I’m saying is in order to have a seat at a table, in this case, you have to exit the building, agree everyone belongs inside at the table, talk about what’s happened before, and then you go in and start. America has never had a conversation about race and the one time it happened where President Clinton apologized for slavery, people slammed the shit out of him. And he was right to have apologized. And now I’ve got issues with that cat, don’t get me wrong. Mandatory minimums, all that bullshit, and his wife. But I will say that it requires a conversation about “I’m sorry.” And one of the scariest things to a litigious society like this when it comes to an apology is the idea that you’re going to have to make someone whole and it probably involves money.

JWB: Right.

SA: So the idea of reparations is such an egregious conversation. The apology can never happen because it’s an admission of guilt. But people have to take a look around and see people walking around with bloodlines all connected, because there have been so many rapes, or so much hate, people were kidnapped from other places, what the fuck?

JWB: And white people, I’d argue, have never done the emotional and the intellectual work around any of this.

SA: I think they would feel better Jason. Much like when you get into a spat with a loved one and you don’t really want to say you’re sorry. You don’t really want to talk about it, but once you clear the air, the lemon squeeze is everything. Get that lemon squeeze and move on. At least you can move forward. The problem is none of this has been cleared. So, when you ask me if I want a seat at that table, umm, not like that. Just like my aunt didn’t want a seat at Andy Warhol’s table.

JWB: Not to end up used and abused.

SA: No, not to end up with a needle in your arm or feeling like I don’t really belong here. Out of sorts and out of place and that’s what happened to Basquiat. What we really need is a larger conversation.

"So, I was like you know what, instead of beating my head against the wall, go to the people who are actually looking for women, for minority-owned businesses, to procure product, and that’s where to go."

JWB: So, where does Calabash go from here?

SA: Well, what I figured out was instead of fighting to be, punching up, saying “look we matter,” we’ve been in these industries for 40 years. Instead of punching up I’ve realized that there are some places in the Unites States, some businesses that are actually rewarded for getting product from people of color. They have minimums, because those things have been set in place, because they’re big enough that people are looking at them. So, I was like you know what, instead of beating my head against the wall, go to the people who are actually looking for women, for minority-owned businesses, to procure product, and that’s where to go.

JWB: That makes sense. Where you’re loved and wanted and appreciated.

Sunyatta Amen, Image Courtesy of Amen

Sunyatta Amen, Image Courtesy of Amen

SA: Maybe. It can’t be love if it’s still in the middle of an abusive culture and unapologetic. It can at least be appreciated for what you can bring to them. So, if it’s their minimums are met, great. And I have to live with that. And maybe my children or grand-children or great-grandchildren can start to push through. Love has nothing to do with any of this unfortunately. There’s a love of what we do, a love of performance. I mean I just did a lecture at the Smithsonian. They wanted me to come and talk about the folklore of the herbal medicine. I could bring things to the conversation that their own herbalist or botanist could not. So, they are appreciative of what we have, but there is a fetishizing of us in general, whether it’s sexually or, we can be a mammy, we can be a love bunny, we can be a this, we can be a that. We can be a super spectacular athlete or performer or musician.

JWB: You’d hope that there would be a love for healing and the healing powers you possess considering that this country is so in need of it.

SA: They definitely are. More than I probably have. (laughs)


Jason Whitney Biehl grew up in DC and is a history teacher and an anti-racism facilitator/organizer for SURJ DC.