WASHINGTON - Much has changed since Ben's Chili Bowl opened nearly 50 years ago on a bustling strip known as America's Black Broadway for its thriving black-owned shops and theaters.
Back then, the diner was a popular hangout for black bankers, doctors and blue-collar workers. Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald could be found enjoying chili half-smokes and milkshakes after performing at clubs.
Now, the crowd at the Washington landmark is sometimes mostly white, reflecting a neighborhood metamorphosis characterized by high-end condominiums and businesses such as Starbucks. "Sometimes you look around and wonder, 'Where are all the black people?' " said Virginia Ali, who opened the diner with her husband, Ben, in 1958.
A similar transformation is happening across Washington as the black population declines and more white residents and other ethnic groups move in. Demographers say if the trend continues, the District of Columbia could lose its longtime majority-black status within 10 years.
Washington's black population peaked at 71 percent in 1970 as tens of thousands of white residents left for the suburbs, according to the Census Bureau. But by 2006, the estimated number of black residents had fallen to 57 percent.
At the same time, the population of white residents, which plunged from 65 percent in 1950 to 27 percent 30 years later, is growing. By 2006, the census estimated that 38 percent of D.C. residents were white. The city's Asian and Hispanic populations also are growing.
Analysts attribute the shift to the move of lower-income and middle-class black residents to the suburbs while young white professionals and others able to afford expensive housing are moving in. The newcomers are being lured by a robust economy, new condos, and a chance to escape worsening highway congestion.
Washington isn't the only city where neighborhoods have gentrified. But it is one of the few places seeing such dramatic change, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. He expects the city will cease to be majority black by 2015.
The city's diversifying racial makeup is being reflected in local politics. Adrian M. Fenty, who became mayor in January, is black, but many of his appointees are not. The police and fire chiefs are white, as is the city administrator. The new chancellor of the city's public schools is Korean American. Those positions were held by black officials under previous mayors.
"Probably, at some point in the near future, we'll see a white mayor," said Dwight Cropp, who teaches public policy at George Washington University. Washington hasn't had a white mayor since Congress passed legislation in 1973 allowing D.C. residents to choose their own mayor and city council.
Kenneth Carroll, 47, a writer who has lived in Washington his entire life, said the changes meant the loss of what be believes once defined his hometown - a sense of self-determination and self-confidence among black residents that stemmed from their majority status. That pride was instilled in everything from the community's political activism to the rich music scene.
"A lot of blacks saw D.C. as sort of the mecca," said Carroll, who is black.
But many black neighborhoods fell into decline. Businesses and residents fled when rioting broke out in 1968 after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That was followed by the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Buildings were razed to make way for a subway line.
Many neighborhoods are booming. On the edge of downtown, near the new convention center, Shirley Williams is trying to keep the apartment she has lived in for 33 years. Her landlord recently sold to a developer.
"I've been here through all the rough times, and now that it's getting better, they want me to leave," the retired teaching assistant said.
Council member Jim Graham, who represents some of the city's most racially mixed neighborhoods, said officials had worked to preserve thousands of low-income housing units. Still, in May a record 56,463 families were on a waiting list for vouchers to have their housing costs subsidized by the city.
Meanwhile, at Ben's Chili Bowl, Ali said she was pleased to see much of the city recovering. She and her sons, who now oversee the restaurant, welcome newcomers and loyal customers alike. She's nostalgic, though, for the way things were when U Street felt like one big family.