The Census Bureau is pulling out all the stops to get people to return their Census forms this year. So far, the agency has bought Super Bowl ads, had Commerce Secretary Gary Locke talk it up on the Daily Show, and even gotten Dora the Explorer in on the act. But none of their outreach efforts have been quite as tasty as the event Census Director Robert Groves has planned for tomorrow morning.
Groves will appear at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. to answer citizens’ questions about the 2010 Census and encourage people to mail their forms back in. Anyone who hasn’t yet turned in their form will be able to drop it off with an on-site mailman and then, presumably, order a delicious chili half-smoke for breakfast.
The Census Bureau says only 44 percent of Washingtonians have returned their forms so far, lagging behind the nationwide average of 50 percent.
Ben’s may look like just another greasy spoon to people outside of the nation’s capital, but for Washingtonians, it’s a U Street institution and an inseparable part of the district’s history. It opened in 1958, when the U Street corridor was still known as Black Broadway and was a hangout spot for legendary figures such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During the 1968 riots that followed King’s assassination, Ben’s was one of the few shops that remained open to feed cops, firefighters and black activists. Owner Ben Ali wrote “soul brother” on the window to discourage rioters from burning his restaurant down. Since then, Ben’s survived Washington’s drug wars, massive construction and economic downturns to become a fixture of the revived U Street.
But don’t count on getting a free chili dog after turning in your census. Ben’s has a strict policy on freeloaders: only Bill Cosby and the Obama family are allowed to eat on the house (though the president insisted on paying his own way when he visited last year).