Busboys and Poets lies two blocks from U Street, a commercial corridor in Northwest Washington, known as "Black Broadway" in its heyday. Concerned that his creation of a trendy artistic space would clash with U Street's traditional identity, Shallal reached out for support from community leaders, neighborhood groups, church organizations, schools and radio stations prior to opening the location. Shallal obtained a loan from black-owned Industrial Bank, located at 11th and U streets. Shallal also decided not to charge rent to Teaching for Change, which runs the bookstore area, until it turned a profit.
The name refers to American poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the 1930s, prior to gaining recognition as a poet. Rejected ideas for the restaurant's name include Writers Block Cafe, Broken Bread Cafe and White Rabbit Cafe, the latter inspired by The Matrix.
Shallal painted the giant civil rights movement-themed mural covering one wall of the restauarant, titled Peace in Struggle Wall. He refuses to sign the mural, saying this would be a "final gesture" that would preclude him from making revisions later. The collage depicts civil rights icons including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It features the words of Langston Hughes, "Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be."
Busboys also occupies the same building as the Langston Lofts, built by PN Hoffmann in 2005, and the theater hall is called Langston Room. Plays performed at Busboys include "Fear Up", about Guantanamo Bay, "Operation: Dreamland" about the occupation of Fallujah from the perspective of an American soldier. It has also hosted a screening of the Guerilla Film Festival.
Busboys is a microcosm of the U Street renaissance, drawing together black, white, gay, straight, young and old alike. The name is a tribute to Langston Hughes, who was working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the 1930s when he slipped three of his poems to a patron. The guest was the famous wordsmith Vachel Lindsay, who proclaimed in the papers the next day his discovery of a “Negro busboy poet.”
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