The Redefining of Chinatown

City Leaders Renew Focus on Preserving Locale’s Character

Posted February 20, 2009 at 3:11pm

It’s not really Chinatown anymore. The neighborhood also known as Gallery Place used to have a distinct Asian identity, with large Chinese supermarkets and bustling Chinese festivals.

But today the scene is different, with fewer people of Chinese origin living in the neighborhood and almost more chain restaurants than Chinese ones. It’s a trend that has happened before: The Chinese community’s first home was at Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Street, until plans to build Federal Triangle meant shifting immigrants to Chinatown’s current location on Seventh Street. Then, when the Convention Center was built in the early 1980s, displaced immigrants were moved once again into the District’s final Section 8 housing, a quickly constructed monstrosity at Seventh and H streets named the Wah Luck House. Since then, many have trickled out to the suburbs, and today fewer than 5,000 Chinese residents live in the District.

The last time the District made a serious effort in Chinatown was 1986. That year, the Gallery Place Metro stop was renamed Gallery Place-Chinatown and the Friendship Arch was built on H Street in recognition of Washington, D.C.’s sister city, Beijing. More than two decades later, Chinatown is best recognized by Chinese lettering — required by the Office of Historic Preservation — added to the signs of American establishments such as Fuddruckers and Starbucks.

That gesture hasn’t been enough for residents and business owners who want to preserve Chinese culture in the area. They have been pressing for attention from the D.C. government for years, and in 2007, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray took notice.

His suggestion was to seek more answers for the Chinese community. “The Chairman’s Committee of the Whole public hearing on an alley closing for a commercial office building near Chinatown in the summer of 2007 was the event that made it clear that a Chinatown Cultural Development Project was needed,” Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy wrote in a statement sent to Roll Call. “Several Chinese residents and businesspersons turned out for the hearing, and for subsequent meetings in the chairman’s office, and it became clear that there was a much larger issue of whether the District would continue to have a Chinatown, as opposed to only a ‘China block.’”

Following Gray’s urging, the offices of Planning and Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs kicked off the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy with community meetings in July 2008. The purpose of early meetings was to identify the concerns of residents and business owners.

Since then, leaders have named five goals for the plan and have established task forces to work toward those goals.

The goals, according to the Office of Planning, entail “creating a Chinatown cultural experience, making Chinatown an exciting and engaging place, promoting Chinatown businesses, living in Chinatown and working together.”

“Our ambition for the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy is to build upon these unique strengths — large regional population of Asian American residents and visitors, central location and access to Chinese cultural activities and Asian businesses — to create a vital destination for residents and visitors alike to experience Chinese and Asian American culture,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Planning, in a statement for Roll Call.

One idea being considered is a cultural use for the area commonly known as Chinatown Park, according to Alex Chi of the Chinatown Revitalization Council. The park, located between Fifth and Sixth streets just south of Massachusetts Avenue, could host Chinese cultural events and an open-air market selling Chinese goods.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who represents Chinatown, agreed that the development of Chinatown Park is a good idea. Yet he emphasized that the goals for the neighborhood are not to expand but to maintain what is already there. He said he doesn’t expect Chinatown to be settled by Chinese residents again.

“Chinatown has gone through a transformation over the last 10 years. At one time, it was a thriving community. As more and more of the individuals of Chinatown prospered, they moved out,” he said, adding that neighborhoods are “evolutionary in many ways.”

Evans was among the attendees at Mayor Adrian Fenty’s State of Chinatown address a year ago and will be there again when the mayor addresses the community tonight. He said he expects Fenty will again press “a commitment of the city to maintaining Chinatown.” The town hall-style event will be held at 7 p.m. at the Wah Luck House.