The Change in DC’s Chinatown

DC’s Chinatown was home to numerous Asian immigrants in the past. They began to immigrate to the area around the 1930s and consisted mostly of Chinese immigrants. In 1986, the city dedicated the Friendship Archway, which is a traditional Chinese gate that is composed of Chinese characters and dragons. This archway makes it appear as if Chinatown is still a thriving Chinese enclave. However, in the past few decades, the conditions of Chinatown have changed drastically.

Today, Chinatown can be seen as an urban section of D.C. Much of the area has been redeveloped with nationally known shops and restaurants. The area is known for its shopping and entertainment. The only remaining Asian-ness is the city’s requirement to have all of the shop’s names written in Chinese with stores such as Starbucks and Chipotle having signs written in Chinese. Many of the Chinese population left the area during the 1968 riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. The increasing crime and taxes led the existing Asian population to suburban areas in surrounding Maryland and Virginia. This has led to the creation of other ethnic enclaves in areas such as Rockville, Maryland and Centreville, Virginia, where an increasing Asian population has been created.

Compared to other Chinatowns such as New York’s and Philadelphia’s who are known to attract tourists, DC’s Chinatown fails to attract a large number of tourists due to its loss in Asian culture and identity. Instead, it attracts existing D.C. residents for its shops, food, and nightlife. The feel between the Chinatowns are also extremely different. New York City’s Chinatown is a bustling area with thousands of Chinese immigrants living there. There are also numerous Asian grocery stores and restaurants selling authentic Chinese products and food. Many tourists even complain about the smell of Chinatown and compare it to their home cities in China. However, DC’s Chinatown looks like any other area in the city with the exception of the store names in Chinese characters. A small population of Asians still reside in the area but there is a lack of authenticity with no Asian markets or a few Asian restaurants to try. The change in Chinatown from its Asian roots to the present can be attributed mostly to the political economy.

DC is known for its gentrification, redeveloping areas in order to appeal to wealthier individuals. The city is known for its plethora of federal government jobs, which attracts individuals from all over the country. As a result, the city has attempted to displace poorer individuals in order to make way for wealthier and educated individuals. This is apparent in Chinatown where the area has received top down redevelopment, which can be seen as an imperial culture. The city decided to capitalize on the area by building the Verizon Center, home to numerous Washington D.C. sports teams. This increases the pleasure of the area with numerous sports fans flocking to the area to watch their teams. Many of the individuals who are being displaced face discrimination and segregation which is evident in Chinatown. Instead of attempting to revitalize the area to make it more like a “Chinatown” and preserve the historic-ness of the area, the city has decided to gentrify. Gentrification works from both the production and consumption side with the producers manipulating property values to further push out existing residents who cannot afford the increasing prices. From the consumer side, there is an increase in new customers and residents that can be seen as beneficial for the area.

Gentrification is not only a problem in Chinatown but throughout the city as well as other urban areas in the country. Much of the gentrification is done by pushing out minorities and bringing in wealthier whites. In D.C, this is mostly commonly displacing poorer blacks and replacing them with wealthy white s. Therefore, whites are seen as the subject expressing their agency and power over others. Since they have the financial resources and capability, they have the ability to push out these minorities. On the other hand, minorities are seen as objects, merely reacting to the agency of these wealthier whites due to their lack of power and resources.

The ornate Chinatown Friendship Archway which signals the entrance into DC’s Chinatown. 

The Verizon Center with its name displayed in Chinese.


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