D.C’s Chinatown….into “Chinablock”…

Gentrification is the genocide of a culture; destruction of history. A renovation that wipes clean centuries and histories that are now just remnants of memories. -Me ( I hope no one else has said this)

Black and white photograph of three buildings, the largest having Chinese tiles on the first and third floors

It’s no secret that the District of Columbia has undergone as huge transformation and has been for the past five to seven years. I remember riding in the car with my grandmother and she would always say, in the faintest voice, with a sadness and sense of hopelessness and loss, that “D.C is not the same.” As we cruise through the streets to reach our destination, she would repeat this several times like a looped track and point out areas where she used to play, eat, live and hangout with her friends as she grew up. Even in her adult life, just within the past 20 years, so much had changed and even within the past 10 years of her life, things had changed. The place she called home was no longer familiar, it had become a stranger. Going anywhere with her in the city became something no one wanted to endure. Small owned businesses, boutiques and restaurants have all been replaced by big chains, clubs and lounges to attract a younger, modern and “well to do” crowd. Oh, and don’t forget the tourists!

My father, a Jamaican immigrant, loved Chinatown. Although he is not Asian he says he always felt welcomed, everyone was “cool.” Every year for his birthday we would take him to a restaurant there, whichever one he wanted to go to that year, and we would celebrate. We haven’t been to Chinatown for his birthday in about five birthdays. A family tradition died along with many of the family owned businesses and some of the culture and history of Chinatown.

D.C’s first Chinatown was created in the 1880’s on the south side of Pennsylvania Ave between 4th St and 7th St. At this time Chinatown was thriving with 100 residents and the first Chinese store opening in 1892. The Chinese has businesses throughout the city including laundry services and restaurants but Chinatown was unique because there were actual Chinese stores, like the grocery store. They organized groups formed around shared interests such as home districts in China, family names, and native dialects. The groups provided support and protection to both residents and newly arriving Chinese immigrants. Chinatown became more than just Chinatown, it was a community. By the late 1920’s, the city decided to redevelop the areas between 4th and 6th street, where Chinatown was located and Center Market, to build government and private office buildings.  In October of 1931, a new space located on Hst NW between 6th St and 7th St was to become the new Chinatown. They bought a double building and leased 11 buildings and the street was filled with new stores, temples, residences, and restaurants. This constituted the new Chinatown.  By 1936, 800 people were living in Chinatown, they then established Chinese clubs, schools and entertainments hubs.  In addition they had their own community organizations which also included family associations to provide social services for families. The Chinese Temples and schools served the purpose of educating as well as preserving culture. They both taught the Chinese language. In 1968, the riots that ensued after Dr. Martin Luther King’s death caused many Chinese to move to Northern Virginia and Maryland to escape the madness.

In 1986, the District of Columbia dedicated the Friendship Archway.In this same year, the metro stop, Gallery Place, added Chinatown to the name, Gallery-Place/ Chinatown.

Today, according to the Washington Post, only about 400-500 Chinese people are currently living in Chinatown and most of them live in the infamous Wah Luck House, an affordable housing unit that was built in 1982. Since most of the businesses closed and there is not even a Chinese grocery, but a smaller convenience store, there anymore, the residents travel to a place in Falls Church Virginia to do their shopping for authentic Chinese goods. How ironic is that. They have to leave Chinatown to obtain authentic Chinese goods. Hmmm. Although the place has lost some of its ethnic and cultural charm, the residents do find that the new Chinatown is more convenient and they don’t even need a car to get around town.

Washington D.C’s Chinatown  went from ethnic enclave to a tourist attraction and nightlife scene. But maybe we should applaud developers for trying to keep some of the culture?

I think it’s important to understand the implications and effects of gentrification throughout D.C. As I discussed before, many minorities have felt like they’ve lost a sense of who they are, my African American grandmother, my Jamaican father and the Chinese of Chinatown. Many of the properties that were designated as affordable housing in Chinatown have been sold to developers who will tear these properties down and raise the rent sky high with no conscious leaving many of these people without homes and displaced. I feel as though the history of Chinatown is important and it is important to maintain this historical space as it is to preserve any other historical space. I find it more interesting that this is considered a historical space by the National Park Service but it seems that little effort is going into preserving it.  History is doing what it often does, repeat itself. But this time as Chinatown is pushed away, I wonder if they will relocate or will it be a forgotten entity overall in the Nation’s Capital. The once intimate cultural space that brought you face to face with Chinese culture is withering away, who will save it?

“There is not much of a Chinatown here,” said Zenobia Lai, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center. “We joke that it’s a ‘Chinablock,’ not a Chinatown.” – The Washington Times

http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/Asian_American_and_Pacific_Islander_Heritage/Downtown-Historic-District.htm

1.http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/oct/27/chinatowns-cultural-paradox-business-comes-at-the-/?page=all

2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/wah-luck-house-maintains-culture-in-dying-dc-chinatown/2011/07/01/gIQAz51h7H_story.html

3. http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/blog/2013/04/ruby-tuesday-in-chinatown-to-close.html

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