Housing Complex

More Disneyfication Coming to Chinatown

If you Chinesify it, will people come? (Office of Planning)

Along with backing a gigantic new office building that will house international businesses at last night's U.S.-China Capital Cities Friendship Council gala, Mayor Vince Gray also expressed support for something dear to many people in the room: The continuing existence of a Chinatown in D.C.'s downtown core, which when he first became D.C. Council chairman, wasn't a sure thing.

"Chinatown was rapidly declining," Gray remembered. "Businesses were closing, people were leaving to go elsewhere, and frankly as somebody who grew up as a child, coming downtown, having great admiration and respect for Chinatown, my first reaction was, we can't let Chinatown disappear from our city, that would be a big cultural blow to us...We agreed that Chinatown ought to be a physical experience for people, that we ought to promote Chinatown busineses, that we ought to support people living in Chinatown."

It's actually a common challenge these days. The Atlantic just used D.C.'s Chinatown as exhibit A in the demise of Chinatowns around the country, as immigrants move to suburbs instead of inner cities; apparently San Francisco and New York City have seen their populations drop as services replace residents. (Interestingly, the 2010 census showed substantial increases over the last decade in the "Asian" presence in the two census tracts that have pieces of Chinatown—now at 9 percent and 22 percent of the total number—though the actual Chinese immigrant population is estimated at between 400 and 500 souls.)

In 2009, the D.C. Office of Planning responded to the D.C. Council's desire for action with the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy, which laid out the case for and roadmap to a rejuvenated China-themed mini-district, saying it could become "a premier destination for experiencing international Asian and Chinese American art and culture by tapping into the 16.2 million visitors to DC each year as well as America’s 5th largest Asian American regional community...Forming a Chinatown Cultural District can attract New Chinese American and Asian-themed businesses by providing development incentives and coordinated marketing."

I'm skeptical of the extent to which that's happened over the last couple years. The Wah Luck House for Chinese immigrants is now essentially a retirement home, and its residents have to get on a bus to Falls Church for their groceries.

This month, though, the city came out with a draft plan for the neighborhood's public realm that at least addresses the aesthetic issues. Lots of the recommendations will do Chinatown a world of good: Repairing and widening sidewalks for outdoor cafes, allowing street vending, adding bike racks and benches and street trees, and opening alleys to pedestrians are fabulous ideas for bettering the neighborhood.

But a big chunk of the plan is devoted to the kind of superficial Chinafication that has made the neighborhood look like it's trying to hang on to something that disappeared long ago. We already have design review standards that require new buildings and signage to "contribute to the Chinese identity of Chinatown." Now, the city proposes to turn usually-blue wayfinding signs ornamental red, install Chinese-y lampposts and benches, design bike racks and crosswalks in the shape of stylized dragons, add a "Chinese-themed" sculpture to Chinatown Park, translate street signs into Chinese characters, commission "Chinese-inspired" murals for blank commercial storefronts, and install more decorative Zodiac pavers.

I don't think that's going to do much for the remaining Chinese residents of Chinatown, and creating a Disneyfied version of their neighborhood isn't a good way to honor their heritage. Furthermore, it's a bit rich of the city to go to such great lengths to maintain appearances when it helped cause the decline of Chinatown in the first place by bringing in big-time development and national chains that forced immigrant businesses out. And if adding Chinese characters to street signs were actually an attempt to help out the old folks who don't read English, the city should be translating Mt. Pleasant signs into Spanish.

If you want to support the small businesses that remain, fine. But once an ethnic community has lost the critical mass necessary to project itself, manufacturing authenticity is just going to fail.

  • Skipper

    It's rather insulting to the Chinese to make their old neighborhood a Disney theme park. Where is the same treatment for Greektown? Or the old Little Italy? Or Swampoodle?

  • TM

    New York's Chinatown is in decline? That's surprising. It basically grown and swallowed up Little Italy and seemed to be taking over large chunks of the LES. DC's Chinatown isn't anything like NY's. It's almost pure fiction. Before the city priced out a lot of them, the Feds kicked them out of Murder Bay (i.e. Federal Triangle).

  • Ben

    It's worth noting that DC's Chinatown was never any great shakes to begin with. Yeah, the Verizon Cenetr and related development pushed many of the remaining Chinese out, but many had already decamped to the suburbs by that point anyway.

    Count me in among the legions who view this Disneyfication of "Chinatown" to be both absurd and insensitive. What attracts people to Chinatowns in places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago is their authenticity, not bike racks shaped like dragons. It's borderline insulting that this is how the city now wishes to define the neighborhood after literally decades of neglect.

  • That Guy in DC

    Torn. As a nearby resident, I'm torn. OK, the Chinese have essentially left--so authenticity is gone--but is it really bad for a commercial district to try to differentiate itself from other areas? Play up your strengths. Touristy, sure--but if it means another restaurant vs. a vacant storefront, I think I'm for it.

    Also, as a District resident, I say--bring in the tax dollars and activities!

  • David

    I'm curious as to how Chinese-ing up the neighborhood is "playing to its strengths"? There are hardly any Chinese there anymore. It makes about as much sense as forcing all of the businesses along 13th Street to paint their buildings blue and white in homage of the Greeks who lived there 80 years ago. Chinatown today is a bunch of bars and pricey restaurants, chain shopping and homeless people. If it wants to brand itself as DC's "Times Square," then fine. But slapping some Chinese characters on the buildings and painting the signs red is just patronizing.

  • Java Master

    Let's declare it the new Pollack Town, and all the restaurants, bars and cafes can offer Polish sausages on their menus, and we can rename all the streets to end in "-ski". Makes just about as much sense.

  • Thayer-D

    Lamp posts, bike racks and cross walks with a Chinese theme, so what? It's a marketing scheme like the millions of other marketing schemes we're bombarded with every day. I agree it's superficial, but as you say there's a lot of urban goodness we should be encouraging, while signs are easily switched out. I think 99% of people will care less about the "disneyfication" of Chinatown. As for making the Mt. Pleasant street signs in Spanish, being we share the same alphabet, that might not be necessary, but little Ethiopia in Brightwood could use some cultural schwag.

  • tom veil

    Someone want to explain to me why we're using tax dollars to promote racial segregation?

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    I agree with you. The Asian energy has long since decamped to Fairfax County. WRT Tom's point, there is a difference between differentiation and authenticity. Chinatown, even with fancier signs, has a handful of restaurants and a couple shops selling junk. If you've walked on one street in a Chinatown in a place like NYC or San Francisco (and by comparison, even Philadelphia), or one of those shopping centers on Rte. 7, you know the difference.

    It's foolish to stake Gallery Place's identity future on Chinese connections, when it's based on a couple restaurants and a 1970s blockly building serving as a senior housing facility.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen/ Michael

    Before it was a Chinese neighborhood, it was a German neighborhood, so why not add fake German stuff? For starters, you could change the traffic signals to Ampelmännchen - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ampelm%C3%A4nnchen

  • um

    I don't know what NYC or SF Chinatown's were like 20 years ago, but ours was not a place to go on purpose. Chinatown is one place in DC that Disneyfication really helped and I don't think businesses should apologize for that!

  • Stanley Kowalski

    Um, Java, that would be Poletown, not Pollack Town. Besides, "Pollack" is not even how you spell the derogatory word for Poles.

  • beatbox

    Same on questioning NYC's chinatown in decline. It has pretty much taken over little italy

  • ShawGuy

    I've got to say, the one and in my opinion ONLY thing that will make Chinatown seem more "Chinese" is to actually see a Chinese person when you're walking down the street there. Put in all the dragons and lanterns and arches you want, but if all I see are black and white residents, workers, and tourists, it's not Chinese to me. Chinese people, however, are. Are we going to start an import program of Chinese people next?

  • Ant

    DC has a Chinatown in name only at this point no need to waste tax payer money on an area that has positive growth. Mayor Gray you need to focus on other more important issues like crime, and attracting business to DC

  • Will

    The phenomenon of cities developing "little name-your-countries" can be attributed to the fact that when those immigrants arrived, the urban places they settled were dis-invested in or functionally abandoned. The real estate was cheap to rent or buy, and public space was derelict. Through doing their own work on public and private spaces, these areas took on the character of the ethnic minority which concentrated there.

    The irony is that in massively reinvesting in the area, DC priced out future generations of immigrants who now find low costs in the older housing stock of the suburbs. Throw in the recent phenomenon of urban areas being appealing to the middle class again, and it all but eliminates the economic driver of new "little _____s" forming in urban areas.

    Its strange and anachronistic for the city to keep investing in Chinatown placemaking when that very activity is what killed Chinese immigration to the area in the first place. The only solution is to subsidize Chinese people living there, which is what Wah Luck house does, but I don't see how race/nationality based subsidized housing can be a long term strategy the city can stand behind.

    Why do we cherish "little _____s"? I think its because it demonstrates the ingenuity and self reliance of immigrant communities, who in the face of disinvestment and blight worked hard to create a place they could call their own, and in doing so won the admiration of Americans who likely resented those immigrants when they arrived broke and with few resources. Getting cities to do the placemaking work for these communities is the poison pill that will ensure they vanish.

  • Anon

    Chinatown, DC, is diminishing because it's a disgusting, scary place to go or hang out. There are hordes of loud, drunken bums hanging out and sleeping on the street at all hours of the day. On my walk to work I step over broken 40s and bottle of Wild Irish Rose, past guys hawking "loosies," past the passed-out shoeless guys with a bottle still in hand. On my walk home I see the tranny prostitutes, who shelter from rain under decrepit metal decks and in the entrances of English basements. People ask me for money, offer to sell me drugs, and occasionally try to dance/grind on me when I go for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Why does the city permit this festering urban decay to persist? Shiny paint and new benches won't clean up an area full of beggers, hoodlums and drug addicts. Only police action and stronger anti-harassment and anti-loitering policies will accomplish that. Mayor Grey, get on it!