- - Sunday, October 27, 2013

It’s a typical midweek noon rush in the heart of Washington’s Chinatown, and the streets are packed.

Locals, tourists and local office workers flock to the restaurants, shops and boutiques that dot the district. National brands — McDonald’s, Starbucks, Radio Shack, Subway — mix with smaller traditional Chinese shops and eateries, all benefiting from the economic boom sparked by the nearby Verizon Center. Many stores display both English and Chinese signage.

But the bustle masks a paradox that researchers say is being replicated in cities across the country: “Chinatown,” the neighborhood, is booming. Chinatown, the ethnic enclave that has preserved its identity and character in the heart of the city for eight decades, is not. If cultural, demographic and economic trends continue, urban analysts say, many classic American Chinatown districts may disappear altogether.


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“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.”

“Most people we talk to who have been to Washington have actually told us that they don’t want to be like the D.C. Chinatown,” said Karen Chin of the Boston-based Chinese Progressive Association, whose traditional Chinese ethnic enclave is facing many of the same gentrification pressures. “You don’t see commercial Chinese businesses or Chinese residents.”

Although the District’s Chinatown hangs on, others in Baltimore and St. Louis have been all but eliminated to make way for grand building projects, such as casinos and sports stadiums.

A study released this month by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund traces the extent of the threat, focusing on the shrinking fortunes of Chinatowns in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the three largest Chinatown enclaves on the East Coast. Using 2010 census data and land-use records, the study found that the proportion of Asians and Asian-Americans in each city was decreasing, even as rents and median housing values were on the rise.

Each community faced unique challenges. Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood faced intense real estate competition from expanding hospitals and universities. In Philadelphia, it was the incursion from luxury developers, the lack of affordable housing and new hotel properties first spurred by the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Common challenges included the decline of small urban manufacturing, competition for mom-and-pop groceries and restaurants from national competitors, and a sharp influx of non-Asians into suddenly trendy neighborhoods.

The report represents “a sound warning to all of us that Chinatowns are turning into a sanitized ethnic playground for the rich to satisfy their exotic appetite for a dim sum and fortune cookie fix,” said Andrew Leong, a co-author of the study and a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston’s College of Public and Community Service.

Bethany Li, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and another co-author of the study, said many of the remaining residents of the D.C. Chinatown found that they had to travel beyond the neighborhood for basic goods.

“The Chinese have to be bused out to the suburbs in order to buy groceries,” she said.

Hanging on

Compared with other northeastern Chinatown districts, Washington’s Chinatown is much smaller and has a shorter history. In the 1930s, the district’s pioneers established an economic and cultural safe haven for Chinese immigrants. With the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, many of the racially based immigration policies that discouraged Chinese immigration were dropped.

But Chinatown suffered along with the District’s traditional downtown in the wake of the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Ironically, the underdeveloped state of the District’s downtown protected Chinatown for decades from the economic pressures and rising rents that threaten it today.

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