Chinatown’s cultural paradox: Business comes at the cost of heritage

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Although a revitalization of the city began to take hold in the 1980s, small pockets of Chinatown remained vacant. The pull of Chinatown for a new wave of Chinese immigrants and second-generation Chinese-Americans was on the wane.

“When a neighborhood wanes, it might indeed be on the verge of disappearing,” said Alison Isenberg, co-director of Princeton University’s urban studies program. “However, a vibrant new neighborhood might take its place. Chinese cultural institutions might migrate somewhere else.”

Since many of the jobs, housing and retail space were increasingly located in the suburbs, waves of native Chinese immigrants looked to suburban areas in Virginia and Maryland, especially Chantilly and Rockville.

“As the region grew, unlike most cities, the Washington region has this dynamic of new immigrants actually moving to the suburbs instead of the inner-city neighborhoods,” said Uwe Brandes, an urban planner at Georgetown University. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a lot of migration into the area, especially to the suburbs.”

Mr. Brandes noted that this migration phenomenon differed from New York or San Francisco, where sizable Chinese populations continue to reside within the city proper rather than the suburbs.

Development pressure

The construction of the Verizon Center in 1997 posed new opportunities and challenges for the District’s Chinatown. While the venue created a burgeoning night-life business opportunity, it also drove up rent prices to the point that only better-financed regional and national chains could afford them.

“The argument at the time was that the complex would bring people into the city, which it did,” said Michael A. Tomlan, director of historical preservation planning at Cornell University. “On the other hand, it inevitably introduced people who had little in common with the Chinese.”

The District’s Chinatown has been greatly affected by increased commercialization. From 1970 to 2008, the number of native Chinese in Chinatown has decreased from 3,000 to 300, according to a study by the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.

The neighborhood “is becoming more like an international food center,” said Peter Kwong, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College. “That lack of employment opportunity for non-English-speaking Chinese immigrants means they tend not to choose areas like Washington’s Chinatown.”

Some believe, however, that the heart of the issue is timing, not commercial pressures.

“For a Chinatown to happen, you need a viable living residential base first and foremost,” said study co-author Mr. Leong. “Then businesses [can] come in. Businesses will go where the profits are, where they know there will be a host of patrons that will utilize their services. That isn’t the case in D.C.’s Chinatown.”

Some say the evolution from a living, organic neighborhood to a hybrid commercial district/cultural artifact is inevitable for many of the nation’s embattled Chinatowns, including Washington’s.

“The best thing that could happen is that it is recognizing itself as a tourist destination,” said Tunney Lee, director emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “Right now, it’s a little bit run-down. It’s a kind of mishmash. It seems OK, it provides some economic opportunity, but it is being overrun by the convention center and the adjacent businesses.”

Christopher Klemek, an associate history professor at George Washington University, said change is the nature of the game for urban neighborhoods.

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