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

- - 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.

"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.

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.

"Any period when we might call this neighborhood 'Chinatown' looks more like an interregnum, or just one temporary phase in a cyclical socio-economic story," he said.