The Shrinking of Chinatown
Group Is Working on a Strategy to Restore Neighborhood's Asian Identity

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Sunday afternoon, a five-story-high firecracker will be illuminated in the District's Chinatown. In a tradition going back 2,000 years, a firecracker is set off on the Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, in the hope that the pops, cracks and bangs will repel evil spirits and thereby bring good fortune.

About 40,000 spectators are expected at the festivities commemorating the start of the year 4047 on the Chinese calendar, with a parade featuring dragon and lion dances, marching bands and floats. Although the Lunar New Year began Monday, the District has had the celebration on the first Sunday of the Chinese New Year for four decades.

But even the most earsplitting fireworks are unlikely to ward off Chinatown's identity problems.

Since Verizon Center opened in 1997, luxury condos, wine bars and upscale bowling alleys have blossomed. Today, the nine-square-block section of downtown, between F and I streets and Fifth and Eighth streets NW, is economically vibrant. But evidence of its Chinese heritage has dimmed.

In September, participants in the first meeting of a group trying to formulate a strategy for Chinatown cultural development were asked to identify "threats" to the neighborhood. They cited displacement by yuppies and the erosion of Chinese culture as chain restaurants and retailers have moved in. The often-heard joke is that Chinatown has become Chinablock.

Members of the strategy group, which was created by the District's offices of Planning and of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, want to have a finished blueprint by June.

Establishing Chinatown as a center of Asian activity in the Washington region is the ultimate goal. The strategy group is considering a number of suggestions.

Proposals include increasing the number of Asian cultural events, creating an Asian American museum, using government enticements to encourage small Asian specialty stores and restaurants, recruiting a large Asian retail emporium and turning a nearby park into the symbolic gateway to Chinatown.

"This is just the beginning of a long journey," said Alex Chi, chairman of the Chinatown Revitalization Council. "We have to recognize the reality that there are many, many obstacles ahead of us."

One area that will be addressed by the cultural development strategy is the financial predicament of small, Asian-owned businesses. Many have been jeopardized in the past decade by rising rents and the temptation to sell property to cash in high values in the neighborhood.

"People think about how to keep it more culturally Chinese, but we are losing," said Richard Li, 34. He has worked at Eat First restaurant for seven years as a "bartender, waiter and busboy, when it is busy."

Glowing reviews from local and national publications hang in the entrance. Two framed pictures of John Travolta posing at his table offer a celebrity endorsement. The restaurant serves popular dishes such as lo mein and orange chicken, as well as more unusual offerings such as cold shredded jelly fish and sour cabbage with pig's intestine.

According to the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Eat First is one of 11 Chinese-owned restaurants on or near H Street between Sixth and Seventh streets -- the so-called Chinablock.

"Right now, it is hard, but we are still okay" financially, Li said.

Market trends have made preserving and expanding such restaurants daunting.

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District says the number of residents living in the one-square-mile district that includes Chinatown increased from 4,000 in 1997 to 8,400 in 2007. During the same period, the number of people working there went from 123,000 to 182,000.

The residential and commercial growth has helped transform Chinatown into a lively retail, dining and nightlife hub, but one without a large number of Asians living there. The 2000 Census reported that 225 people of Asian descent lived in Chinatown, representing 36 percent of the population. Within a half-mile radius of Chinatown live another 1,274 people of Asian descent, 13 percent of the population in the area.

Overall, fewer Asians live in the District compared with other places in the metro area. Large clusters live in suburban Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

Soohyun "Julie" Koo, executive director of the District's office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, said she is not discouraged by the statistics.

"If there is a risk, there is an opportunity," she said. "The concern from the community about Chinatown shrinking has been an opportunity to bring this project together and make Chinatown a better place." Koo said the initiative by community members to take on small projects can do much to improve the neighborhood's Chinese identity.

It does not get much smaller than Reservation 72.

Bounded by Fifth and Sixth streets and I Street and Massachusetts Avenue, Reservation 72 is a petite park, roughly shaped like a right triangle. The National Park Service owns the parcel and gave it the technical name, but to most it is known as Chinatown Park.

Chi, the Revitalization Council chairman, wants to turn the nondescript park into a gateway for Chinatown. He envisions Chinese sculptures, an amphitheater or perhaps a reflecting pool.

"It's insignificant to the Park Service," Chi said. "We can put it to better use."

Renovating the park has been discussed for eight years, but raising the money and getting approval from the various city and federal agencies have stalled the project.

For now, a simple makeover is all that's on the table. The Park Service has given approval to the Downtown Business Improvement District to install lighting, benches and trees. The cost for these improvements is $139,000, of which $96,000 has been collected with support from the Business Improvement District and fundraising from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Fund. Chinatown's most familiar sight, the Friendship Arch that spans H Street at Seventh Street, is also due for a touch-up. The D.C. Commission on the Arts will assess the overall condition of the structure in late spring. Repairs will include painting, polishing gilding and restoring rotting wood.

Although Chi advocates updating the park and the arch, he said changes to the neighborhood will have to do more than give a superficial nod to Chinese culture. It's important to reconnect with Asian populations that have moved outside the District, he said.

"If Chinatown continues shrinking, those cultural elements will be gone," Chi said. "Eventually, we become just a landmark of one physical archway."

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