An article in Metro Sunday incorrectly stated that tourist guidebooks do not mention Washington's Chinatown. Some do. (Published 1/ 5/88)
It was the height of the Depression in Washington, and the city's Chinese community was facing a crisis.
To make way for a new federal courthouse and new office buildings, the U.S. government wanted to tear down the run-down row houses and stores around Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that made up Chinatown, as well as the nearby ethnic communities of Little Italy and Little Athens.
Chinese elders secretly hired a real-estate agent to acquire new quarters for their community six blocks to the north, in a formerly German-Jewish area on H Street NW. To the awe of the rest of the city, the entire Chinese neighborhood packed up and moved in 1935.
A year later, the federal wrecking ball demolished Washington's Italian and Greek neighborhoods, and the old Chinese section. But Chinatown survived.
Today, Washington's Chinatown is facing a new threat to its survival, and again its leaders will need canniness and timing to save it.
The eight-square-block area centered on H Street NW between Sixth and Seventh streets -- full of restaurants but distinctly down-at-the-heels -- soon will be surrounded by gigantic real estate projects.
This real estate boom could forever eliminate the historic neighborhood of about 600 people, a city within a city where the stores are packed with plump roast ducks, seaweed preparations and Asian herbs and ointments for rashes and rheumatism.
Or, development officials and Chinese representatives said, the boom could guarantee Chinatown's permanence as a monument to the District's ethnic diversity.
"I believe we can still survive," said Hamilton Moy, 68, a semiretired lawyer who arrived in Chinatown at age 10 and remembers the old neighborhood's audacious exodus. The Chinese people who made that move and bought modest town houses and businesses in the second Chinatown, most of them now elderly, are sitting on a potential gold mine, Moy said.
"We're right in the middle, the hot spot," he said. "The development is coming toward us."
But others in Chinatown fear the future. Many are among the 500 congregants of the Chinese Community Church nearby at 1011 L St. NW, according to the church's pastor, the Rev. Man-King Tso.
"Many Chinese are very concerned about the new developers coming in and wiping away Chinatown," Tso said. "Another group knows there's no way to escape from the reality of development. The wisest way is to figure out how to survive."
D.C. officials are committed to aiding Chinatown's survival, and their latest tactic draws from the realm of the decorative arts -- the city is establishing architectural guidelines for developers interested in building in Chinatown. The voluntary guidelines will be released soon by the city planning office.
Rather than build structures reminiscent of K Street, developers are urged to introduce stone guardian lions, and add curved roofs and snapping Chinese banners to Chinatown projects that will unify the appearance of the neighborhood and promote it to visitors.
City officials' support for Chinatown represents a turnaround from the mid-1970s, when they came close to destroying the whole neighborhood to make way for the Washington Convention Center. But protest from some Chinese leaders persuaded the city to move the center two blocks west to Ninth Street NW, where it opened in 1983.
Since then, the convention center and the area's Metrorail stations have drawn crowds of real-estate speculators spotting opportunities in the boarded-up buildings and empty lots of downtown's eastern end.
Now, on Chinatown's southern and eastern rim, developers are planning five huge, plush office and retail projects worth $1 billion -- with possibly dozens more projects to come -- in what is expected to be one of the most startling neighborhood rejuvenations in recent D.C. history.
The first project to emerge will be Techworld, a $340 million project now under construction by developer Giuseppe Cecchi that will include 1.5 million square feet of offices and exhibition space for high-tech industries. Next will be an office and studio project nearby, called Media Tech, to be built by Cecchi and a company connected to the Unification Church. It will house mostly video ventures.
Other planned projects include the Far East Trade Center, a 1 million-square-foot office-retail complex that will have a mall with 120 shops, including many with an Asian theme.
The building will be at Chinatown's main intersection of Seventh and H streets and over the Gallery Place Metro station, which eventually will join three subway lines.
One block south, the Oliver Carr Co. is asking city officials for permission to build the $200 million Gallery Place office complex on vacant city land. Carr also plans a $250 million office project farther down Seventh Street in the old Hecht's department store building.
City officials hope to restore Seventh Street NW, which from the Civil War onward was one of the city's leading retail corridors but became desolate after the 1968 riots.
"Seventh Street is going to become the main street of the District from a business standpoint," said Richard Shields, the Far East Trade Center's project director.
"Six or seven years from now, this area will be wall-to-wall people and business, and really exciting. But what will that do to Chinatown? I don't know," he added.
Nobody can answer with certainty. What is known is that speculators have bought or tied up packets of land all over Chinatown with hopes of developing more office complexes to complement the office buildings going up nearby.
Most development insiders believe that these Chinatown tracts will be developed in a matter of a few years.
But the question is how much Chinatown will look like Chinatown when it's all done.
Chinese community leaders want to ensure that the office complexes don't kick out the 40 or so Chinese restaurants and other businesses there. Instead, they want developers to guarantee that their office buildings' first floors, and maybe second floors, are reserved for Chinese eateries, as well as Asian groceries, art and furniture shops and the like.
The continuity of Chinese culture in their neighborhood is the local Chinese leaders' biggest worry, and they're showing their concern through their unity.
The Chinese community here, as in many Chinese outposts around the world, often is splintered along family or regional lines into rival factions. Many years ago, competing tongs, or associations, controlled different blocks of Chinatown -- sometimes through gang warfare -- so that adherents of one dared not stroll onto the turf of another.
More recently, Chinatown residents argued angrily over whether to welcome a Chinese archway on H Street built with help from the government of China. Many of the older generation, refugees from communism, hate it as a symbol of oppression, and are raising money for their own Taiwan-oriented arch two blocks east on H Street.
But on the development issue, local Chinese are banding together in a way rarely seen since the mass movement five decades ago.
D.C. officials have assembled an almost unprecedented cross section of Chinese business and community groups, called the Chinatown Steering Committee, as an unofficial adviser to developers and the city. A main goal is to promote the idea that developers use Asian design elements in their projects.
The city is preparing a booklet outlining its architectural ideas for Chinatown. A detailed 68-page draft, written mostly by local architect Alfred Liu as a city consultant, contains suggestions for use of carved stone balustrades and wooden lattices on windows.
A designer has to take care, the booklet says, especially in the use of symbolic colors. The use of red on buildings signifies wealth and success, but "red is not used for roofs, nor sky blue for columns."
To demarcate Chinatown as a special neighborhood and tourist attraction, the study also recommends building more than 100 large Chinese lanterns along H Street and other blocks; inlaying sidewalks with Chinese astrological symbols illustrating the years of the Dragon, Tiger, Boar and others; constructing a Chinese dragon boat or pagoda on a small spit of federal land along Massachusetts Avenue; and spending $100,000 to arrange for Metro to add the name "Chinatown" to the subway stop now known simply as Gallery Place.
"This is a unique opportunity for Chinatown," said Liu, the study's main author and the leading architect of projects in the area. "Chinatown could become a major focus for downtown."
Liu -- a controversial figure in Chinatown because he designed the arch and is seen by some as a self-promoter -- speaks excitedly about the neighborhood's future.
"This city is so monotonous," he said. "It's dead at night except for Georgetown. If somebody comes here for several days and spends the first night in Georgetown, what do you do the second night? We want them to go to Chinatown . . . . It needs a good marketing strategy."
City officials said that while D.C. residents know about Chinatown, fewer suburban residents feel comfortable going there. Besides the out-of-towners who wander over from the convention center, few tourists know about the area because guidebooks don't mention it. Officials are contacting publishers to change that.
D.C. officials say they also want to promote the construction of housing projects for Chinese residents, so that Chinatown won't become simply an office complex and tourist spot.
Arranging for new housing downtown has become a major preoccupation for city officials, but it has proven difficult because of the skyrocketing costs of land there. Officials agree that the main area where housing could be built is just north of Massachusetts Avenue NW.
City Planning Director Fred Greene said that the city is offering financial help to a developer who is building 200 residential units nearby at Fifth Street near Massachusetts Avenue, and is holding a competition for a developer to build 400 units on the site of the old Wax Museum building nearby.
These housing complexes could accommodate some of the residents of Chinatown's small rooming houses and apartments, mostly elderly people and recent immigrants from the mainland, who are expected to be driven from the neighborhood by development, officials said.
Rising real estate taxes also are causing hardship for many longtime owners of Chinatown row houses.
"The people who are staying are struggling very hard," said Dr. Toon Lee, a physician whose office is around the corner from his parents' grocery store and the row house where he grew up. "The taxes are so great, it's driving people out."
But many property owners are scraping along, with hopes of eventually selling out for big money.
Speculators frequently call on the elderly Chinese owners of town houses there with offers of $300,000 or $400,000 -- maybe 20 times what they paid for the structures a generation ago.
"The Chinese can't be easily bought out," said attorney Moy. "They're proud, and they're aware that the longer they hold on, the more it's worth . . . . It's only a matter of time."
Liu is upbeat about Chinatown's prospects, too, and he sells the concept vigorously.
"The potential is fantastic," he said. "Nobody can stop it. It's going to be hot . . . . Our cause is to make a great Chinatown."