White people have flocked back to city centers — and transformed them
In the past decade, the White population increased significantly in urban cores across the country, bringing changes both sweeping and intimate
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A woman walks dogs along the waterfront of the Wharf in Washington, D.C. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post) A recently opened coffee shop in Globeville, a historically Latino neighborhood in Denver that is seeing a wave of new development. (Matthew Staver for the Washington Post) Crowds gather outside the Saturn Bar in the Bywater, a neighborhood in New Orleans that has become majority-White. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) Arches rising against market-rate apartments welcome people into the Chinatown neighborhood in Los Angeles. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)
In the 20th century, “White flight” transformed many American cities as White people moved in droves from urban centers to the suburbs.
In the last decade, that exodus kicked into reverse.
The White population increased between 2010 and 2020 in hundreds of neighborhoods at the center of many large cities, even as it declined almost everywhere else in the country. This influx, which in some cases began before 2010 but has accelerated and expanded, has brought about new upheavals, making some of the country’s biggest urban cores feel increasingly unrecognizable to longtime Black, Hispanic and Asian residents.
Some remember when they or their families were forced to live in certain inner-city neighborhoods, restricted by economics or racial covenants from moving to the leafy suburbs. Now many wonder how much integration is really happening between old and new neighbors — and whether there is still room for them in the neighborhoods they call home.
Using census data from 2010 and 2020 on population totals by race and ethnicity, The Washington Post identified nearly 800 neighborhood-size tracts across the nation with the highest White population gains. In these neighborhoods, located mostly at the center of major urban areas, the total number of White residents increased by over half a million, while the number of Black residents declined by 196,000 and the number of Hispanic residents fell by 45,000. The Asian population declined in traditional Chinatown neighborhoods close to downtown in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.
Some families of color have left of their own accord, opting for larger houses and more open space as suburban America has become more accessible to people of diverse backgrounds. Others have been squeezed out by skyrocketing rents or homeowner fees.
“You have minorities who are looking for more affordable housing, so they’re moving out to the suburbs,” said Derek Hyra, a professor of urban policy at American University.
Experts offered various explanations for the return of White residents to urban cores.
“Some of this is probably disillusionment with the suburban dream, a generation that grew up in the suburbs … wanting to get away, a revalorization of city life,” said Philip Kasinitz, a professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center. A decline in crime starting in the early 1990s also probably played a part, he said.
[‘White flight’ began a lot earlier than we think]
In some cases, cities made investments with the goal of attracting newcomers. They added bike lanes, tram lines, and pedestrian and commercial zones. Developers built upscale residential buildings with studios and one-bedroom apartments designed for childless professionals and empty nesters, with luxury perks such as lounges, pools and on-site dog parks.
Longtime neighborhood residents laud some of the changes that come with gentrification, such as renovated parks and schools. But they worry about the impact that rising property taxes and rents will have on their families’ futures.
Often, old-timers cannot afford or are not interested in the new amenities, which “cater to the tastes and preferences of the gentrifiers,” Hyra said. “They may be able to stay in place, but they feel out of place. … ‘This community isn’t for me anymore. Even if I have my housing subsidized, maybe we want to move closer to where the small mom-and-pop shop went, where the barbershop went, where the cleaners went.’”
In four cities where historically Black, Asian or Hispanic neighborhoods saw the White population increase by 9 percentage points or more in a decade, locals detailed changes this shift has wrought.
(Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
Southwest Waterfront, D.C.
A development boom in the shadow of the Capitol
Amid all the development in the nation’s capital, the Southwest Waterfront and the neighborhoods around it embody some of the most extreme contrasts. The area has views of the U.S. Capitol dome and the Washington Monument, and quick access to downtown by Metro, bike or car. But, sitting in a picnic chair on her front patio, longtime resident Linda Brown, 63, can also tell you the downsides.
Directly facing her home, in single-family low-rise public housing, barbecues and children’s bikes spill into unfenced backyards where laundry hangs. Across the street, a new residential development advertises a pet spa and a rooftop pool. In the surrounding blocks, other new buildings tout an in-house Tesla for residents’ use, a car elevator and apartments for sale for up to $12 million. According to the real estate data and analytics firm CoStar Group, Southwest and nearby Navy Yard are the most expensive neighborhoods for rentals in the Washington region, with average monthly rent of $3,000.
When Brown moved here in 2005 with her daughter Chaya, there wasn’t much glitz. But there was something else. “People looked out for one another,” she said. “We had that neighbor feel, like we do.”
Now, “it’s like you’re there, but it’s like you’re not there. People will walk up and down the street, and not speak and not make eye contact.”
[She’d lived on this historically black D.C. block for 40 years. Now she was being pushed out.]
The landscape of Southwest was radically transformed once before, in the 1950s, when a thriving neighborhood of rowhouses was leveled in an example of urban renewal now widely seen as disastrous. Twenty-three thousand people — many of them African American — and 1,500 businesses were displaced. Old streets were obliterated, overlaid by hulking apartment buildings, parking lots and public housing projects such as Brown’s. In the ensuing years, a low-key local culture evolved, with restaurants that catered to middle-income families and free parking at the Fish Market, where customers strolled between barges, warming their hands around disposable cups of clam chowder.
As the city’s fortunes began to rise, the waterfront location made the area a prime target for developers. In 2002, D.C. leaders began planning a massive project that became the Wharf, a $3.6 billion, mile-long complex of hotels, residences, offices, shops, parks and piers. Between 2010 and 2020, as much of the neighborhood morphed into a shiny hub of condos, restaurants and entertainment venues, the population in Brown’s census tract and two adjacent ones went from 66 to 41 percent Black and from 22 to 40 percent White. Unlike in many of the nation’s other gentrifying neighborhoods, most of the demographic shift in Southwest is not due to displacement, but instead to the filling-in of vacant lots and increased density.
The city says the Wharf is on track to generate nearly 6,000 permanent jobs and $94 million in direct annual tax revenue. But housing advocates say D.C. officials squandered an opportunity to use city-owned land to require more affordable housing. The development has received $200 million in municipal subsidies, according to the mayor’s office.
The new housing also favors single adults and couples. Resident Coy McKinney, 37, is a schoolteacher and a member of Southwest DC Action, a group that advocates for equitable development. He keeps a spreadsheet of units that have come on the market in recent years, with the number of bedrooms and prices listed on their websites. They are largely studios and one- and two-bedroom residences; new developments don’t offer much more.
“Just saying ‘build more’ does not actually achieve racial equity. We’ve got to build affordable. Even the affordable units are not possible for Black families,” McKinney said. “A lot of people have left. It feels like the old Southwest is fading.”
Existing affordable housing in Southwest includes decades-old public housing structures, some in dire need of repair. A couple of years ago, city officials and developers presented residents with plans to replace them, saying current inhabitants would be able to return. But Brown and many of her neighbors were skeptical.
In the 2000s, residents a few blocks away had been told they could come back after mixed-income communities replaced their public housing. They never did. The specter of that, along with the neighborhood destruction of the 1950s, has made residents wary.
LEFT: Advocates sought to preserve “The Lot,” a neighborhood plaza in Southwest Washington, after learning in May that it was up for sale. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post) RIGHT: A luxury apartment building near D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront neighborhood. New housing in the area favors single adults and couples over families. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
Middle-income homeowners in aging co-ops also feel unnerved, thanks to recent special assessments for capital improvements. (A special assessment is a fee in addition to regular monthly fees that is used to pay for a specific project.) In the past year, new assessments have increased some owners’ monthly payments by more than $2,100, more than doubling them. Some longtime residents can’t afford to stay.
[Gentrification in D.C. means widespread displacement, study finds]
The struggle to keep a foothold in the neighborhood extends to public space. At one of two empty lots beside the Safeway and the Waterfront Metro station, the local farmers market sets up on Saturday mornings; every other Friday in warm months, a night market with local food and vendors and live bands attracts a diverse crowd of families, seniors, and new and old residents.
After learning in May that the lots were up for sale, Southwest DC Action members circulated a petition asking the city to purchase them and give them to the Douglass Community Land Trust, where McKinney is a board member. The idea would be to preserve the open area as a public gathering spot.
The lots last changed hands in 2008, and since then the owners had tried to get the zoning changed from commercial to residential and build nearly 600 units. In the meantime, McKinney told the crowd at a June rally, the space had become “a casual place where people could hang out outside without paying $12 for a cocktail.”
Later in the summer, McKinney and other Southwest DC Action members took the petition, which by then surpassed 1,000 signatures, to the mayor’s office, but it failed to gain traction among city officials.
[Do posh waterfronts make a city world-class? D.C. is betting hundreds of millions on it.]
Recent arrivals to the neighborhood say they love the walkability, bike lanes, and proximity to restaurants, the water and downtown. But they don’t necessarily plan to stay.
Allen Crosby, 28, a political consultant from North Carolina, moved with his fiancee two years ago to the Wharf’s Channel apartment complex, which has bocce courts and its own dog run. “You’ve got everything you really need here — the Fish Market, the farmers market, the Safeway,” Crosby said, “and the Wharf has a lot of good events, like Oktoberfest.” But the couple plans to look elsewhere in the city to buy a home.
“Everybody in our building is incredibly transient,” he said, citing high rents as the main reason. “A lot of us got covid discounts.” But once the discount expired, the monthly rent for the couple’s 663-square-foot one-bedroom jumped in the second year, from $1,800 to $2,500.
As for neighbors, Crosby said he mostly knows newer arrivals who live around the Wharf. “The only interaction I get [with Southwest old-timers] basically is from my Uber drivers,” he said, “and the first thing they say is, ‘Man, this place has changed a lot.’”
Brown agrees. But it’s still her home.
“If you were here for the bad times, you should get to stay in the neighborhood,” she said. Her voice thickened. “My ideal world is that I am part of the change.”
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Tremé, New Orleans
‘Cultural annihilation is very real here’
The celebrations here used to happen organically: the trombone player trotting out of his house to join a second-line brass; the masking Mardi Gras Indians readying their feathers in back rooms and backyards; the ladies pulling out their parasols to join in the processions.
As a kid, Amy Stelly would watch revelers zigzag from one Black-owned bar to the next, up and down the streets of Tremé. It was the unofficial, year-round parade route. A community’s well-worn path for celebrating all types of joys and losses.
“Now there aren’t enough left to do that,” Stelly, 65, said as she surveyed the remains of a once-bustling commercial corridor.
The bars have nearly all vanished. Families who for generations could trace their lineage to the same streets have sold their homes. Others were evicted.
“Once upon a time, that was Tremé Market,” Stelly said, pointing. She turned, squinted, then pointed up again. “That used to be a lounge. Black-owned, of course. Now ….” She paused, her voice trailing off.
Today when a second line gathers to mourn the loss of a community member, it takes effort and planning for the musicians and artists, families and friends to make their way back to the old neighborhood. Parked cars crowd under the interstate overpass as people pour out of their vehicles instead of their homes. Many of the families Stelly used to know, she said, have left New Orleans for the suburbs, exurbs or another state altogether.
[Highways destroyed Black neighborhoods like mine. Can we undo the damage now?]
Spurred on by climate catastrophes, new development and a booming short-term rental industry, gentrification has remade the Big Easy and displaced thousands of Black families, a population that has been shrinking for more than 20 years.
In a city where the very culture is bound to African American tradition, the threat of erasure extends beyond the physical.
“Cultural annihilation is very real here,” said Cheryl Robichaux Austin, 68, executive director of the Greater Tremé Consortium, a neighborhood-based advocacy and community equity nonprofit. “It’s slowly decaying, and we see it … every day in the neighborhood. We see it when the city has special events and we don’t see Black bands, how there are all these White folks playing in the second line now. Things you never used to see before.”
Tremé is the oldest Black neighborhood in New Orleans — and, by some accounts, the nation. Situated next to the French Quarter, the neighborhood is filled with 1800s Creole cottages and shotgun houses adorned with brightly painted storm shutters.
Its name is derived from Claude Tremé, who owned a plantation there in the 1700s, then subdivided it and sold it to the city of New Orleans in 1810. The area became one of the few where free Black people could live, own property and do business. It has remained an African American stronghold since.
LEFT: Customers relax inside Tremé Coffee House in April. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Trumpeters Jelani Bauman, left, and Steven Fowler entertain the crowd at Kermit's Tremé Mother in Law Lounge, which is near Tremé. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
By the 20th century, historians estimate, the neighborhood’s central corridor, North Claiborne Avenue, was lined with more than 100 businesses, most of which were owned by Black families. But as the federal government moved to erect an interstate highway system around the country, the city approved an elevated expressway to connect Interstate 10 that ran through Tremé’s commercial corridor. Businesses were shuttered and residences demolished and never returned.
In the second half of the 20th century, the city razed more than half a dozen blocks, including public housing residences, in Tremé to make way for Louis Armstrong Park.
Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, overwhelming the city’s levees and flooding the region so dramatically, according to research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, that it damaged more than 70 percent of the city’s occupied housing stock. More than 80 percent of residents were forced to evacuate. Many never returned. According to 2020 Census data, the population of New Orleans is still about 100,000 people short of what it was pre-Katrina.
Katrina changed who lived in the city — and affected who could afford to come back.
In 2000, Tremé was 93 percent Black in a city where two-thirds of the population was, too. Today, the city’s Black population has dipped to about 54 percent, according to the 2020 Census. In Tremé, a neighborhood built on higher ground than many others, Black residents now make up around 58 percent of inhabitants.
“You can directly trace the flip from majority-Black to majority-White to the lack of flooding that a community experienced after Hurricane Katrina,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “White community members with resources began to recognize that having a home on slightly higher ground might lead to better outcomes after a storm, and that led to a boon in White residents.”
The uptick in the White population has been especially sharp in the neighborhoods that surround Tremé such as the Bywater, St. Claude and St. Roch, supercharged by federal aid dollars and citywide recovery efforts, Hill said. This new landscape has complicated efforts to create more affordable housing for New Orleans’s poorest families, the majority of whom are Black.
“We need to be clear that many of the policy decisions that have been made do not honor the actual people who have created and sustained and maintained the culture that the city of New Orleans, the culture that our elected officials sell to the world,” Hill said.
[How the racial makeup of where you live has changed since 1990]
Over the past year, residents successfully beat back what many perceive as the neighborhood’s latest threat: Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed plan to move City Hall offices into the historic municipal auditorium in Louis Armstrong Park, right next to Congo Square, a historic gathering place where formerly enslaved African Americans would meet to play drums and dance.
Robichaux Austin said it’s not that Tremé doesn’t want public investment, but rather that neighbors believe any such investment should benefit longtime residents — not just make a play for new arrivals or benefit the investors who own Airbnbs that line the streets up and down the neighborhood. The infusion of short-term rentals over the past 10 years, Robichaux Austin said, has made the neighborhood feel less like a community and more like a commercial district.
Divine Prince Ty Emmecca, a voodoo priest, lives in a 19th-century shotgun house in Tremé on a block that has been hollowed out by short-term rentals. More than half a dozen Airbnbs surround the space where Emmecca welcomes clients and conducts rituals. It’s their way of “bringing sacredness back to what has been so heavily commercialized,” Emmecca said.
Emmecca, 56, who said they are the only nonbinary masking Mardi Gras Indian in the city, has used voodoo rites to “defend the community, spiritually.” Coins and other offerings — coconuts, bottles of spirits — are scattered on the floors inside the house they rent. Bowls of black-eyed peas perch on altars. At the front door, Emmecca has installed doorbell cameras to record the trespasses of tourists.
Dog droppings are routinely left outside Emmecca’s front door. The sound of loud parties pulses through their windows and walls. Once, a woman walking her dog knocked over and “decapitated” a 20-year-old cactus outside.
As Emmecca recalled these offenses on a bright morning last year, a young man approached.
[Data reveals what really defines the American South]
“Hi, do you live here?” asked Jackson McGarrigan, 19, a college student visiting from North Carolina. “Do you know where we can go get some food?”
Emmecca paused, considering their words.
“Honey, I live in a food desert,” Emmecca said.
“Oh,” McGarrigan said, looking around at his friends.
“The French Quarter is on the other side of the park,” Emmecca continued. “You’ll find something there.”
(Matthew Staver for The Washington Post)
‘The neighborhood I grew up in no longer exists’
Sometimes, inside the panadería, it can feel to Melissa Mejía as if nothing has changed.
The sweet breads will emerge from the kitchen in the evening as they always have. The rich smell of freshly baked bolillos hangs in the air. Colorful, sugary conchas line the shelves in neat rows.
Here, Mejía said, the feelings of home — the Denver of her youth and the Mexican state of Puebla, where her family is from — have been preserved in the smells and tastes and fading blue facade of Panadería Rosales. The family-run bakery, which has served Denver’s Latino community since 1976, is one of the last Mexican-American-owned businesses on this stretch of West 32nd Avenue.
Down the street, what Mejía, 37, remembers as a quinceañera dress shop with shimmering window displays is now a pizzeria. The lilting Spanish of Mexican American families has faded as English echoes down the sidewalks. Even the name of the neighborhood has become something unrecognizable: the Highlands.
“I refuse to call it anything other than what it always has been to me — the Northside. Even though the neighborhood I grew up in no longer exists,” said Yessica Xytlalli Holguin, 40, who grew up in nearby Swansea, one of the poorest and most densely Latino communities on the Northside. Neighborhoods in North Denver have been the focus of intense recent development.
In 2000, Denver’s Hispanic population was booming. At the turn of the century, according to the 2000 Census, the city’s Hispanic population had jumped 64 percent while its White population had nearly flatlined. Over the next decade, the rate of growth among White residents picked up, nearly keeping pace with that of Hispanics.
By 2020, according to a Post analysis, the explosion of White residents in the Mile High City had outpaced the rate of Hispanic growth sixfold.
[Anger and heartbreak on Bus No. 15]
According to a 2019 study published by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Denver has seen more displacement of its Hispanic residents, on average, than any other major U.S. city.
As Denver it has grown more populous and affluent over the past 20 years, the city has invested in neighborhoods and long-overdue infrastructure. Some areas, such as those in the northernmost parts of the city, lacked basic features including paved sidewalks. The improvements have helped make the areas more welcoming and navigable — while driving up property taxes and attracting unsolicited offers from largely White newcomers to buy up land.
On a warm day in October, three interns for Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca piled into the back of her mom’s minivan and took off on a tour of the city.
CdeBaca, 36, grew up in Elyria-Swansea. She still lives there, in a corner house with a pink door that has been in her family for generations. The neighborhood is now part of the district CdeBaca represents.
[A coffee shop celebrated gentrification — and is now profusely penitent]
In tie-dye yoga pants and a purple T-shirt, she began the tour just outside her council office in Five Points, a neighborhood that was dubbed “the Harlem of the West” in the mid-20th century for its outsize impact on African American arts, music and culture. Almost all the city’s Black residents used to live here. Today, Five Points is more than 50 percent White.
As CdeBaca wound through neighborhoods, she identified former sites of public housing — gone — and thriving Black and Latino communities — also gone. As she described promises made by city leaders to families who believed they could return, only to have their buildings razed and turned into expensive market-rate properties, her voice grew louder.
CdeBaca, who identifies as a Democratic Socialist and is considered the most far-left member of an all-Democratic city council, has made pushing back against the forces of gentrification her mission in public office.
“I’m a people-before-profit person, and I don’t believe housing should be commodified; it should be a human right,” CdeBaca said in an interview. “I believe in density. I believe in walkable communities. But unfortunately, in a state like Colorado, we make it impossible to do development without displacement because everything is built around giving an advantage to the people who can afford it.”
One of the biggest redevelopment undertakings in Denver over the past five years has been the expansion of Interstate 70. For six decades, the highway overpass bisected the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. Expanding the roadway meant demolishing the viaduct and moving the highway underground. Supporters of the redesign say it reunifies the neighborhood and creates long-desired public spaces: By running the remade highway underground, transportation officials could build a four-acre public park, soccer fields and a new playground right outside Swansea Elementary School.
But CdeBaca and other neighborhood advocates have opposed the project. Beginning in 2013, the Colorado Department of Transportation seized 17 businesses and 56 residential properties, the majority of which were single-family homes, to make way for the road expansion.
[How mixed-race neighborhoods quietly became the norm in the U.S.]
“The way they’ve built the cap over the highway, it’s totally changed how people have to get around. And now we’re at eye-level with the speculators who used to just drive past us, over us. Now they’re looking at our homes and seeing dollar signs,” CdeBaca said.
“The Faustian bargain we make when we improve neighborhoods is in doing so, you drive out people who can no longer afford to live here,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood association and one of the few longtime White residents. “Now, housing costs are going up, and pretty soon the only people who are going to be able to afford to live here are wealthier, Whiter people.”
LEFT: Nola Miguel, co-director of the GES Coalition, and GES community organizer María Elena De Luna Jiménez at the site of new affordable homes going up on a land trust in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. (Matthew Staver for the Washington Post) RIGHT: Children play in the snow in November outside the duplex where they live as part of the land trust. (Matthew Staver for the Washington Post)
Community groups like the GES Coalition, a nonprofit of resident-organizers, are trying to outpace developers and investors. They are buying up parcels to transform into a land trust and provide affordable homeownership to longtime residents. Their goal is to be able to guarantee the properties remain in the hands of community members.
Earlier this month, the coalition was told it is slated to receive $1.5 million in unused federal money to buy back three leftover parcels that were seized by the government ahead of the highway expansion. Nola Miguel, the coalition’s co-director, said the space will allow the land trust to put several homes on each.
[An influx of migrants strains Denver’s welcoming reputation]
Six families have bought land trust homes, which are sold for less than $200,000 each as part of a 99-year land lease. That number will more than double in the first half of 2023, Miguel said. The coalition’s waiting list is more than 50 families long.
On a recent day outside the dirt lot where the coalition will install several more prebuilt homes as part of its growing land trust, Miguel locked up the gate as a man slowed his car to a stop.
“Do you own this lot?” he called from the open window. “It’s a nice piece of land.”
“We’re a community land trust,” Miguel said, explaining the vision for the lot: three three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes for local families who qualify for low-income housing and make less than 80 percent of the median area income. “We’re trying to keep people in the neighborhood, prevent displacement.”
“It’s interesting you say that,” the driver said, looking up and down the street.
The house next door was for sale. So was another up the way.
The man, a real estate agent who grew up on the Northside, had watched his own community disappear. Before he drove away, he handed Miguel a business card. He speaks Spanish, he told her, and offered to help however he can.
(Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)
Chinatown, Los Angeles
A tenuous grip on an iconic stronghold
Jackie Tu recalls when customers streamed each day into the Dynasty Center shopping plaza. Ducking in off the bustling commercial strip of Chinatown, they would enter the building’s windowless interior occupied by a warren of stalls stocked with low-cost clothing and household goods. Under dim fluorescent lighting, vendors chatted in Cantonese, Vietnamese and Khmer, and customers from across the Los Angeles metro area spoke languages that spanned the globe.
“Really busy, people [saying], ‘Excuse me!’ — like this,” Tu said, making a swiveling motion as if to thread through a crowd. Tu, 57, moved here from Vietnam in 1989, and he and his wife have owned Yan Lee Fashion, a clothing shop, for nearly 20 years. Like others who shop at the 100-odd small businesses here, their customers tended to be immigrants on a tight budget, but their volume was so great that a typical day would yield $300 or $400 in sales, and a good day meant $500 or $600.
But by 11 a.m. on a recent Friday, it wasn’t looking good. Since opening at 9, the couple had made only $30 in sales. Around them, other merchants sat idle. Some stalls stood empty.
“Now gasoline [is] too expensive. They don’t want to come,” Tu said of the absent shoppers.
The fortunes of Dynasty and its surrounding neighborhood had begun to change before gas prices went up, and before the pandemic dampened commerce. A metro stop opened in 2003 a block from Dynasty, and the area is a 10-minute bike ride from the skyscrapers of downtown. In four nearby census tracts, Asian residents outnumbered White residents by 4 to 1 in 2000. In 2010, Asian people outnumbered White people 2 to 1. By 2020, there were more White residents than Asian ones.
[Minority entrepreneurs were reclaiming their communities. Then the pandemic came.]
And as more White people moved in, stark contrasts emerged.
Two blocks from the metro, the Llewellyn apartments offers two-bedroom units for $3,400 to $5,200 a month, with sweeping views, a dog spa and an acoustically isolated “jam” room. At the Jia Apartments, which abut Chinatown’s bright gold dragon gate, two-bedroom units rent for around $3,500 a month. More market-rate units are in the pipeline.
On the same block as Jia, seniors pay $250 to $500 a month for single-resident units with shared kitchens and no air conditioning. A block away, residents of a low-income apartment complex have fought to keep their rent from tripling after the expiration of a 30-year-old covenant.
As the surrounding residences have gentrified, shopping complexes that once catered to Asian immigrants have also transformed. At Mandarin Plaza, a leather goods store sells $600 handbags and requires customers to be buzzed in. At the Far East Plaza, a fashionable young crowd lines up at Howlin’ Ray’s Nashville Hot Chicken, a hip destination since it was featured on the Food Network. The Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA), a local advocacy group, said it had to leave its second-floor space in Mandarin Plaza when the owner did not renew its lease and rented instead to an architecture firm.
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Many of the properties are owned by Asian people who bought them in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, 40 or 50 years later, many owners live in the suburbs or even as far away as Hong Kong. Those who remain are often those least able to fight for their right to stay.
Another “swap meet” with low-cost wares, similar to Dynasty, closed after a developer purchased its building and replaced it with high-end office and retail space. So when the same developer, Redcar Properties, bought the Dynasty building in 2021 for $29.5 million, the vendors figured it was only a matter of time before they would have to leave.
Some said they received letters saying their month-to-month leases would soon end. Others received no letter. The fact that many speak limited English made things less clear and exacerbated their unease. Redcar Properties did not respond to requests for comment.
Ivy Thi works in a Dynasty clothing shop called Fashion Instyle. An immigrant from Vietnam, Thi spoke in Cantonese, saying she had heard from other vendors about the building’s sale and expects to have to leave in the coming months.
LEFT: As more White people moved into the area around the Dynasty Center shopping plaza, the local real estate transformed. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post) RIGHT: A new development goes up next to Dynasty Center in Chinatown in December. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)
Thi said she will be sad to leave her job, which she has had for 14 years. “I don’t know what else to do. It will be difficult to start new again.”
The situation can be especially tenuous for older residents who may not speak English. Even in buildings with rent control, landlords put pressure on tenants by not making repairs, illegally raising rents or offering a paltry sum to tenants who agree to leave, said Sissy Trinh, SEACA’s executive director. Often when they move out, they find they are priced out of the area.
“Some end up on the street,” she said. “Some are couch-surfing.”
Phyllis Chiu moved to Chinatown in 1972 and taught elementary school there for over 30 years. She recalls a neighborhood populated by immigrants, part of the wave that arrived from Hong Kong in the 1960s, followed by refugees arriving from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and ’80s. Many did restaurant or sewing work, she said. “They had low-paying jobs but somehow were able to make some money, and they would buy an apartment building with two to five other units that they would rent out.”
In those days, “Chinatown restaurants were open very late at night, filled with Chinese families,” she recalled. “It used to be so vibrant, now it’s so depressed. There used to be four or five supermarkets. The school used to be so overcrowded that we had to go on a year-round schedule.”
The last supermarket in walking distance closed in 2019, and school enrollment has dwindled. The older generation is dying. Their children “do not have the desire to be landlords, so they sell off the properties that they inherited,” she said. “They live in the suburbs.”
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Chiu sees what is happening in Chinatown now as a battle. “The community is in danger of being destroyed if we don’t fight for it,” she said.
Those who remain carry on old traditions. In September, the neighborhood was preparing for the mid-autumn festival observed by many East and Southeast Asian communities. Colored paper lanterns hung along the strip where customers stocked up on pomelos, whole ducks and moon cakes.
Inside his shop in Dynasty, Tu looked at the men’s suits and women’s dresses hanging in colorful rows, unsold. The worry showed on his weathered face. “I cannot sleep all night,” he said.
Thi, standing in her store, said she tries not to dwell on it.
“I can’t think too far ahead,” she said. “We just care about tomorrow, not so far away. Go by the day.”