A Decade Later, Still the Last Days of Chinatown
Washington's Chinatown has been dying for longer than some people live. Every few years, someone writes the obituary for the neighborhood. I know: I wrote a cover story for the Post's Sunday magazine in 1995 predicting the demise of the downtown enclave that has been home to Washington's small Chinese community for the better part of a century.
When I wrote that piece, the MCI Center was about to become reality and development pressure was finally starting to hit the city's East End, which had seen little in the way of building since the riots devastated the city in 1968. Chinese immigrants were choosing to settle in Wheaton or Falls Church rather than move into crowded apartments in the District. And the Chinese families that controlled much of the real estate in Chinatown were growing old, weary and ready to sell.
But of course Chinatown still exists. I can't say it thrives, but it's there, with a few culinary gems--especially Full Kee and Chinatown Express--still hanging on, even winning some business from the sports arena and the area's other new attractions.
Last week, one of the neighborhood's old standbys closed. China Doll, where Red Auerbach, John Feinstein, and the old Washington sports guys hang out for their legendary lunches, will be replaced by more upscale development. The Lee family, one of the largest landholders in Chinatown, decided it was time to cash in.
And who can blame them? They hung on through many very lean years, and now the boom had made developers hungry for any patch of land they can grab in that part of town. Even a decade ago, when I spent time with the Lees, they said that the only reason they were staying put was because there were still some emotional bonds between the Washington Chinese community and the old neighborhood. The Wah Luck House, a senior housing complex in the heart of Chinatown, is still there, but otherwise, only a handful of Chinese immigrants still live in the area; most of their old apartment buildings fell to make way for the new condos on 5th and 6th streets NW. And increasingly, the younger generation of Chinese Americans looks toward the suburbs for the institutions that tie them to their roots.
Chinatown won't entirely disappear for many years because its existence is written into city law. Developers have to put Chinese lettering on their buildings and make gestures toward the Chinese community. But these are ever more empty gestures, as the Chinese landowners themselves make the decisive moves to turn Chinatown into a piece of history rather than a living community.
Even 11 years ago, John Fondersmith, then the District's chief planner for the area, told me that the era of a residential Chinatown was already pretty much over. He hoped that Chinatown would develop as a commercial and cultural center, but he realized that developers might have other ideas. "At some point," he said then, "there wouldn't be much purpose to insisting on Chinese characters in the design. At some point, it might not make sense to call it Chinatown."
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