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Looking E down H Street NW - Chinatown - DC | by Tim Evanson
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Looking E down H Street NW - Chinatown - DC

Looking east down H Street NW at Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown.

 

D.C.'s Chinatown was established in 1884. But it wasn't where it is now.

 

The original Chinatown existed along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 4th and 7th Streets, with the heaviest concentration of residences and businesses near where 4th Street, C Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue met. This was the site of Center Market. Back in the days before refrigeration and corporate ownership of food distribution, people around the United States shopped at privately or publicly owned farmer's markets. D.C.'s food markets were almost all privately owned, and suffered from poor hygiene. Shopping for food meant hoping you didn't come down with the hershey-squirts from the diseases your food would be infected with. The city itself decided to act by building a state-of-the-art market, complete with running water, ice house, and mechanical refrigeration. This was Center Market, and it was so immensely popular that nearly all the downtown trolley lines converged there.

 

Chinese and other Asian immigrants began moving into the area around Center Market in noticeable numbers as early as 1880. By 1884, the area was known as "Chinatown." As many as 15,000 people lived there. That's an astonishing number, considering that most buildings were only two or three stories high. People were just jammed into Chinatown.

 

D.C.'s original Chinatown existed as a vibrant community until 1935. Interestingly, throughout the 1800s, the federal government was so small that it could be housed in just five or six three-story office buildings. By 1900, however, it was clear that the federal government needed to grow. In 1926, Congress finally approved construction of six new massive federal office buildings. After two years of discussion, it was decided that the area south of Pennsylvania Avenue had to be totally torn down and these new office buildings constructed there. That was the beginning of Federal Triangle -- the largest conglomeration of federal office buildings anywhere in the country. The first buildings constructed were the Department of Commerce, the Internal Revenue Service building, and the Labor/ICC building (now the headquarters of the EPA). At first these buildings just uprooted the brothels, criminal hideouts, and gambling dens that formed D.C.'s infamous Murder Bay. But as Federal Triangle construction moved eastward, Chinatown had to go. Construction of the National Archives and the Apex Building (which houses the Federal Trade Commission) forced Chinatown to move.

 

Chinatown had a very well-organized community, however, composed of business leaders, religious leaders, politicians, and well-respected citizens. They quite literally looked for a place in the city where everyone could move together -- lock, stock, and barrel. They chose the current location on H Street NW.

 

At its peak, the "new" Chinatown extended from G Street NW north to Massachusetts Avenue NW, and from 9th Street NW east to 5th Street NW. But this only lasted for about 50 years. The 1968 riots which came after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. caused many businesses to flee downtown D.C. Chinatown's businesses, too, fell on hard times and many of them closed. Wealthy and middle-class Asian citizens fled for the suburbs, leaving many houses and apartments unoccupied. A mainstay of the community was the OCA Bank, but when it closed Chinatown emptied even further.

 

Chinatown was saved when the Gallery Place Metro station (Blue and Orange lines) opened in 1976. Determined to save Chinatown as a tourist attraction, in 1986 the city authorized the construction of the Friendship Archway, a $1 million traditional Chinese gate designed by local architect Alfred H. Liu. Symoblizing not only Chinatown but D.C.'s "sister city" status with Beijing, the Friendship Arch is the largest freestanding traditionally constructed Chinese-style arch anywhere in the world.

 

But Chinatown now is in serious decline. In 1993, Abe Pollin built the MCI Center on two whole city blocks bounded by 6th and 7th Streets NW and F and H Streets NW. The arena opened in 1997, and was renamed the Verizon Center after Verizon purchased the near-bankrupt MCI communications company.

 

In 1999, wealthy regional real estate investors built a vast new 13-story mixed-use shopping and housing complex over the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station. Gallery Place (the building) opened in the fall of 2004. It not only revitalized Chinatown, but revitalized the entire East End. Extensive construction began throughout the area as consumers, tourists, and young people flooded the area. Huge swaths of Chinatown were renovated and turned into restaurants, trendy bars, and up-scale shops.

 

Unfortunately, this caused rents to skyrocket, and pushed most of the Chinese population of D.C's Chinatown into Maryland and Northern Virginia. The Da Hua market, the last full-service Chinese grocery, closed in 2005. The D.C. Office of Planning created a "cultural redevelopment plan" aimed at bringing Chinese food street vendors back to the area and building an Asian-American international business center. But that was in 2008, and nothing has been implemented as of 2012.

 

The huge apartment building in the background is the Wah Luck House. It was built by the District government in 1982 to house Chinese immigrants who were displaced when the city tored down four blocks just west of Chinatown to build the D.C. Convention Center. The 10-story, concrete building with tiny balconies in decorated in Chinese style is federally subsidized. It is owned by Aimco, a company based in Denver, Colorado. Aimco tried to sell it in 2008, but found no buyers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development signed a contract to keep Wah Luck House as subsidized housing through 2015.

 

The white building in the center of the block with the pagoda on top is Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, which opened in 1977. Don't let the name fool you: On the ground floor is a "Mongolian grill" -- which basically means stir-fried chicken, beef, seafood, or vegetables with a little Mongolian-style seasoning in a bland setting. BOR-ing. On the second floor is a traditional Chinese restaurant, which serves mostly Cantonese dishes but includes a number of Hunan and Szechuan items as well. It is superb.

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Taken on December 29, 2011