DC’s Missing Chinatown: Lessons Learned About Sustainable Neighborhood Development

Advocacy @ UNA-NCA
UNA-NCA Snapshots
Published in
6 min readApr 13, 2021


By Katie Ng Ross, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow

Author’s Note: Katie Ng Ross would like to thank her family for helping her understand her own connection to Washington DC’s Chinatown. Katie’s great-grandfather, Ernest C. Ting, lived near Washington DC’s Chinatown for 20 years before moving to New York to prepare for the rest of the family’s arrival from Hong Kong in 1970. She would like to thank her mother for translating this information from Katie’s grandmother and grandfather, and the entire Ng family for their continued support of her work.

Washington DC’s Chinatown, first established in the 1880s and relocated in the 1930s, was home to over 3,000 Chinese individuals at its peak. Yet as of 2017, there are fewer than 300 Chinese American’s living in this former cultural center. While we cannot recreate the once bustling ethnic enclave that Chinatown was for many Chinese Americans, the remaining hollow buildings and decorative arches serve as an important lesson on the impacts of gentrification and the need for sustainable urbanization.

“SAVE CHINATOWN” banner that hung on 7th and I Street on the Jade Palace restaurant in the 1980s. Image courtesy of Harry Chow to the 1882 Foundation.

Chinatown’s Origins

The first Chinese immigrant arrived in Washington, DC in 1851; the original Chinatown was built thirty years later around the time of the establishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Act (repealed in 1943) explicitly banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States, leading to the formation of Chinatown’s across the country, most notably in places such as San Francisco, California and New York City. The term Chinatown was coined by the press in 1853, describing San Francisco’s early Chinese enclave. Chinatowns formed in part to create community and protection for Chinese immigrants in addition to the fact that racist laws and citizens prevented Chinese immigrants from living or working anywhere else. For Washington DC’s Chinatown, this meant the creation of local shops, restaurants, drugstores, and tongs, or voluntary advocacy communities, composed of 200 residents in the Leong Tong and 50 residents in the Hip Song Tong. It would be these two community-led tongs that would advocate for themselves and their neighbors when faced with potential displacement.

The DC Chinatown Friendship Archway | Image courtesy of WUSA9

Gentrification and Chinatown Today

If you have travelled to DC’s Chinatown recently, you might notice that the only indications of Chinese presence are the Zodiac animals on the crosswalk, the iconic Friendship Archway, and stores like Walgreens and Starbucks with Chinese characters listed as subtitles. You may also notice the lack of an essential factor in what makes Chinatown a Chinatown: Chinese residents. With rising housing prices and a lack of Chinese community presence encouraging individuals to move elsewhere, there are only approximately 300 Chinese residents currently living in Chinatown.

This chain bakery on 8th and H Street is just one such example of how the city attempts to maintain a ‘Chinese spirit’ to Chinatown by signage.

What is gentrification, and what does it mean for the young professionals who find themselves moving to Chinatown for the prime location and fancy apartment complexes that now fill the area? Gentrification is defined by the Urban Displacement Project as “a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood — by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in — as well as demographic change — not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.” This deeply complex issue requires one to consider the historic conditions, city investment and divestment, and resident impact when a neighborhood begins undergoing rapid change. Ultimately, this manifests in cities across the country when the residents who built and populated a community are unable to enjoy the benefits that come with latent community investment. In other words, after long neglecting to pour money into the enrichment of a neighborhood, investors will then act upon the low housing costs to purchase and develop new buildings and business — creating a stark jump in the affordability of the neighborhood and displacing longtime residents.

The Chinatown Washingtonians know today — from 2nd Street to 8th Street along H Street NW — is the direct result of early gentrification efforts starting in the late 1920s. This area, now known as “New Chinatown,” was developed after the “Old Chinatown,” or original area settled in the 1880’s along Pennsylvania Ave, was razed by DC government and private office buildings. The “old” Chinatown — filled with shops, restaurants, and community centers — was forced to relocate as municipal projects such as the construction of the Federal Triangle government complex changed the affordability and accessibility of this area to longtime residents permanently. The Leong Tong and Hip Song Tong played an essential role in moving Chinatown and its businesses from its original location to H street NW.

Despite the popularization of this “New Chinatown,” gentrification resulted in a declining Chinese population as residents began to move elsewhere for safety and economic opportunity. The 1968 riots following the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr., along with the construction of what is known today as the Capital One Arena, greatly changed the neighborhood dynamic; the Capital One Arena specifically became a social hub, increasing property values and forcing many Chinese business owners, unable to keep up with rising costs, to close their doors or relocate elsewhere. The introduction of large corporations such as Starbucks and Subway have replaced immigrant owned business, not only changing the economic landscape of the community, but also the social dynamic as new bars and clubs sculpted a new energy and ambience around night-life. While community advocacy groups were able to secure low-income housing for residents displaced by the arena in 1982 — the majority of remaining Chinese American Chinatown residents now live in the privately subsidized Wah Luck Apartment House — hundreds of Chinese Americans were essentially forcibly displaced from Chinatown following increases in cost of living and a strong shift in atmosphere.

Cover of the September/October 1975 issue of Eastern Wind, titled the Immigrant Issue. Source: Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

What We Can Learn — Sustainable Neighborhood Development

While we cannot rewrite the history of Washington DC’s Chinatown, we can learn how to preserve neighborhoods and neighbors themselves while continuing to invest in and redesign areas to best serve community interest. Ensuring that there are affordable housing options in any neighborhood is a necessity; this is especially important for an area experiencing rapid demographic or economic changes. Furthermore, a large push factor encouraging former residents to move elsewhere is economic opportunity — in a changing neighborhood, it is vital to ensure the retention and creation of working class jobs so that residents can continue to make a living and contribute to the community they live in. We can additionally provide support to local businesses that not only fund the local economy, but contribute to the cultural and historical integrity of a neighborhood. While places and neighborhoods will change no matter what, we can fight against displacement and lack of affordability caused by gentrification. Preserving affordable housing, working class jobs, and local businesses allows for the maintenance of a neighborhood and its original residents while still creating room for new people and opportunities.

Memory is a key factor in preserving the cultural and historic significance of Washington DC’s Chinatown. Educating residents about the history of Chinatown will preserve the legacy left by Washington DC’s Chinese immigrants all those years ago. Understanding the origins of the area and supporting the residents who still live there are an essential step towards learning from mistakes of the past and protecting communities across the nation undergoing similar struggles today.

Tenant associations lead a march up Columbia Road N.W. in protest against threats of eviction at a time when land speculation and residential displacement were growing more common in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and across Washington, D.C. | Photo by Nancy Shia, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine. Date unkown.