An arena destroyed D.C.’s Chinatown. Don’t make the same mistake in Philly.
We lived through what Philadelphia’s Chinatown residents are facing now. Developers made big promises, but the reality was far different.
We are three former residents of Chinatown in Washington, D.C., who — from the 1950s to early 1980s — lived in a vibrant neighborhood that felt like home. It was a community of families where multiple generations — parents, their children, and grandchildren — could all live in close proximity to one another. It was a corner of the city that was full of small businesses that provided us with the means to support ourselves. We were all connected by a long history of relationships that made our community special.
This all changed when the Washington Convention Center appeared in our neighborhood in 1982 followed by a new sports arena in 1997. We’ve already lived through what Philadelphia’s Chinatown residents are facing now, and can tell you from that experience how these projects affected our small, beloved community: in a word, their collective impact can only be described as devastating.
We have seen that the projects co-opted nearly 25% of the land adjacent to Chinatown to the north and south. Despite promises of a fair market value for land and homes snatched up by the government or private developers, Chinese American landowners — our families — received pennies on the dollar for their most valuable asset.
Many of our neighbors were essentially forced to sell their homes because they couldn’t pay their increased real estate taxes. Developers made promises of increased foot traffic and more business for the neighborhood’s existing entrepreneurs, but the reality was far different: Chinatown’s businesses evaporated while the overall quality of life in our community deteriorated. One study found that “barely 10% of the pre-stadium organizations and businesses survived” in D.C. Chinatown, which stretches to the east and west from Fifth to Eighth Streets and north to south from H to I Streets.
Chinatowns do not survive on tourism, they survive on community. Chinese and Asian people are the regulars in restaurants, hair salons, and grocery stores. It isn’t a lack of tourism that kills Chinatown economies; it’s when Asian people stop coming because there is no parking, or the businesses they rely on shut down.
Since most family-sustaining small businesses couldn’t survive, storefronts shuttered, families moved away, and they never came back. Commercial buildings, apartments, and condos took over what were once storefronts for family-owned businesses. Brand-new luxury condos replaced what was once affordable housing. Today, new condos are selling for $350,000 to $550,000 per unit, far beyond the reach of the families that once called Chinatown home. Beyond Wah Luck House and the Museum Square Apartments — two affordable, low-income apartments built to try to replace a fraction of the housing that was lost because of arena construction — we count fewer than 10 habitable buildings in the core Chinatown blocks.
As a result of those changes, the Chinese families who had made Chinatown their home left the community. In 1970, there were 3,000 Chinese Americans living in Chinatown; by the middle of the last decade, the population was barely 10% of that figure.
Our neighborhood has lost its sense of place, vibrancy, and culture. Where there was once a bustling community filled with restaurants, groceries, hair salons, and other small businesses, today we count fewer than 15 Asian-owned businesses remaining in the core of Chinatown, which has essentially dwindled to one block: H Street. There is not a single Chinese grocery store in Chinatown. There are Chinese characters on chain restaurant signs, but no Chinese people on the street.
Developers told our families that sports fans and conference attendees would support small businesses, but those promises never panned out. Spots like Eat First closed and Ming’s Restaurant lost its lease. Tai Shan and China Doll restaurants have been torn down — on the site of what was once China Doll, a Hilton Hotel stands. Without families, businesses, and foot traffic, what was once a safe and clean neighborhood now has many vacant buildings, and the nearby Metro station is an area of drugs, liquor, noise, and petty crime.
Developers told our families that sports fans and conference attendees would support small businesses, but those promises never panned out.
Today, Chinatown’s property values and assessments are far beyond the reach of longtime residents. Soaring rents and sky-high taxes pushed out family businesses, and even national chains like Fuddruckers, Ruby Tuesday, Starbucks, and Panera Bread that were meant to replace them have failed to survive. Buildings and vacant lots have been scooped up by developers, changing the landscape of the neighborhood. Mom-and-pop shops have all but disappeared. The 300 people left in Chinatown live in low-income housing and can’t afford to leave, but the closest Chinese grocery is now more than 20 miles away.
Except for the Friendship Archway — built in 1986, two years after a similar gateway near 10th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia — little remains of what used to be Chinatown. In a few years, only a handful of businesses will survive, but without a community to sustain them or places families can call home, eventually those will also fade away.
Unfortunately, our community was not as successful. While our experience in D.C. Chinatown has led to sadness, we hope it can serve as a lesson and a warning to Philadelphia. We watched as these developments and promises led to the destruction of the community we once loved. Learn from our experience. Don’t make the same mistake.
Do all you can to save Chinatown, and do not trust empty promises. As one of the last authentic Chinese American communities in a major U.S. city, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has fought to survive, and you have to keep fighting. Our hearts are with you.
Harry Guey-Lee, Eddie Moy, and Jack Lee are former residents of Chinatown in Washington, D.C.