Economy

Luxury Condos And Lost Heritage: How Developers Are Gutting America’s Chinatowns

CREDIT: Alan Pyke

“This is not only a struggle to save our homes. It’s a struggle to save our cities, to save the principles of inclusion, community, justice, and values that we all reflect,” Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, said to a crowd of more than 100 on a swampy Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C.

As the rally outside 401 K Street NW convulsed with applause, Kane paused. A translator had to repeat his lines. Around half of the crowd does not speak English. The building is home to a large portion of the few remaining ethnic Chinese in the neighborhood that’s labeled Chinatown on D.C. maps. A second wave of applause hit as the translator finished.

“What the Bush Companies is doing amounts to ethnic cleansing: removing communities of color from the city to make room for a high-rise,” Kane said, pausing again for the translator and the two-stroke applause cycle.

The Bush Companies is a Virginia-based developer that announced last summer that it wants to knock down the rent-subsidized Museum Square complex next to the lot where Tuesday’s crowd gathered. The company wants to replace it with high-end apartments and condos. Doing so would force hundreds of people, most of them seniors and almost all of them African-American or ethnically Chinese, to find a new place to live.

The plan is entangled in two separate lawsuits stemming from District laws that require landlords to provide tenants an opportunity to buy their home before selling or redeveloping it. The company is suing the District over modifications it made to that Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) following the Museum Square news in 2014. The tenants are suing the company to stop the evictions, saying that its asking price of $250 million is far too high to be the kind of “bona fide” offer that TOPA requires.

Developers are unsympathetic to community concerns. “Everyone who lives there is getting vouchers, so we don’t think of it as displacement,” a Bush Companies representative told the Washington Post in 2014.

Vera Watson, a former security guard who has lived in the building for 33 years, heads up the tenants’ association that residents formed to fight the demolition plan. Watson and fellow tenant Maxice Oppong recalled what the neighborhood was like earlier in their tenure at Museum Square.

“None of this was around,” Watson said, gesturing to the surrounding luxury condo buildings, restaurants, and exercise studio. “We had juke joints and bars. We didn’t have the streetlights. There’s a lot we didn’t have back then.”

When Oppong first moved in almost 8 years ago, “you had the prostitutes and everything out here at two, three o’clock in the morning,” she said. “But ever since all of this came up, they ran ‘em away.”

The roughly 300 households in the building wouldn’t just lose out on access to the rejuvenated area that’s been home for decades. They’d probably get pushed out of D.C. entirely.

While Watson said she feels good about the tenants’ chances, she’s also without a plan in case things go awry in court. “I have nowhere to go. I don’t know what we’d do,” she said. Even though the rent subsidy vouchers she receives through the federal Section 8 program would travel with her in the event of an eviction, “we still can’t afford anything. Vouchers would not help us to live in D.C. because D.C. is too expensive.”

The Museum Square fight comes at the tail end of the gentrification cycle for D.C.’s Chinatown. Starting with the construction of the Verizon Center arena that hosts stadium concerts and two of the city’s major sports franchises, the ethnic character and close-knit low-income community that once defined the area have frayed. Local press were already ringing a death knell for Chinatown in mid-2011: “Derided for the past half-decade as ‘Chinablock,’ the city’s Chinatown is increasingly being reduced to ‘Chinacorner,’” the Washington Post wrote in a story about the few hundred ethnic Chinese still in the neighborhood taking weekly bus trips out to suburban Virginia to shop at a traditional grocery.

The Chinese character of Chinatown may be dwindling, but it’s still significant to tenants in buildings like Museum Square. An elderly Chinese tenant of a nearby building told the Post last summer that her best efforts to get her aging mind around the English language were fruitless, “But in Chinatown, there are stores with signs we can read and people who can help us.”

Ethnic enclaves like these require elaborate and ambitious work to preserve, and even the most successful efforts can be viewed as delaying rather than denying development and gentrification. In Philadelphia, a community group that sprung up to fight against a highway project that would have leveled much of the city’s Chinatown has now spent more than 40 years cultivating relationships and winning buy-in from the city and developers in hopes of retaining the neighborhood’s identity. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) has fought off a proposal to build a stadium in the area and helped ensure that hundreds of affordable housing units got built in Chinatown over the years.

But Philadelphia Chinatown’s white population share doubled from 2000 to 2010, according to a study of gentrification in American Chinatowns by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, even as Philadelphia as a whole got less white.

Redevelopment of immigrant enclaves can also take on a nastier character. In California, when the Oakland Planning Commission met in early 2015 to discuss a proposed luxury high-rise in the city’s Eastlake neighborhood, attendees were surprised to see a large group of non-English-speaking Asian immigrants unfurl a banner supporting the proposal. The group had been misled by a local landowner to believe the project included affordable housing that would prevent them from being displaced, the East Bay Express reported at the time, and bussed into the meeting by the developer behind the project.

There’s no such subterfuge to what the Bush Companies are proposing to do in the nation’s capital. The company has been straightforward about its plan to opt out of its Section 8 contract with HUD, rip down Museum Square, and replace it with apartments, condos, and high-end retail space in a building it claims would be worth a quarter-billion dollars when completed.

At Tuesday’s rally, Rabbi Scott Perlo observed that the historic Sixth & I synagogue where he serves three blocks away had nearly been lost to developers in 2002, and pointed out the duty that Chinatown’s gentrifiers have to people like the Museum Square tenants.

“For all the people like me that live within this radius that have moved in in the last 10 years, who claim to care about diversity, who claim to care about people? Without you in the neighborhood, all of that is a lie,” he said, pausing so the translator could repeat his words for the building’s Chinese tenants. “We can’t build Washington D.C. by knocking it to the ground. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have a synagogue, and you wouldn’t have anywhere to live.”