The Days Inn on New York Avenue has always had a ghetto-compound vibe. It sits along a crummy streetscape, near warehouses and some gritty Northeast neighborhoods. And in recent weeks it has acquired a chain-link fence topped by a string of barbed wire that blocks all entrances.
The construction of the barrier coincides with a wholesale change in occupancy at the Days Inn. In the near future, the hotel will serve as living quarters for hundreds of Chinese construction workers tasked with building the new Chinese Embassy on Van Ness Street NW, just west of Connecticut Avenue. “We believe they are renting to construction workers,” says Days Inn regional liaison Bill Langan. “We really can’t stop them from doing that—not that we would want to.”
The Days Inn national office wouldn’t confirm the arrangement. “At this point, we consider that speculation, and we don’t comment on speculation,” says spokesperson Stacey Kennedy. Try to book a room at the New York Avenue location on the company’s Web site, though, and you’ll be met with this: “Dates for this property are not available on our system at this time.”
Gong Mei, a Chinese Embassy spokesperson, confirms that most of the construction of the Van Ness Street installation will be done by Chinese laborers, though she says she is unaware of where they’ll be housed. Cherry Hill Construction, a Maryland company, is handling excavation of the embassy site.
Today, the Days Inn is mostly unoccupied. On the afternoon of Jan. 19, five Asian workers shuffled around a mostly empty parking lot. An Asian man in a guard station inside the barbed wire indicated that he did not speak English. Another man, who claimed to have been a management consultant with the Days Inn, refused to give his name but said that the lease to house Chinese laborers was signed within the last few weeks for a period of two-and-a-half years. He said that the Chinese will be managing the hotel for the duration of the lease. When the lease is up, it will return to being a Days Inn. Gong says the embassy construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2008.
A Jan. 18 call to the Days Inn was answered by a man with a strong Chinese accent who spoke little English. When asked if a reservation could be made, he said, “Busy.” Asked if a reservation could be made in the year 2010, he said, “Building’s changed.”
Jamie Howser, manager of a Days Inn on Connecticut Avenue NW, says he started getting calls from confused customers about three weeks ago. They explained to Howser that they’d attempted to make a reservation over the phone at the New York Avenue spot but were unable to communicate with whomever was answering the phone. Howser called the New York Avenue number and reports that “a guy who was definitely not staff answered.” Howser can’t confirm that the Northeast hotel has been booked solid for Chinese laborers but professes that such a move wouldn’t be out of character for that outlet. “They’ve always sort of done their own thing,” he says. “It’s a totally different market.”
Given the functions of embassies, foreign countries routinely bring in their own workers to do construction. American workers are currently building sensitive sections of a new American Embassy in Beijing, though Chinese workers have been hired for unrestricted tasks, a State Department spokesperson says.
When it comes to communist nations, the United States has had a checkered history of embassy building. An American Embassy in Moscow under construction during the ’70s and ’80s was found to have surveillance devices built into its structure. Détente-era negotiations had allowed pieces of the building to be assembled by Soviet workers without U.S. supervision. The building was reconstructed by Americans in the mid-’90s and did not open until 1999.
During the bug affair, U.S. officials delayed work on a new Soviet Embassy in D.C. Though planned as early as 1973, the building, on Wisconsin Avenue NW, was not fully occupied until after the USSR collapsed and it became the embassy of the new Russian Federation. Yevgeniy Khorishko, a Russian Embassy spokesperson, says the complex was primarily built by Soviet and then Russian laborers. (Not that that stopped American spies: It was revealed in 2001 that a surveillance tunnel was dug underneath the compound in the ’80s.)
There was no Days Inn, however, for the Soviet proletariat. Workers were housed at the embassy compound. “No one decided to stay here after the building was finished,” says Khorishko when asked about defectors. “Nobody even wanted to do so.”
It appears that Chinese workers who are already in the District are being housed in a three-story, temporary dormitory on Van Ness Street across from the construction site. The dorm and another temporary building nearby are surrounded by a corrugated metal fence.
Two Cherry Hill workers walking past the work site said they were aware that Chinese workers would soon be replacing them. “They’re bringing their guys in and booting us out,” said one. “I don’t think they trust us American workers.” CP