There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
On a given weekend night in Chinatown, there are probably more Vapiano diners or Lucky Strike bowlers than there are Chinese people. If you took away the iconic H Street arch and the gratuitous Chinese lettering on many of the businesses, most visitors would think they were in a typical downtown commercial district, not a historic ethnic neighborhood.
This is nothing new. But the speed with which the area’s Chinese population is hurtling toward extinction is deeply unsettling to at least one of its members, filmmaker Yi Chen, whose 26-minute documentary Chinatown is playing Sunday at the Our City Film Festival.
Chinatown now has slightly more than 300 Chinese residents, according to Chen’s film. Most of them live at the Wah Luck House apartment building at 6th and H streets NW, and most are seniors. The majority of the former Chinese population has moved to the suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, where rents are lower and the concentration of Chinese-Americans—-and Chinese grocery stores—-is now much higher.
The film depicts the remaining residents’ efforts to cling to the once-dominant Chinese culture that’s slipping away. Wah Luck dwellers pack into a bus for a monthly trip to the Great Wall supermarket in Falls Church, but it always fills up, so some have to wait an extra month for their turn. The last Chinese grocery store in Chinatown closed several years ago for lack of demand.
The one day each year that Chinatown truly feels like Chinatown is the Chinese New Year. The film shows a lively celebration with firecrackers, keynoted by Mayor Vince Gray, who bellows to the crowd, “What hasn’t changed, and will hopefully not change, is the presence of Chinatown as an important cultural center here in the District of Columbia!”
But his exuberance is immediately followed by narration from kung fu instructor Raymond Wong, an active member of the faction struggling to keep Chinese culture alive in the neighborhood. “Chinatown,” Wong says, “is shrinking, and one day it may not exist the way we know it now.”
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This story is not unique to Chinatown. In gentrifying cities around the world, immigrant populations have fallen victim to the same pattern: They move into a neighborhood when it’s blighted and cheap, help bring about a degree of stability, and then find themselves priced out when the neighborhood gets “discovered.”
Just 10 blocks north of Chinatown, another group has been pushed to the margins. The 12-minute documentary Locating U, from South African filmmaker Kylé Pienaar and also showing Sunday at Our City, gives the Ethiopian community credit for stabilizing the area around 14th and U streets NW after the devastation of the 1968 riots by opening restaurants. The Ethiopian presence in the neighborhood, particularly around 9th Street, remains well-established, but tensions have flared over the years.
According to the film, a 2005 petition to rename the area around 9th and U “Little Ethiopia” failed in part due to pushback from the local African-American community, which resented the handout to one group over others—-one Ethiopian in the film chalks it up to resentment toward the success of Ethiopian entrepreneurs. (Another Ethiopian, a real estate agent and community organizer, blames a Washington City Paper article that he says “ignited things.”)
But African-Americans and Ethiopians in the neighborhood are increasingly united by a shared misfortune: displacement at the hands of well-heeled new residents. As condo buildings with names like Langston Lofts and The Ellington put a glassy—-and usually Caucasian—-sheen on the area, longtime U Streeters are packing up for the suburbs. Sometimes they face the added indignation of outrage from new, white residents for taking valuable parking spaces when they visit their old churches on Sunday.
“When you look at U Street,” E. Ethelbert Miller, director of African American Resource Center at Howard University, says in the film, echoing the closing comment in Chinatown, “it has a wonderful history in terms of being black, but that’s not to say it’s always going to remain that way.”
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But when it comes to displacement, let’s not forget the most basic form of it: old-school eviction. It happens for all kinds of reasons, some of them just but many just plain sad. Deborah Harris’ story falls into the latter category. She sustained an injury on the job, fell behind in her mortgage payments, and was informed when she tried to pay up that JPMorgan Chase had already sold her Fairlawn home.
Harris is one of the two main subjects of Paul Abowd’s nine-minute film Eviction Defenders, playing Saturday night at the D.C. Independent Film Festival. The topic is different from the ethnic displacement of Chinatown and Locating U, but the gist is the same: hard-fought efforts, without much hope, to halt the forces of change in people’s home lives as they’ve known them.
Harris takes one ambitious approach to preventing eviction, showing up at a Senate Banking Committee hearing where JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is testifying and interrupting him to ask him to “face the people you foreclosed on.” Anne and Dawn Butler, also facing eviction, take another, enlisting the help of a raucous group of protesters from Occupy D.C. But ultimately, we’re left to believe that the result is the same when the authorities show up to carry out the eviction order.
None of these three films will shock audiences with new information. They don’t aspire to break new ground; instead, they’re simply snapshots of a process we’re all aware is going on but can sometimes overlook amid the euphoria of D.C.’s construction boom, population growth, and decline in crime. A look into the lives of those affected can be a better reminder of what a neighborhood once was, but now barely is, than a few Chinese letters or throwback building names.
Update: Abowd emails to note that not all eviction cases are hopeless; in fact, this Wednesday, March 13, there’ll be an event about two people who beat back foreclosure and eviction.
Chinatown still courtesy of Yi Chen.