If you Chinesify it, will people come? (Office of Planning)

Along with backing a gigantic new office building that will house international businesses at last night’s U.S.-China Capital Cities Friendship Council gala, Mayor Vince Gray also expressed support for something dear to many people in the room: The continuing existence of a Chinatown in D.C.’s downtown core, which when he first became D.C. Council chairman, wasn’t a sure thing.

“Chinatown was rapidly declining,” Gray remembered. “Businesses were closing, people were leaving to go elsewhere, and frankly as somebody who grew up as a child, coming downtown, having great admiration and respect for Chinatown, my first reaction was, we can’t let Chinatown disappear from our city, that would be a big cultural blow to us…We agreed that Chinatown ought to be a physical experience for people, that we ought to promote Chinatown busineses, that we ought to support people living in Chinatown.”

It’s actually a common challenge these days. The Atlantic just used D.C.’s Chinatown as exhibit A in the demise of Chinatowns around the country, as immigrants move to suburbs instead of inner cities; apparently San Francisco and New York City have seen their populations drop as services replace residents. (Interestingly, the 2010 census showed substantial increases over the last decade in the “Asian” presence in the two census tracts that have pieces of Chinatown—-now at 9 percent and 22 percent of the total number—-though the actual Chinese immigrant population is estimated at between 400 and 500 souls.)

In 2009, the D.C. Office of Planning responded to the D.C. Council’s desire for action with the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy, which laid out the case for and roadmap to a rejuvenated China-themed mini-district, saying it could become “a premier destination for experiencing international Asian and Chinese American art and culture by tapping into the 16.2 million visitors to DC each year as well as America’s 5th largest Asian American regional community…Forming a Chinatown Cultural District can attract New Chinese American and Asian-themed businesses by providing development incentives and coordinated marketing.”

I’m skeptical of the extent to which that’s happened over the last couple years. The Wah Luck House for Chinese immigrants is now essentially a retirement home, and its residents have to get on a bus to Falls Church for their groceries.

This month, though, the city came out with a draft plan for the neighborhood’s public realm that at least addresses the aesthetic issues. Lots of the recommendations will do Chinatown a world of good: Repairing and widening sidewalks for outdoor cafes, allowing street vending, adding bike racks and benches and street trees, and opening alleys to pedestrians are fabulous ideas for bettering the neighborhood.

But a big chunk of the plan is devoted to the kind of superficial Chinafication that has made the neighborhood look like it’s trying to hang on to something that disappeared long ago. We already have design review standards that require new buildings and signage to “contribute to the Chinese identity of Chinatown.” Now, the city proposes to turn usually-blue wayfinding signs ornamental red, install Chinese-y lampposts and benches, design bike racks and crosswalks in the shape of stylized dragons, add a “Chinese-themed” sculpture to Chinatown Park, translate street signs into Chinese characters, commission “Chinese-inspired” murals for blank commercial storefronts, and install more decorative Zodiac pavers.

I don’t think that’s going to do much for the remaining Chinese residents of Chinatown, and creating a Disneyfied version of their neighborhood isn’t a good way to honor their heritage. Furthermore, it’s a bit rich of the city to go to such great lengths to maintain appearances when it helped cause the decline of Chinatown in the first place by bringing in big-time development and national chains that forced immigrant businesses out. And if adding Chinese characters to street signs were actually an attempt to help out the old folks who don’t read English, the city should be translating Mt. Pleasant signs into Spanish.

If you want to support the small businesses that remain, fine. But once an ethnic community has lost the critical mass necessary to project itself, manufacturing authenticity is just going to fail.