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Should Chinatown be Times Square?

New York's Times Square is the tourist heart of that city. It is filled with bright lights, chain restaurants, and professional entertainment that draws visitors from all over the world.

Neon signs at Gallery Place. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

230 miles south of Times Square is Gallery Place. Since the MCI Center opened in 1997, it has been (after the National Mall) the tourist heart of Washington, DC. It is filled with bright lights, chain restaurants, and professional entertainment.

Gallery Place/Chinatown is smaller and quieter than Times Square. DC is a smaller city. The entertainment also centers around sports rather theater. But on the whole, the two districts are of a kind. They are both the heart of commercialized tourism in their respective cities. They are where suburbanites go to experience life "downtown".

And if it's true that the hyper-commercialization of such districts can be garish, it's also true that such garishness is unique, interesting and something that a lot of people simply like. It's not just that places like Times Square and Gallery Place are busy with excitement and color because people flock to them. People flock to these places precisely because they are busy with excitement and color, and not very many places are like that.

So when I hear there is a proposal to add even more video billboards to Gallery Place, I think that's awesome. The more the merrier. The main reason I ever go to Chinatown in the first place is that it isn't Georgetown or Capitol Hill. I want Chinatown to be as colorful and bright and fun as possible.

Naturally, someone disagrees. The launch of has been widely reported this week in the blogosphere. The first paragraph of their home page reads:

"Giant color video signs are not what anyone has in mind when they think of Washington, D.C. But unless we stop them, these huge, moving-picture billboards will make cherished parts of our beautiful city look more like Times Square... If we allow these signs to be installed permanently at the corner of 7th and G Street NW, not only would an important downtown neighborhood become blighted, but it would be just a matter of time before video billboards would pop up all over the capital."
I appreciate the desire for quiet in one's home neighborhood, but what planet is the author of that paragraph from? Actually, giant color video signs are exactly what I have in mind when I think of Chinatown, which is a cherished and important downtown neighborhood in our beautiful city precisely because of the unique role it fills as a place for brightness, color, and electronic 21st Century fun.

I don't want the entire city to look like Times Square, but I don't want the entire city to look like the street from Leave it to Beaver either. I want to live in a city that has stately, beautifully dignified places like Dupont Circle and 16th Street, and places like Times Square. When I think of Washington, DC, I don't think it should be a city with any one character imposed throughout.

The bright lights part of Chinatown is a mere three blocks long. That's three blocks in our entire gargantuan metropolitan area where we've collectively decided to have some fun with colorful nightlife. As much as I love marble and granite (and I do), I think it is entirely justified to take three tiny little blocks in one corner of the city and give those blocks a neon character.

On the other hand, just as I don't think it's reasonable to move next to an airport and then complain about noise from airplanes, I don't think it's reasonable to move to Chinatown and complain about bright lights. If we don't put them in Chinatown, where they are completely appropriate given the existing context, where do we put them? Nowhere? How is that the less draconian option?

What do you think?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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Well, I'd be happy if neon was in many commercial corridors in our city. There is nothing wrong with neon and I don't know why you'd want to limit neon. The Studio Theatre's use of neon is stunning and I'd personally rather have a view of the Studio Theatre from my home than the boring obelisk that is the Washington Monument.

I think the big debate here is whether video billboards are appropriate. I'm in favor of them in Chinatown as long as they don't have audio.

by Paul on Mar 10, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport

Completely agree with you, u r spot on when u point out that most of dc is rather boring/dull its ok to have 3 blocks of excitement. The people that are complaining kind of sound alot like the people who moved to U street and adams morgan and are now complaining about all the noise and all the night life their.

by Dan R on Mar 10, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

I'd like to see the streets around the Verizon Center become pedestrian boulevards, just like the real Times Square.

by Tim on Mar 10, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

+1, tim

by JTS on Mar 10, 2010 4:35 pm • linkreport

Dan, well said.

Paul, I also second your point about the audio. The video boards themselves are quite distinct and really enhance Chinatown's sense of place. Audio is taking it too far, though. Anyone can not look up at the board. No one can choose not to hear it if it's booming.

by Cavan on Mar 10, 2010 4:36 pm • linkreport

I get very tired of the comment: [billboards/street car power lines/whatever] are not what anyone has in mind when they think of Washington, D.C

It presumes that there is one single image that anyone has of Washington, DC. On a local scale that is simply not true. Washington has a diversity that is hard to catch in one image. Try squeezing the Congress, Rock Creek Park, our sport stadiums and our diverse population in one image. Good luck.

On a non-local scale DC can be caught in one image: The National Mall. Ask a random US or world citizen what they envision when they think of DC and they'll mention an element of the Mall. Be it the Congress, the White House or one of the Monuments. And that's it.

As long as we're not proposing to slap a NASDAQ ticker on the Washington Monument, to project ads on the reflecting Pool or to paint the White House pink during the Race for the Cure, nobody's mental image of Washington, DC is gonna be changed.

So, let's evaluate proposals on their merits. It is rather irrelevant what person A thinks that person B might be envisioning.

Finally, if we're turning Gallery Place and China Block (it's not a town, come on) into current Times Square, fine. Times Square from the 80s (with cars, prostitutes and drug dealers) would be a disaster. Yes, even that icon of New York has changed considerably. Oddly, I know plenty of people that still have that 80s image of Times Square in their minds.

by Jasper on Mar 10, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

Interesting parallels to some of the places in London. Consider Trafalgar, Mayfair as similar to Chinatown, Dupont.

It seems to work well there.

by dcpatton on Mar 10, 2010 4:42 pm • linkreport

Agreed. We need this small-but-lively streetscape in DC. It is unreasonable to move to Chinatown/Verizon Center and complain about bright lights. Audio advertising is inappropriate (indeed, amplified audio of any kind is inappropriate without a permit).

by Tom on Mar 10, 2010 4:44 pm • linkreport

This post mirrors my thoughts to a T when I read about the billboards. Put em up and turn them on. Also think there is not nearly enough neon in this town. Was in memphis recently and went to beale street. A lot like 18th street cept they have the good sense to close it to cars at night and on the weekends. and a lot of neon

by John on Mar 10, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

I agree with the comments about audio. Sound is obnoxious.

by BeyondDC on Mar 10, 2010 4:46 pm • linkreport

To Tim's comment - I believe the final proposal of the redesign for 7th and 9th streets called for 7th to be closed off to all vehicles from H to G anytime there is an event. Can someone verify that?

by Shipsa01 on Mar 10, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport

I say bring the signs and close off the streets around metro stops for a 2 block radius. Let it be a very vibrant pedestrian landscape.

I think it's laughable to describe chinatown as 'colorful nightlife' though.

by james on Mar 10, 2010 4:52 pm • linkreport

As long as we're not proposing to slap a NASDAQ ticker on the Washington Monument, to project ads on the reflecting Pool or to paint the White House pink during the Race for the Cure, nobody's mental image of Washington, DC is gonna be changed.

Whoa, wait-a-minute, hold up. This actually sounds BRILLIANT to me.

by Lauren on Mar 10, 2010 5:11 pm • linkreport

I have always thought that DC needed a "Times Square" district where commercialism and tackiness could flourish, liberated from all the rules and regs from all the historic review and meddling of various commissions (but contained within boundaries) and Chinatown was my pick.

Now not to change the subject, but I've been thinking a designated adult entertainment district would be cool, with proper regulation and regular police patrol of course.

by spookiness on Mar 10, 2010 5:20 pm • linkreport

I do think that we need more nightlife and colorfulness in that area. I actually wish that the area between 7th and the entrance to the movie theater/bowling alley would be nicer if it was covered, like a galleria in Europe. I also agree that having video without sound would probably be best. The nice thing about the area is that in those 2 or 3 square blocks, you have museums, restaurants, a movie theater and a live theater, a bowling place, and access to practically all 5 of Metro's lines. Which reminds me: when are they going to get around to connecting Metro Center and Chinatown stations? Is that before or after they connect Farragut North and West? :-P

@Shipsa01: I have seen F Street closed between 7th and 6th during events, but I don't remember ever seeing 7th Street closed. I think that might be nice though.

by Teo on Mar 10, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

I think part of the problem (besides just people whining, which is a lot of it) is the disconnect between "Chinatown" and bright lights. While I have no problem with a Times-Square-like neighborhood in general, and while DC's Chinatown (or China-block, rather) was something of a joke even before the chains moved in, the Times Square/Chinatown is particularly jarring. When you think of a "Chinatown" you think of quality, independently-owned Chinese restaurants and unique shops and groceries. You don't think of Hooters. I actually find it kind of sad that in order to rebuild Chinatown, we had to completely destroy Chinatown as a Chinatown-- even if what replaced it had value in its own right. So let's put up some bright billboards, call the neighborhood "Gallery Place" and either accept the fact that DC no longer has a Chinatown, or see if we can foster an actual Chinatown a few blocks over.

by Eliza on Mar 10, 2010 5:58 pm • linkreport

Who in the DC area is gonna stay out late anyways?

If New York is the city that never sleeps, DC is the city that gets to bed by 9 PM, falling asleep to the Johnny Carson Show...

by MPC on Mar 10, 2010 6:14 pm • linkreport

Does anybody see a problem with the particular location? I agree with just about everything said on the subject, but right across the street from the Portrait Gallery? I like the corner of 7th and H because it isn't messing with any of our older, more classy buildings. How about the corner of 6th and F. Or 9th and H?

For the New York analogies, imagine including a Times Square like billboard across the street from the public library at 41st street? Or across the street from Bryant Park? I don't think there would be a lot of support for that.

by Eric H. on Mar 10, 2010 6:31 pm • linkreport

I often hear people say that they wish that Washington, DC had more "vibrancy", "buzz", height, density, etc. just like NYC. Washington is what it is, which is a green, open, low-height, light-filled city with close-in liveable neighborhoods, which retains or attracts residents who value those attributes and chose not to live in New York. If a Times Square knock-off is what you seek, maybe you would be happier just living in New York and experiencing the real thing, rather than trying to impose some pseudo-Gotham on the rest of us.

by Go to Gotham on Mar 10, 2010 6:33 pm • linkreport

I fully endorse more commercialism in a commercial district like this, and I do so on the merits of the idea, not some desire to be like Times Square.

No one will be mistaking 7th and H for Times Square anytime soon.

These kinds of districts, even if not done to the extreme like in New York, are plenty common across the world, and I like the idea of having it here.

by Alex B. on Mar 10, 2010 6:44 pm • linkreport

When you think of a "Chinatown" you think of quality, independently-owned Chinese restaurants and unique shops and groceries. You don't think of Hooters. I actually find it kind of sad that in order to rebuild Chinatown, we had to completely destroy Chinatown as a Chinatown-- even if what replaced it had value in its own right. So let's put up some bright billboards, call the neighborhood "Gallery Place" and either accept the fact that DC no longer has a Chinatown, or see if we can foster an actual Chinatown a few blocks over.

Eliza, Me and my fellow Chinese and Chinese-American brethren are quite happy that we aren't trapped in the urban ghetto of trapped immigrants that are the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York - thank you very much. My mother was lucky to get out of the garment factory that she worked in NYC. I appreciate urbanity in its own right (and live in the city myself!), but I don't think that Chinese people owe it to DC to create a ethnic theme park for white people to walk around in.

Ethnic clusters form organically, and you can very much find that cluster of independent Chinese shops/restaurants in Rockville, where most Chinese (in this area) moved out to a generation or two ago.

by J on Mar 10, 2010 6:54 pm • linkreport

Why should Chinatown look like Time Square and what Chinatown in any city in any country looks like Time Square?

No city can be like NYC ; you should give up on trying to make it like that it will never happen.

Let the city do its own thing and evolve so how it chooses.

It you want a Time Square like place built it from scratch not for a corporation to impose its views on a area.

With all the developments in the city that pick a spot with vacant land or land with boarded up buildings and turn that into a Time Square wannabe.

Billboards are fine annoying, loud ass billboards are not such as how the at&t one at gallery place was before residents of the building complained.

If there is going to be one it should not shown damn commercials 24/7 have it be news, local info etc just not a damn commercial of any type.

by kk on Mar 10, 2010 6:55 pm • linkreport

Many Chinatowns are quite heavy on signage. Toronto's Chinatown sure is, and I like it:,_Toronto

by Alex B. on Mar 10, 2010 6:57 pm • linkreport

@ Alex

How many got video screen billboards everywhere ?

A sign is nothing all places of business and some apartments have signs.

by kk on Mar 10, 2010 7:04 pm • linkreport

Seems like a fair amount of the opposition is either from the same folks who oppose street cars b/c overhead wires weren't what Pierre L'Enfant had in mind when he designed DC or from a small handful of condo residents.

According to a posting on PQLiving, the billboard company pays a significant amount of money to that condo association, as well as several residents most affected by the light from the billboards. According to that posting, some of the opponents demanded more money from the company, were told no, and then put up their website.

by Fritz on Mar 10, 2010 8:06 pm • linkreport

Go to Gotham: If you'd care to explain how putting neon lights up on three blocks of an already extremely commercial street harms DC's close-in livable neighborhoods or low-rise character, I'd be happy to listen. Unless you can explain it, though, the two don't have anything to do with one another.

by BeyondDC on Mar 10, 2010 8:24 pm • linkreport

The DC government doesn't escape some criticism on this issue from a planning perspective.

DC was a partner in the development of Gallery Place. The city contributed much in the way of making sure Gallery Place became a reality. If DC envisioned 7th Street to be a bright and animated section of the city, then the residential portion of the project should not have been placed directly on 7th Street. Then, we probably wouldn't be facing this much opposition for more electronic signs.

We know the city supported such a development of animated signs because legislation was passed more than five years ago just for the Gallery Place project. This legislation exempted the project from most of the the restrictions placed on signs in other parts of the city.

DC Office of Planning?

I thoroughly dislike reading comments from people stating that video billboards, etc. are not what people have in mind when they think of Washington, DC. I don't need to be spoken for. It's exactly what I have in mind for Washington, DC. I grew up in DC and I like the development of Gallery Place as our flashy part of town. I like going to the Gallery Place area for the neon, vibrancy, culture, and historic buildings - all standing side by side and standing tall.

I still think, however, that the DC Office of Planning and the city put themselves into this sticky situation by not exercising more say so over this project when they had the chance and should have.

by otavio on Mar 10, 2010 8:52 pm • linkreport

The billboard is ok with me, but only if the DCOP requires everything displayed on it to be in Mandarin (or is it Cantonese?).

This is straight from the DC OP Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy under Goal 2: Create A Physical Chinatown Experience, Key Action 1: Promote creative signage and storefront design.

There are two principle barriers to more businesses having larger more animated Chinese inspired signage; the first is many Chinese merchants have had trouble getting permits for new Chinese signs; the second cause is the large creative signage, which often associated with Chinatowns, is currently not allowed in Chinatown based on the DistrictÂ’s signage regulations.
How is it that the few remaining Chinese businesses in Chinatown have trouble getting permits for new Chinese signs but this developer can get a permit for a video screen larger than most signs which Alex B refers to in Toronto?

That being said, I don't particularly have a problem with more video screens in the area, but I find the flashy Chinese character signage on Legal Seafood, Verizon, La Tasca, FedEx, Texas BBQ, etc. pretty darn patronizing/insulting. We can still call it Chinatown even if it everything isn't written in Chinese.

Historical neighborhood names remain all over the country despite their namesake industry/ethnicity/defining characteristics no longer being there: The Meatpacking District in NYC, Pilsen in Chicago, West End in London.

by Erik W on Mar 10, 2010 9:31 pm • linkreport


I agree with you that the billboards belong in Chinatown. And it's my understanding that they are in there because of a special exception aimed at making that our 'Times Square.' The place was basically a deserted wasteland before it got renovated thanks to CM Evans.

Like you say, in the case of Chinatown, the more the merrier.

The only question I have though is ... "Do we want it to be more like the true, real, gritty Times Square? or like the sanitized, Disneyfied version that Gulietti brought to NYC? ...

by Lance on Mar 10, 2010 10:32 pm • linkreport

There are already two (I think, I'm positive about the main one above the Verizon Center) video billboards. The area is already lit up like daylight at night anyway. I don't see how this would significantly add to all the light and activity there. I do agree with the suggestions to close off the streets during major events.

And I think it would take a lot more than some video billboards to make DC "turn" into NYC.

by Canaan on Mar 10, 2010 10:46 pm • linkreport

there are five boards (The two you mentioned and three AT&T Screens at 7&H), but I agree: it would take a lot to be like Times Square

by arm on Mar 10, 2010 11:18 pm • linkreport

I did suggest to the architect of the new church that they might save some time and effort by just moving the 3rd Church of Christ Scientist to that empty spot. As it's parishoners are looking to rid themselves of it anyways ... And I'm sure David will love having it within view of his house ... ;)

by Lance on Mar 10, 2010 11:27 pm • linkreport

The billboard is ok with me, but only if the DCOP requires everything displayed on it to be in Mandarin (or is it Cantonese?).

It's both. The written script is the same across all dialects, even if the spoken is different.

by J on Mar 10, 2010 11:49 pm • linkreport

If we don't put them in Chinatown, where they are completely appropriate given the existing context, where do we put them?

That's an easy question. Tell us where you live, and we can put them all right outside your window.

by David desJardins on Mar 11, 2010 12:25 am • linkreport

@J, there are both simplified and traditional characters within Mandarin. Cantonese uses only traditional characters.

by Marc on Mar 11, 2010 1:00 am • linkreport

Well David, when I moved to my current residence I took into consideration the character of the street. I wouldn't move next to the airport if I objected to airplane noise, and I wouldn't move to 7th Street in Chinatown if I objected to visually loud signage.

But thanks for clarifying that it's a NIMBY issue. I avoided the term, but it seems that is indeed what it's all about.

by BeyondDC on Mar 11, 2010 1:10 am • linkreport

Well David, when I moved to my current residence I took into consideration the character of the street.

So did the people in Chinatown now, who moved there in reliance on the current zoning, and disagree with you that adding billboards that are now illegal would preserve the character. Changing the regulations to allow more large, illuminated billboards that pollute the visual space and pose a nuisance to residents is a big change, not the status quo. The status quo is to not change the rules.

by David desJardins on Mar 11, 2010 1:17 am • linkreport

Preserve what character? The super-regional entertainment district with a lot of big neon billboards?

When Gallery Place was built the whole idea was to turn 7th Street into the city's prime entertainment district, to make it the place for this sort of thing. I have little sympathy for anybody who moved in and didn't expect more to follow, and no sympathy at all for anybody who expected it to be some sort of serene historic neighborhood.

So let me ask the question you quoted again: If not here, where? Where do you honestly think is a more fair place to put something of that character?

by BeyondDC on Mar 11, 2010 1:38 am • linkreport

If not here, where?

Nowhere. I have no desire for such blaring eyesores anywhere. This seems entirely unrelated to the concept of an "entertainment district". I don't even agree that 7th Street is the city's "prime entertainment district", it just depends what entertainment you're considering. I mean, plenty of entertainment happens at the Kennedy Center, I might argue that is the city's prime entertainment district. But even if it were the "prime entertainment district" that's no reason to change the zoning rules to allow more visual pollution.

by David desJardins on Mar 11, 2010 2:01 am • linkreport

First off, I don't think a few additional moderately sized video billboards will turn Chinatown into anything even resembling 1/20th of Times Square. I don't think anyone arguing for the billboards should use Times Square as the end visual. You're only playing into the hands of the alarmist anti-neighbors.

Secondly what blows my mind is these condo residents claim the signs will block their view. The signs are on the same side of the street as their condos. At almost any vantage point in my condominium the only view I can see is ACROSS THE STREET and beyond. Only if walk immediately up to my window and crank my head down or to the side could I see anything on the same side of the street as my condo. The view argument isn't very sympathetic to begin with but then when you consider these signs can't possibly be fully in anyone's view it becomes a completely frivolous argument.

by Jason on Mar 11, 2010 3:54 am • linkreport

What I have a problem with, is the same issue I have with the huge special signs on buildings. We are giving away huge amounts of revenue for the price of a permit. Revenue that could support making Chinatown a very vibrant and well run place.

All those Billboards on the rooftops in Hollywood go to support the development and management of the commercial district. The special signs probably generate a million a year each in revenue for groups like clear channel, for what is probably a $100-1000 permit fee.

How much of the time on the screens is being devoted to PSA's or other public benefits such as way finding or event announcements?

This seems like another typical DC fight of either for or against and neither side focusing on making the best of opportunities and thinking about the needs of the future.

by Scott on Mar 11, 2010 5:53 am • linkreport

Gallery place is, other than the billboards, nothing at all like Times Square.

I mean, I've only been to NYC a couple times, but there's very little in common.

If there's any place in Manhattan that Gallery Place is like, it's like where Canal St crosses Bowery. Where there's a stream of people in suits going back and forth to their offices crossing a stream of locals who aren't so affluent or lucky on their way to low-paying jobs in a perpindicular direction. Even then it's a pale imitation, because there are zero street vendors, and I don't think the difference in rent between K St and Gallery Place is a distinctive as the difference in rent between midtown manhattan and Canal St.

by nobody on Mar 11, 2010 6:39 am • linkreport

@David desJardins: Your reading of the law is completely wrong.

Purchasers of condos in the Gallery Place building were told in their closing documents that the building would have signs and video billboards.

The applicable regulations on signage in Gallery Place has not changed since that time period, nor is the proposed plan in violation of the existing regulations. The city council intended that particular block to be able to have video billboards and other signage that would not be allowable anywhere else in the city. And the fears of video billboards popping up all over are vastly overblown since they are prohibited by long-standing regulations.

Additionally, both the Gallery Place condo association and the local Chinatown citizens association support the proposed plan for another video billboard.

If people are going to be arguing facts and law, it would be helpful to have a basic grasp on either.

The dispute can be boiled down to people opposing it because it doesn't reflect "their" view of what Washington should look like and a few residents who demanded money from the advertising company and were told no.

by Fritz on Mar 11, 2010 7:11 am • linkreport

I think it's a great idea. That area is the only place that comes close to NYC's visual vitality. I'm not sure it's appropriate everywhere but DC ought to loosen up it's colar a bit. Maybe they could come up with a dirrerent name for that area as I don't think Chinatown cuts it.

by Thayer-D on Mar 11, 2010 8:08 am • linkreport

Chinatown is annoying as hell. Tourists may be an economic reality of this town, but we don't have to encourage them to be anywhere but out of our (locals) way.

Let them go to New York.

by Redline SOS on Mar 11, 2010 8:40 am • linkreport

Interesting that only one person notes the proximity of the Portrait Gallery. Move the signs up to H St and I agree with most everyone else who seem to view them as fun and part of the "scene" that is Gallery Place. But I think the contrast otherwise would be too jarring and would demean a little bit of the grandeur of that building.

As far as the notion that DC needs to "loosen up." Yes, this blog tends to attract a fairly young demographic, I'm sure. And the young want everything to serve them. But you're in the nation's capital, a city with an extraordinary amount of history and symbolic importance to millions of people not just around the country but also around the world. If we go willy-nilly turning it into some sort of Time Square / Las Vegas rip off, I think that would be, in effect, taking a crap on the dreams and ideals of many other people. DC is what it is. It has a strong identity as a place. And thank goodness for that. Let's enhance it, sure. Make it more livable, sure. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

by Josh S on Mar 11, 2010 9:01 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D, Yeah, I can't understand either why we continue to call it Chinatown. In all the years I've been in DC, there never were more than a few Chinese restaurants in that area that was otherwise overwhelminging inhabited by African-Americans ... before its recent revitalization. The fact that the Chinese once lived there is irrelevant and I would think kind of insulting to the Chinese who have been long gone and assimilate into the greater DC metro area. The Chinese link was used early on to sell the place to developers otherwise leary to invest in this area. I think that area at one time may also have been known as an Irish area ... Isn't it part of what was once known as Swamp Poodle ... where all the Irish laborers who built the Capitol lived?

by Lance on Mar 11, 2010 9:11 am • linkreport

I agree Dan, and Thayer-D beat me to it... "Chinatown" is now down to one part of one block, and even that's a push -- I only say that because it's the only part which actually has inside-out bunnies hanging in the windows. I kind of miss a full-fledged Chinatown, but I also wouldn't be terribly against a mass-commercialised hotspot.

by Bossi on Mar 11, 2010 9:17 am • linkreport

For those suggesting that we abandon the name 'chinatown,' I ask why? What's wrong with it?

I'd also suggest looking at the recently crafted Chinatown Plan - Erik W posted it above:

by Alex B. on Mar 11, 2010 9:19 am • linkreport

I understand the usage of Times Square, but it's almost detrimental if we're trying to sell this idea to brighten up Chinatown. Alex B. is absolutely right to mention that there are a number of places like this in the world. Times Square or Shibuya shouldn't be what people envision, it would be way smaller but still very cool. I'm all for this idea, the whole imitating/fake theme is nonsense to me. There are plenty of unique things about DC, but right now Gallery Place/Chinatown is a half-assed, bastardized entertainment district.

I think this would also appeal to people at the convention center, staying at the convention center hotel and may help further develop Shaw.

by Vik on Mar 11, 2010 9:23 am • linkreport

In all seriousness, permanent, amplified audio has no place in any neighborhood in any city in America. I was living in the Gallery Place Condos when they first tried the sound on those ad-boards, and it was terrible. Residents were losing sleep, yes. But for those of you who don't care about the residents, there was an even worse effect when the audio was on: the neighborhood lost its character.

What makes Chinatown special is that any time of any day, you can find a dozen people talking and hanging out under the overhang at 7&H. When the sound was on, it was too distracting, and people weren't stopping there, or were waiting for their buses in determined silence. It became a dead spot, like that spot of sidewalk under the video-board at 7&G where no one lingers and no one talks to each other.

I'm someone who has long (half-jokingly) called Chinatown DC's Times Square. But even in Times Square, the advertisements aren't allowed to play audio. They shouldn't be allowed in DC, either.

by tom veil on Mar 11, 2010 9:53 am • linkreport

For those suggesting that we abandon the name 'chinatown,' I ask why? What's wrong with it?

For those of us that are Chinese, it's an embarrassment, for one. It's not a hub of Chinese cultural life (outside of the Wah Luck house, no Chinese live there), it's not the hub of Chinese restaurants in the metro area (Rockville), it's not where Chinese people live (mostly Fairfax and Montgomery county, if they aren't the few young Chinese professionals), and it's not the hub of Chinese religious life, outside the one remaining Chinese church there. In fact, the Metro stop wasn't even labeled Chinatown until the late 1980s. (used to be just Gallery Place)

It is, in effect, the same as Little Italy in NYC - down to a street - which ironically has been increasingly swallowed up by the growing Manhattan Chinatown, largely as the result of undocumented Chinese immigration. The real hubs of Italian life left in NYC are commercially in the Bronx (Arthur Avenue) or in outer Brooklyn/Queens neighborhoods and Staten Island.

by A on Mar 11, 2010 10:48 am • linkreport

"In all seriousness, permanent, amplified audio has no place in any neighborhood in any city in America."

PLEASE TELL THAT TO METRO! There's a busline on an intersection about 100 feet from my house ... And despite there being a massive church between my house and that bus stop (which is on a cross street to mine), starting a couple years ago now I can hear loud and clear every morning starting at something like 5 a.m. "FEDERAL TRIANGLE" being blasted out by Metro buses. I can only imagine what the house much nearer to that stop are hearing!

What was wrong with the signs on the buses? Just because someone is hearing impared doesn't mean they can't read ... And yes, there may be a few ... very few ... folks out there who are both hearing impared and legally blind ... But is it worth waking a whole city at 5 am just so that they know which bus has arrived at their bus stop? Isn't there a less obtrusive way to do this? Maybe give them some commincation devices that just let them know that their bus has arrived ... and not the whole neighborhood? I mean really, how many of these devices do you think we'd actually need in the whole city ... Maybe 20?

by Lance on Mar 11, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

Re: Calling it Chinatown. I like the name, but I find the Planning Office's requirement for signs to be in Chinese to be borderline racist, and just generally stupid. Why do we need signs in Chinese for non-Chinese businesses? A few blocks away used to be what I guess we could charitably call DC's Little Italy. Yet no one's putting up signs in Italian in the few non-gov't businesses in that area. Around Union Station and the Georgetown Library was Swampoodle with lots of Irish immigrants. How many signs in Gaelic are around there? People move in and out of neighborhoods all the time. It's pretty insulting and condescending to require signs in a language that few residents speak, just because that ethnic group used to live there.

I'm all for a lively Chinatown. But the signs requirement is a very Disney-esque thing.

by Fritz on Mar 11, 2010 11:04 am • linkreport


Big, bright signs is a common characteristic to Chinatowns across the globe. That's why they're encouraged in this area.


It once was a hub of Chinese life in the area. No doubt it's lost that in recent decades, but why not try to encourage it? Do you have any comments on the Chinatown plan linked to above?

by Alex B. on Mar 11, 2010 11:12 am • linkreport

@ Alex B. "It once was a hub of Chinese life in the area. No doubt it's lost that in recent decades, but why not try to encourage it?"

Probably 'cause as the ethnic Chinese person above wrote, it's an embarrassement to the Chinese. It's not a real Chinatown in any real sense of the term. Compare it for example to San Francisco's Chinatown (or New York's). Real Chinatowns are smelly, loud, places with narrow streets filled by ... guess what ... real Chinese people selling you ... guess what ... real Chinese goods and real Chinese restaurant food. They're real. This is nothing more than 'using' the Chinese name to get people into what was a very very urban blighted area. One of the worst in the city until 10 years (or so) ago. I guess they looked around and said ... hmm ... Gallery Place ... Where are the galleries? (down the street on the Mall) ... hmm ... what should we call it. Should we call it "Urban-blight Town?" ... hmmm , no ... we're in one of the 2 remaining Chinese restaurants in the area ... Let's call it "Chinatown" ... there must be sonme government funding that can be used to build a cheap imitation Chinese arch ... And we'll require that all signs be in Chinese! That'll work! People will buy in "Chinatown"!

I guess it worked ... 'cept it ain't a Chinatown.

by Lance on Mar 11, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

I've never understood why the neighborhood isn't simply just called "East End" (in constrast to the "West End" of downtown). It's the eastern edge of the commercial downtown (Judiciary Square to the southeast is virtually all office buildings and "NOMA" to the East/Northeast is not part of downtown but an adjacent secondary neighborhood like Dupont Circle and Shaw) just like "West End" is the western part of downtown adjacent to secondary neighborhoods Georgetown and Foggy Bottom. Also it's already often referred to as such in many marketing and real estate contexts.

by Mike on Mar 11, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport

@Josh S

Thanks for following up on the location. I notice nobody who wants to make the Times Square analogy is willing to engage on the 41st Street Public Library / Bryant Park analogy.

I did look at the map and the characterization of the intersection as 7th and G is slightly misleading. If the sign is above Clyde's, it probably doesn't interfere with the aesthetic of the Portrait Gallery (any more than the existing Verizon center video screen). The signage is probably closer to G than H, but it isn't at the intersection directly.

That being said, I would like those that want something along the lines of a Time Square or Piccadilly Circus to acknowledge there are parts of "Chinatown" or Gallery Place better suited to these types of additions than other.

by Eric H. on Mar 11, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

That being said, I would like those that want something along the lines of a Time Square or Piccadilly Circus to acknowledge there are parts of "Chinatown" or Gallery Place better suited to these types of additions than other.

Why does that matter? The Gallery Place building is the one with the legislation to have signage. Akridge and Western were the ones promised this opportunity for the revenue stream. This isn't "sim city" where you can move the signs from 7th&G to 7th&I with a mouseclick. There are real-life business contracts at stake here.

Personally I think the blank walls and fake windows of the Gallery Place building are more appropriate for the signage than slapping them on the lower slung historic buildings that have narrow frontage a block north.

by Paul on Mar 11, 2010 2:21 pm • linkreport

I agree about the audio-it shouldn't be allowed. Tom Veils description above captures the affect. Its noise pollution; noise is a stressor. I don't go to the 'hood very often but each time I've been really turned off by that noisy espn sign. I hate it. Like someone else commented above you can't escape it, except to leave the area.

by Bianchi on Mar 11, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

I've commented on this before elsewhere, but I wanted to add here that I think billboards can be done well and they can be done poorly. Good examples, I'd say, take the wide expanse of brick wall on the sides of the Verizon Center, and break them up visually with a digital screen. A bad use however would be like the one proposed for the "G Street Alleyway" by the movie theater, were they would be covering a huge wall of windows which make the interior there so cool and open.

by Patrick on Mar 11, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

I am of mixed feelings. In college, I had the fortune to study in Berlin. Coming from a small town, I immediately fell in love with city living: the excitement, the vibrancy, and the seemingly endless possibilities. After graduating, I left the small town and headed to DC expecting an American Berlin-- a vibrant capital humming with politics and urban life. I quickly discovered that despite the superficial Euro-style boulevards and grand monuments, DC is at its heart a midsized commuter city. People crowd in for work and then hop on the Metro to NOVA, leaving behind a city that feels more like Pittsburgh than Paris.

Walking around DC on weekends, it didnÂ’t feel like a world capital where one can stroll for hours across markets, crowded streets, and bustling immigrant districts. Rather, I found a couple lively strips amid the quiet neighborhoods and empty offices. I was at first disappointed, hoping it was temporary. DC was growing and changing --soon it would hum with the energy of the West End. I would get upset at NIMBYÂ’ers complaining about 5-story apartments being WAY TOO TALL!! Why canÂ’t they see the budding Paris on the Potomac they were blocking, I thought?

Over time I have come to appreciated that DC is what it is. That isnÂ’t a bad thing. Walk around Capitol Hill or Georgetown, DC is undeniably a charming city. There is something to be said for having an ordinary city as the capital of the most powerful nation on earth.

As was stated, NYC is just up the road. I am heading there this spring, after realizing it is much easier to change cities than to change a city. I never really warmed to DC. I am too much a lover of urban life. But that doesnÂ’t mean other donÂ’t and canÂ’t. Why should I wreak the city they love, to turn it into a pale imitation of the cities I love?

by Chris on Mar 11, 2010 3:56 pm • linkreport

Chris: Great post. Having grown up in a walkable, well-planned college town I feel like DC is too big to be really comfortable. I can't bike across town in 15 minutes, there are no local watering holes where everyone in town goes for a drink, and traffic is terrible.

Meanwhile, DC lacks the excellent public transport infrastructure, cultural ferment, and sense of possibility that a city like New York or Berlin offers. Having spent time in both places, I am intimately aware of just how much DC fails to measure up. In short, DC is just big enough to have all the inconveniences of a big city but too small to really allow one to reap the benefits.

Honestly, there was probably just as much creative activity going on back home in my city of 150,000 as there is in DC which is three times the size. If I count out five-star restaurants and bottle-service clubs, the restaurants and nightlife were just as good or better. (And this isn't hometown bias talking; I've been to other towns I could say the same thing about as well.) This is why I will probably move once the economy warms back up..

by Phil on Mar 11, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

Sorry, fuzzy math. DC is four times the size, obviously.

by Phil on Mar 11, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

Ok Phil - I'll ask the obvious - where is this utopia you're from?

by Shipsa01 on Mar 11, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

Jesus Christ, the New York envy of like 2/3 of the posters on this blog is palpable.

So much for the better. The more 20-30 year old urbanists who move out in frustration, the more likely they'll be able to install more parking in DC.

by MPC on Mar 11, 2010 5:26 pm • linkreport

@ Lance

I fully support you on the Metrobus noise problem; if Firetrucks don't use there siren at 5 neither should WMATA.

Any area where there is or will be noise many of the 24 hours in a day there should be no residential parts or they should be high enough from ground level to not hear the noise around 13-14 stories

by kk on Mar 11, 2010 5:35 pm • linkreport

I used to work in Chinatown; now I drive through there every day (west on H to a left on 7th). I find the video and audio of the billboards extremely distracting, and I'd rather both were gone OR driving not be allowed there. (I'd have to find another route, but it would be safer.)

by Meredith on Mar 11, 2010 6:57 pm • linkreport

Great post. totally agree

by beatbox on Mar 11, 2010 7:08 pm • linkreport

Just because you can buy egg rolls and fried rice in a few places does not make a city segment a "Chinatown." Also, while Gallery Place is dominated by the Verizon Center, sports do not dominate exclusively. Two Smothsonians and the Spy Museum are in the area, historic landmarks like Ford's Theatre as is the jewel in the crown...the Shakespeare Theatre. (Thank you, Michael Kahn for the Harman and Lansburgh!!)

by DC John on Mar 12, 2010 7:19 am • linkreport

Agree completely with the original post.

I see a lot of folks referencing amplified audio as part of these signs. On the topic of amplified audio-- it appeared that is not being considered or pushed for by the signs Orange intends to put up. That seems to be a non-issue.

Washington Biz Journal article on this stated the signs would not have audio. It states
"The proposed signs, which would be manufactured by Daktronics Inc., are 30 feet shorter than the original design, void of audio and will operate for fewer hours."

by namllih on Mar 12, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

@David desJardins: Your reading of the law is completely wrong.

Perhaps. Some of the provisions seem pretty clear to me, but I'm not a lawyer. I suppose the city will hold hearings and we'll find out.

by David desJardins on Mar 13, 2010 2:02 am • linkreport

Some good discussion on here.

It really grinds my gears to see folks who live in Gallery Place (or at least claim to) move in and then claim that this is a "change" from what they were expecting. How would it be possible NOT to expect this place to continue to become an entertainment destination?

As a side note, who are these people who claim that they have trouble driving because of moving billboards? Maybe they shouldn't be driving if that's the case?

by Jake on Mar 14, 2010 5:11 pm • linkreport

First, this has to be one of your best lines ever:

I don't want the entire city to look like Times Square, but I don't want the entire city to look like the street from Leave it to Beaver either.

Second, "historically" we could argue there is justification for your point as 7th St. was the main shopping and entertainment district in the city (albeit not at 7th and H) and the theaters were major examples of the utilization of neon (although not all the theaters were on 7th, many were in other locations).

Third, I am with the others about sound. The sound at Verizon Center is particularly loud and annoying.

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2010 10:48 pm • linkreport


Have fun. I moved here from Manhattan a few years ago and miss it. Unfortunately, there are many people here who will fight any move towards increasing population density tooth and nail in order to keep DC some kind of quasi-suburb.

Personally, I think they should just all move to Reston.

by beatbox on Mar 15, 2010 11:10 pm • linkreport

Audio? No, it's too much.

Video? Go for it...big and garish. This is the one place in DC that it now belongs.

Gallery Place residents: Quit whining. You remind me of the people who move to U Street (where I've lived for 8 years) and complain about parking and crowds. Don't like it? Move.

by Kevin on Mar 17, 2010 8:16 am • linkreport

If anyone is interested in a balanced perspective on this issue, please visit our website:


by Pete on Mar 22, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

Having lived in NYC and now in Penn Quarter, I can tell you that the biggest difference between the two places is that in NYC, you have the benefit of tall buildings. While most (not all) of the bright signs are at street level, for those who enjoy the beauty of them can still live near them yet not have them blaring in their windows as they reside high above them.

Just food for thought.

by Tim on Mar 23, 2010 2:24 pm • linkreport

Wow-- go to the rebuttal site put up by Orange. They have actual redacted emails posted that show the original dissenters we only worried about getting a huge payday- Period.

by namllih on Mar 23, 2010 9:45 pm • linkreport

I like the point you bring up. Lighting is relative to its surroundings, so if it is appropriate, there should be no reason to complain. Thanks for bringing this issue to the table for debate, as you can clearly see there are many differing opinions on this issues.

by chris on Mar 29, 2010 3:35 pm • linkreport

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