Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Chinatown


Ticket scofflaw drivers with bus-mounted cameras

How do you stop car drivers from blocking bus lanes? Put cameras on buses, of course.

SF Muni bus. Photo by BeyondDC on flickr.

Unfortunately, transit lanes are often clogged by car drivers who either don't know or don't care that cars are not allowed in them. Enforcement is difficult, because violation is often so rampant that it's not practical for the police to pull over every violating car.

DC's 7th Street bus lane through Chinatown is a prime example.

But there is a solution. San Francisco is installing cameras on all its city buses, specifically to enforce the prohibition on cars in transit lanes. Human officers will review footage from the cameras and mail tickets to the owners of any cars illegally blocking the lane.

Bus cameras in San Francisco will not be used to ticket other types of moving violations such as speeding or running red lights. For now they won't even be used to ticket car drivers that block bus stops. Current law prohibits any use other than ticketing transit lane violations.

Even that limited application will make a big difference, though. San Francisco has 17 miles of transit lanes, but without enforcement they're no better at actually moving buses through traffic than 7th Street in DC.

If this idea works it could have a huge effect on bus planning nationwide. Bus lanes could become much more effective, and therefore likely to become more widespread.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Landscape architects envision a greener Chinatown

How could Chinatown be a greener and more livable neighborhood? Designers from the American Society of Landscape Architects and Fuss & O'Neill created a vision for an inter-connected series of green "complete streets," with new, safer bicycle lanes, a pedestrian-friendly "festival street," and a central hub for new street-level sustainability education programs right in front of ASLA's door (and below its green roof) on I Street.

All images from ASLA.

There's no time to waste. The city's complete street and green infrastructure guidelines, which are in place, will soon mix with more stringent stormwater policies that impose higher fees on private property owners that create runoff.

To green this neighborhood, any plan has to start with the streetsall of them. Beginning a new green neighborhood means tackling all the alleyways running off I Street that contribute to stormwater runoff. Just as Chicago has done with its innovative green alleys program, the neighborhood could put in permeable pavements along with underground cisterns in key areas that would preserve car access while absorbing water into the ground.

Along I Street, the intersections at 9th, 8th, and 7th streets could become green, permeable ones. What is now a source of huge amounts of runoff in the center of the streets could become a central place for absorbing rainwater into the underlying soils. Additional layers of stone or sand underground could also help boost absorption rates.

Crisscrossing an east-west system of green streets along Eye street would be a new north-south green "festival street" running down 8th Street, transforming an underused, garage-heavy street into an active, pedestrian-friendly zone.

Designed to be like a Dutch woonerf or pedestrian mall, this "B or C street," which means it doesn't get that much car traffic, could be designed to slow down car traffic so that pedestrians could move more freely between the National Portrait Gallery and the commercial complex at K Street.


Throughout this new green boulevard, which could be a pedestrian "arboretum," different materials would designate different realmsthose for people or for cars. There would be no curbs, creating a flat plane for pedestrians. For 8th and other streets, redesigning the street so it can evolve may be the way to go. Kent Schwendy, senior vice president at Fuss & O'Neill, said many engineers want to simply lock streets into one use, but he argued that "streets change and their uses evolve. We have to let that change happen."

Where 8th Street meets I, new open grates would feature prominently so that "people could actually see that water moves through this area, even when it doesn't rain. This will help educate people about stormwater," said ASLA President Tom Tavella. But the street-level stormwater management systems proposed for I Street wouldn't be "lipstick on a pig," said Chris Ferrero, who runs urban planning and landscape architecture at Fuss & O'Neill but represent an "integrated series of events, a system."

Some 6 additional feet would be added onto the sidewalks, giving 2-3 feet for "green gutters along the curbs" and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters. Intermixed among the new green gutters would be rain gardens, which all inter-connect with the existing tree pits and proposed permeable pavement systems.

On 9th Street, creating a new "two-way cycle track," a dual-direction bicycle lane, actually creates an opportunity to create yet more green infrastructure. The bicycle lanes would be protected by a 4-foot "physical separation filled with plants, not just paint and bollards," said Tavella. That physical separator would not only protect bicyclists from car traffic but also help create a sense of place and add greenery.

The street may certainly need it: Wade Walker, Jr, head of transportation planning at Fuss & O'Neill, said the bicyclists he saw on that street were "up on the sidewalks, showing that they didn't feel safe being there."


Lastly, right in front of ASLA, there could be a new parklet, taking up 2 parking spaces, which would be designed to give people a place to sit and view the green roof education video and read signs about the new green features of the neighborhood. Throughout the district, "signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do," said Tavella.


According to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO/Executive Vice President, ASLA, the next steps will include pitching Fuss & O'Neill's concepts to stakeholders in the neighborhood, starting the fundraising process, and further refining the plans to meet the approval of the many DC government departments involved. Hiring landscape architects to turn the concepts into real designs also sounds like a next step, given the positive early feedback from the DC planning office.

At the end of the intensive, two-day design charrette, Chris Shaheen, who manages the public space programs with the DC planning office, said "we've tested many of these ideas here and there, but this brings it all together. This is what the city wants to do." The city knows, just like ASLA does, that really ambitious proposals like this are needed if the city will reach its goals of making 1.5 million square feet of public right of way permeable by 2016.

A version of this article was originally posted on The Dirt.

Public Spaces

Street musicians continue to bring their beat to 7th Street

Washington's 7th Street NW is often a mix of various melodies and cadences from an assortment of entertainers. This phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, even Langston Hughes took note of the sound of 7th Street.

From H Street to E Street, the corridor is often animated by a variety of street musicians. The performers give sidewalk traffic a sampling of the city's indigenous rhythms and native beats. From the repetitious slow jazz chord of a novice saxophonist to the staccato thumps and wamps of a veteran bucket drummer, their sounds enliven a lively street.

Video from dreamcity4life on YouTube.

The swing of Seventh Street has long served as the creative inspiration for scores of known and unknown artists throughout the city's history. One of the more famous to acknowledge the influence of the street's concord is the writer Langston Hughes. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, under the section on "Washington Society," Hughes writes:

"I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street - gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songsthose of Seventh Streethad the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
From Southwest DC, "JR," a long-time bucket drummer occupying prime 7th Street real estate (the alcove next to the metro's Verizon Center exit), told me, "If you want to go back in history, there was people that done this before me." Being a DC street musician, he said, is "just an original thing."

Optimal times to play, according to JR, coincide with Capitals, Mystics, Wizards games, and concerts. It's best to catch the flow coming to the event then rest to conserve your energy so you can hit the crowd when they start leaving. He's pulled in as much as $400 before, but advises, "When you hustlin', it's all about patience."

To deter would-be-thieves, street musicians often bring someone with them or pay someone they know on the street to keep a watchful eye on their earnings. "Snatch and runs are part of the game," said one musician who didn't want to give his name. "But we're out here regularly. Some are old faces, some of these boys are new faces."

Everyone I spoke with repeated the known axiom that "practice makes perfect" and your sound is what sets you apart. "When we rock like we do, we get respect, because people understand what we're doing. This is a part of the city that ain't goin' nowhere."

Video from dreamcity4life on YouTube.

Public Spaces

Downtown's lack of playgrounds is hard on families

We received this letter from Chinatown resident Caroline Armijo:

Since March, I have been on a quest to find space for a playground in downtown DC. I have been living in Chinatown for six years and now have a two-year-old daughter.

Photo by mdmarkus66 on Flickr.

I was warned that the lack of playgrounds, not the dismal schools, is the primary reason that young families move away from downtown. I did not understand the full impact until this spring when my daughter was in full-force running mode.

Long story short, my husband walks to work and we drive to playgrounds. Furthermore, my daughter gets her exercise in museums, at the library and churchall places I would want to my child to act in a more reverent fashion. Not the case. But what can you do? We live in a 1000-square foot apartment with no outdoor space. Toddlers need to run.

One of the great mysteries is dealing with the [National Park Service]. Numerous people have told me that NPS does not support playgrounds on the parks they control. However all of the parks in Capitol Hill are parks maintained by the NPS and they all have playgrounds. How did this happen? Did Congress intervene?
NPS playgrounds rare and hard-won

To get an answer for Ms. Armijo, I talked to Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land. He addresed this very issue in a Washington Post op-ed (pay required for full article) on October 10, 2004:

The almost 7,000 acres of national park land in the District contain a grand total of 11 playgrounds. If you include playgrounds on the 800 acres operated by the DC parks department, Washington's total reaches 71. This compares with 129 playgrounds in Baltimore, 162 in San Francisco and 504 in Chicago.

Each of the 11 playgrounds on national park land has a political history akin to the passage of some major piece of legislation. The newest one, which opened last winter on Capitol Hill, took a group of Lincoln Park mothers six years of campaigning and resulted in an unfenced tot lot rather than the adventure playground they had hoped for.

It's not just a problem for small children: Even counting the wide open spaces and recreational facilities of Anacostia Park, the Park Service provides only 18 soccer fields in the whole city, compared with, for instance, 75 on a smaller land base in Seattle.

Frustration felt citywide

Steve Coleman, of Washington Parks and People, says the challenges of getting NPS to accommodate children goes beyond downtown. He wrote in an email:

Yes, the parks on Capitol Hill tend to have playgrounds. Residents have generally only gotten their concerns addressed through massive community effort. Stanton Park neighbors, for example, had to campaign for years just to make simple safety upgrades to their play area.

For some, the wait is even longer. At Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, the Park Service approved, ordered, and began to install several play areas in the 1930's, then halted work because of budget cuts for World War II, never to be re-started. As a result, thousands of families living in the densest area of the city have faced the same dilemma as Chinatown residents of whether to give up on the neighborhood because of lack of adequate play facilities.

The Park Service has built some beautiful playgrounds in DC. But sadly, NPS has shown a tendency to build and care for play areas in some more affluent neighborhoods such as Montrose Park in Georgetown while providing far less care or support for the families living in many less affluent areas.

The Park Service's enabling legislation cites its mission as preserving the nation's natural and cultural resources unimpaired for the education, inspiration, and enjoyment of this and future generations. Many dedicated people in the Park Service work hard every day to advance this mission for all, despite budget shortfalls.

There are signs that Park Service leaders may want to finally address the under-investment and shortcomings of inner-city DC parks management. Yet in many under-served parts of the capital, the reality is that the enjoyment of this generation of children has been all too often left by the wayside.

Park Service spokesperson Bill Line did not respond to multiple emails sent over the course of 2 weeks asking for comment on Ms. Armijo's question.


Chinatown's Friendship Archway

Much of DC's Chinatown is about symbols. The neighborhood is small and fragile, seemingly forever on the brink of extinction. Its identity hinges on a smattering of things Chinese: the restaurants (of course), the red and green lampposts, the Chinese characters on street signs.

Photo by the author.

But without a doubt the most striking and enduring symbol of all is the great Friendship Archway, constructed in 1986 just east of 7th and H Streets NW, and said to be the largest in the world when it was constructed.

Boldly symbolic of Chinese identity, this project ironically was once plagued by controversy over what sort of China it truly symbolized.

Chinatown originally developed in the late 19th century around Pennsylvania Avenue NW at 4½ Street (now John Marshall Place). Chinese immigrants to the US in those days faced discrimination and downright hostility; the creation of Chinatowns in Washington and elsewhere in the country was as much a defense mechanism as anything elsea way to create safe havens where new immigrants could find shelter, sustenance, and employment.

Washington's original Chinatown was forcibly disbanded in 1931 when the land was taken over by the government for the Federal Triangle and other municipal projects. A new Chinatown was soon established (against the wishes of local businesses and landowners) along H Street NW between 5th and 7th.

By 1981, however, Chinatown seemed on the verge of extinction. Successful Chinese Americans, like many others, had dispersed to safer and more prosperous parts of the city and its suburbs. Chinatown still had a cluster of restaurants and grocery stores, but the decline of the old downtown area made many wonder whether commercial establishments such as these would remain viable in the future.

Two Chinatown leaders, Dr. Dwan L. Tai and Alfred H. Liu, wrote a paper entitled "The Future of Washington's Chinatown: Extinction or Distinction," in which they argued in favor of creating a visible attraction, such as an archway, to serve as a magnet for visitors. The idea began to gain traction.

In May 1984, Mayor Marion Barry and other top city officials took a trip to Beijing, and the dreamed-of archway project finally got its start. Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong had visited Washington the previous fall, and Barry was returning the favor to promote Washington as an international business and finance center.

After surviving a welcoming banquet that included fish stomach and beef tendon soup, Barry went on to participate in a ceremony establishing Washington and Beijing as sister cities. As part of the agreement, the two cities would work together on a project to build a traditional archway in Washington's Chinatown.

The principal designer would be Alfred Liu, a well-established architect and chairman of the Chinatown Development Corporation who had emigrated form Taiwan as a teenager and who had designed Chinatown's Wah Luck House, a distinctive apartment building for low-income and elderly residents.

Original rendering of the Friendship Archway. To the right is the planned Far East Trade Center, which was never built. Photo from AEPA Architects Engineers P.C.

Immediately a contingent of prominent Chinatown businessmen began to cry foul. They objected to the participation of the communist People's Republic of China in the archway project, many of them having strong ties with mainland China's rival, Taiwan.

The Washington Post quoted Lawrence Locke, chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of D.C., as saying that the archway "might misidentify the local Chinese community with the Chinese communists." Locke reportedly had collected more than 50 signatures from Chinatown residents and businessmen on a petition opposing the project.

Locke also reportedly claimed to have assembled $250,000 in pledges for a separate project to construct an arch without any involvement of the mainland Chinese government. The arch's opponents had enough clout to get their DC Council representative, John Wilson, to introduce a resolution opposing the arch's construction.

In July 1985, a resolution of sorts was reached: there would be two arches in Chinatown, both on H Street, two blocks apart. The Friendship Arch to be built in cooperation with the People's Republic of China would be located, as originally planned, just east of 7th Street. A rival Chinatown Community Arch would be constructed two blocks away, just west of 5th Street.

The Chinatown group promoting the second arch wanted to put it at the other end of Chinatown, at 9th and H Streets, near the old convention center. In fact, they might even build two arches to serve as gateways at either end of Chinatown. In the end, however, specific plans never came together; doubts were raised about the wisdom of investing scarce funds in "rival" arches, and none were built.

The finished archway, or paifang in Chinese, is an impressive engineering achievement, standing 47 feet tall at the top of its highest roof, spanning 75 feet of roadway, and weighing over 128 tons. The roofing alone weighs 63 tons, supported by 27 tons of steel and 38 tons of concrete.

Over 7,000 glazed tiles cover its five roofs, and 35,000 separate wooden pieces are decorated with 23-karat gold. A riot of dragons, 12 carved and 272 painted, glare and grin from every angle.

The style is evocative of the classic Qing dynasty (1649-1911), a period when China showcased its imperial splendor. Indeed, paifangs were traditionally erected across alleys and roads throughout China, with the more elaborate ones, like Washington's, often to celebrate the emperor on the occasion of one of his military victories. The golden color of the tile roofs on the Washington archway is symbolic of wealth and honor, as were the yellow mandarin jackets bestowed as a supreme honor on Qing officials.

Construction began in June 1986. The District first built the reinforced concrete frame and supporting pillars, according to Liu's design. Major decorative elements, including the 7 pagoda-like roofs, were fabricated in China and installed on the arch by 16 skilled Chinese craftsmen brought to Washington by the D.C. government under the supervision of Liu.

The Beijing Ancient Architectural Construction Corporation was in charge of work in China, including fabrication of the 59 intricate dou gong supportscomplex, cantilevered contraptions of carved wooden brackets, balanced and interlocked with tenons and mortises rather than nails or screws and providing a sturdy and resilient support for the gracefully curved roofs. The dou gongs have a very festive appearance, almost like frilly Victorian bloomers peeking out from beneath the golden skirts of the roofs.

Nighttime installation of the central roof structure. Photo from AEPA Architects Engineers P.C.

In ancient China, these elaborate structures were painted to protect the wood from the elements. By the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the painting had become an opportunity for magnificent polychrome displays. One of the chief tasks of the 16 artisans brought to Washington was to apply red, blue, and green paint, gold leaf, and other finishing touches by hand.

The arch was constructed over a 7-month period, much of the work needing to be done at night so as not to block traffic on busy H Street. The finished monument was officially dedicated in November 1986.

Once completed, the archway was widely celebrated, and the political squabbles about how it should be built soon died down. The giant monument seemed almost shockingly bright and festive. Linda Wheeler, writing in The Washington Post, called it "a brilliant multicolored flower transported into a drab landscape."

Benjamin Forgey, the Post's architecture critic, observed that "Simply put, before the gateway there was not much to remember Washington's dwindling Chinatown by, and now there is.... It is a fitting, striking, and quite beautiful object." Forgey saw the archway as a signpost for the major tourist attraction that Chinatown could become. But that was still an unrealized dream in 1986. The arch's magnificence contrasted starkly with the drab landscape then surrounding it.

Both the archway and its neighborhood have had ups and downs in the years since its construction. In 1989, after the crackdown by Chinese authorities in Tiananmen Square, the DC Council enacted a resolution suspending relationships with sister-city Beijing. Council chairman David A. Clarke personally climbed a ladder to drape black mourning cloth on the Friendship Archway to commemorate the students killed in China.

Soon, the archway unexpectedly began to deteriorate. It turns out much of the mortar used to set the tiles in the roofs did not bond correctly. According to Liu, this was due to the fact that the Chinese artisans' visas were delayed, forcing construction to continue into October, when cold weather compromised the mortar. In any event, tiles began to fall off within several years of the archway's completion.

In June 1990 one of the 100-pound carved dragons fell off, striking the roof of a soda truck. It was an ominous event. Since such a gateway traditionally is, among other things, a manifestation of imperial splendor, some Chinese would say the fall of one of its dragons portends the emperor's own immanent fall.

Sure enough, on that same evening Mayor Marion Barry took to the airwaves to announce that he would be stepping down when his term ended and not running again in the fall elections, as he had been planning. Barry had been arrested at the Vista Hotel in a sting operation in January; he would be found guilty of one charge of possession of cocaine and sentenced to a 6-month prison term.

Meanwhile, DC workers removed the rest of the tiles as a safety measure until permanent repairs could be made. In 1993 a major renovation project was undertaken, funded by both the DC and Chinese governments. Artisans from the same Chinese company that had worked on building the arch again traveled to Washington to perform extensive repairs, including re-laying tiles with improved mortar, repainting decorations, and reapplying gold leaf. Since that time, there have been no more problems with falling tiles or dragons, which should come as a relief to the city's subsequent mayors.

The archway in 2008, before restoration. Photo by the author.

The paint applied in 1993 held up well but after many years became quite faded. In 2009 a second repainting and modernization project was undertaken with funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The entire archway was sanded and repainted, and several pieces of tile and wood were replaced.

In addition, a new lighting system was installed, using advanced, energy-efficient LED lights. The brilliant, vivid archway is now at the center of one of downtown's liveliest neighborhoods, and its bright colors now compete with gaudy shops, restaurants, and outdoor video displays.

It's as if the neighborhood, inspired by Alfred Liu's creation, has finally caught up. But however commercialized and un-Chinese the various nearby storefronts become, the Friendship Archway remains an enduring and unforgettable symbol of the neighborhood's heritage and the city's rich multicultural fabric.

Invaluable assistance for this article was provided by Mr. Alfred H. Liu, A.I.A., President of AEPA Architects Engineers, P.C. Other sources included Asian Voice, Friendship Archway Inauguration Edition (Nov. 1986); Francine Curro Cary, ed., Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C. (1996); James M. Goode, Washington Sculpture (2008); and numerous newspaper articles.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

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