Friday Question of the Day: Talking Neighborhood Boundaries – What are the borders of Chinatown?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Blinkofanaye

A reader wrote in suggesting I reconsider the way I think of Chinatown and Penn Quarter. They suggest that the whole area except for H St, NW between 6th and 7th be identified as Penn Quarter.

View Larger Map

Most regulars of the site know that I’m not a strict adherent of specific neighborhood borders. It can drive people crazy but if I’m one block over from a neighborhood, I genuinely have no problem calling it either neighborhood’s name. I recognize that is upsetting to some people. I’m also comfortable with folks self identifying to a certain degree. For example if some one tells me they live in Columbia Heights but I know they are technically 1 block north – I have no problem accepting their identification with Columbia Heights.

Having said that, I do think the particular situation of Chinatown/Penn Quarter is worth exploring. And I’m sure one day we’ll debate Navy Yard/Capital Riverfront…

I know when I first moved to DC in 1997 I had never heard of Penn Quarter but I had heard of Chinatown. But I also realize that the streets/neighborhood I thought made up Chinatown have changed a lot over the years. If anything, as has been joked about before, there is now a China-block (if that.)

So I’m curious what you guys think are the proper borders of Chinatown? Do you think we should just call the whole area Penn Quarter? If so, what are the borders you would give to Penn Quarter? Ah, hell, and I know we’ve touched on it before – what happens when City Center is built where the old convention center used to be? What will that neighborhood be called?

And I’m not talking about city tax records or how wikipedia maps them out. I want to know what your impressions are. I realize that most people don’t obsess about this but for those that do – when you’re walking around 7th and F St, NW (for example) do you feel like you’re in Chinatown or Penn Quarter? Alright, I’m rambling now. Your turn.

47 Comment

  • everything under the arch.

  • It’s more accurate to call it Chinablock, because that strip of H between 5th & 7th is all that resembles a Chinatown.

    That said, the area needs a better name than Gallery Place. That’d be like calling Adams Morgan “Bar Street.”

  • 6th st from G to I qualifies as much as H although it may not be as flashy to the tourists.

  • For years now, I think of Chinatown as being in Penn Quarter.

    Even with the arch and the light fixtures not much other than H Street and I Street between 7th and 5th Streets feel anything like the Chinatown that once was here. — Do streets have to define neighborhoods? Can’t an alley or property line be a border? If we could do that, I would just include the buildings on the south side of H Street and go north to I Street. it would be nice to again have a real Chinatown, but that takes entrepreneurs in the Chinese-American community wanting to open retail shops and restaurants with a Chinese orientation.

    In part I go by where businesses self list themselves and the neighborhood where residents say they live. I saw a new restaurant reservations website and saw that J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel at 15th on F list its neighborhood as Penn Quarter. That doesn’t at all surprise me.

    The Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association’s western boundary goes to 15h Street and the other boundaries are NY Ave/9th to Mt. Vernon Pl/7th to Mass Ave NY, the freeway to Constitution to Pa. Avenue to 15th

    There will be a new Penn Quarter ANC that incorpates all of this.

  • Chinatown: Mass Ave to the north, north side of F to the south, 9th to the west, and the freeway to the east. PQ immediately south of this to Pennsylvania except it goes to 11th street on the west. MVT north of Chinatown to NY Ave. but it is freeway to 7th street. That’s my take on it. To the west of all these is “downtown”.

    • Right on.

    • I happen to live in the (apparently) disputed block between 4th & 5th/H & Mass – where Chinatown Coffee is – and I tell people I live in Chinatown. Not Mt. Vernon Square, which is across Mass. Not Judiciary Square, which I think of as south of H/east of 5th. Okay, so sometimes I call my block Chinatown East. But I definitely feel more tied to Chinatown than to the other bordering neighborhoods.

      Agree with Anon’s definition that everything south-ish of Verizon is Penn Quarter, though I’d take it all the way down to Constitution. And after living in the Ctown/PQ area off and on for almost seven years, I still have no idea where Gallery Place is, other than the retail development…

      • “gallery place” was a branding campaign from the 80’s. ( maybe 70’s??) that had the intention to create an arts district in the area. there used to be a lot of galleries around there, centered at about 7th and e. new development was required to include a space dedicated to an arts usage, which is how we got the landsburg theatre that the shakespeare theatre ultimately moved into. the WPA used to be in the space that had the lighting store on 8th. dccah used to be on 8th also. the building that has zola and the spy museum used to be all artists studios. a salon. project space, wilson gallery, warzone, touchstone, zenith, and many more galleries were in that area.

        once chinatown got cleaned up, all the galleries could no longer afford their rents and moved out or closed.
        people seem to think that dc is currently in an arts boom but there really have only been a few years that this wasn’t the case. the early 2000’s, essentially.

        • just to straighten out Arter’s history a bit.
          Before the 1970’s, WMATA named the station Gallery Place; it was named after the National Portrait Gallery, one of two museums in the old Patent Office building. (WMATA does not name stations after uses that are not public.) Museum Place might have been a more accurate description of the public uses here then as the MLK Library did not yet exist. Chinatown could have been, and maybe was, another option.) At the time 7th Street was a lower-price point retail street than was F Street. The development on the site WMATA offered for development took the name of the Metro station — free publicity! It’s understandable why there is confusion about the origin of the station name as the National Portrait Gallery like the National Gallery of Art though having the word gallery in its name, is a museum and not a gallery.

          The galleries other than Mickelson’s, which was basically a framing shop on G between 7th and 8th, were all further south. Well south of what then was Chinatown were two — what today we would call pop-up and more like co-op — galleries at 7th and E, on month-to-month leases, along with artist studios above the unrenovated, older, small-scale buildings all leased out to a single person who was dedicated to promoting the arts and subleased the spaces. The galleries were mainly on 7th at 406 7th Street just north of D where Hill Country and offices are today. Zenith was across the street on the east side of 7th, originally where TicketPlace now is; it later moved to the space north of the building entrance. WPA was never in The Lansburgh either where Illuminations now is on 8th Street or in any other location; they were in the Jenifer Building on the NW corner of 7th and D both before and after the building was renovated. Their leaving had to do with the lack of financial support they experienced during a severe recession and the unfavorable agreement they struck to remain in the building after its renovation; as a result they developed a relationship with and moved into the Corcoran.

          After the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) purchased The Lansburgh, arts organizations along with the Office of Planinng moved in to the building on a temporary basis; they moved out years later after PADC’s selected developer was ready to begin construction. Along with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, some arts groups moved into the Stables building, renamed the Stables Art Center, on the west side of 8th south of the Pepco substation.

          Two of the development requirements for The Lansburgh were that the designs include at a minimum (with financial incentives for more) 250 residential units and that it include a 500-seat theater. These requirements reflected requirements for housing and arts uses in the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan and the more detailed Square Guidelines. The Pennsylvania Avenue Plan preceded by over a decade the city’s addition of historic preservation, housing, and arts requirements under the Zoning Regulations (known as “overlay” zones). In the case of arts and housing this was the first time the city required these uses in downtown’s Penn Quarter.

          The Pennsylvania Avenue Plan, written and receiving Congressional approveal in 1974, mandated both housing and arts uses on a number of the blocks between E Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. In the mid-1980’s PADC issued prospectuses seeking development proposals first for Market Square and next for The Lansburgh. In 1991 the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation had to withdraw a similar prospectus for the site that is now The Clara Barton and The Lafayette because of the recession that significantly affected the dot com industry and halted nearly all development in the metro area.

          The neighborhood that both of us have described had artist studios in a number of buildings, some of which — like the Le Droit Building where Zola is — GSA later determined were hazardous, but are still standing. Artists also had studios in the Atlas Building until there was a fire, in buildings on F Street where Caos on F now is in Carroll Square between 9th and 10th, and, eventually, in the Victor building on 9th where Ruth’s Chris is.

          There was a hair salon in The Lansburgh after it was renovated (where Sei now is), there was no warzone, but there was the Insect Club, the Wilson Gallery was a co-op pre-renovation gallery at 7th and E, there was no project space, but there was DC Space, Bill Warrell’s “alternative” cafe and performance place where Starbucks is at 7th and E. Woolly performed one summer with no air conditioning in space above what is today Jaleo. Touchstone eventually moved into 406 7th Street (mentioned previously) — a building that housed at its peak seven galleries after a “cosmetic” renovation (it is where Hill Country is today). The number of galleries renting space there changed as the fortunes of the owners or their supporting spouses changed and as economic changes resulted in increased or decreased sales. The galleries included Mahler, Adamson, Baumgartner, Touchstone, Haslem, Osuna, Numark, the Washington Center for Photography, the Artists’ Museum, and more.

          The following is not quite accurate: “once chinatown got cleaned up, all the galleries could no longer afford their rents and moved out or closed.” It was hardly changes near 7th and H that moved the galleries out of Penn Quarter. The co-op galleries were out when the property owner moved forward developing The Residences at Terrell Place, well before Gallery Place was in the ground or the west side of 7th was re-leased after being fixed up. Galleries at 406 7th Street on three floors changed over time as the economy had its ups and downs. That building was owned by Leonard Marx in NYC and he kept the rents low. It was other economic factors that caused many of them over the years to close, each for a different reason; their rents stayed pretty low. And it was Mr. Marx’s heirs who decided to renovate the building though tenancy had dropped off significantly by then. Touchstone was given the opportunity to stay but chose to relocate to ground floor space on NY Avenue at 9th. Apartment Zero, the ground floor tenant, had decided to close their retail arm and operate as interior decorators instead. Zenith closed for other reasons and still operates on line and curates shows at 12th and Pa. Ave. Numark purchased the retail condo unit on E Street and opened there, then for personal reasons closed a year or two later.

          The area did become too expensive for art galleries in other venues, but it was only a couple of years ago that inexpensive gallery space was no longer available; perhaps the economy or perhaps the neighborhood’s changing character had more to do with galleries choosing to locate elsewhere even when less expensive space was available.

          • Wow! Thanks for all that history! Wonderful, crazy & dizzy. I guess the real – endless – question is how to maintain the arts community that start an area flourishing with the high-rent swanks that come in after, (because of the artists.)

    • Maybe in its heyday after being evicted from a portion of the area for construction of the Federal Triangle, Chinatown went to F Street, but even as far back as the early 1960’s it never went as far south as G Street much less F Street; there were one or two businesses on H that were near 8th but nothing as far west as 9th; I Street was the northern border and 5th the eastern border, but all that was now a half century ago.

  • I would say somewhere between the Twinbrook and Shady Grove Metro stops in Montgomery county, along the 270 corridor, or wherever there are good schools and low crime.

  • I think of it as fake Chinatown. Better as Chinablock. There are city government defined borders, like an historic district, but with Chinese words, look for regulations defining signage and streetlamps.

  • I’m with PoP – back in college and the early 2000’s, I hadn’t heard of the neighborhood name Penn Quarter, but I knew where Chinatown was. In my mind now, I think of Penn Qtr only extending as far north as F St, but I would be curious to hear the opinion of someone who actually lives there.

  • Interesting topic. I have a houseguest in town right now, and just last night as I took him past the Chinatown Coffee Company I noted that I thought the place was actually just outside Chinatown, the border of which, I said, was 5th Street.

    I’ve only lived in DC a few years, so I don’t have the historical context of some others, but I tend to view Chinatown as the part of town with Chinese street signs. Off the top of my head, I think that’s roughly the block bounded by 5th Street on the east, G Street on the south, 7th Street on the west, and I Street on the north.

    I realize that my proposed border runs right through the Verizon Center, but I actually think that makes sense: whether walking down 5th or down 7th, the area feels much less “Chinesey” after you pass G.

  • NY and 9th over to Mass and 5th on the north, down to Penn and 9th and Penn and 5th on the south.

    • REalize I gave no rhyme or reason – it is because geographically I associate the area with the nearby Chinatown (and yes, Chinablock is better these days – if that) and I have a kneejerk reaction to central planning telling me that we have business districts and special neighborhoods like Penn Quarter that are meaningless to anyone outside of the 9-5 work times. Big whoop – branding!

  • I’m not sure why they bother with the fiction that we have a “Chinatown” because it hasn’t been that since the MCI/Verizon Center was built.

    • we still have a cleveland park, but grover cleveland is dead.
      also, i don’t think germantown os very german anymore.

  • Hip people call it “Chi-to,” or maybe “Chi-blo.”

  • PoP, I didn’t realize you were here in the mid/late ’90s. May I ask where you moved from and where you moved to when you moved here. Regardless, you have seen a lot of changes.

    The whole Chinatown situation is really sad and actually always has been. If some of you could have seen “Chinatown” in the ’90s, you would be aghast. I will say, I don’t ever remember a PQ back in the day (there was Chinatown and downtown), nor half the neighborhoods you guys claim. While I am sure they had names back then, they definitely were not used to make claims. Mostly people used street names but Petworth was always well known…

    • That being said, the whole Prince of Petworth name is what got me interested in this blog. When I moved back to DC, I found it and was who is this dude calling himself PoP? Let’s just say when I checked it out, I was taken aback to find this blog and its commenters, lol. It is all good though, I really enjoy the blog.

      • Prince Of Petworth

        Hahaha, right on. I’m from New York originally with my formative years on Long Island – College sent me to Miami University of Ohio. When I first came to DC in 1997 I lived in Woodley then Cleveland Park. I first visited Petworth at the end of 2002 and moved here in the beg. of 2003.

  • I think of the whole area as “downtown” or “Penn Quarter.” They really should give up on clinging to the whole Chinatown fiction, ditch the translations, dragon-themed streetlamps, etc. Neighborhoods change, and it’s no longer home to many Chinese businesses or people.

  • I really like the colors in the picture for this post!

  • The reason PoP and others had never heard of “Penn Quarter” was that it didn’t exist. Like NoMa and The Atlas District, it’s the result of a branding effort by developers. If, in 1997, you’d told someone you were going to dinner in Penn Quarter, they would have had no idea what you were talking about.

  • Neighborhood names change over time. When I moved to my house in 2002, the neighborhood association was called “Cardozo Shaw Neighborhood Association,” although that was a moniker no one south of U and west of 11th would use. On the other hand, relatively few people then (and certainly almost no one in the 1980s and 1990s) deemed “U Street” a neighborhood. Since then the association has been renamed “U Street Neighborhood Association,” and I tell people I live in “U Street” (as opposed to my 2002 term, “Logan North”).

    Today, I don’t think of “Chinatown” as anything more than H Street between 5th and 7th. “Chinatown” is now part of a neighborhood that within the past decade has been given the name “Penn Quarter,” whose boundaries I would define as 5th, 9th, Penn. and Mass.

    • I think that’s interesting about the association names. I used to hear “Cardozo” used quite a bit (early 90s), sometimes even when referring to the metro station itself, but nowadays almost no one uses it. It’s all “U Street” now.

  • I think of Chinatown as “anywhere I see the Chinese-language signs.”

    I know there aren’t that many Chinese businesses left in the area… but I hadn’t heard the “Penn Quarter” neighborhood name until I’d been in the D.C. area for years. I associate “Penn Quarter” with the Teaism in that area, but not really with anything else.

    I tend to refer to parts of downtown as “near Metro Center” or “near Gallery Place” or “Chinatown.” Somehow I’ve never really gotten into the “Penn Quarter” name… if it hadn’t been appended to the Archives Metro station name, I probably wouldn’t think about it at all.

  • IMHO, Chinatown includes any section in which establishments are required to display the name of their business in Chinese. For example, “Owl Restaurant.”

    I work in the heart of it all and in reality, it’s from Li Ho at H and 5th to the Arch and Chinatown Garden and the guy who paints your name on a piece of cardboard at H and 7th. It expands slightly up and down 6th Street from H only up to the Chinese old folks home (Wah Luck House) down to the Kanlaya/Burma. Beyond that it becomes very Gallery Place oriented.

    To call it ChinaBlock is only half accurate. It’s ChinaTwoBlocks.

  • everything between fado and the irish channel.

  • Our little Chinatown is mentioned in this interesting article about how the Chinatowns in SF and NY are depopulating. The combo of reverse brain drain, rising rents, and ethnoburbs may mean the end of Chinatowns.

  • For me, it is all Chinatown (/block) down to E. E down to Penn, to me, is Archives. I don’t use the Penn Quarter reference.

  • Think Chinatown is area between 5th street to east, 9th Street to west, Mass Ave/Mount Vernon Sq park to north and F street to south.
    Would say Penn quarter is the area south and west of this. So south to Penn. Ave and west to Metro Center (12th street) would be Penn quarter.

  • as a DC native and a resident of downtown, I think the Chinatown moniker is still applicable. there is a community, albeit small, of Asians who live here and shop in the Asian run stores. 5th to 7th St on H and I St, and 6th St from G St to Mass Ave have Asian businesses and residents. the rest in the near area I call the Penn Quarter which is a subset of downtown. the Gallery Place name has less meaning to me than any of the names applied to the area.

  • From today’s Washington Post Going Out Gurus Listing of the best pizza in the region. Here is the write up for Matchbox, which ironically places the H Street (between 7th and 8th) restaurant first in Penn Quarter then in Chinatown. I couldn’t help but chuckle.

    Washington, DC Let’s be clear, we’re not suggesting that you settle in at this veteran Penn Quarter favorite to actually watch the game over one of the restaurant’s thin-crust 10- or 14-inch pizzas. Rather, the local chain’s Chinatown original is one of our favorite places to fuel up before walking two blocks to catch the Capitals or Wizards at Verizon Center. It’s best to stick with such classics as pepperoni or sausage and onions, which also happen to be the pies that Matchbox does best. (Best for the game.)

Comments are closed.