Gentrification in DC’s Chinatown

By Yonsoo Kang, VA Middle School Program Coordinator, & Naijla Faizi, DC Middle & High School Program Coordinator
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff and SaeHee Chun from NAKASEC

Happy October everyone!

AALEAD & NAKASEC Field Trip to Chinatown

Chinatown Friendship Archway

As After School programs across all three regions begin, AALEAD VA has already completed its first field trip during the four day weekend! This year we partnered up with SaeHee Chun, who is the campaign coordinator for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) in Annandale, for an excursion to DC’s Chinatown to learn about gentrification! What began as a tentative idea grew to multiple collaborations as we coordinated with Naijla Faizi, DC Middle & High School Program Coordinator, and the AALEAD DC youth, and Shani Shih, former AALEAD staff member.

In preparation for this tour, Naijla created a workshop for her youth to develop a plan for our Chinatown Excursion. They divided it into three main components: Opening Address, Tour, and Reflection. The youth at each program site broke into small groups and took part in planning each of the components of the Chinatown Excursion and then presented their ideas to the group. For the welcome, youth planned out the important historical points that needed to be mentioned prior to the tour. In planning the tour, they decided on significant places in Chinatown that we needed to stop and discuss, and they spent time brainstorming facts to mention during the tour for each site. Finally, for the reflection, the youth thought of questions that they would discuss in small groups after the tour in order to ensure that everyone was able to reflect on their time in Chinatown and how gentrification has impacted the Chinese community in DC.

After brief introductions, NAKASEC and AALEAD VA and DC youth headed to the apartments at Museum Square where we met with Caroline Hennessy, Vera Watson, and other residents who introduced themselves to us. They spoke about how residents organized together despite language barriers and stood up to the apartment owners and developers. Recently, the Chinatown residents scored a big victory when the DC Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the tenants who can remain living in their apartments.

AALEAD youth at Museum Square

DC youth commenting on the recent developments near Museum Square

AALEAD youth speaking with Museum Square residents

Youth from NAKASEC and VA and DC youth listen to Caroline Hennessy and Vera Watson.

Naijla and Shani were crucial to the success of this trip for a number of reasons. First, Naijla is currently the DC Middle and High School Program Coordinator. Therefore, she provided her youth, many of whom actually live in Chinatown, an opportunity to not only build leadership skills, but also to speak up on how city policy on businesses and housing affects their everyday lives. Second, Shani used her connections with the residents who live in Museum Square to provide guest speakers for our trip! Shani translated for the Chinese residents so we could all understand their perspective as long time tenants.

Shani translates for AALEAD youth and Museum Square residents

Shani Shih facilitating a discussion between Museum Square residents and NAKASEC and AALEAD youth.

After thanking our guests, we began our tour into Chinatown. We passed places like the Wah Luck House, the Friendship Archway, and the Verizon Center.  What really stood out was when the DC youth began to facilitate and add commentary during our tour. It was their chance to speak out and shed more light on life in the Chinatown neighborhood and how gentrification affects its long time residents. I heard comments like:

“This used to be a Chinese grocery store but now it’s a Walgreens… A lot of parents have to drive out to Virginia to get some of their groceries. But my family doesn’t have a car so… yea…”

“I don’t know why they even call this part of Chinatown “Chinatown”. There are no Chinese people living here.”

“Oh! My mom works there right now.”

“The city recently painted zodiac symbols on some crosswalks. How does this help our residents?”

AALEAD and NAKASEC youth in Chinatown

AALEAD youth at Verizon Center

Youth passing by the Verizon Center

“When I say, “Verizon Center” what comes into your head?”
“Tear it down.”
“Pushing us out.”
“Too many people.”

AALEAD and NAKASEC youth discussion

Amee B. leading a discussion in front of the Verizon Center


A successful AALEAD field trip!


For the AALEADers coming from Virginia, visiting Chinatown and meeting with the older and younger residents helped put a face and story on an abstract word, “gentrification.” It’s easy to enjoy the spectacle of “Rock the Red!” blaring from the Verizon Center or marvel at the Chinese characters written under Chipotle and Dunkin Donuts. One can even feel transported to a whole new world for an evening. However, issues such as the displacement of low income residents can be an inconvenient tear in the fabric of urban redevelopment. It is easy to forget those who do not have the backing or the resources of a corporation. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods and Chinatowns throughout American cities do not have this much press and media attention. Yet, with the recent ruling from the DC Appeals Court, we hope that youth today can use this field trip to understand the power of voice, civic engagement, community, and solidarity.

It’s gonna be great! #igbg


To know more about the gentrification of DC’s Chinatown, please click on the links below:

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