When Ken Salazar moved to Washington in 2005, the freshman senator chose to rent an apartment in Chinatown instead of a more established neighbourhood such as Georgetown or Capitol Hill.
With his brother John, who had just been elected to the House of Representatives, he shared a two-bedroom flat with a view of the Capitol on the top floor of MassCourt, a modern apartment complex on Massachusetts Avenue. Moving from Colorado to Washington was “somewhat intimidating”, Salazar recalls, but his goal was to find “an affordable place to live and, at the time, MassCourt had specials”. The “always good” Chinese restaurants were another draw, as was the convenience of being close to work.
Although that part of Chinatown is just 12 blocks from the White House, it has long been seen as one of the US capital’s edgier neighbourhoods, more frequently associated with prostitutes than politicians. GoogleEarth satellite images of the broader eastern downtown area – which runs roughly from 10th Street to 3rd Street and south from the Mount Vernon neighbourhood to the green, open space of the National Mall – still show makeshift parking lots sprinkled between nondescript government buildings.
But those pictures were taken before developers started pouring tons of money and concrete into the area. Cranes now dot the sky and new residential buildings are popping up along Massachusetts Avenue, which separates Chinatown from Mount Vernon to the north-east. Both areas are following in the footsteps of Penn Quarter, which was the first neighbourhood to help change the image of east downtown as a no go zone. “For several years the whole area has looked like a postwar area, there has been so much reconstruction that it looks as though it can only be the result of massive bombing runs,” says Eric Roston, until recently a tenant at the Meridian apartment complex, on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 5th Street.
At the peak of the Washington real estate boom two years ago, buyers were snapping up “presale” properties in the new buildings before the foundations had even been laid. Now, although the eastern downtown area as a whole has fared better than others in the city, according to Lance Horsley of real estate agency Long and Foster, prospective residents and investors are being more cautious. Still, that means there are some bargains to be had. With another 1,000 condominiums set to hit the market soon, developers have started to offer deep discounts.
One-bedroom condos in the area are now priced from $350,000-$400,000, while two-bedroom, two-bathroom properties list at $500,000-$600,000. Amenities include rooftop pools, gyms, laundry services and concierges, none of which can be found in Washington’s older buildings. In Chinatown, many of the older Chinese residents are selling their properties to developers for million-dollar price tags, while new buildings are being built on parking lots that have been empty for years. Rents, meanwhile, have continued to rise, partly because of a seemingly never-ending supply of student tenants from the nearby Georgetown University law school.
East downtown began its transition to a semi-residential neighbourhood in 1997 when the MCI Center (now the Verizon Center) opened one block from the Chinatown gate on 7th and H Streets. The $200m sports-and-entertainment complex, home to the Washington Wizards basketball team, heralded a change in both image and atmosphere for the area. In addition to residential and commercial buildings such as Gallery Place, which houses a multiplex cinema and bowling alley, the area has attracted gyms, clothes outlets and shops such as Bed, Bath and Beyond, which stocks everything from shaving cream to curtains. A Juan Valdez coffee house offers a welcome alternative to Starbucks.
“Downtown was desolate, certainly after 5pm,” says Horsley. But “now it is one of the few areas that has enough people and craziness going on all the time, and restaurants. It really reminds me of Manhattan.”
The transition didn’t happen immediately, says Pamela Farrell, who considered moving to the area in 2004 before relocating to New York for work. Even then, “you had to be a bit pioneering”, she says. She has recently returned to rent an apartment in the Clara Barton condominium complex. “It is not like the rest of DC...where there is not a lot of diversity. It reminded me of New York.”
Aside from the usual collection of junk-food outlets – albeit with their names written in Chinese because of a city ordinance – there is a range of more interesting offerings, including Indian, Thai, Burmese, Turkish, French and the obligatory not-very-Irish pub. Several blocks west of the Verizon Center, across from the Ford Theatre, is the charming, family-run Bistro D’Oc. On the bustling intersection of 7th and H streets is Zengo – literally “before” and “after” in Japanese – where Latin and Asian cuisines make unusual bedfellows. Tony Cheng’s and FuKi’s are also favourites though most of the good Chinese restaurants are found in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. Residents complain that there is still no big supermarket but Giant offers home delivery to the area and a Safeway is expected to move in later this year.
Duane Wang, the unofficial 82-year-old “mayor” of Chinatown, says the neighbourhood has changed dramatically since he arrived in the 1950s to help a friend open some Chinese restaurants to satisfy demand from returning second world war veterans who had served in Asia. “It was not too safe here, especially after the riots,” he says, referring to the chaos that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.
Chatting over lunch, he explains that 15 years ago most of the clientele would have been Chinese but, since the opening of the MCI Center, the composition of residents and visitors has gradually changed. Now, Chinatown is one of the few diverse areas in Washington’s north-west quadrant; others are predominantly white even though the overall city population is 57 per cent black.
Strolling south from the area brings you to Penn Quarter, which has more of a neighbourhood feel since its gentrification is largely complete. A slightly more expensive area – where rented apartments, for example, probably command at least a $500-a-month premium over the buildings along Massachusetts Avenue – it is even closer to the National Mall, a plethora of free museums and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. What had been a “ghost town” has over the past 10 years become a thriving centre for businesses and residents, says Arpad Lengyel, the Hungarian-born executive chef of local teahouse Teaism.
The local farmers’ market, which runs every Thursday afternoon, is a favourite with locals as well as FBI agents who work nearby. And Cowgirl Creamery, a cheese shop with an extensive array of foreign and American dairy products, recently opened. Owners Peggy Smith and Sue Conley were originally looking for a location in Dupont Circle, a bourgeois bohemian neighbourhood in central Washington. But they decided on Penn Quarter because “it seemed so alive”.
Patricia Campos Mello, the Washington correspondent for O Estado de São Paulo, the Brazilian newspaper, says her decision to move to Penn Quarter was partly to be near the open space of the National Mall – “my Border Collie, Sarah, loves to go for a walk”, she says – but also because of the many dining options nearby. She rents a two-bedroom apartment for $2,600 in the Lexington building.
Not everyone is happy. Margery Goldberg, the owner of Zenith Gallery, moved to the area in the 1980s, when local alleys had to be swept clean of condoms. In the past five years her rent has doubled but she doesn’t think the area has improved enough to warrant it. “This is supposed to be the arrived neighbourhood and people have to walk over [homeless] bodies,” she says, though the same is true in many parts of central Washington.
Wang, meanwhile, is working to preserve the old Chinatown amid all the new development. He has founded the Chinese Cultural Center, which provides English lessons to new immigrants in addition to Chinese and calligraphy classes, in space provided by the developers of Gallery Place, to help the area retain some of the past. “All we can do is try to keep the culture and the history,” he says.
Long and Foster, tel: +1 888-752 6637; www.longandfoster.com