The Friendship Arch in Chinatown

The Friendship Arch in Chinatown

On this bike ride I not only rode to but also under my destination, which was the Friendship Archway located just east of the intersection of 7th and H Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood.  The finished arch, 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.  Reminiscent of the architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Friendship Arch’s seven pagoda-style roofs have golden color symbolic of wealth and honor, and hundreds of ornately painted dragons to welcome visitors to D.C.’s historic Chinatown neighborhood.  Constructed in 1986, it was said to have been the largest Chinese archway in the world at that time, which is ironic inasmuch as it serves as a gateway to what may be the smallest Chinatown in the United States.

D.C.’s Chinatown is located between H and I Streets and 5th and 8th Streets in the northwest quadrant of the city.  It originally developed in the late 19th century around Pennsylvania Avenue near 4th Street, where John Marshall Place Park is now.  Like many immigrant populations during that time, Chinese immigrants faced discrimination and downright hostility.  The creation of Chinatowns in D.C. and in other cities around the country was in part a defense mechanism to create safe havens where new immigrants could find shelter, sustenance, and employment.  D.C’s original Chinatown was forcibly disbanded in 1931 when the land was taken over by the government for municipal projects, but a new Chinatown was soon established in the location where it remains today.

Just a half a century later, however, Chinatown seemed on the verge of extinction. By the early 1980’s, many successful neighborhood residents and businesses had departed for safer and more prosperous parts of the city, or for the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.  Chinatown still had a small cluster of restaurants and grocery stores, but the decline of the neighborhood, and the broader downtown area as a whole, made many wonder whether commercial establishments could remain viable in the future.  Chinatown community leaders, including chairman of the Chinatown Development Corporation and local architect Alfred H. Liu, who would go on to design the arch, argued in favor of creating a visible attraction that would serve as a magnet for visitors.

Within a few years, Mayor Marion Barry and other top city officials took a trip to Beijing to promote D.C. as an international business and finance center.  The trip was also in reciprocation for Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong’s visit to D.C. the previous fall.  This led to an agreement to establish D.C. and Beijing as sister cities.  And as part of the agreement, the two cities arranged to work together on a project to build a traditional archway in D.C.’s Chinatown.  The connection to Bejing and the People’s Republic of China met with objections from some Chinatown residents and business leaders, fearing that the Friendship Arch and Chinatown would be associated with the communist regime.  The arch’s opponents had enough clout to get their city council representative, John Wilson, to introduce a resolution opposing the arch’s construction.  And for a time there was talk of constructing a second, separate arch to rival the Friendship Arch.  In the end, plans for a rival arch never materialized, and upon its completion the Friendship Arch was widely embraced and celebrated.

Within a few years of its completion, however, the arch unexpectedly began to deteriorate.  At first a few tiles fell off.  Then, in June of 1990, one of the 100-pound carved dragons fell off and landed on the roof of a truck. Some saw it has an omen.  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.  In 1993 a major renovation project was undertaken, and the restoration of the Friendship Arch was completed shortly after Marion Barry was released from prison to be elected to the city council and then re-elected mayor.

Today D.C.’s Chinatown is home to a number of Chinese restaurants, a Chinese video store, a handful of general stores, and Chinese American cultural and religious charities.  It is also home to big national chain stores and restaurants, a theater, offices and high rise condominiums, and the Verizon Center, a sports and entertainment arena for the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards.  Unfortunately, the revitalization of the neighborhood is also a factor that contributed to the decline of its ethnic character.  But the Friendship Archway remains an enduring and iconic symbol of Chinatown’s heritage.

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