Response to Chinatown Disneyfication

Last month I highlighted the Citypaper’s posting on the “Disneyfication” of Chinatown. Among the items the author described as superficial Disneyfication were converting the usually-blue wayfinding signs to ornamental red, installing Chinese inspired lampposts and benches, designing bike racks and crosswalks in the shape of stylized dragons, adding a “Chinese-themed” sculpture to Chinatown Park, the translation of street signs into Chinese characters, commissioning “Chinese-inspired” murals for blank commercial storefronts, and installing more decorative Zodiac pavers.

I’ve wanted to dedicate a post to respond to that argument. It is increasingly difficult for me to find time for longer posts but this is a good one to end the year 2011 on…

I disagree with a blanket statement that any Chinese theme to the streetspace improvements is automatically farcical or superficial Disneyfication. I’ve visited other cities with successful public spaces that integrate the heritage of the past into the redesigned streetscape of the future. Pittsburgh for instance has a massive old steel mill furnace repurposed as public art in a plaza. That is meaningful and interesting. In contrast think about 5th & K in the Mount Vernon Triangle. The site of City Vista once was home to a beautiful building that served as a central market and later a convention hall. How great would it have been if the public art integrated at 5th & K payed homage to that heritage of the site? Instead we installed abstract twisted metal sculptures named Lift Off and Inspiration that aren’t really embraced. I think an opportunity for truly great placemaking art was missed in favor off somewhat generic abstract art.

Yellow Thing

No to Chinese inspired design for Chinatown? Must we always resort to safe generic abstract art like Lift Off in MVT

I believe the Chinatown theme can be done successfully in moderation and with a tasteful eye. Tasteful may be too much to expect of from government (fingers crossed) but moderation is possible. First and foremost I think it is important to limit the boundaries of the Chinatown theme. I would recommend 5th to 7th east-west and I to H (including Chinatown Park) north to south. In my mind it shouldn’t spill into Gallery Place or office blocks that are completely devoid of historic fabric buildings. I’m in favor of having the red wayfinding signage. Installing Chinese inspired lampposts, benches, bike racks and crosswalks seems reasonable to me but I would strongly favor using mostly Chinese motif geometric patterns rather than overdoing the dragons. Zodiac pavers also would be a welcome – I feel DC doesn’t utilize special pavers nearly as much as they should for a place of it’s stature. Chinatown park would benefit from a red iron fence with a Chinese geometric pattern, new lamp posts, some nice pavers for the paths through the park and a statue or fountain of some kind. I’m not familiar with all the proposed elements in the Office of Planning recommendations but the one I heard about that I’m not in favor of would be putting the street signs in Chinese.

These enhancements could up the ante for Chinatown and elevate it to a different level. Of course Chinatown is doing well as-is so it’s debatable as to whether upgrades are necessities. If I had to prioritize only Chinatown Park is in desperate need of improvement.

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  1. 1

    yellowliner says

    Thanks for your insights. I have mixed feelings. Neighborhoods change, people and populations move. (This neighborhood, in fact, was once home for German immigrants, and traces of that are still evident, if you know to look.) Imposing faux Chinatownification on a neighborhood that is home to so very few Chinese residents and businesses rings false. That said, I do like the idea artwork honoring the history of the neighborhood. So next up, a German piece?

  2. 2

    Sarah says

    Many of the parents of MVT have responded to requests from the city asking that the art be a “living” art, or something the kids can use to climb on. We haven’t heard back. In fact, the City has said that the “friends of chinatown park” have been working to upgrade the park for over 7 years. The “new” plan was just approved this past month.

  3. 3


    Chinatown Park is in desperate need of a redo. Fortunately minimal updates will happen in the spring.

    It would be great to have some art like Sarah mentioned. There are no outdoor play spaces for kids in Downtown DC. Fun public art seems like the best solution. Unfortunately the Lift Off is appealing to my daughter, but you can’t really do anything on it. Atlanta and other cities are focusing on playable art. DC should follow suit.

    The Downtown DC Playground Group has been searching for outdoor play space since February. Chinatown Park also comes up as an obvious place for play, but the lengthy overhaul of the park has caused us to back away. The Fine Arts Commission approved the plan in 2004 and the NPS updates will happen in 2012. We did however encourage people to submit comments to the NPS web site regarding the Chinatown Park plan. The comment deadline just passed as of December 23rd at midnight.