Penn Quarter/Chinatown: DC’s Go-Go-Go Neighborhood

by Amanda Abrams

Penn Quarter by otavio_dc

If an urban area is defined as a place with chockablock storefronts, sophisticated restaurants, and a high ratio of pedestrians per square foot of pavement, then DC’s most urban neighborhood would have to be Penn Quarter/Chinatown. Regardless what time of day, the area always seems to draw a crowd, whether it’s red-jerseyed Capitals fans, hanging-out teenagers, or folks swankily decked out for the night.

But there’s another definition of urban, and that’s the idea of a bustling retail area that also has a residential component animating it. These days, Penn Quarter/Chinatown’s got that, too. While most DC area residents think of the area as simply a place to visit on the weekends, it’s gradually grown all of the services that a genuine neighborhood requires, allowing several thousand District residents to call it home.

From Seedy to Built Out in Less Than Two Decades

The Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood stretches from Pennsylvania Avenue to Massachusetts Avenue, and from 4th Street to 10th Street.

Talk to a native Washingtonian and they’ll tell you about the old Chinatown—a rundown area that was not considered safe after dark. Things began to change in the early 1990s and picked up speed in 1997, when the Verizon Center (then called the MCI Center) opened. In a relatively short period of time, 7th Street, the area’s main spine, was lined with shops and restaurants, particularly near the Gallery Place Metro station. Meanwhile, Penn Quarter proper, south of F Street, has developed more slowly, as have surrounding blocks.

You Might Not See Them, But They’re There

It’s easy to wander around the neighborhood without even realizing that many of the stores and restaurants are topped by condo and apartment buildings. They’re there, though, often sitting right next to office buildings, and even above the Gallery Place Metro station.

Coldwell Banker’s Tammy Britt and Evan Johnson say that the area is popular among buyers, and that demand remains steadily high. “Most properties go pretty quickly, depending on price,” Johnson told UrbanTurf. 

Condo building at 912 F Street

The vast majority of condo units are one-bedrooms, and recent sales have ranged anywhere from $298,000 to $599,000, according to Britt. A studio apartment sold for $250,000 a few months ago, and two-bedrooms usually sell for between $410,000 and $624,000, though prices in certain boutique buildings have gone as high as $1.3 million. Buyers will find that most units in the area have fairly high condo fees compared to the rest of the city in order to cover expenses like in-house fitness centers and 24-hour front desks.

The neighborhood isn’t the place in DC to find cheap rentals. One-bedroom apartments rent for between $1,800 and $2,400 a month, and two-bedrooms are anywhere from $2,300 to $3,000 or higher.

A Very Specific Demographic

Given the property prices and rents, it’s unsurprising that most of the neighborhood’s residents are young professionals with reasonably-sized disposable incomes. Stand on the street and watch passers-by around rush hour, and just about everyone heading into the area residences are in their 20s, 30s, or 40s.

7th and H Streets NW

Lauren and Jason, both 28, bought a condo on Massachusetts Avenue a year and a half ago. He’s a lawyer and she works on Capitol Hill, and so far, they have been enjoying their new home and the neighborhood.

“The building we live in has happy hours, and I’ve found it pretty easy to meet people,” said Lauren. “A lot of my friends live in the building.” The only downside, she said, was that the Penn Quarter doesn’t have quite the character of some of DC’s older neighborhoods.

Lots and Lots of Entertainment Options

One of the biggest draws about Penn Quarter/Chinatown is the area’s many amenities that offer a slew of things to do. “I love it,” said Susan Dove, a 27-year-old graphic designer who moved to the neighborhood with her boyfriend in November. A former Cleveland Park resident, she said it’s been a nice change having tons of stuff going on right outside their door.

Besides the Verizon Center’s concerts and sports events, Regal Gallery Place movie theater is right in the middle of the neighborhood, as are the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Shakespeare Theater. Arguably the most accessible Smithsonian museum, the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery, presides nobly over the area, and while the Penn Quarter isn’t the place to go if you’re seeking a patch of green, the National Mall is only a few blocks to the south.

Making guacamole at Oyamel

The Range of Possibilities is Slowly Expanding

While the busy block near the Gallery Place Metro station is packed with chain restaurants and fast food, to the south and west are a number of DC’s better restaurants, like Jose Andres’ quartet of tasty eateries (Oyamel, Jaleo, Café Atlantico, and Zaytinya); Proof, an upscale wine bar and restaurant; and Poste, a classy brasserie in the middle of Hotel Monaco.

In addition to chains catering to tourists and sports fans and upscale restaurants designed for those with big bucks, the area is gradually developing more varied options—places like Vapaiano, Pho DC, Pitango Gelato, and Chinatown Coffee—that make it feel, little by little, more like an authentic neighborhood than a pre-planned one.

Noise? People? It Comes With the Territory

The disadvantage of living in a place with so much happening is that the streets are rarely quiet. And while that may be fine for those seeking a Manhattan-type vibe, it can get a little old for those who want a quieter atmosphere when they come home at night.

But Evan Johnson, the realtor and also a resident, learned pretty quickly how to read the neighborhood. He’s adjusted his schedule to work out at 5:30am, when everything’s quiet, and he stays away from certain restaurants in the evenings, depending on what’s going on that night.

Susan Dove said that the noise on the street was a major problem at first; she and her boyfriend live in a corner unit facing 7th Street and found “those Caps fans to be really loud.” But they bought a sleep machine for the noise and it hasn’t been a problem since.

Verizon Center

Bark, But Not Much Bite

Gallery Place developed a notorious reputation over the last year as a place where unruly groups of teenagers liked to hang out; several fights have been reported on and around the Metro, and last fall, business owners installed a machine emitting a high pitched sound that they hoped would keep the younger groups away (they discontinued it a month later due to the public outcry). But no one that UrbanTurf spoke to said they felt unsafe in the area, including Lauren, the Hill staffer, who said that the area feels a lot safer than when she moved in eighteen months ago.

Could Transit Options Get Any Better?

Public transit options in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood are plentiful. One of the city’s busiest Metro stations, Gallery Place (on the Red and Green/Yellow lines) is smack in the center of the neighborhood, and Metro Center (on the Red and Blue/Orange lines), another of the city’s most-used transit hubs, is on its fringes. A couple of other stations on the Green/Yellow lines are also in or near the neighborhood.

Numerous bus routes run right through the neighborhood, which is also central enough that residents easily get around much of the city by bicycle. 

As for parking, residents who are determined to have cars in the neighborhood have to pay for it: on-street parking is hard to come by, which means most people pay several hundred dollars a month for a spot in a garage. Jason, the lawyer, sold his car a few months ago and said it was the best decision he’s made all year.

The Bottom Line

For the past few years, the Penn Quarter neighborhood has been a bit of an outlier in DC: the area’s non-stop energy level made it a great place to hang out, but living there meant cultivating an appetite for constant activity. These days, the activity is still around, but the neighborhood seems to be mellowing a bit, which means it’s becoming a viable option for a wider range of home buyers.

Amanda Abrams is a Washington, DC-based journalist who has written feature stories for The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Washington City Paper.

Note: A reader emailed UrbanTurf and said that the machine installed at the Gallery Place Metro last summer was not installed to keep younger groups away, but to discourage loiterers of all ages.

More Info on Penn Quarter

  • Zip code: 20001
  • Penn Quarter Living
  • Schools: Thomson Elementary School, Jefferson Middle School, Dunbar High School
  • Penn Quarter/Chinatown real estate data and profile from Redfin
  • Penn Quarter/Chinatown rental listings from Craigslist


See other articles related to: penn quarter, hoods, dclofts

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/penn_quarter_chinatown_dcs_go-go-go_neighborhood/2971


  1. Mary C said at 10:56 am on Thursday February 10, 2011:

    Dead on description of the area. I am absolutely fascinated by the dog whistle used to disband groups of teenagers…maybe the worst/most intriguing idea of 2010.

  1. SW said at 4:39 pm on Thursday February 10, 2011:

    “A reader emailed UrbanTurf and said that the machine installed at the Gallery Place Metro last summer was not installed to keep younger groups away, but to discourage loiterers of all ages. Apparently, the media misunderstood the situation, thinking that the device was meant to deter teens.”

    Sorry, that’s incorrect. Studies show that younger people can hear certain high frequencies that older people cannot. When I walked past the mosquito last summer, I couldn’t hear the noise. End of discussion.

  1. Kim said at 2:39 pm on Friday February 11, 2011:

    I’m with you, SW. I’m 27 and could hear it faintly, but my similar-aged friends could not. It was clearly meant to deter teens (and possibly those in their early 20’s).

  1. Mobi said at 3:32 pm on Friday February 11, 2011:

    Where are the crime stats?

    You can do your own research at:


    I’m guessing 1,500 ft within 800 7th St NW covers the neighborhood.

  1. Wes Grooms said at 7:10 pm on Friday February 11, 2011:

    Penn Quarter also is zip 20004.  I do lots of work in the neighborhood as well.  Feel free to contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 202-549-1779.  I’ll be happy to assist!

  1. Scott said at 12:06 am on Sunday February 13, 2011:

    Evan Johnson was my agent when I bought in the neighborhood.  I’d highly recommend working with him.

  1. DCResident said at 8:11 am on Friday March 11, 2011:

    Crime stats don’t tell the whole story. 

    A lot of things don’t get reported to police.

    There are esssentially roving gangs of youth in the neighborhood, mostly centered around the movie theater and metro area, but they tend to wander from block to block.

    I’ve seen shakedowns for cash (very aggressive threatening panhandling) and they seem to target people with electronic devices - Ipods, etc.

    And Metro has reported repeatedly that the Gallery Place metro stop is one of their worst, as far as crime.

    If memory serves me correctly the massive ‘rolling fight’ that involved several dozen people last year started at Gallery Place metro, then proceeded on metro to other stops.

    All in all an interesting neighborhood, with a great location,  but the street scene has gone from vibrant and fun to threatening and annoying over the last year to two years.

    I blame DC government.  They seem powerless to stop even basic vagrancy and loitering.

    But I also blame residents.  We pretend the problem doesn’t exist, thinking maybe if we just wish real hard the problem will go away.

  1. Joseph Greenberg said at 5:22 pm on Tuesday July 26, 2011:

    You should add Penn Quarter Insider to your list of websites: http://www.pqinsider.com

  1. Urbaniste said at 1:10 am on Tuesday November 1, 2011:

    Generally a very upbeat, nice article, with a few odd facts needing a bit of adjustment.

    The biggest change is that Penn Quarter is quit a bit larger than the author’s designation and to my knowledge, there is no subset of Penn Quarter/Chinatown. True, Chinatown is in Penn Quarter, because Penn Quarter extends on the west to 15th Street and on the east to the freeway.  The southern border is Pennsylvania Avenue, from whence we got the Penn in Penn Quarter; the northern border is NY Avenue east from 15th Street to 9th, around Mt. Vernon Square, then SE on Mass. Avenue to the freeway.

    I think that the author also reversed the retail and restaurant revival of 7th Street (I say revival because, along with F Street, 7th Street was one of the two major retail streets up to the post-WWII years.)

    Restaurants and shops south of F Street actually opened before the Verizon Center opened, some before there was thought of an arena in the Penn Quarter neighborhood or before Douglas Development tenanted the blockfront along the west side of 7th between G and H streets.  The restaurants and other lively uses south of F east of the FBI included Jaleo, Cafe Altantico, District ChopHouse, Pua, Illuminations, Olsson’s Books & Records, 701 Restaurant, Capital Grille, Austin Grill, The Mark (followed by Andale), Teaism, several art galleries including Zenith, Adamson, Numark, and WPA, Apartment Zero, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in addition to a succession of restaurants where Fiola, PAUL Bakery, and Cedar are now, plus a hair salon, two dry cleaners, a video store, and a small grocery store where CVS now is on 8th Street.  West of 7th we had Gordon Biersch, Ella’s, and McCormick & Schmick’s predecessor.  The glitch was that the blocks betwen 9th and 10th were among the last to be addressed leaving a long stretch of underoccupied buildings planned for redevelopment when the recession of the mid-1990s ended. 

    During the pre-recession years beginning in the early- to mid-1980’s, in the western half of Penn Quarter, we had Ford’s, Hard Rock, Chef Geoff’s (and its two predecessors), Les Halles (and its French bistro predecessor) the Occidental, Butterfield 9, Red Sage, Old Ebbit Grill, Finemondo’s predecessor, and the Shops at National Place, which before the recession in the 1980s had some cool shops that went bankrupt.

    Penn Quarter was smaller 20 years ago, but it was lively enough for the annual arts festival, Arts on Foot to take off.  It was also different than it is today; it was more a combination of new and renovated residenital and office buildings, restaurants, local retailers, older buildings not yet renovated or demolished, and lots of artists and enough art galleries to have Third Thursday each month with gallery crawls and shows opening.  There was great diversity then and it did not have all the attractions it has today, plus it was considerably smaller, but it was far from being a dull place to be. In fact, it was a pretty nice place to be; especially during the Inaugural Parade!

    I just want to suggest a few corrections, which follow.

    If the theater on D is not just the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, then your following reference to the Shakespeare Theater should instead be the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

    The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are two separate museums sharing one building, the former Patent Office. (note names of the museums.)

    “Jose Andres’ quartet of tasty eateries (Oyamel, Jaleo, Café Atlantico, and Zaytinya”
    was when you wrote the text and remains a quintet as it also includes minibar by José Andrés; and, of course, Café Atlantico is now America Eats Tavern.

    I hope you find this helpful.

    Sorry this is so long; I hope it is not tedious to wade through it.

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