Seattle city officials must not leave Little Saigon behind, but those who live and work there ought to assume a greater role in controlling the district's future.
Little Saigon was once the only place in Seattle my Vietnamese parents and their immigrant friends enjoyed visiting. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, they would pile us kids into vans and drive an hour north from Olympia to give us a sense of where we came from.
In the heart of Little Saigon at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, my parents could stock up on fish sauce and exotic fruits at Viet-Wah, order off the menu in their native tongue at Thanh Vi restaurant and purchase their favorite singers’ CDs at Nguoi Dep Binh Duong.
There, we did not feel like foreigners. We were survivors and refugees in a new land, hungry for something to call our own.
Driving through that storied intersection today just isn’t the same. Little Saigon has changed.
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Within the last year, numerous massage parlors have opened with neon signs lit up late into the night. Even in the daytime, these store windows are completely covered with makeshift curtains.
At least three medical-marijuana dispensaries are within a block of one another. Seattle Caregivers, one of the stores located right next to my favorite childhood restaurant, recently unveiled a big marijuana vending machine. This same dispensary was operating without a business license when I stopped by a couple months ago to report on unregulated dispensaries. An employee sold marijuana to me without checking either my identification or whether I had authorization. When did it become OK for the savory aroma of pho and grilled pork to be spoiled by the pungent smell of weed?
There are also anecdotal reports of people threatening immigrant business owners, defecating on and vandalizing property. Should Little Saigon proprietors and visitors accept that as well?
On the edge of Little Saigon, the hillside across from the freeway entrance on South Dearborn Street is now covered in tents and pink structures housing the homeless. Mary’s Place recently opened another shelter near the boat-shaped Pho Bac restaurant. Homelessness is a citywide crisis, but the encampment and shelter were foisted on Little Saigon without input from the community.
It’s hard to imagine that so many sudden changes would fly in Wallingford, Ballard or Mercer Island.
“We want to help, but no one told us the impact of all this change and we don’t have the capacity to handle these issues,” says Tam Nguyen, owner of Tamarind Tree restaurant and president of the neighborhood organization Friends of Little Saigon.
Thanh Nga Nguyen, a Chu Minh Tofu & Vegetarian Deli employee, says she no longer feels safe. When she refused to let a non-customer use the deli’s restroom, he threatened to physically hurt her. There are more fights in the parking lot since a marijuana dispensary opened a few doors down. Fear keeps her from contacting police. She worries about retaliation. The one time she called for help, she could not understand the officers’ questions because English is her second language.
With 70 percent of visitors to Little Saigon living outside the area, most crime is never even reported to police. Absent more accurate data, authorities will continue to concentrate their resources elsewhere.
While more experienced activists in other neighborhoods have perfected the “Seattle process” of slowing down approval for unwanted businesses and developments, Little Saigon has struggled to find a collective voice.
Tam Nguyen and others say the community is still haunted by the ghosts of the Vietnam War. Even now, trust in government institutions — and in each other — is hard to come by.
“Other communities demand a process. We don’t know that process. Some of it is the Vietnamese culture,” Nguyen says. “We adapt to survive and thrive and do well. But we have this legacy of not raising our voice with the government and thinking that we don’t have that right.”
They do have that right. This mentality has to change.
Mayor Ed Murray is aware of the cultural barriers. Last week, he sent Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim and three other city officials to visit with local leaders at the nonprofit Helping Link. This is just a start — a welcome one that should improve communication.
Of course, real change comes from within. Those whose livelihoods depend on a safe and vibrant Little Saigon must organize, unite and speak up. It took nearly 40 years for Seattle’s early Vietnamese refugees to build the community that exists today. The district is now in decline. Without action, there is no guarantee Little Saigon will last forever.
Information in this article, originally published March 4, 2015, was corrected March 5, 2015. A previous version of this story included a photo caption that incorrectly spelled Huong Binh restaurant.