A ‘Little Saigon’ district in Fields Corner? Village is conflicted

A back-and-forth over the designation of a cultural district in Fields Corner that would directly recognize the large Vietnamese community that has settled in the neighborhood remains a contentious debate, with the public divided between advocates and those who feel that the preferred district name, “Little Saigon,” fails to reflect the identities of other village residents.

A cultural district has that designation for five years, and, according to the state, it has “a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets” and “is a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic, and economic activity.”

The Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts, which includes some 20 independent Vietnamese organizations, plans to submit an application after Thanksgiving to create the cultural district. This would be an overlay proposition, meaning that the Fields Corner name will remain as is, and that the cultural district’s boundaries may not align exactly with the village’s traditional border lines.

In 2010, about seven in ten of the city’s foreign-born Vietnamese residents lived in Dorchester, according to the US census. Proponents of the designation feel that the name “Little Saigon” reflects the roots and heritage of the Vietnamese who have chosen to make Dorchester, and Fields Corner specifically, their home over the years.

“I understand that some folks are not thrilled with that,” said member Annie Le, “but we want to preserve the culture and history of Vietnamese people who have come to Boston and Massachusetts.”

Saigon was the capital of US-backed South Vietnam until the name was formally changed to Ho Chi Minh City, a salute to the Vietnamese revolutionary, when the North took over the city at war’s end in 1975. Many Vietnamese and visitors, especially in the south, still refer to the city as Saigon.

Le, who used to work in City Councillor Michelle Wu’s office, said that her group has only participated in information sessions so far and has not submitted an official application. She presented to the Fields Corner Civic Association on behalf of the Vietnamese community group, and reaction at the session was mixed.

“It started a pretty good discussion about the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the name,” said area resident Steve Sousa. “Generally, outside of the Vietnamese community, everybody else in Fields Corner has a great deal of difficulty with that name.”

Speaking of the presentation, Debbie Sousa mentioned how “disappointed” she was “that in an area that is so inclusive and diverse” there would be discussion about naming the cultural district “Little Saigon.”

While the Vietnamese population of Dorchester is greater than anywhere else in the state, it does not make up a majority in the possible cultural district, Debbie Sousa said. According to city planning data, Fields Corner makes up the bottom half of the ongoing Glovers Corner area, which is 43 percent Asian, 28 percent white, 22 percent African American, and 6 percent Hispanic or Latino.

“The folks who are involved are also interested in a Glovers Corner piece,” Le said. “They do go hand in hand. What has been happening in Fields Corner is that Vietnamese groups have been on their own, doing their own things, very silo-ed. We are now thinking, why don’t we interact more with our neighbors and people in the area?”

On its website, the city describes Fields Corner as “the heart of the Vietnamese community in Boston. There you’ll find the first Vietnamese Community Center in the country and the best Vietnamese restaurants in the City.”

Former Viet-AID director Hiep Chu, who was one of the Fields Corner organization’s founding members, is part of the civic group calling for the new designation, but he didn’t express an opinion at the presentation, the Sousas said, with Steve adding that much of the presentation focused on the community and the significance of the Vietnamese residents and businesses in helping to revitalize the village.

“How does the Blarney Stone fit into Little Saigon, or Antonio’s Pizza?” he asked. “It’s an exclusive name, and you can be certain there’s gonna be signs going up that are going to drop the Fields Corner identity.”

Wu said her office is looking for committed community partnerships pushing the cultural district, but she emphasized that the district would bring new attention and recognition to the area, not displace the existing mix of cultures and businesses.

“I want to make sure everyone knows what being discussed here,” she told the Reporter. “There is no attempt to take down any of the signs that say Fields Corner and replace it with signs that say Little Saigon or whatever the name may be. It is formal recognition by the Mass Cultural Council that there’s a significant amount of arts and cultural capital in an area.”

Other districts, like Boston’s Literary Cultural District, the Fenway and Roxbury cultural districts, and others around the state are mostly untethered to a particular ethnic group, they note. The only similar district would be the Latin Quarter in Jamaica Plain.

“We’ve gotten a lot of advice from the Latin Quarter,” Le said. “It is part of JP; they did not change the name of Jackson Square at all, and there are other non-Latin businesses in that district, and they just support one another.” The Blarney Stone, she said, would fit right in and benefit from new attention and customers in the district.

The final decision will go to the Massachusetts Cultural Council after it works its way through the municipal process and more meetings.

“The most impactful and effective cultural districts come from a committed community partnership, so my colleagues and I really like to see that there is a group of devoted community members driving the initiative,” Wu said. “We likely won‘t file in the council until they come to some decisions about what assets to include and what the map is looking like.”

City hearings would take place alongside the state council offering advice, she said.

Said Le: “We’ve been trying to spend a lot of time solidifying our team. The next step is to reach out to all the organizations and businesses — some people were saying, why haven‘t we heard anything about this? – well, that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re in the midst of the engagement piece. It’s not like we submitted an application; we haven’t even written it.”