The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
Wander down Dorchester Avenue in Fields Corner, and it’s hard not to miss the mark that Vietnamese immigrants have made on the community: Pho noodle shops, Asian groceries, and Vietnamese travel agencies line the street to serve an immigrant population that’s grown in strength since many first landed in the neighborhood as refugees in the 1980s.
Soon, this ethnic enclave of 9,000 residents will officially be known as “Boston Little Saigon,” thanks to the work of the nonprofit Networking Organization of Vietnamese Americans and support from the Boston City Council. It’s a designation significant to the neighborhood’s past and future, and for many in Fields Corner’s Vietnamese business community, a full-circle moment, one that celebrates the contributions they’ve made to the neighborhood in the four decades since they arrived.
Back then, Fields Corner was at one of its lowest points.
“Lots of fires were being set. It was economically depressed. Business owners were trying to burn out their business and get out,” said UMass Boston professor Paul Watanabe, who oversees the university’s Institute for Asian American Studies and has closely followed the neighborhood for decades. Vietnamese store owners stepped in to serve the growing immigrant population, and in so doing, brought Fields Corner back from the brink.
But it was one particular incident, Watanabe says, that shifted the mindset of the Vietnamese community.
In 1992, as he advanced along the route of the Dorchester Day parade, Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, the late Boston city councilor, was caught on video making a snide comment comparing Fields Corner to Saigon as he approached the stretch of immigrant-owned businesses along Dot. Ave. The indignity drew the ire of the neighborhood and mobilized the immigrant community.
“It was a galvanizing event,” Watanabe said.
In the ensuing years, the Vietnamese became more politically active. The VietAID Community Development Corporation was formed. And that helped the business community continue to grow alongside the population, to the point where two-thirds of the local businesses were Vietnamese-owned.
But today, as new developments spring up around the neighborhood, the same displacement challenges facing Vietnamese residents also face its business owners. Commercial rents have been rising, and the residents who have long relied on their storefronts are moving out due to increased housing costs. Many Vietnamese business owners in Boston are self-employed in lower-paying service industries, making them more vulnerable to economic upheaval.
“The success the Vietnamese businesses have had in revitalizing the area could now be the source of its own downfall,” Watanabe said. “They may be forced out of their own area that they were helpful in bringing back.”
Lisette Le, executive director of VietAID, said those challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the kind of Anti-Asian racism that has plagued other business districts throughout the city and country. Le and her colleagues have been working to ensure that many business owners, who often sought out financing from friends and family to start their businesses instead of traditional banks, get access to Paycheck Protection Program funds and other government support.
“There’s a lot of concern that these businesses that cater to the working-class Vietnamese won’t be able to stay” she said.
And now, second-generation business owners are stepping in to continue the hard work. Tran Le, whose parents opened the Pho Le restaurant two decades ago, has now taken the helm of the family business, and spent the past year engaging with the Vietnamese Business Association to help her neighbors get access to Small Business Administration funds. “It’s something I had to do,” she said. “If you don’t speak English, you wouldn’t know.”
And Tam Le (no relation to Tran), whose father owns the Pho Hoa restaurant on Dot Ave. and developed the building full of Vietnamese-owned businesses where it now resides, said it was important for him to be part of the effort to create Boston Little Saigon, which he hopes will soon be approved by the Mass Cultural Council.
The cultural district will be the fifth in the city, and is especially meaningful to Le, as someone who saw his family’s business flourish in Fields Corner, and now, as the owner of the Reign Drink Lab, is introducing Vietnamese culture — and its potent coffee drinks — to a broader population of Dorchester residents. He hopes that in the future, Fields Corner will continue to be a place where his heritage will be celebrated.
“I think development is great, but there is kind of a soul in Fields Corner, and it would be great if we could keep it,” he said. “This is an opportunity for Vietnamese people to plant a flag and feel at home.”
Read more about Fields Corner and explore the full On the Street series.