Little Saigon is in decline and has been for some time. Fewer than 300 people live here, but then this small, tightly framed district has long centered on commerce, rife with struggling Vietnamese merchants, for the most part, whose economic survival relies almost exclusively on outside traffic.
The merchants today are angry and resentful. Most of them came to Seattle as child refugees during the height of the Vietnam War or not long after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. They’ve watched their neighborhood go to seed, lacking the financial means or political clout to prevent it, and now are deeply suspicious of recent proposals to give the area a badly needed makeover—an effort driven by the upcoming installation of the First Hill Streetcar that will connect Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill via their strip of Jackson Street.
As one disgruntled expatriate, a business owner, said, stomping out a cigarette in the Viet-Wah Supermarket parking lot, “If the streetcar was not going to be running through here, do you really think anyone would be paying any attention to us?” The question is raised at a time when “transit-oriented development” is all the rage, with its promise of dense, mixed-use projects—expensive two-bedroom condos and upscale apartments high above trendy cafes and spas—connected by high-quality public transportation. But at what cost to the modest-scale entrepreneurs who make Little Saigon tick?
The intersection of 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street comprises Little Saigon’s commercial heart, a colorful, bustling jumble of more than 100 mom-and-pop shops: nail and hair salons, jewelry stores, Vietnamese delis and restaurants, travel agencies, and pocket-sized grocery stores selling dried bean-curd sticks, guilinggao powder, and hulled millet. The walls of many of these businesses are stained with graffiti. Sidewalks are badly cracked, and vacant lots are strewn with garbage and smell of urine and pot smoke. In the past year, four massage parlors have opened in and around this storied intersection, their red neon lights aglow well past midnight. They replaced a travel agency, a couple of small eateries, and a tax service. It is a foreboding place to visit at night, merchants opine.
“As much as I love Little Saigon, I wouldn’t bring my children there. It’s not safe after dark,” observes Vietnamese-born Theresa Reyna, vice president of Friends of Little Saigon, a grassroots organization created in 2011 to promote the neighborhood’s economic development and cultural events.
On the southern fringe of Little Saigon, at 10th Avenue and South Dearborn Street, the Nickelsville homeless encampment, sanctioned by the city last September with little input from the Vietnamese community, has taken full root. Tents and gray and pink wooden structures have sprouted along that corner across from a freeway entrance. Merchants, many reluctant to speak on the record, bitterly complain that camp dwellers wander each day into their neighborhood, loitering on poorly lit street corners and panhandling outside their weathered shop fronts, driving away business.
“I’ve had some of them, crackheads, out in front of our store peeing all over the place. It happens all the time now, and nothing is ever done about it,” fumes Lynette Dang, whose husband’s family opened Kim Ngoc Jewelry in 1986. That was the year Vietnamese merchants created their own commercial center east of Chinatown, earning Little Saigon its nickname. Today it caters to the 12,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians who live in Seattle.
To the immediate west, I-5 seems to seal off Little Saigon from the rest of the Chinatown International District, while up on a hillside to the north, Vulcan Real Estate will soon be underway on a $200 million development that will turn Yesler Terrace’s 30 acres of publicly subsidized housing into a mid-rise apartment building, with construction commencing on two more buildings in 2017 and 2018. When it’s done, there will be a new neighborhood of 5,000 residences and nearly a million square feet of tech and medical office space. Vulcan’s Ada Healey recently predicted that within a decade, Yesler Terrace “is going to be kind of like South Lake Union.”
On a cool, cloudy morning, Tam Nguyen sips tea at the ChuMinh Tofu & Vegetarian Deli and motions me to come sit by the window. “I want you to see the tons of people who come to Little Saigon for medical marijuana,” he says. Sure enough, soon a couple of scruffy young men, each toting backpacks, enter the dispensary at a nondescript strip mall across from the Asian Plaza. “This is the kind of thing that has been very disruptive to our community. The city says they are concerned about Little Saigon, but talk is cheap. We were the last to know about the homeless encampment coming in.”
A short, wiry man, Nguyen and his family left his native Vietnam in 1964. He was 16 when he arrived in Little Saigon. Today, Nguyen runs the elegantly appointed Tamarind Tree restaurant, which, he says, has been broken into a number of times over the past couple of years. Well-known and well-regarded in the community, he serves as president of Friends of Little Saigon. The organization is partnering with the city and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) to devise so-called “place-making” plans in hopes of forging a more attractive locale—better lighting, more foliage, decorative crosswalks, and incorporating cultural icons into the signage—as well as creating some multistory and mixed-use developments. (City zoning laws approved in 2007 allow for building heights up to 85 feet, or about eight stories, in Little Saigon.) There is even talk of an Asian Landmark Center that would anchor the southwest corner at 12th and Jackson.
But skeptics abound. The main worry, shared by many frustrated Vietnamese merchants, is that a significant facelift, no matter how authentic and tasteful, will drive up property values, resulting in higher rents that could force them out of Little Saigon.
“The business properties are not owned by the Vietnamese people,” explains Nguyen. “The landlords are mostly Chinese and Taiwanese. They do not pay attention to these properties and they will raise the rents, and that could lead to displacement.”
Quynh Pham, community economic development coordinator for SCIDpda, agrees that there is a “risk of displacement,” and says that whatever development takes place must take into account Little Saigon’s existing culture and community. “Yes, there is skepticism and a feeling [among Vietnamese business people] that many property owners really don’t care about the district. There is such a disconnect with the Chinatown International District. People think we are all the same [place].”
Nothing is set in stone, and most of the planning is still on the drawing board, says Jamie Lee, program manager for IDEA Space, SCIDpda’s design and resource center. Robert Sculley, a community-development planner for the Seattle Planning Department, stresses that the city “wants to see that the mom-and-pop businesses [in Little Saigon] stay there.”
Nguyen is dubious. “This community has been neglected by the city,” he says. “We have no voice in our own community.” During construction of the streetcar line (expected to begin operation this fall), streets were closed on weekends, Nguyen recalls, and businesses suffered. “They [the city] basically told us, ‘Deal with it.’ People here tell me, ‘Tam, don’t waste your time. They will do what they want to do.’ See, because of our Vietnamese culture and because of the war, we do not trust government.”
He continues, “They keep saying they want to preserve the heritage and traditions of this community, but then they dump the homeless on us, and in comes the marijuana shops, the massage parlors. Crime is going up, and we [Vietnamese residents] keep migrating south to live.”
Little Saigon has seen numerous incarnations over the last century. The neighborhood’s first residents were Jewish and African American, and its current center at 12th and Jackson was once a magnet for the city’s jazz scene. Russell “Noodles” Smith and Jimmy Woodland opened the famed Entertainers Club at this intersection in 1920. At that time, as Northwest Asian Weekly
chronicled in a story from last year, “South Jackson Street also became a social hotspot for Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese residents.” Later, World War II and the defense jobs it created brought thousands of African Americans to Seattle—many of them moving into the homes and apartments occupied by the Japanese families who were relocated in 1942 to camps under Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066.
Taylor Hoang has seen plenty of changes since leaving Vietnam and coming to Little Saigon as a little girl in 1982. Her family has always had a business here, the venerable Huong Binh Restaurant. “Over the last 10 years, there has been constant pressure from the outside pushing in on us,” reflects Hoang, who owns Pho Cyclo Cafe and Lavender Jade Catering. “Vietnamese people who have moved away still come back [to Little Saigon] and they feel connected. But they come infrequently now. There are so many problems. The neighborhood is being taken over by drugs, the homelessness—and it is driving customers away. This is absolutely crazy. Without help, we are going to lose Little Saigon.”
Hoang, executive director of the Ethnic Community Coalition, says Little Saigon will not survive if the only focus is on new real-estate development. “We need assistance for the business owners to grow and attract new customers,” says Hoang. “The places are run-down. The owners need capital to fix their facades, to buy new equipment and inventory, and for general cleanup. If we are going to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood, we need to keep the mom-and-pop businesses here.”
Nguyen, though, says it’s difficult to be optimistic. “There has been no real change since I came here in 1980. I think it is getting worse,” he says. “How long can a community be neglected? We need now to demand that the city help us.”