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Debate Over Naming Cultural District In Fields Corner

Little Saigon? Debate Simmers Over Naming Cultural District

A mural in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Boston illustrates the area's long history of diversity.
Meredith Nierman
Debate Over Naming Cultural District In Fields Corner

Along the bustling stretch of Dorchester Avenue that anchors Fields Corner, there's a conversation brewing. Business owners and long-time residents say the neighborhood is on the upswing and could benefit from forming a cultural district.

The state designation is given to areas for five years at a time with the goals of attracting arts, cultural enterprises, tourism, and business and job development, all while hopefully enhancing property values and raising the profile of the surrounding community.

The district is in the early planning stage, but for the past two months, a group of stakeholders have gathered in the small, lively, Fields Corner branch of the Boston Public Library to discuss their hopes and goals. It’s here that things have hit a snag — there's debate about what the district should, or shouldn’t, be called.

One faction is advocating for a name that acknowledges the nearly three-quarters of Boston’s foreign-born Vietnamese that live in Dorchester.

“You have to have a name of the place that you actually have a lot of activity related to the culture,” said Khang Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts. The umbrella group represents smaller ethnic associations across the state.

Khang Nguyen is Vice President of the Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts. The organization serves as the umbrella organization for 36 independent Vietnamese-American associations and organizations.
Meredith Nierman

Nguyen, 50, arrived in the United States in 1984. He said until recently, Fields Corner was a run down place where few wanted to operate businesses, much less live. But many Vietnamese did. He estimates there are now more than 100 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the area. He has been trying for several years to establish some formal recognition for the Vietnamese community.

“Somehow, we would like to have people know that we have [made] some contribution, to be fair,” he said in an interview with WGBH News.

Nguyen and others from his organization favor names like "Viet Town" or "Little Saigon." Those names, he says, are a nod to the first generation who fled Vietnam and settled in the neighborhood.

"You left with nothing, now we have some name for you to be proud of your second generation," Nguyen said.

But the suggested names don't sit well with everyone involved in forming the district. Candice Gartley, who runs the Fields Corner-based All Dorchester Sports and Leadership program, said words are powerful and can function like a welcome mat — if they’re inclusive.

"If one of the selected names is 'Little Saigon' for this area, I think that alienates anyone else who does not identify with the Vietnamese culture. Then, I think you run the risk of not having that opportunity to bring in a different cultural perspective,” she said.

Candice Gartley 6.jpg
Candace Gartley runs the All Dorchester Sports Leadership program in Boston's Fields Corner neighborhood.
Saraya Wintersmith/WGBH News

Gartley said the neighborhood has been a home to different immigrant groups at different times and labeling it with a name from one group wouldn't capture the area's history or diversity.

"I was concerned, because at the risk of sounding anti-Vietnamese, which I am not, I wanted to expand the idea that you have to invite people in and you have to make them feel welcomed,” she explained. “I just want to be really cautious moving forward that we’re not excluding anybody.”

That's exactly what optometrist Lien-Thu Dao, another Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts member, said the cultural district would accomplish with a culturally-specific name.

"We're trying to have a district as a point of attraction. We're not trying to exclude any other ethnic [group] out," she said.

Dao, 35, argued that preserving an area's identity doesn't necessarily entail exclusion. "I think having a word that has to do with Vietnam would really emphasize the point of attraction," she said.

At-Large Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has been leading the organizing work to get the district started.

“It’s a way to unite the community around a set of shared assets to celebrate the cultures that are represented in the neighborhood and in that area, and then bring that to a wider audience,” Wu said. “We want every part of the city to be welcoming and inclusive, and so a name does have an impact on who feels included.”

The former council president said it’s possible to celebrate a community while being inclusive, but the decision about what to name the new district is not hers to make.

“We’re really here to support the consensus that emerges," she said. "My own personal feeling is that the Vietnamese community is such a central part of Boston and this neighborhood is really the embodiment of their contributions to this city, so I would love to see formal recognition through the cultural district and its name.”

Last month, the district's working group, led by a representative from Wu’s office, tentatively agreed on an ethnically neutral name — Fields Corner Cultural Crossroads, or FC3 for short.

Nguyen hasn’t given up, though. He predicted if the decision “comes to a vote, like a democratic system, I will win.”

The working group is looking to meet and revisit the issue later this month. Ultimately, the Massachusetts Cultural Council will decide on designating the cultural district, whatever its name.

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