A Vietnamese cultural district in Fields Corner? The mayor calls for a ‘task force’

Mayor Martin Walsh told a crowd assembled for the Tet Lunar New Year celebration at the Black Falcon Terminal in South Boston on Jan. 26 that he would appoint a task force “to explore making Fields Corner a cultural district” with the name Little Saigon.
Mayor’s Office photo by Isabel Leon

Mayor Martin Walsh is making a push to move the needle on designating a cultural district recognizing the Vietnamese community in Fields Corner. The proposed name, “Little Saigon,” has been the subject of some controversy in the village.

During an appearance on Saturday at the Boston Vietnamese community’s annual “Tet in Boston” festival at the Flynn Cruise Port in South Boston, Walsh said he and state officials would be creating a task force to take up the matter and try to figure out a way to make it happen.

Ordinarily, the Massachusetts Cultural Council reviews applications and designates districts that have specific cultural significance. Its stated mission is to help with signage and programming to support local arts, humanities, and science organizations, aiming to attract artists, cultural organizations, and entrepreneurs to enhance property values and make communities more attractive.

“One of the things that has been talked about in Boston and in Dorchester for a long time was designating a cultural district in Fields Corner called Little Saigon,” Walsh told those gathered at the festival.

“It’s something that started,” he said, “when I was a state Rep. with [State Rep.] Danny Hunt who represents part of Fields Corner, with [State Rep.] Liz Miranda, and her predecessors, and what we’re gonna be doing as elected officials is we’re putting together an advisory council, a task force, to have the conversation about designating Little Saigon, in Fields Corner, in Boston, to talk about how that would work and how we move forward on it.”

There is disagreement in the neighborhood around the proposed designation. Dorchester is home to the largest Vietnamese diaspora in the state, and Fields Corner is vibrant district that a large number of Vietnamese have called home for generations, with pho restaurants and local markets dotting the streetscape.

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.

But others feel that the name “Little Saigon” fails to reflect the identities of non-Vietnamese village residents.

“I understand that some folks are not thrilled with that,” said Annie Le of the Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts, which includes some 20 independent Vietnamese organizations, “but we want to preserve the culture and history of Vietnamese people who have come to Boston and Massachusetts.”

In an email to the Reporter on Tuesday, Le said of the task force: "We are thankful for Mayor Walsh's support and desire to create a task force to explore the next steps of creating a cultural district. We look forward to working with the community and city officials to discuss how this effort will benefit the neighborhood and the City of Boston as a whole."

City Council President Andrea Campbell said she and fellow councillors Frank Baker and Michelle Wu “are definitely in conversations with the community about this, to make sure people are aware of what the conversation is.”

At a Friends of the Fields Corner Library event, Campbell said, the subject came up only to reveal that many community members had no idea the discussion was happening or what it meant. It is not a proposal to rename Fields Corner, she said, but to add an overlay district with some new features and funding attached.

“We want to make sure that all residents who live in that area have opportunity to weigh in, to hear from their Vietnamese neighbors about why this is important to them,” Campbell said. “We need to create a space for these conversations.”

Walsh, in his comments at the Tet event, sounded definitive. “We don’t have to have a conversation about it because we know the impact of the Vietnamese community — not just in Fields Corner and Dorchester but the entire Boston, Massachusetts, community,” he said. “But it’s a process of how can we take a next step in making this a reality? So, I want to thank all of you who have been working on this issue for a long time.”

The questions and answers will not be wrapped up for quite a few months, at least. Applications for new districts are not being accepted for the remainder of this fiscal year, said Carmen Plazas, the communications manager for the Cultural Council.

“We are still talking with communities to review future applications,” she said, “but we are not accepting applications through this fiscal year. We are focusing on the current cultural districts.”

Those districts, which include some in Boston like the Literary District and the Latin Quarter, were able to apply for $5,000 grants for the remainder of this fiscal year, Plazas said, which runs through June 30, with the next one starting on July 1, at which point the council will announce the next steps for future applicants.