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Boston’s Little Saigon
This spring, Fields Corner in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood received official designation as a cultural district to be named “Boston Little Saigon Cultural District,” in recognition of the neighborhood’s vibrant Vietnamese-American community. We spoke to Annie Le, president of the board of Boston Little Saigon, to get more details.
Tell us about your own background and how you became involved with the Boston Little Saigon project.
My passion to share my Vietnamese culture started when I volunteered for the Vietnamese community through the Vietnamese Student Association at Boston College during my freshman year. I’m originally from California so moving across the country did make me miss home cooking and traditions and games we would enjoy as a family. From there I participated in the annual Tet in Boston (https://tetboston.org) event for over 10 years, meeting individuals from different Vietnamese organizations in the community. I finally joined the Networking Organization for Vietnamese Americans (NOVA) with the goal of connecting individuals and highlighting Vietnamese culture. Discussion of a Little Saigon cultural district started in 2014 among community members, so when the opportunity emerged again in 2018, we restarted the conversations. NOVA then became the organization that spearheaded the initiative to highlight Vietnamese culture, along with many other organizations and individuals.
What are the steps involved in gaining the status of an official cultural district?
It was a longer than usual process for us due to COVID. In order to become an official cultural district, there must be support from the community and the City of Boston. We held multiple meetings and hearings to understand the wants and needs of the community and their vision of a cultural district. Boston’s Mayor Office of Arts and Culture greatly supported the project and advised us on the multiple steps we had to take. In December 2019, the Boston City Council formally voted to support the cultural district. From there we had a site visit from the Mass Cultural Council (MCC). The final step to formalize the district required a vote from the MCC Board, and on May 18, 2021, they voted to designate the Boston Little Saigon Cultural District.
Family-owned restaurants, groceries and cafes define the vibrancy of any neighborhood. What are your plans to promote small businesses as well as special events or projects that bring visitors to Boston Little Saigon?
Yes! Small businesses, especially the “mom and pop shops” are key to the success of Little Saigon. We are hiring someone to carry out the work and to support our business owners with city processes, translation services, and technical assistance through our Partners Program. Our volunteers are currently working on marketing plans, beautification projects, and art installations to highlight the area. Projects include videos about the people and businesses in the area, spotlighting and restoring faded murals, putting new paint on buildings and electric boxes and planting additional trees. There are already a great number of assets in the Fields Corner area, we only hope our work will bring additional visitors to Little Saigon. We hope to officially launch our programs and goals at the Boston Little Saigon Gala in December 2021.
Vietnamese cuisine continues to get rave reviews in Massachusetts’ culinary scene. What are some of the distinct qualities that make Vietnamese food so tasty?
There’s such a great variety of flavors when it comes to Vietnamese dishes that makes it so alluring. The flavors come from all the fresh ingredients and spices in the dishes. In the summer heat, the fresh vegetables in Vietnamese food offer a lighter fare. Then in the cold weather, there’s all the warm soups. The most popular is pho but I personally like the bún cà ri or Vietnamese curry dish. Different regions have different flavors so one pho dish from the northern region is a bit different from the southern region.
As Boston’s largest neighborhood, Dorchester has a rich tradition of ethnic communities, cultural and historic assets, plus beautiful open space. Where do you like to bring visitors when they come to Boston?
Castle Island in nearby South Boston is a great place to walk, and Lower Mills in Dorchester has great restaurants. Of course, my favorite place to take people is Fields Corner. I usually take visitors to get Cá Nướng (Roasted Catfish), 7 courses of beef, or to one of the outdoor bars in Dorchester. I often end up getting bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), chè (dessert), and drinks, then taking my guests to a nearby park for a picnic. A hidden gem in Fields Corner is Ronan Park. It offers an amazing view of the Harbor and a great place to play in the field, there’s even a dog park!
Photo Credit: Jessica Mading
Thank you, Annie!