Hoang Tran came to the United States six years ago, fleeing the communist and oppressive Vietnamese government as so many others have. He was immediately drawn to Alief, home to a large Vietnamese community, and before long, he was working at a Vietnamese restaurant along Bellaire Boulevard, Kim Phat.
He said the fact that such a large population of Vietnamese people have all clustered here has been comforting for him and many others trying to get over the pain of their pasts in Vietnam. And so when he found out that Houston Councilman Steve Le wanted to designate Bellaire Boulevard, from Turtlehead Street to Cook Street, as “Little Saigon” in order to promote tourism, Tran was all for it.
“The name is very significant,” said Tran, who is from the former Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City after the communist takeover in 1975. “Everyone across the world, they know what happened to the city. It's a symbol. And it's very significant for me and Vietnamese people.”
But many in the Alief community are calling Le's Little Saigon proposal divisive, a waste of taxpayer money and unfair to residents of other ethnicities that make up Alief's diverse community. Just over half the population in Alief is Hispanic, nearly one-fifth are African-American, and of roughly one-fifth who are Asian, 80 percent of them are Vietnamese. For that reason, its management district has long been dubbed the “International District,” a brand that's written across signs and is rather obscurely abbreviated “ID” on globes along the median. Which is another reason why opponents of Little Saigon say the new name can't fly.
At a town hall meeting last week, only two out of about 30 speakers supported the proposal; they were both Vietnamese, said Barbara Quattros, a staunch opponent of Le's idea. Quattros told us the moment that stuck out to her was when Le asked the crowd who was in favor, “and everybody yelled 'no' at the same time,” she said.
“He is duplicating the work that's already been done by the International District,” Quattros said. “Not only do I not think it will not achieve the goal he stated, but ethnically, it is a bad idea. There are 83 languages spoken in our schools. The kids all get along. Most people get along. Why single out one group and create division?”
Le — who is from South Vietnam and actually boarded a boat for the U.S. the day before the fall of Saigon — has said multiple times that he was not expecting the pushback. He was thinking this would be a simple way to promote tourism and celebrate the already-vibrant culture. Along what would be Little Saigon, the street names are already translated in Vietnamese, and there are dozens of Vietnamese-owned businesses in strip mall after strip mall. While the culture may already be obvious to the hundreds of locals who pass through every day, giving Alief an official name, Le said, would allow tourists to find the enclave more easily.
Le told us Little Saigon is only one part of his master plan to turn the Bellaire area as a whole into the “International Restaurant District.” He said he's also reaching out to other populations such as Nigerians and Ethiopians to see where else Houston can play up its foodie destinations to help with tourism.
“I think residents are somehow fearing that I'm changing the entire neighborhood,” Le said. “I'm looking at one area where you already have a high density of Vietnamese businesses. It does not change anything about Alief. We are not gentrifying anything. We are promoting.”
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The new signage at the endpoints of the strip and way-finding signs along the highway would cost $68,000 — $30,000 directly from Le's office (which is funded through taxpayer dollars) and $38,000 directly from the business owners who will benefit, Le said.
Still, that's $68,000 too much, according to opponents like Quattros and Gordon Greenleaf, who was also at the town hall meeting. Both said Le should instead use the money for neighborhood beautification rather than a bunch of signs that contradict “International District.” Quattros suggested that maybe the Vietnamese businesses can just get together and put up new decorative lighting.
Tran, however, said that he doesn't understand all the resistance. Every culture has a symbol, he said, and in America, Little Saigon is theirs. Just a few signs, he believes, would go a long way.
“Some people just think, why are we paying taxes to do that?” Tran said. “But maybe they don't think about the bigger thing: This will just make the community and society and the economy go up…A lot of people may not understand why this place would be named after Saigon. Maybe they will come here to find out.”