Dear International Examiner,

(Re: “Little Saigon Takes a Walk with the Mayor” (Aug. 5 – 18, 2009, Vol. 36, No. 15) by Quang Nguyen.

“People in media can help facilitate democracy or participate in its betrayal.”

—B.J. Bullert

On July 27th, something happened in Seattle’s Little Saigon that didn’t surprise anyone in the Vietnamese community. On that hot July day, Little Saigon received its ever first official visit by the Mayor of Seattle after two terms—a long eight-year in office. Election year politics played out in this “historic” visit. He was desperately looking for votes. Of course, his Vietnamese associates curried his favors by showing him around to get photo-ops and jockeying positions as “leaders” playing roles of “representatives” of the Vietnamese community. Desperate time brings desperate measures, none more evident than his showing in the primary results.

The Mayor down-your-throat push for gentrification of South Seattle, the International District, and specifically boxing Little Saigon into a corner had alienated and angered many. The failed Dearborn/Goodwill project is the focal point of contest between the Mayor, City Council of Seattle, Department of Planning and Development, and the Vietnamese at-large in Seattle and vicinities. Many unconcerned Vietnamese residents of Seattle and vicinities woke up alerting to the fact that their cultural and public space in Little Saigon was under threat of being overwhelmed by the out-of-scale, out-of-character urban regional mall to be built at the Goodwill site. This event has further enhanced the political awareness and involvement of the Vietnamese American community in the greater Seattle Area.

In the 30-plus years since Vietnamese refugees first settled in this area, politics and political involvement in this community have always been about exile, ethnic identity, human-rights, and anti-oppression (anti-Communism included). Communism as a political system is dead, in the trash bin of history since the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Communism became a relic banner, an empty shell for oppressive and dictatorship regimes exist in Vietnam and China. The corrupted, oppressive, mafia-liked Communist party of Vietnam ruled and exploited its people and resources for the benefits of their own gang. Vietnamese refugees have been and will continue to fight for freedom and democracy of their motherland, and simultaneously, they will fight for social justices and equality in a civil society at their local level.

It started in the year 2000 with small business owners along the Rainier Valley’s MLK Jr. Way organizing to voice their concerns about the impacts of the light rail construction on their livelihoods. That effort was key in sparking the creation of the $50 million Rainier Valley Community Development Fund. Where did the money go? Who benefits? The cronies of the Mayor or the real people who were impacted by this construction?

The community began to mobilize once again around the issue of the Goodwill/Dearborn Street development in 2005, but eventually was hijacked and co-opted by WaVA (Washington Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce)—previously named as VEADA (Vietnamese-American Economic and Development Association) when involved in the light rail construction project. This campaign was waged behind the back of the Vietnamese community without inputs, without transparency, without accountability, and worse, with disrespect toward the spirit of the community at-large.

WaVA tacitly “represented” the Vietnamese voice in a coalition of groups and organizations outside the Vietnamese-American community. The combined effort of this coalition resulted in a Community Benefits Agreement in secret meetings. This agreement favors the developer, the unions, the so-called “progressive” work that Sage labeled as “affordable” housing guarantees. It provided little tangible benefits to support Little Saigon’s business district and the political identity of the community at large.

On June 24th, 2009, the developer officially cancelled The Dearborn Street development partially due to the current recession, and partially due to many deficiencies in their rezone request and the EIS (Environment Impact Study) Design Review which might not be accepted by the city council. The possibility for this super regional mall to be approved by the council members was therefore slim chance.

At the same time, a series of meeting from the opposing groups (who did not agree with the Community Benefits Agreement, did not go along with the token representatives, and/or were pro-environmental concerns) with all City Council Members (except Jan Drago) before the Street Vacation Process added more political pressure to fail this big box mall project. In other words, the awareness of Vietnamese community regarding political intricacies and maneuvers on this project inevitably constituted a solid platform for more engagement by the Vietnamese-American community in the future. Just like the Vietnamese community in the city of New Orleans or San Jose.

Without doubt, there are instilled cultural characteristics strongly grounded in Vietnamese history for its people rallied together to fight injustice and oppression. This character stretches back more than a thousand years with the Vietnamese fighting against the Chinese dynasties (Han, Jin, Tang, Zhou, Song, Ming, Qing) to retain their sovereignty; and it manifested in the 19th and early 20th century, in fighting for independence against the French Colonialists.

As the political discourse within the Vietnamese-American community always tangled with anti-Communism in the US context and anywhere outside of Vietnam, this multiplied and complicated voice has played and will play an important movement in motivating people participate in the political process. For the first time, issues of cooptation and implication in the Seattle Vietnamese community are exposed due to the Dearborn/Goodwill Mall project. Disappointingly, the traction phenomenon, which happens in any engaging community, was used to make excuse and cover up for inequitable land-use and development process. Together with the discourse of “refugee”—equating with they will achieve American dream, won’t speak up, and survive no matter what–this traction signal was schemed to perpetuate non-engagement from the City for real economic development policies with and for all Vietnamese merchants in Little Saigon and South Seattle.

This traction became intense when social service and other non-profit agencies also acted as if they were neutral, and refused to participate in community meetings when receiving activists’ invitation. In addition to suppressing the alert of what causing gentrification–a new form of racism, the commercial ethnic news and mainstream media undeniably engaged in silencing and pathologizing this complicated voice.

There is little doubt that the Vietnamese American community will become more involved in local, state, and national politics in the near future. The biggest challenge is to charter a participatory and shared leadership instead of the worn-out from-the-top, elitist, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, and internalized colonialist leadership.

IMG_3413Mayor Nickels’ visit is like drinking a political kool-aid, artificially sweet with no substance. Little Saigon has asked and will continue to ask the Mayor to walk the talk. Little Saigon asks the Mayor to implement citizen commission recommendations in many of their studies, strategic plans, visions (2010, 2020, 2030) drafted in the last 10 plus years for the International District, South Downtown, rather than pretentiously asking for inputs and putting them on the shelves for posterity.

—Hieu Nguyen & Quynh-Tram Nguyen

Northwest Neighborhood Activists for Democracy & Social Justice.

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