The City Heights Vietnamese community gets official recognition from the city
By Laira Martin
Although the area of El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and Highland avenues has long been home to Vietnamese businesses and residents, it never had an official recognition.
Now, it does. The City Council voted unanimously in early June to designate what’s been known informally as Little Saigon as an official “Cultural and Commercial District” of the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, a change supported by Mayor Bob Filner and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego).
City councilmember Marti Emerald, who endorsed the designation, explained that after the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Vietnamese moved to San Diego and now call City Heights their home. “This is a fun place to be and it’s only going to get better,” Councilmember Marti Emerald said in a statement. “[The Little Saigon Foundation] got us here and they will continue to move us forward to make ‘Little Saigon’ in San Diego a vibrant, interesting place to shop, eat, do business, and celebrate.”
The change is largely symbolic, as Little Saigon will not receive additional funding from the city. But in May, SANDAG awarded the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association $200,000 toward sidewalk and street developments which, although unrelated, will help improve the aesthetics of El Cajon Boulevard and the surrounding areas, including Little Saigon.
Kim Huong Nguyen, owner of the Alpha Mini-Mart, has been running her business in the area for more than 10 years, which she said is long enough to see changes to Little Saigon. “It’s a very good thing,” she said. “This is good for tourism. My business has a lot of Vietnamese customers. It’s changed a lot. There are more Vietnamese customers than ever before. But I have a lot of service from [all kinds of] people.”
The six-block stretch of El Cajon Boulevard is already lined with decorated red street lights, and restaurant signs that advertise traditional Vietnamese dishes such as Pho soup and Bánh mì sandwiches.
But the Little Saigon Foundation plans to make additional changes that should help brand the area as a unique cultural neighborhood. Plans for a large welcome sign, new street light banners and freeway exit signs are all in the works.
Donna Nguyen, an employee at Nhat Vy Vietnamese Pho restaurant, said she was asked to clean up the façade of the restaurant to improve the neighborhood’s image and she was happy to do so. “The people from the organization [Little Saigon Foundation] came in and asked us to make little changes and make it look better,” she said. “We put new paint and cleaned up. I’m glad. [The changes] will make people more aware of the Asian culture. It’s definitely positive. They might attract more Asian people from other areas. It’ll bring more traffic to our restaurant.”
Many of the area’s businesses, 70 percent of which are Vietnamese-owned, have put up recognizable stickers in their store windows with the motto “Little Saigon: We commit to a clean, safe, and vibrant District.”
Other large California cities such as Westminster in Orange County and San Jose already have longstanding areas under the same moniker.
“I would love to have [Little Saigon] here be like it is in Orange County,” Donna Nguyen said. “This is a positive change. I want to have more festivals for the kids. The kids love it. I want my kids to have more opportunities to learn about their culture.”
City Heights is home to many of the 40,000 Vietnamese in San Diego. It is also home to more than 15,000 Somalis who have informally nicknamed their neighborhood “Little Mogadishu.” The official designation for Little Saigon may be the push needed for other ethnic groups to seek the same recognition the city.