Monday, February 18, 2008

In San Jose, Disputes and Anger After Vote on Street Name

In San Jose, Disputes and Anger After Vote on Street Name
Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Some 100,000 Vietnamese live in San Jose, where Story Road has become the major thoroughfare for all things Vietnamese.

Published: February 16, 2008

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Story Road, at first glance, is unremarkable. Often congested, it runs beneath a freeway, over railroad tracks and through acres of parking lots.

The New York Times

Story Road is home to many Vietnamese businesses.

But beyond the drab sidewalks and mall facades, hundreds of businesses thrive. Most are owned by and cater to the city’s Vietnamese residents, who number 100,000.

Story Road, though, is at the heart of a fierce dispute that, some say, is fracturing the spirit of the Vietnamese population here, one of the largest expatriate enclaves in the nation.

In November, the San Jose City Council voted 8 to 3 to give a new name, the Saigon Business District, to a one-mile stretch of Story Road. The decision ran counter to the name many Vietnamese-Americans here favored: Little Saigon. Critics of the Saigon Business District name say the city ignored the results of several surveys, including one done by its own Redevelopment Agency, demonstrating a preference for “Little Saigon.”

The dispute has touched off months of protests, petition drives, rancorous meetings and threats to recall a Vietnamese city councilwoman, Madison Nguyen. Last week, several city leaders suddenly suggested letting voters decide the issue.

To many Vietnamese here, the Little Saigon moniker symbolizes a newfound freedom. Embraced by cities around the nation, it has come to represent the unity of America’s political exiles. The name also pays homage to the homeland many knew before communism and the 1975 fall of Saigon.

“We came here 32 years ago for political reasons, empty handed,” said Thuan Nguyen, 49, a real estate broker who founded the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “That area, Story Road, is like our child. If we cannot name our own child, something is terribly wrong.”

Ms. Nguyen, 33, is the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to public office in California, and she has been the shepherd of the Story Road project. She concedes that several surveys showed citizen support for the name Little Saigon. But Ms. Nguyen, who came up with the business district name, said she felt it was best to compromise.

“Saigon Business District to me symbolized neutrality,” Ms. Nguyen said. “This is not just for the Vietnamese-Americans. The name also has to resonate well with the entire community.”

Residents say the allegory of Story Road transcends name-calling. The Council’s actions, for many, reflect a betrayal of democratic principles.

Others say that wealthy developers and business people influenced the decision not to call the area Little Saigon, worried that is was too politically charged. Still others say they suspect the name Saigon Business District was chosen to appease foreign investors being courted to help support a financially troubled development on Story Road, known as Vietnam Town. Adding to that fear was a posting before the November vote on the official Web site of the Communist Party in Vietnam that announced that San Jose would establish a “Vietnamese Business District.”

“The Vietnamese community will never forget the undemocratic decision made by the City Council and the disrespect shown by one of our own,” said Barry Hung Do, the spokesman for the recently established San Jose Voters for Democracy, which grew out of the naming fight. “It has been very insulting.”

Of Ms. Nguyen, he said, “We have lost all trust in her, and we will recall her if she does not resign.”

Ms. Nguyen said she would not resign. Her supporters include the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, which issued an anti-recall resolution in January. Party leaders said she had served with “honor and integrity” and provided “equal access to government for all citizens.”

But many Vietnamese residents disagree. A lawyer for the Northern California Vietnamese American Community last week accused the City Council of violating state law by lining up votes for the business district name before the Nov. 20 vote. After a heated meeting on Wednesday, the Council’s rules committee sent the issue back to the full Council for its March 4 meeting. Other proposals up for debate include taking another vote on the name, sending the naming issue to city voters, accepting survey results with the name Little Saigon or just dropping the whole idea.

“You simply can’t impose a community name on a community,” said Councilman Pete Constant, one of three members to support the Little Saigon name.

“It was clear to me there was almost unanimous support for Little Saigon,” Mr. Constant said. “I felt it was my job to help the community get ownership of the name.”

At the Grand Century Mall, where hundreds of shops sell all things Vietnamese, there was little or no buzz about the controversy. But it did not take much to evoke opinions.

“Little Saigon is what everyone wants,” said Allan Tran, a gift merchant. “I’d say 70 percent of the businesses here voted for it. I guess the Council didn’t go by the vote.”

But some echoed the views of Jimmy Tien, 28, who works in law enforcement. Mr. Tien said the dispute reflected “a culture clash” between the generations.

“The younger generation doesn’t care,” said Mr. Tien, who left Vietnam in 1980.

He suggested leaving Story Road the way it is.

“I’d rather have no name,” he said. “Part of coming to America is about the melting pot. Maybe it should stay that way.”