Vietnamese families shape an ethnic enclave Pigtown: Asian immigrants bring new energy and stability to a faltering blue-collar neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore.


When dawn breaks, Than Ngo prays to Buddha on Washington Boulevard. Cao Xuan does exercises with her 3-year-old daughter Kristina in Carroll Park. And Doi Tran makes fresh Vietnamese pork rolls for her American neighbors, which makes perfect sense to them.

This is, after all, Pigtown.

Over the past two years, a tightly concentrated community of 25 Vietnamese families has sprung up in -- of all places -- an old-line Baltimore neighborhood that working people have been fleeing for 30 years. And Pigtown is showing signs of rebirth.

At School 34, Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary, one-third of Linda Johnson's kindergarten class is Vietnamese.

After decades of decline and blight, property values are on the rise again in the 1300 blocks of James St. and Washington Blvd., as Vietnamese families buy and renovate houses near the school and their jobs at Medo, an air-freshener manufacturer.

Kelly's, the convenience store on Ostend Street and Glyndon Avenue, is being redone as a Vietnamese grocery, Mai Lan.

"I think this might be the future of the area," says Joann Kelly, 59, the longtime owner.

"It's very rare and very strange what is happening in that neighborhood," says Dr. Vuong Nguyen, an internist on Harford Road who has been doctor to Charm City's Vietnamese since 1976.

"Baltimore has always had a small Vietnamese population, but we've always been spread out. To have so many families in one small place -- this is new."

Pigtown, in fact, provides a case study of the beginnings of an ethnic enclave, and the heightened expectations it can create in a destitute neighborhood.

The story so far also demonstrates how tremendous change can be driven by relatively anonymous individuals, from a progressive manufacturing executive to a 24-year-old Vietnamese-speaking schoolteacher to a risk-taking refugee who saw something beautiful in the battered rowhouses of James Street.

"This is a nice place where you can come and work, send children to a school where there are other Vietnamese, and buy a house," says Ngo, who saved enough in his first year at Medo to purchase 1368 Washington Blvd., with a mortgage of $400 a month. "I promise you: A lot more Vietnamese people will come."

Four years ago, two companies, Medo and the packaging maker PTP, moved into the old Montgomery Ward warehouse at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street, at Pigtown's southern edge.

Interested in a $3,000 annual federal tax credit for each local worker they employed, the companies hired extensively from the neighborhood at first but soon learned an unpleasant fact: Not all of Pigtown's longtime residents have the discipline to hold a job.

The companies soon turned to refugee placement organizations. By late 1995, both had a solid base of Vietnamese employees, many of them recent immigrants who had served in the South Vietnamese armed forces and, hence, had poor prospects in their native country.

Reluctant to move

While refugee placement groups tried to persuade the Vietnamese workers to move to Baltimore, most preferred to commute each day from apartments in the Washington suburbs.

"Our business quickly came to depend on the Vietnamese: They are intelligent and have a phenomenal work ethic," says Stuart Walman, vice president and general manager at Medo, where about one-third of the plant's 360 workers are Vietnamese.

But Walman worried about the stability of his work force of immigrant commuters. And he had long been concerned about the dangerous deterioration of the neighborhood around Medo.

Could the company attack both problems at once?

Walman decided to try. The company would give $2,000 of its $3,000 federal tax credit to any employee who bought a home in the empowerment zone. And he committed to making the Medo plant a community anchor.

To do that, Medo built a schoolroom in its plant and two years ago began offering English classes on site through Baltimore City Community College. To attract students, Walman classified one hour of each two-hour class period as work time and paid accordingly.

Half of Medo's Vietnamese workers have taken the classes. Walman makes a point of attending all their graduation ceremonies.

"I wanted people to be here after work and see the neighborhood," says Walman. "The better the neighborhood, the better for us, because we have a lot of money tied up in our operation here."

But while they flocked to English classes, the Vietnamese were reluctant to move into the neighborhood. Several bought houses only after encouragement from other Vietnamese, most notably Niem Nguyen and his wife, Doi Tran.

A former South Vietnamese army lieutenant who spent six years in a communist prison, Nguyen immigrated with his family to Washington in 1993.

Eight months later, they relocated to Baltimore and bought an empty rowhouse at 1302 James St., becoming the first Vietnamese family on the block. He liked the house so much that when he got a new job as a machine operator in Ellicott City, Nguyen chose to stay in Pigtown and commute to work.

The neighborhood could not have a better advocate. Nguyen and Tran manage to send their children, 11-year-old Yen and 13-year-old Khanh, to the private Park School in Baltimore County and have saved enough money to afford fishing vacations on the Chesapeake each summer.

When other Vietnamese ask Nguyen for advice, he tells them about the low cost of living in Baltimore and urges them to buy homes in Pigtown, as long as they pay no more than $40,000.

He has quick answers for doubters.

Food? American groceries are cheaper here than in Washington, and the Vietnamese markets of Arlington, Va., are only an hour's drive away. Crime? Pigtown has a drug problem, but it is no more dangerous than Ho Chi Minh City.


In a way, racial fears have eased the way for Vietnamese moving into Pigtown, which is about two-thirds white. In recent years, a steady influx of young blacks has made many of Pigtown's elderly white homeowners nervous. Privately, some of them admit that they welcome the Vietnamese as a buffer.

"When people sell their homes here, it's only the blacks and the Vietnamese that look at them," says one white homeowner. "Most people would rather sell to the Vietnamese."

Among the first to take Nguyen's advice was Anh Van Nguyen (not a relative), a Silver Spring bricklayer who bought 1317 James St. three years ago. Today, eight families live on the block. In the 1300 block of Washington Blvd., across the street from School 34, more than half of the properties are Vietnamese-occupied.

"A lot of people rented at first," says Niem Nguyen. "Everyone buys now since Ms. Truong showed up."

Teacher makes a difference

Huyen Truong, a 24-year-old teacher of English as a second language, arrived at School 34 in the fall of 1996. The principal, Billie Rinaldi, had asked the district for a Vietnamese-speaking teacher who could help the five Vietnamese children enrolled at the time. The school and Pigtown haven't been the same since.

Vietnamese parents who had relied on their children to translate teacher conferences now get the straight scoop. Families have been known to call her first during emergencies rather than the police.

"This has been better than I ever expected," says Truong, whose family left Vietnam for Baltimore when she was 2. "In school, I was used to being just about the only Vietnamese there. Now I'm able to teach and celebrate a part of my own heritage."

A few of the fifth-grade boys admit having crushes on the teacher. And sometimes the adults seem star-struck by Truong, a Towson University graduate.

On many mornings, Vietnamese parents mill around the cafeteria, eating breakfast with their children or talking to the teacher.

They eagerly swap stories about Truong's kindnesses, such as the time she passed 11-year-old Tung Nguyen on Bayard Street on a cold day and made him put on his jacket.

"We came to this area because we heard about Ms. Truong," says Qui Tran, a haircutter with two children in the school.

The word of mouth has caused a surge in interest. In less than ZTC two years, the ESL program has grown to more than 40 students, nearly all of them Vietnamese.

"The Vietnamese have stabilized the school, and they are beginning to stabilize the neighborhood," says Rinaldi, who has been active in the neighborhood's empowerment zone board. "I think this is the big hope for this neighborhood."

Pigtown companies are trying to capitalize further on the present. Eastern Standard Corp. on Wicomico Street has put out requests for Vietnamese workers.

Over at Medo, Stuart Walman is making plans to hold citizenship classes; the company, he says, also will pick up the application fee. And despite a recent robbery, Tui Mai and his wife, Tuyet Nguyen, are moving ahead with their renovation of Kelly's convenience store.

On James Street, Niem Nguyen is trying to give a "dat diu" -- or helping hand -- to his American neighbors. When it snows, he sweeps off the marble steps of Ida Fields, the 73-year-old retiree next door at 1304. And during Christmas, Nguyen's children help decorate her house.

"I've been very sick recently, and they've kept an eye on me," says Fields. "Yen is taking piano lessons at school, and her parents just bought her a piano. I enjoy listening to her performances through the wall."

A sense of community

The school wants to do more, too. Rinaldi is trying to hire a Vietnamese-speaking social worker. BCCC instructors now offer English classes at the school, in addition to the sessions at Medo.

And Truong and fellow ESL teacher Emily Kling have begun organizing cultural events, such as the recent Lunar New Year celebration. The fifth-graders performed a dragon dance, and Truong wore her "ao dai," a traditional Vietnamese dress, and gave a speech. She addressed the children in English, and their parents in Vietnamese.

But many of those same parents showed up for the English lesson that same day.

Dai Nguyen, a 67-year-old Medo worker who lives on Carey Street, was curious about the word "community." What, he asked BCCC instructor Matt Ginsburg, does it mean?

"Typically, we think of community, as where we work, where we go to school, the place we call home," Ginsburg said.

"So this," Nguyen said, "is our community."

Pub Date: 4/08/98

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