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

April 08, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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