Trying and failing

November 21, 2003

LAM NGUYEN looked at Pigtown and saw a Little Saigon in the making. The way it went wrong is a cautionary tale for Baltimore.

This is a city that needs immigrants - to bring new life and creativity to its calcifying neighborhoods, to halt the destructive decline in population. But Baltimore has been out of the immigrant track for so long that it will take a concerted push to make it an attractive destination again. Everyone is going to have to help - employers, city planners, nonprofits, the police, neighborhood leaders. And not just help, but work together. A bright idea here and a good intention there won't add up to success.

The Little Saigon project had a lot going for it, most especially an enthusiastic and helpful employer. And it still wasn't enough.

It began with Medo Industries, which a decade ago opened an air-freshener factory on Washington Boulevard. After strugglng with bad work habits and absenteeism among its employees, it was receptive to a request from Catholic Charities to consider hiring newly arrived Vietnamese. The company was astonished. "Their work ethic is far superior to anything we could find around here," Stuart Walman, the general manager, says. "We hired whole families. Quickly, they were bringing people to us."

The company made space for English classes, adult basic education classes and citizenship classes, which it subsidized. Then it went a step further - offering to share a special tax break it could use if its employees moved into the neighborhoods around it. The Vietnamese were all commuting by van from the Washington suburbs; Medo said it could give them $2,000 toward a down payment on a house.

Mr. Nguyen and several dozen others decided to move to Pigtown, a mile up Washington Boulevard from Medo. Still other Vietnamese families joined them there. By the late 1990s, it looked as though conditions were perfect for the creation of a new immigrant community: an engaged employer, cheap housing, and a critical mass of people from a single country. A Vietnamese grocery store opened; more were sure to follow.

Mr. Nguyen and the others found a warm welcome from some of their neighbors, but they also ran into jealousy, resentment and burglary. "The people bother you," he says. They scratched his car, they broke his windows, they confronted him on the street and demanded money. "They know Vietnamese are small people," he says. He was held up. Someone broke into his car. A bottle came flying through his front window. "The bad people don't work, no job, they're drinking," he says. "They can't control it."

The Vietnamese in Pigtown, many with only rudimentary English, felt they couldn't get much of a response from the police. The grocery store closed after repeated hold-ups. Then a popular teacher who taught English as a second language at the local elementary school moved away, and after that perhaps half the Vietnamese families abandoned Pigtown. "If you have to worry about your house, if you have to worry about your car, if you have to worry about yourself, you can't sleep at night," Mr. Nguyen says. "If you have money, you go to the county."

Mr. Nguyen loves the city, and loves living in a neighborhood with other Vietnamese. At 39, he's enrolling this winter at Baltimore City Community College. "Study can help anybody," he says, "no matter how old." He's the ideal immigrant - and he, too, is planning to move to the suburbs.

And so Little Saigon never happened.

Baltimore is poorer for it; it can't afford to let too many other opportunities like that one slip by. Immigrants represent the one solid chance for the city to regain its footing - but there are reasons why Baltimore has such a small number of them.

Indifference bordering on hostility is the main culprit. Some of it is just plain inertia. With so few Spanish speakers in Baltimore, for instance, the city doesn't do much to provide useful information in Spanish. But without much Spanish-language help, more Spanish speakers are unlikely to show up.

The lack of good public transportation is a big obstacle, especially when the Motor Vehicle Administration makes it so difficult for a non-English speaker to get a license.

Street crime is a problem. The police, who have launched an effort to hire Latino officers, are nonetheless widely viewed by immigrants here as a problem - unhelpful, and more likely to harass an immigrant than to take an immigrant's complaint seriously. Employers are a problem - exploiting newcomers and cheating them on pay.

Over in East Baltimore, a well-meaning effort to build an immigrant community north of Patterson Park also came up short, and it shows how all the ingredients need to be in place for such an effort to succeed.

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