A roast pig rests on a table in the middle of Xuan Phan’s Lincoln District restaurant. It is surrounded by roast chickens, fruit, rice, money, flower buds and other items.
The display in the Tacoma Vietnamese eatery is for Monday’s Lunar New Year. It’s an offering to ancestors, a request for a blessed new year.
It’s also a connection to the life Phan left behind in Vietnam 40 years ago.
Phan’s life now focuses on her restaurant, Pho Dragon, where she turns out soup, barbecued pork, rice dishes and other Vietnamese specialties.
She has had the restaurant for three years. Before that, she lived in Stockton, California, for 35 years.
“She likes it here more. She has her kids here. Tacoma is easier for her business,” said My Nguyen, who is translating for Phan.
Nguyen is the City of Tacoma’s business outreach specialist. Nguyen, fluent in Vietnamese and English, is a human bridge between the city and the mostly Vietnamese business owners who make up the Lincoln District.
Phan has been busy for days making food produced only for Lunar New Year. Rolls of rice and meat wrapped in banana leaves are piled high in the restaurant. They are a steal at $2 each.
“Vietnamese tamales,” Nguyen jokingly calls them. He can’t get enough of them, he said.
Phan’s customers are plentiful. The restaurant is packed around lunchtime with diners who travel from all over the city to eat there.
“She gets more American customers than Vietnamese,” Nguyen said.
That, many local business owners say, is one of the keys to a revitalized Lincoln District — an area that is attractive and welcoming to locals and visitors.
But, they also say, there’s a lot of work to be done first.
That is why $7.3 million has been earmarked for the Lincoln District Revitalization Project. More than half of that money — $4.5 million — will go toward streetscape improvements for South 38th Street, with construction to begin when the state Department of Transportation finishes its work on Pacific Avenue this summer.
Infrastructure for the revitalization project, centered at South 38th Street and Yakima Avenue, includes better sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic-calming measures, water and storm sewer upgrades, taller power poles and new landscaping.
The city has earmarked $1 million for neighborhood beautification and social services investments, $1 million more for economic development and arts programs, $750,000 for utility improvements and $24,000 for emergency preparedness programs.
On Saturday, the Lincoln District celebrates Lunar New Year — it’s the Year of the Monkey — with a street festival and lion dance. It marks the return of the festival after a four-year absence.
2015 was a year of highs for the Lincoln District. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Lincoln High School on Sept. 23 and didn’t leave without first dropping off ping pong equipment, books and a promise to host 100 students in China in 2016.
A teacher at the school, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, was named Washington’s state Teacher of the Year.
It has been a long road from what is arguably the district’s darkest day, July 5, 1998. That is when gang members committed the city’s worst mass murder — the Trang Dai cafe shooting that killed five people and wounded five.
Today, that stretch of Yakima Avenue doesn’t look much better than it did then. A boarded-up and decaying Restoration Christian Ministries takes up a good chunk of the street. Pedestrians make detours around its pigeon-filled awning.
$7.3 million Money that has been earmarked for the Lincoln District Revitalization Project, which will include streetscape improvements and public art.
But a few doors down is bustling Vien Dong. The restaurant with the reputation of having Tacoma’s best pho noodle soup was started in 1989 by Thuy-Linh Nguyen’s parents. She now runs it with husband Kevin Le.
Le grew up in the area. He is a Lincoln High graduate.
“We have had a bad rap in this area, but things are getting better. We’re getting there,” Le said.
Le has been working with My Nguyen and business owners in the area to bring back the Lunar New Year Festival.
A lack of interest killed the festival. But enthusiasm has returned.
“We hope it gets more people here. We have so much diversity here. I love this area,” Le said.
Le won’t comment on the dilapidated state of some businesses in the area. It’s an Asian thing, he said.
“We tend to keep things to ourselves. I concentrate on my business,” he said.
But, he acknowledges the streets need beautification. Petty crime is a problem. He would like to see more security cameras in the area.
He is thankful for the city’s investment in My Nguyen. Nguyen has organized and energized the community, Le said.
“I’m glad he’s here, helping us out,” Le said.
Le is excited about Saturday’s festival, which will feature lion dancers, food specials and entertainment. Le already has firecrackers hanging in his restaurant — the electronic kind. A remote control activates them, momentarily startling customers as they pause over their pho to the sounds of recorded poppings.
Le’s community involvement goes beyond the festival. He was on the 10-person panel that recently chose Portland artist Horatio Hung-Yan Law to create public art for the district.
We hope it gets more people here. We have so much diversity here. I love this area.
The Lincoln District is not all Asian eateries and gift stores. Longtime businesses such as Lincoln Hardware and Lincoln Pharmacy still operate.
Tom Pruett’s Big Vac Inc was started in 1972 by his parents.
“I only planned on being here two years,” Pruett said. He has been full time at the store since 1983.
Pruett and his family have been steadily selling and repairing vacuum cleaners for more than five decades on busy 38th Street.
“You get a lot of traffic. It’s a thoroughfare,” Pruett said.
“I have seen a lot of changes. Frisbee’s Bakery is gone, but new shops have opened,” Pruett said. “It would be nice if it got back to the way it used to be. There used to be a lot of people coming down here.”
That was in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Pruett installed metal bars on the windows.
“I used to get calls in the night. They’d break the window closest to the alley all the time.”
Things have improved, but he left the bars in place.
“It keeps honest people honest,” he said.
Like other,s he wants the district to be more attractive and safe.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Is it safe to come down here at night’?”
A NEW FAMILY DYNASTY
If Pruett represents the old guard, then Minh Phan and his business and life partner Sina Kong represent the new guard.
The couple owns Dragon’s Crawfish, almost directly across the street from Pho Dragon on 38th Street. The name isn’t a coincidence. Xuan Phan, Pho Dragon’s owner, is Minh Phan’s mother.
U.S.-born Minh said his generation is typically American in its willingness to adapt to change and want improvements. It’s not quite the case with his mother’s generation.
“It’s a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Minh said.
He and Kong moved to Tacoma from Stockton six months ago.
“We packed whatever we could in our car and came up to give this restaurant a try,” Minh said.
He has no illusions about what he found when he got to Tacoma.
“I’m going to be brutally honest,” Minh said. “When we first got up here, the neighborhood looked horrible.”
Trash cans held needles. People he describes as unsavory wandered the streets.
Does he want more police?
“Oh, they drive up and down all the time. They just don’t stop. Sometimes they do the walk patrols in the daytime. But it’s at night when we need them,” he said.
But Minh thinks the revitalization project will be a turning point for the area. He wants more crosswalks, beautification and security.
The Lunar New Year Festival is the jumping off point for it all.
“It’s promoting us out there. We’re trying to get everyone into a collective group — on the same program,” he said.
Oanh Lam Lee is one resident who is with the program.
She has owned Lorinda’s Hair Care on 38th Street for 30 years.
Lee could be the poster child for the Lunar New Year. Her small beauty parlor is filled with paper dragons, lanterns, trees, fruit and electronic firecrackers.
“I put everything up. Whatever I got,” the ever-smiling Lee said.
Lee was one of the organizers of past festivals and is solidly behind this year’s event.
“I’ve been advising My. How you order fireworks, how you collect the money, how we rent the barricades …”
Asked why she has remained for 30 years in the same location, she answers simply: “We have a Vietnamese community here.”
She mentions the dark time of Trang Dai, but quickly turns to the future and the revitalization project.
“The (artist renderings) are beautiful,” she said.
Lee is excited about Saturday’s festival. She will be busy setting up things. She hopes the event will attract people from all over the community.
“We need it, not only me, but the whole community,” Lee said.
Lunar New Year Celebration
Who: Lincoln Business District
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
Where: 38th Street, between Yakima and Park and surrounding streets