Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Meet My Nguyen, the new face of Tacoma’s Lincoln Revitalization Project

VIDEO: My Nguyen does business outreach for the city in the Lincoln District

My Nguyen's bilingualism will help the Lincoln business district revitalize.
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My Nguyen's bilingualism will help the Lincoln business district revitalize.

Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that have the biggest impact.

As I’ve written before, the city is in on the verge of undertaking a $7.3 million revitalization project in the Lincoln District, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Tacoma. Over half of that money — $4.5 million — will go toward a streetscape improvements for South 38th Street, with construction to begin in May. The work will include better sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic-calming measures and new landscaping.

The city has also 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 even $24,000 for emergency preparedness programs.

It’s a sizable investment, to say the least.

Still, for a district like Lincoln, with a long history of feeling maligned and underserved, it may be that opening one small office and hiring one recent Western Washington University grad ends up sending the loudest message to local business owners.

We are showing a commitment.

Debbie Bingham, from Tacoma’s department of Community and Economic Development

“We are showing a commitment,” explains Debbie Bingham from Tacoma’s department of Community and Economic Development.

Specifically, she’s talking about the Lincoln District project office, which opened in November and celebrated a ribbon cutting Dec. 3.

And — more importantly — she’s talking about My Nguyen, an energetic 23-year-old who works out of the office.

“The whole revitalization project — this is the first one the city has done. So we’re trying to think outside the box,” Bingham says. “One of the first things we thought about was, ‘How do you engage the community more effectively?’ And maybe the first way is to be closer to the community.”

Nguyen’s task is a straightforward one, though, if accomplished, it will mark something of a first for the city in this neighborhood.

He’s here to connect with Lincoln’s business owners to a degree that has previously proved nearly impossible due to cultural differences and a language barrier. He wants to hear their concerns, their critiques and their aspirations for the district and the revitalization project, and then effectively relay this information to city hall.

He also hopes to show Lincoln business owners how to better access the resources the city has available, and — if all goes as planned — help jump-start the creation of a Lincoln Business District Association, something Bingham says hasn’t existed in a decade.

Nguyen’s biggest asset may be something that he learned at home growing up: the Vietnamese language.

“That’s all my parents speak,” Nguyen, whose family made its way to the United States in 1992, tells me with a laugh.

The fact that we’re located here. The fact that (the city) hired someone who speaks the language. It kind of gives (business owners) hope that maybe this time they’re serious. ... And we are serious.

My Nguyen

So far, it’s serving him well in his new role. Though Nguyen’s been on the job for just over a month, the feedback he’s collected by pounding the pavement and visiting Lincoln District businesses, along with the trust he’s started to build within the community, is already noticeable, according to Bingham.

“One of our biggest criteria was to find someone who spoke Vietnamese. Because I’ve been working out here in the business district for years and really haven’t made super deep connections. Everyone’s happy and talks to me, but it’s more superficial,” Bingham tells me. “The information that My’s getting, just being here a month, is pretty amazing.”

The feedback Nguyen has collected has been both expected and surprising.

Predictably, business owners want to know how the streetscape project and revitalization effort will affect their businesses and livelihoods. But he’s also learned that the area has had more low-level crime — offenses like shoplifting and car prowls –– than previously known.

Nguyen tells me many district business owners would like to see more police presence. They don’t always report criminal activity because of fears that police won’t understand them and suspicions that, even if reports are made, there will be no response.

Which, of course, goes back to the sentiment many in the Lincoln District have harbored over the years: that their neighborhood is an afterthought.

The hope is that Nguyen’s presence, and the office on 38th — which will be there for at least the next two years — will help change that.

It makes a huge a difference. It’s the communication. A lot of people around here don’t speak English. ... (Nguyen has) been a blessing.

Kevin Le, owner of Vien Dong

“I’ve heard it,” Nguyen says of the feeling that Lincoln gets ignored. “But the fact that we’re located here. The fact that (the city) hired someone who speaks the language. It kind of gives them hope that maybe this time they’re serious.

“And we are serious.”

As Kevin Le, who has owned and operated the well-known Lincoln District restaurant Vien Dong for over two decades, tells me of Nguyen’s work, “It makes a huge a difference. It’s the communication. A lot of people around here don’t speak English. ... He’s been a blessing.”

Proof of progress may have been most evident during the Lincoln District project office’s ribbon cutting earlier this month.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland and district City Councilman Marty Campbell were on hand for the event, as you’d expect, but so were some 20 local business owners — the type of showing that would have been unthinkable before Nguyen began his work. As one city staffer told me of the packed house, “We should have had a DJ.”

“We were all pretty floored,” Bingham says of the turnout. “It was pretty amazing.”